Sunday, May 14, 2017

Viśiṣṭādvaita through Advaita?

In an earlier post, we had encountered the modern claim that Dvaita is the first step of spiritual progress, Viśiṣṭādvaita is an intermediate step and Advaita is the final step. However, this is not substantiated by the works of original teachers of Advaita. They do not seem to think that the perception of duality and the view of God as the final end of spiritual practice somehow lead to the end of Advaita.

In this article, we explore the opposite possibility: can Advaita be a step in the spiritual progress that ends in Viśiṣṭādvaita.

Fundamental motivation in Advaita
To begin with, let us understand the basic motivation for Advaita. The noble goal of Advaita is to enable one to know oneself.
Advaita clearly recognizes that suffering is due to bondage. This bondage is a consequence of the soul identifying itself with mind and body. Adhyāsa or superimposition of avidyā (ignorance) on the soul is the reason for this false identification. Liberation lies in becoming free from the effects of avidyā which are the three guṇa-s (modes) of Prakṛti (nature). The soul is, in essence, free of all modifications of guṇa-s and in its liberated state, it is nirguṇa.

Though adhyāsa is not taught in Vedānta, it is used by Advaita to explain the situation of bondage and provide the nature of liberation.

Points of contention
Up until the above description of Advaita, Viśiṣṭādvaita would largely be in agreement. However, below are the points of disagreement.
  1. In Advaita, the individual soul is the product of ahaṃkāra (identity-causer), a component of nature, and hence is ultimately unreal. But, in Viśiṣṭādvaita, this point is disagreed upon. The individual soul is not a product of ahaṃkāra. Ahaṃkāra only draws the identity of the individual soul to the mind/body. It does not create it. The individual soul cannot be an illusion but has to be real in order to allow ahaṃkāra to cause identification with mind and body. Likewise, ahaṃkāra and prakṛti also have to be real in order to interact with the real soul. It is not possible for the mind, which is agreed by all to be an evolute of non-sentient nature, to become the sentient entity. It is only possible for the sentient individual soul to misidentify itself with nature in accordance with its karma. Since karma is unique to each soul and experience, even spiritual, is unique to each soul, it logically follows that there are several souls - each experiencing bondage in accordance to its own karma.
  2. In Advaita, consciousness is pure and simple. The superimposition of ignorance leads to the problem of consciousness being modified. However, Advaita responds to this problem by considering that the superimposition is ultimately unreal and does not affect consciousness in reality. After all, we do see that even those, given to anger etc., do not lose their consciousness which they can realize as pure in subsequent states of meditation. Viśiṣṭādvaita considers that the problem is not addressed in the above case but only explained away. Therefore, it resolves the individual soul as substance and attribute: substance consciousness and attributive consciousness. The substance-consciousness is never affected and remains eternal. It is the attribute-consciousness that is modified in accordance with karma. This is the reason why in meditation, the conscious entity is seen as pure. It is also established even in the early stages of meditation or mindfulness that experience can be had at a level where the individual soul is the observer that observes the modifications of its experience - from a distance. The observer is not agitated by the experience. This proves that what is being modified by experience is only consciousness, the attribute and not consciousness, the substance which is always pure and exists as a knower (not the mind-knower) at a deep level. It knows and observed what is available to the attribute-consciousness which identifying with those modifications. 
  3.  Advaita teaches that the individual soul must be ultimately known to be identical to the Brahman.     Viśiṣṭādvaita disagrees on this point as well. Since the existence of several individual souls is not disproved by any evidence, it is clear that bondage and liberation are specific to each soul. What the Vedānta teaches is not identity with the Brahman but inseparability of the individual soul from the Brahman. The individual soul exists as a mode (prakāra) of the Brahman (God). In fact, the entire universe is an unfolding of the Brahman’s form (śarīra) and everything is related to and in the Brahman. Nature and souls are not unreal; their reality depends on God and they are subordinate to His will in existence and action.  This view removes the problem of separation and leads to one’s realization that one is brahmātmaka (having Brahman for one’s soul). Everything is filled with the Brahman, and supported by it. We owe our existence as such and all the dynamics around us to the determining will of God. Even in the highest state of meditation, one cannot control the dynamics of the world or alter the laws of karma. This is known directly in both mundane and spiritual experience. The individual soul is simply emerging out of the modifications of nature. It is not becoming God and never will.

Given such strong points of difference how is it possible for Advaita to be part of the spiritual maturity reached in Viśiṣṭādvaita?

One must be honest in admitting that there is no way that Advaita considered in its fullest can be an intermediate stage to Viśiṣṭādvaita. However, it is possible to appreciate the motivations of Advaita and accept it as part of the spiritual progress in Viśiṣṭādvaita.

Whatever Advaita might claim, it is clear that it achieves only the realization of the individual soul, not God/Brahman. The spiritual discipline of Advaita helps one extricate oneself from the modification of nature and realize one’s true state as the sentient entity that is beyond such modifications. Some Neo-Advaita teachers claim to perform miracles and defy the laws of nature, but none of these claims have survived scrutiny or been recorded in verifiable manner. This proves that only the individual soul that stands beyond all karmic modifications is realized at the end of Advaita.

