Saturday, 13 October 2012

Common Misunderstandings in Advaita Vedanta

By Prashant Parikh, a student of traditional Vedanta from Arsha Vidya Gurukulam
Vedanta is a very deep and delicate subject. Understanding it requires utmost dedication and preparedness. There are some errors I come across routinely in my discussions with people, so here are a few of them I addressed for our readers:

1) The Self can’t be experienced: The human mind is designed to go outwards (or even inwards) to gain experience. That is good, it allows us to innovate and progress in our worldly lives. However, when it comes to gaining AtmA jnAnam, the mind again looks for experience of an object called AtmA. This will fail miserable. AtmA is the very Self, the subject. Only an object endowed with attributes can be experienced. The consciousness, which is the Self, cannot be known as an object of experience. The Self can only be understood through the process of acquiring jnAnam through the timeless veda utterances. Tat tvam ask [Thou art That] is the teaching of the Guru, aham brahman asmi [I am Absolute Reality] is the understanding of the student. 

2) Re: Internet knowledge:  Swami Google-Ananda and Brahmacharini Wikipedia are not reliable teachers of Vedic knowledge. Please do not use search engines to learn scriptures, they will only add to the confusion.

3) Re: Finding a Guru:  There is no substitute for a living teacher. If a person was not your Guru WHILE he was alive, after his passing away you cannot consider him your teacher. A guru is supposed to remove your ignorance in an interactive way. Those who are no longer with us simply cannot help us with our doubts.

Also be careful, too many cooks spoil the broth. This is to be avoided at all costs, please stick to one parampara if it is clarity that you wish to have, having a teacher from all possible faiths is not going to help better understand shAstra.

4) Mala Japa is NOT a substitute for knowledge to gain mokSha:  Many falsely believe only chanting a particular mantra is the fastest way to mokSha. This is as far from the truth as it can get. Bhakti (devotion) leads to jnAnam (knowledge), and self knowledge alone is liberation. Krishna Bhagwan is crystal clear about this, it is unfortunate that people misinterpret his teachings. Gita Ch 4, verse 38 says ‘there is nothing more purifying than knowledge’. Gaining AtmA jnAnam (self knowledge) from a qualified teacher who can handle shAstra (scripture) as a pramANam (means of knowledge) is the only way to go.

5) Shraddha [trust in the teacher and scriptures] makes life easy… Very easy:  Debate only generates heat, and no light. Either we argue or we learn. Humility is the key to opening the doors to knowledge, if one approaches the scriptures with a challenging attitude, the Vedas will always elude such a person. Sincere seeker-ship is always rewarded. shraddhA is faith in one’s dev-guru-shAstra (god, guru, scripture).

6) Re: Tradition:  Respect the Vedic culture. Culture is the medium through which knowledge is propagated. You cannot separate knowledge from traditional practices. If one dies, the other will not last very long. Vedic culture and religion go hand in hand and are inseparable. Both need your support.

7) Re: Purpose of Meditation:  Entering into meditation will NOT enlighten a person. Meditation can be divided into four types: a) Relaxation b) Concentration c) Expansion d) Value assimilation.
Relaxation does just what it says. Concentration hones your ability to focus on a vastu (thing) for longer uninterrupted periods. Expansion is where your cognition reaches out to incorporate a vishva rUpa of this jagat/ishvara, wherein you try to visualize yourself from the smallest particle, to the farthest reaches of space and time, where nothing in the universe is separate from you. Value-based meditation is where you bring about a transformation in thoughts.

Meditation before gaining knowledge is a good conditioning program to prepare your mind for knowledge, also called upAsana yoga. Meditation after studying scriptures is a program to help assimilate knowledge, also known as nidhidhyAsanam Of course to gain jIvan-mukti/moksha, shAstric jnAnam is indispensable.

8 ) There aren’t MANY gods:  So many needless Vishnu vs Shiva fights can be avoided. Vishnu and Shiva are manifestations of the same Ishvara, presented to you in whichever form you prefer Same goes with other representations such as Ganesha, Matajis etc.The whole purpose of this diversity is to appreciate Ishvara’s creation, not create divisions within Ishvara… Every form is a form of Ishvara alone. This is the beauty of advaita which so few understand and appreciate. To be clear, there is only one Ishvara.

9) Vedanta is a means of self-knowledge:  Upanishads stand as a consistent part of the Vedas, there are no contradictions. The former half of the Vedas treat you as a doer, prescribing necessary actions/karmas that you can perform in the form of rituals, prayers, duties etc, the latter half reveals the nature of the very inquirer.

10) Different religions do NOT lead to the same goal:  All religions are not the same. Often I read posts like. Church = Temple = Mosque = 6 letters. Bible = Quran = Geeta = 5 letters, so all religions teach the same thing. While I can appreciate the intention, it is just a dishonest pseudo secular way to look at things.

The goal of most other religions is a temporary heaven. Logic says that a limited action cannot earn a permanent result. Limited actions on earth can only buy you limited stay in heaven, the concept of eternal heaven and hell are logically faulty.

The goal of a Vaidika is mokSha, and that is absolute freedom from all limitations – bodily or otherwise. As Swamiji says, when you are in heaven, you still may have to struggle to get a “front seat” to see your favorite God! So let us accept that all religions are different, and let us accommodate the differences without badmouthing them, and focus on our own

11) Different yogas do NOT give the same result:  Karma yoga, jnAana yoga, bhakti yoga and dhyAna yoga are not different ways to achieve the same end. Karma yoga and dhyAna yoga (or more precisely, upAsana yoga) are preparatory steps to achieve jnAana. Bhakti is the attitude with which we conduct all our activities. Ultimately it boils down to mokSha through jnAna alone: jnAnam is equivalent to mokSha.

12) AtmA is NOT a part/product/property of Brahman:  AtmA is brahman, that’s all.

13) AtmA does NOT take rebirth:  AtmA is often mistaken to be the sukshma sharira (subtle body: the mind, sense powers, powers of action and the prANas). It is the subtle body that goes from birth to birth, inhabiting one physical body after another.

14) There is only ONE AtmA:  The AtmA is an all pervading entity, and there is only one AtmA. Rather, there is ONLY AtmA/brahman, and this world of names and forms is a manifestation. When one dreams, a single individual creates an entire universe of forms within his own mind, and then enters that very dream to experience it, and now the dream that was within the individual suddenly appears to be a real world outside of the individual.


  1. The post is very good..I agree with many points you have mentioned in the post..I have few views on few questions..
    1) The Self can’t be experienced: I accept event the mind can not reach it.. "Yato vacho nivartante aprapya manasa saha".. But there are references like -- "manasenaiva drashTavyam neha nanasti kinchana" and in Gita too -- buddhigrahyam ateendriyam and in Katha also we see that buddhya grahyam.. So my opinion is shuddha manas is shuddha aatma(purest mind reflects the Self)... That is why Bhagavan says - uddharet aatmanaatmaanam I guess.. Correct me if I am wrong..

  2. 4) Mala Japa is NOT a substitute for knowledge to gain mokSha:

    I accept Japa is not substitute for moksha but still it helps us to get the adhikara for Jnana. So it should not be ignored I feel.
    Moksha is nothing but free from bondage(samsara).. Gita says - Yajnarthaat karmaNonyatra lokaiva karma bandhanaha -- Eventhough Jnana only is the last step, Bhakti/Karma takes us to a state of Jnana..
    Bhagavan proclaims -- yajnaanam Japayajnosmi..
    We all know that Chittashuddhi leads us to Jnana.. All our scriptures say that Japa is one of the best purufier -- Yajna daana tapa karma paavanaani maneeshiNaam..