This realization is encouraged in Viśiṣṭādvaita too. One must realize oneself as nirguṇa, standing above the modifications of nature. Until this realization is complete, one is always identified with mind or body. However, this alone does not confer the final spiritual end.

As the individual soul is understood more and more, one truly recognizes that it is atomic and is subject to a higher will. There is a higher being who regulates and harmonizes the dynamics of individuals and nature - Pradhāna-Puruṣeśvara, the God/Controller of nature and soul. One is not separate but related to everything through God. Neo-Advaita has been skirting this view for sometime by using the slogan, ‘Everything is connected’. However, this view cannot be achieved by the traditional discipline of Advaita which only leads one to discover the individual soul in all its purity. Everything is connected not just superficially as ‘Trees give us the air we breathe’, ‘the atoms of our body come from the universe’, etc. but deeply in that these differences as trees, atoms, bodies, I, You, etc. exist only in God who is the Highest Real. Everything else other than God owes its existence, nature and dynamics to Him. However, since something cannot pop out of nothing or disappear into nothing, all of this is not unreal, but real due to God. The universe is not a product of ignorance but the striking evidence of God. This is the meaning of having Brahma-dṛṣṭi, the view of Brahman in everything. This does not teach that everything is unreal and the Brahman alone is real but that everything has a deeper reality in God. In a way, the entire universe and the words we use to speak about the universe carry only one meaning: God. The purpose of Vedānta is to declare this greatness of God.

This grand realization is impossible as long as one is identified with mind and body since one’s perception of reality becomes severely restricted and clouded. To come out of this restriction, one must first realize that one is not mind or body, but the sentient soul. In producing this result, the discipline of Advaita is relevant. However, a spiritual aspirant must not lose oneself in this condition and go beyond in the discovery of truth to realize God, who is the soul of everything. One must realize not only oneself as pure but as being pure in God. This is the goal of Viśiṣṭādvaita. To live blissfully in God, as an expression/instrument of God, is true Brahma-vihāra. This involves subordinating one's individuality to the larger reality of God. This is the meaning of surrender and lies at the root of Viśiṣṭādvaita's development of the concept of śeṣatva.

God is Perfectly Present

Svāmī Parāśara Bhaṭṭar interprets Viśvam, the first of the 1000 names of Viṣṇu, as explaining the completeness or perfection (pūrṇatva) of God. He say, pūrvaṃ sarvatomukhaṃ bhagavataḥ pūrṇatvam-āha. First, Bhagavān is revealed as perfect in every way.

He further says, svābhāvikānavadhikātiśaya-māṅgalyaikatānaiḥ svarūpa-rūpa-guṇa-vibhavaiḥ paripūrṇaḥ. He is perfect in His essential form, manifest form, attributes and glories which are natural to Him, of unsurpassing excellence and are constituted purely of auspiciousness.

How the word viśvam which generally stands for everything taken to mean perfection?

The commentator replies, kārtsnyavacanatvād-asya, ādau, anavacchedya-mahavibhūtitvasya saṅkīrtana-yogyatvācca. It is fitting that the perfectness of God is celebrated at the outset. Even, Svāmī Nammāzvār started off with uyarvara uyarnalam uḍaiyavan which celebrated the lofty perfection of God. The word connoting everything implies that God’s greatness is not limited by anything whatsoever, and is eternally expanded into completeness.

The view here appears to be that the imperfections in entities other than God are due to limiting effects. This leads to change and decay. Even the attributive consciousness (dharma-bhūta-jñāna) of the individual soul is subject to modification and limitation during the phase of bondage. However, the essential form, manifest form, attributes and glories of God are not modified or limited by anything. This is due to the fact that everything other than God depends on Him for its existence and nature.

Being thus unconstrained, God is always supremely perfect and this is explained by this name.

The next name Viṣṇu conveys the presence of God in everything.

These two names, while easy to understand separately, rise some questions from the perspective of logic. A logical opponent can question the simultaneous possibility of holding both Presence and Perfection.

Svāmī Vedānta Deśika analyses this challenge in his text, Nyāya Siddhañjanam. He addresses four different forms of opposition to the simultaneous tenability of Presence and Perfection that rest on four different definitions of ‘Perfection’.
Idea 1: To be perfect is to be complete. God should be exclusively completely present here.
Idea 2: God should be obtained as being fully available here. This is perfection.
Idea 3: Perfection lies in God’s ability to produce all effects here.
Idea 4: Perfection lies in God possessing all attributes here.
Note the word ‘here’ occurring in all the four ideas of Perfection. It comes from God’s Presence everywhere which implies that God must also be present here. Since He is perfect, He must be Present here Perfectly.

Elaboration of Idea 1
Since the first idea requires that God must be completely present here, it leads to a situation where God cannot be present elsewhere. If it is said that God is present elsewhere also, it would entail is not fully present here, but partially here and partially there.

Response to Idea 1
Idea 1 is not consistent with the understanding that the essential form of God is vibhu or unlimited. Therefore, Perfection as being completely available (contained) in one place is not intended at all in our system.

Also, in general, we might very well forego this type of Perfection for what perfection is it for God to be constrained and limited in one place!

Elaboration of Idea 2
The second idea requires that God must be obtained as being fully available. In its detail, this can take three forms of argument:
2a. God is not obtained to be fully available in His essential form.
2b. God is not obtained to be fully available in all His parts.
2c. God is not obtained to be fully available without resolution into aspects.

Response to Idea 2
The three forms of ideas 2 are addressed as follows.
2a. God is not obtained to be fully available in His essential form only because of absence of cognition-apparatus to know Him so. If such an apparatus were available, He would be obtained to be completely available in His essential form here.
2b. God is known from valid sources of knowledge to be without parts. Hence this argument from Idea 2 is fundamentally inconsistent. Even if we accept for the sake of argument that God has parts, then what kind of logical inconsistency is it for all parts to be not available here? A part of God available in a different place is not logically expected to be present here (simply because it is there). Hence, this argument has the defect of placing illogical demands of Perfection.
2c. This argument goes that if God is present everywhere, then He is associated with several entities by Presence. However, the fullness of God cannot be related to each and every entity. If God were fully related to one entity, there would be nothing left of God to be related to another entity. (Let us tolerate the glaring indiscretions in the application of language in this argument for a moment.) Therefore, if God were associated through Presence to all entities, only an aspect of God must be associated with each entity. This situation requires that God is resolved into aspects - something that is not acceptable to traditional views of God.
This argument, though the seemingly most forceful among its kind, is based on false grounds. It is not required that a substance must possess aspects in order to relate to multiple entities.
  1. For example, substances are found to associate with multiple attributes, and all attributes are equally related in the fullness of the substance - as a jasmine flower associating with color, shape and smell as it is and not only in particular aspects.
  2. ‘Class’ is fully associated with multiple objects of its kind and not through particular aspects - as cowness in all cows.
  3. ‘Absence’ (Abhāva) is associated without aspects with different entities whose lack of presence it conveys.
The same applies to ‘conjunction’ and ‘disjunction’ too which do not have to be broken into aspects to conjoin entities or separate them.
In fact, ‘relation’ or Saṃbandha is also of the same nature. It is without aspects and exists relating different entities. If an aspect-less entity could not associate with different entities, then ‘relation’ itself cannot operate. This would instantly destroy the truth of all entities since none of them would be related by relationships like cause-effect, substance-attribute etc. and we would be left invalidating all of our knowledge leading to complete nihilism where even the doors of logic have to be shut.

Elaboration of Idea 3
Perfection implies that God must be possessed with the ability to produce all effects when He is present here. But, we do not see that it is the case. For example, God present in water causes only wetting and not burning which is the effect of fire, and vice versa.

Response to Idea 3
The idea goes in two ways:
  1. God should produce all the effects here.
  2. God should possess the ability to produce all the effects here.
The first case is not desirable and is not reasonable too. A Perfection of such consequence is not necessary.
The second case is correct. God does possess the ability to produce all the effects here, but only exhibits the necessary effects.
To this, it may be objected that if God possesses the ability to produce all the effects, the potential must translate into effect. Thus, it eventually leads to case 1 and leads to problems like God producing the effect of burning in water, etc.
The above objection is not sound. Mere existence of potential/ability does not require that the effect be produced unless God wills to do so. The entire universe is sustained on the will of God that dictates its dynamics and function, which are studied scientifically. For example, I do possess the ability to hammer nails into the wall. However, the existence of potential does not translate to my hammering nails into walls all the time.
We do see that different events pan out in the course of time. If God did not possess all potentiality, He would have to possess different potentialities in different instances of time. The potentialities associated with God would disappear into nothing and reappear out of nowhere, moment to moment. Such a scheme might be acceptable in principle to the Buddhists who take refuge in the idea of momentary existences. However, in our system, we find this theory to be a source of needless complexity, and contrary to experience and science.
If God had to manifest all the effects of all potentialities, then all effects from all space coordinates and time instances must occur together in one place. Not only is this false in experience and unnecessary, it is not acceptable to us satkāryavādi-s, who have established on valid evidences that entities cannot disappear into nothingness or appear out of nothingness, to accept particular effects found in all places and at all times materializing here and now, as an unexplained duplicate whose essence materializes out of nothing.
As a humble seed holds latent the potential of becoming a plant and grows into a sapling at the right time, so too the omnipotent and omniscient God who governs all the dynamics of all the beings is capable of possessing complete potential without expressing the effects all at once in one place.

Elaboration of Idea 4
Perfection requires that God fully possess all His auspicious attributes here. However, if God is elsewhere also, this would not be possible as the attributes would also become divided across places.

Response to Idea 4
Qualities like form, color, smell, etc. pervade different objects in different places but are present fully. So, there can be no principle that what pervades many becomes divided and hence, not fully available in one place. Since the existence of such a principle is denied, there is no contradiction to God fully possessing all auspicious attributes here and everywhere.

The above are logical challenges and responses to the issue of Perfection in the light of Presence.

However, it is the view of the author of Vedānta Sūtra-s that such logical tensions are not necessary since Brahman cannot be understood in terms of the logical structure which applies to other entities, but has to be understood only on the authority of Vedānta. An objection is invoked in the Sūtra-s [2-1-26] that a Brahman without parts cannot decide, ‘I shall become many’ and manifest as many. This is because if the Brahman has no parts, it has to become fully available in the manifestation of one effect and incapable of producing many effects. This objection is rejected in the next aphorism [2-1-27] that states that Brahman (God) has to be understood only on the weight of the Vedānta that records the realized spiritual truth. God cannot be determined entirely by comparison with other entities or the logical calculus in which they exist and operate. (It is for this reason that Presence and Perfection have been capitalized in this essay to distinguish them from any commonplace understanding of these terms.)

In summary, we conclude on the below points from the above discussion:
  1. God is fully available in His essential form in every place. God is Present Perfectly everywhere. The absence of cognition of this fullness is a shortcoming of cognitive apparatus only.
  2. God is Present with fullness of potential everywhere.
  3. God is Present with fullness of auspicious attributes everywhere.

In one sentence: God is Present everywhere as Perfect in His true form, fullness of potential and fullness of auspicious attributes. Therefore, He is Viśvam and Viṣṇu.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Vaiṣṇavism and its spiritual basis

Vaiṣṇavism is commonly regarded as the worship of Viṣṇu or Nārāyaṇa as the Supreme Being. We would do well to invert this understanding and consider that the Supreme Being is identified correctly and worshipped as Viṣṇu or Nārāyaṇa. 

Most Vaiṣṇava systems strongly advocate the exclusive worship of Nārāyaṇa and do not encourage the worship of other deities. This insistence is most profound in the Śrīvaiṣṇava system. Such insistence is perceived by some to be narrow-minded and as lacking in modern liberal outlook. In this article, we will dispel this misunderstanding and eliminate needless confusion. 

1. Get your priorities straight
The worship of God is a spiritual practice. God is not looking for favors from humans and asking them to worship Him in all the different forms equally. Even within 'Hinduism', we find that Hindus only worship a set of Hindu gods and not Greek gods. We do not find Hindus discovering the Brahman in the form of an ancient Egyptian God. What is relevant is the spiritual discipline of the individual and not how broad-minded one is towards different deities. There is absolutely no Vedic injunction to worship all deities. A careful study of the philosophical works of Śrī Śaṅkara, Bhagavad Rāmānuja, Ānanda Tīrtha and other saints of Vedānta would clearly reveal that they favor only the worship of Viṣṇu or Nārāyaṇa for sound reasons. They would be appalled by the intellectually lazy broad-mindedness of today's spiritual businessmen. 

2. The form of the deity matters
The form of the deity matters in spiritual discipline. For those yearning for liberation, this is a point of utmost seriousness. How God is meditated upon and understood has direct implications for one's spiritual practice. Any form is NOT ok. The fruit of meditation will be directly in accordance with the content of meditation - this fact is taught by the Vedas. Viṣṇu is meditated upon as blissful, beautiful, resplendent, auspicious, divine, transcendent, powerful and as the abode of all desirable qualities. Only meditation upon Viṣṇu can bring peace and delight to the heart, and imbibe positive spiritual qualities. Other meditations can take the practitioner only to some distance.  Liberation and the highest joy are possible only through meditation on Viṣṇu. Such is the unanimous verdict of all Sātvika-s. Viṣṇu is acknowledged by all saints as the form of pure and highest sattva (truth) that is free of all Rājasika and Tāmasika constructs. The avatāra-s and deeds of Viṣṇu directly speak to the practitioner and cultivate interest and delight. The deeds of Viṣṇu are not performed simply to showcase His power but are relevant to devotees spiritually. Pleasing Viṣṇu is the easiest and does not require any physical suffering. Devotion is more important than any physical gymnastics because Viṣṇu is the true form of the Brahman. 

3. Beware of mischief in spirituality
The so-called broad-minded spiritual doctors would not display their broad-mindedness in philosophical matters. They know it is absurd. For example, the so-called non-sectarian Ramakrishna Mission would go to great lengths in discrediting the greatness of Viṣṇu by calling Sātvika texts as sectarian works even while writing about those texts. But, in the same breath, they would declare that Dvaita is the initial spiritual stage which leads to Viśiṣṭādvaita and finally culminates in Advaita - an utterly confounding stance even to Saṅkarācārya. This is because they realize it would be absurd to be broad-minded and declare that all philosophies are equally valid. But, when it comes to meditation/worship, they suddenly feel the urge to become broad-minded and lose track of the philosophical background & purpose of meditation. Even in their exposition of their neo-Vedānta, they would be befuddled by the ancient texts which are acknowledged by all teachers since they are not suitable to their views. They would invent new sources like Yoga Vāśiṣṭa which are untouched by any Advaita teacher from Saṅkarācārya to Madhusūdana Sarasvatī. In general, most of the broad-mindedness can be easily be seen to be a consequence of Viṣṇu-Vaiṣṇava-dveṣa than due to any serious philosophical position. Such attempts have been made since the times of Appayya Dīkṣita to discredit the worship of Viṣṇu by hook or by crook, and confuse people. There seems to be an urge deep within to somehow deny the greatness of Viṣṇu even if the text or teacher explicitly teaches it. This urge sometimes takes the form of outspoken hatred where the great activities of Viṣṇu, which must be understood from the perspective of Vedānta, are distorted to spew abuse. By doing such things, no harm is caused to Viṣṇu who is the true representation of the Brahman. Instead, such abusers fall from their own spiritual practice. When Ramaṇa Maharṣi, a teacher of neo-Advaita, was approached with the question on which deity to worship, he responded that one must pick only one deity and worship exclusively. Though he did not speak of the greatness of Viṣṇu, he was clear that devotion can only be exclusive. This is a point sadly lost to the broad-minded spiritual heroes who count Ramaṇa Maharṣi as one of their masters. Likewise, a story (authorized) about Śrī Candraśekarendra Sarasvatī of  Kāñcī finds him chiding a Vaiṣṇava woman for violating her dharma and worshipping Śiva. He advises her to find redemption for her problems within her own dharma. However, these inconvenient messages are carefully glossed over by broad-minded teachers. 

4. Over-simplification leads to disaster
Most critics of Vaiṣṇavism try to over-simplify it. The worship of Viṣṇu must be understood in light of the entire spiritual system and not by the narrow-minded ignorance informed by unexamined spiritual positions. The position of Śrīvaiṣṇavism will be explained below very briefly. 
It is blatantly clear in both normal experience and in meditation that conscious experiences differ from person to person. This proves the Vedic message that there are several individual souls, not just one. Experience can only belong to a conscious entity. The non-sentient universe is, by definition, devoid of consciousness. How can it superimpose on a single conscious entity and lead to multiple disconnected, unique experiences? There is no evidence for unity of consciousness nor is such a unity necessary. 
It is also seen in the experiences of meditation that in the purest state of the soul, one is an observer to the modifications of one's consciousness by karma. This simple spiritual experience refutes the claim that the knower and the known become one in meditation. Rather, only judgment, which distances the observer from the observed, is removed and proximity is attained, not identity which would be absurd to explain. The fall of mind-body ego does not strip one of individuality and uniqueness of personal experience. This establishes that the soul is the knower and that there are several souls. No religious text can invalidate such clear perception. The presence of the knowing soul that is cognizant of the kārmic modifications establishes the presence of a core consciousness which is beyond all change, and an attributive consciousness that is subject to modifications due to karma. 
Śrīvaiṣṇavism would gladly accept these conclusions of Advaita that the soul, in its purest state, is beyond all such modifications and is nirguṇa in the sense that it transcends the three guṇa-s of prakṛti. However, it would disagree that there is only one soul or that this soul is the final end of spiritual practice for the below reasons.
Once one has transcended the effects of matter and identification with mind-senses-body, one still finds that one's karma-s continue their dynamics and cause modifications of conscious experience. Though one may learn not to react emotionally to these things, they are still there to be observed. One has not truly become free but only learned to remain in equanimity. One has become free of the psychological trauma but not of the conditions that can produce it. This is because of a very simple truth: even if you reach the greatest height of spirituality, you cannot become God. God is the ultimate cause due to whom the universe of sentient souls and non-sentient entities operate. Karma operates under the watch of, and with the energy of God. The laws of the universe are God's laws and owe their existence & operation to Him. 
God, who is understood as Viṣṇu or Nārāyaṇa, is the basis of all reality. He is the only independent Real. Everything is else is only conditional real, dependent on God. This provides the basis for religion. Śrīvaiṣṇavas determine that Śiva as a Yogī and as being worshipped in the form of void is a true representative of a jīva (soul), who through the practice of Aṣtāṅga Yoga dispels oneself from the modifications of matter. Śakti is  representative of the forces of nature - matter, energy and time - and is the emblem of Prakṛti. Other deities are representative of more limited functions: Agni, only of fire, Sūrya only of suns, etc. Viṣṇu is seen to be explicitly transcendent of all this, and representative of the true form of God or Brahman and is the abode of all perfections. This is how the gods introduced in the Vedas can be resolved and understood meaningfully. 
All sentient and non-sentient entities are the body of God. This is the meaning of understanding the Viśvarūpa of Kṛṣṇa  - that the whole universe is the form of Viṣṇu. Viṣṇu, by the meaning of His name, is omnipresent and pervades everything from within to control & support them as Antaryāmī. 
For Śrīvaiṣṇavas, this deep realization of Viṣṇu within oneself leads to surrender to God and a life dedicated to Viṣṇu which constitutes the Bhāgavata dharma. One realizes that one lives in Viṣṇu, for Viṣṇu, as a form or instrument of Viṣṇu. At this stage, one does not even have to seek liberation because Viṣṇu, the savior, is always within. We all belong to Viṣṇu and are inseparably related to Him. Since we belong to Him, it is His imperative to save us. Living life with this understanding is realized to be the highest maturity of spirituality. 
Unlike other Vaiṣṇava paths, Śrīvaiṣṇavas find God not only without but also within. They are trained to constantly remember the true intimate relationship of the finite infinitesimal soul to the infinite God. Due to this, they do not strive particularly after specific spiritual disciplines that are taught by sages or by demigods, and hence do not worship those those sages/demigods for teaching them that discipline. They find faith only in the saving grace of God. They do not deny the Vedic path or the teachings of sages/demigods, but they reconcile them in the larger teaching of the inseparability of God and soul, and the knowledge that we all belong to God. They worship God with love and practice all disciplines as service to God. This is the life of Brahman-hood, of abiding in the Brahman and of complete dedication to God. They do not go around worshipping a hundred gods simply because there is no reason to do so. They find fullness of satisfaction in worshipping Viṣṇu who is the complete truth (sattva), and attain spiritual maturity through the same. They have no obligation to run around from god to god to showcase some unexplained broad-mindedness. Even those gods who are worshipped by these broad-minded folk would be smiling with pity at their lack of spiritual seriousness. 

Śrīvaiṣṇavas fully understand that each person is entitled to one's own spiritual practice and different practices have their own value. The Āzvar-s clearly state that different methods are created for different spiritual practitioners. By practising valid methods, one can mature spiritually. Since God is the highest, no human law can bind God, and He is free to accept and redeem souls through any method. However, it is only emphasized that Śrīvaiṣṇavism is an excellent way to spiritual redemption. It is a safe and sure approach if followed correctly by submitting to the grace of God. However, it is possible that those without clear understanding can falter even in this system and will have to wait out their spiritual redemption. The purpose of this article is to show that having clear spiritual vision is not narrow-mindedness but only firm spiritual focus. The defects attributed to Śrīvaiṣṇavism as being too narrow are born out of ignorance or an incomplete understanding of its architecture. In fact, they are born from the narrow-mindedness that forces one to discredit another system simply because one is not practising it. If Śrīvaiṣṇavism is sectarian, the view of broad-minded teachers is also equally sectarian because it wouldn't admit of any other view than their own. They just manage to package it with a misleading label. 

Tolerance & mutual respect are the need of the hour, not the empty pride in affirming a non-existent equality. The purpose of religion is spiritual success, not the display of magic or ego-boosting broad-mindedness. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

You are the knower

Being a blog for philosophy, let us get into another philosophical consideration which is closely allied to what was written in the previous post. 

On account of the immense interest that the notion of non-duality has received in our times, it is worth examining it for what it is. A popular notion is that in non-dual experience, there is no experience of subject or object. Even some intelligent people claim that when they look deeply, they cannot find the subject of the experience. 

Science teaches that any experience however profound and convincing has to be investigated for truth. For example, the sight of a mirage does not mean that water existed once and then disappeared when one came closer. We understand why it appears so by analyzing the characteristics of light and the nature of hot surface. 

Likewise, let us go into these claims of non-duality and analyze them for truth. Is it true that in non-dual experience, the subject and object vanish? Does the highest state of contentless knowledge become realized as the ground of all reality?

The second question can be taken up first as it is the easier and more obvious of the two. For knowledge without attributes to be the basis of all reality and the only true real, it is necessary to show that knowledge without attributes or content is even possible. 

However, it is immediately obvious that there can exist no knowledge that is without content. If the purest form of knowledge were utterly unqualified, an enlightened person would keep bumping into objects unable to discern the space between objects - space without objects and space with objects are distinctly qualified but they will not be apparent in contentless perception. Knowledge always reveals rich information and it is up to the mind to interpret, name or use that information. While the part of the mind is necessary for practical life (vyāvahārika state), it is clear that the mind is not inventing anything but only using the rich information available to knowledge. The absence of activity of the mind only removes conceptual grasping but not the vividness and diversity of the experience itself. Knowledge is always of something, whether we choose to grasp it or not. A knowledge that reveals nothing cannot be knowledge at all. Knowledge always has content, even for the enlightened. Likewise, it is clear that an object of knowledge exists, namely whatever is revealed by it.

The only missing piece now is the subject. Does the subject of experience exist? It does. Even the non-dual experience is available to only one locality of consciousness and not to another. If this were not the case, there would be no teachers and no disciples. The existence of a teacher whose state of consciousness is different from that of the disciple proves that there are two localities of  consciousness existing in different states. The subject is simply the locality to which the experience occurs. The subject is the knower of knowledge. This serves logic too: if knowledge reveals something, it has to reveal it to someone. The one to whom it reveals is the knower or jñātā. We must be careful that the knower must not be equated with the state of mind-level identification.

The Vedāntā clearly affirms that even the enlightened person is a knower of knowledge. We find passages like: tam-evaṃ vidvān amṛta iha bhavati, evaṃ viditvā atimṛtyumeti, brahmavid-āpnoti param which explain that the enlightened soul is a knower of the Brahman. Only if this is the case, the stage can be set for the soul to practice some discipline in order to become enlightened regarding the Brahman. It is clear that the experience of subject dissolving is not correctly reported. The false subject created by the imposition of the knowership of the soul with the mind (called ego) falls away upon meditation. This leads to the manifestation of true knowership (jñātṛtva) of the soul that stands beyond the concepts created by the mind. This is a simpler way of understanding the experience of meditation instead of making confusing statements such as the self is an illusion without defining what 'self' means accurately.

Telling the mind that the subject and object dissolve only confuse and frustrate it. How strange that the teachers of extreme non-duality who regard that the subject and object are illusions want their disciples to know this truth/knowledge! It is not sufficient to say that this knowledge belongs to the practical realm. That is the easy answer. The difficulty arises in motivation. If the teacher is truly realized in his version of non-duality, he must transcend the idea that the disciple is ignorant of something. He must also abandon the futile action of teaching which belongs to the relative world and depends on perception of difference. Otherwise, one would be creating habituation to difference and never get liberated. In fact, the extreme view of non-duality provides absolutely no motivation to undertake any act. The performance of any action would rely on some appreciation of difference and as long as any difference is cognized, the non-dual awareness bereft of all difference can never be realized.

An appeal to Karma Yoga also would not justify the action of teaching or other relative actions. In truth, Karma Yoga does not teach us to act without any motive whatsoever, but only to act without worldly motives. The motive for Karma Yoga is obviously self-realization for which it is taught; it is defined as action through which the Supreme Self is worshipped. If Karma Yoga did not provide this motive, there would be no reason to practice it. Spirituality is not a prescription for acting without purpose but for acting with an inner spiritual purpose.

What is revealed in the state of meditation is that the witnessing part of the soul 'dharmī jñāna observes the modifications of its own attributive consciousness 'dharma-bhūta-jñāna' by the mind. The soul is the jñātā or knower, who undergoes even the so-called non-dual experience and speaks about it later to others. If there were no jñātā, there would be no one to claim and teach that the knowledge of enlightenment exists. And for an enlightened person, there would be no other jñātā to whom the knowledge can be imparted. 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Victory of Svāmī Rāmānuja

We are only a few days away from celebrating the 1000th anniversary of manifestation of Svāmī Rāmānuja who radically transformed the course of Indian philosophy and religion.

It is therefore fitting to note one of the key triumphs of Svāmī Rāmānuja's teaching that is relevant to our age. He was the foremost of philosophers who disputed the self-annihilating presumptions of philosophies that had gained prominence during his time.

Mindfulness has become popular in recent times across the world. It has been studied scientifically and it is being taught worldwide with keen interest. The mindfulness movement is truly a revolution in that it has thrown open the doors of spirituality, something Svāmī Rāmānuja intended to do during his times. Thanks to the spread of mindfulness, nobody has to accept the word of some secretive guru to understand what spirituality is about. Everyone can practise mindfulness and explore their consciousness for themselves. 

Mindfulness has made certain claims about our conscious experience directly verifiable. Though the world has still not come to terms with the experience and learned to put it in the right language - often confusing new spiritual aspirants with blatant contradictions - the accounts of experience are consistent and clear. What is more? If you don't believe them, you can practise meditation and verify them for yourself! 

Below are some of the claims which have been busted by uniform experiences in meditation. 

1. Pure consciousness without content is at the root of all reality
Though several teachers, not limited to those owing allegiance to Buddhism or Advaita Vedanta, keep repeating this statement, it is very straightforward to see that this claim is false. 
As one accesses deeper states of consciousness, one only experiences vivid perception and a sense of immense of bliss. It is not the goal of anyone subscribing to meditation to lose all experience and become one with contentless consciousness. This mischaracterization is one of the reasons why some see meditation as a way to escape the world - by going contentless. Instead, meditation only amplifies the value and content of experience without distortion by judgments and mental constructs. It generates contentment, happiness, gratitude and compassion. Meditation leads one to a rich state of conscious awareness, not to one that is devoid of all qualification. It enables us to see beauty in ourselves and in others. This is confirmed in the experience of several meditation practitioners. Yet, it is sad to find some teachers parroting something incorrect and confusing new practitioners on what they are expected to find. 

2. The self is an illusion (or) the subject and object merge into one / disappear (or) the observer becomes the observed
One needs to define what one means by the term 'self'. The Vedanta indicates that the self can be understood at five levels, not one: (1) body (matter), (2) life (energy), (3) mind, (4) "I"-ness and (5) God/Brahman. 
What meditation leads to is the removal of the incorrect identification of the "I" with the mind. It is the mind-self or the person-self that is transcended through meditation, not all sense of self. If one feels that one has transcended all sense of self, one must consult a neurologist for advice. 
The mind is the instrument of grasping, language and concepts. Once the mind is diverted to some other job - such as focusing on one's breath, etc. - perception becomes rid of all structures of the mind. It is factually inaccurate to say that the sense of self completely dissolves and the boundaries between one and the other literally disappear. It can be verified by direct experience that this so-called self-transcendence is experienced only in one locality of consciousness but not it another. (That is, one individual experiences it and not another.) What occurs is simply the fall in activity of the desiring and grasping mind which leads to the opposite of selfishness. It so happens that the word for this is selflessness, but it does not mean that the self is annihilated. It only means that one acts without selfish motive. There is a kernel of "I" still left in this meditative state. 
This is confirmed by the uniform experience that one becomes witness/observer to the tantrums of the mind. Clearly, the witness is the self which observes everything non-judgmentally. This self is not pure-consciousness but it is a very concrete knower, jñātā who is intensely conscious of all experience: of the breath, of sensations, of perceptions, of thoughts. Listen to any meditation teacher and they will confirm to you that this is how it is, and then in the same mindful breath, some of them would claim that consciousness is without all attributes, that there is no subject and no object of awareness!
The collapse of the mind simply leads to proximity of the subject and the object as they are no longer separated by mental constructs. This is mistaken to be the collapse of the observer and the observed into one. It would be absurd to conclude that one's conscious awareness is the same as the tree being observed. It should not require a lot of effort to realize that language is being misused when one claims that the observer and the observed become one. Instead, it is that the observer becomes intimate with the observed without grasping, without actively judging, describing, interpreting. This is a state of unconditional love which those who meditate experience and describe. Experience does not collapse into nothingness; it is only liberated from mental constructs. But, so used are we to the tyranny of the mind that in the exultation following this liberation, we decide that we have ceased to exist. 

3. This sense of awareness is God. 
Traditions like Advaita equate the mind with the jīva or individual self though it has been taught that the manomaya and the vijñānamaya are different levels of awareness. If the mind is taken to be the individual self, then the next stage, the witness which transcends it must be God or Brahman or the Void - such is the understanding. 
However, it has been taught that God is one who is the witness of all. The witness accessed by mindfulness (as a first order practice) is only the witnessing jīva. The awareness, however vivid, is still only local awareness. It is not the infinite awareness of the Brahman.
Some teachers of Advaita or Buddhism may have deluded themselves into thinking that they have become God and ironically end up descending from the level of witness-self to the level of the mind-self, and behave immorally with their disciples. Teachers warn us that the moment you think I have become God you collapse again to the mind and its false ego. There is another reason why this is the case: we have not become God. The fall follows faith in a false claim. God-awareness or Brahman-awareness is the awareness that is simultaneously witness to everything, not just of one local experience. The individual witness-self is a finite manifestation (śarīra) or aspect (amśa) of the infinite Brahman-self. The witness-self is almost exactly the same as the Brahman-self in quality but not in identity. 
Reports that one has become one with the all are just a misuse of language that confuse new practitioners who are bewildered that this never happens to them. What is it to become one with the all? It is not to become the all. If that is the case, anyone who has this experience must report the experiences of everyone in the world and must be able to harmonize with the all. Instead, we find even awakened people being at the receiving end of hostile minds of 'others' who do not see the former's elevated state of awareness. Though it appears that awareness can transcend the body as seen in NDEs, this is not the state attained by any guru who claims to have become one with the All. All one has realized is one's inseparability from the Brahman; that is, one's apṛthak-siddhi-saṃbandha (relation of inseparable existence) with respect to the Brahman. It does not mean that the jīva literally becomes the Brahman or that one dissolves into the great void. The boundaries constructed by the mind vanish leading to inseparability, not to identity. 
Brahman is still superior and beyond this local witness-awareness. The local witness-self can attest that it is still subject to the vagaries of saṃsāra. It cannot decide what arrives in its experience. There is pleasure, there is pain. Though all of this is experienced in a detached way, it still is there and cannot be mastered. The master is the Brahman, who regulates the experiences of the witness-selves according to the laws of karma. He takes the witness-selves who exist as latent potentialities in the subtle universe, and transforms them into patent and aware selves in the actual universe. Riding the dynamics of karma and finally learning to transcend them, a process of soul-making is at work which uplifts the state of awareness to higher and higher levels till it attains the state of loving awareness or bhakti in which the Brahman is revealed. The witness-self is still subservient and subordinate to God. This truth never changes, no matter how high one feels about oneself. Love only cultivates a deep sense of humility with respect to God.
This is also the reason that in Viśiṣtādvaita, Bhakti is not explained in terms of bhāva-s or rasa-s because bhakti is not a sentiment (though it can manifest in sentimental effect), but a state of awareness - one in which God or Brahman is revealed. Interpreting the Śrīmad-Bhagavad-Gītā, Svāmī Rāmānuja explains that the love that is called Bhakti follows the state of awareness where the witness-self is realized. This unconditional and focused loving state of awareness is one which comprehends God. It is possible for the witness-self to become self-aware of its own bliss and stop there: this is the liberation of kaivalya. But, it is also possible to allow awareness to transition to the next level and become the all-encompassing love that comprehends Brahman. Kṛṣṇa says in the the Gītā that of all Yogī-s, the one whose awareness is in the state of love that comprehends God, is the highest. This awareness is the state of all-comprehending love. This is different from emotional/sensuous/sentimental love with which Bhakti is identified by some other schools and tantras.
It is quite possible that several Advaitins and Buddhists (and mystic Christians / Sufis) have truly attained to this state. The difference is only in the way in which they express this state. Often times, the expressions/descriptions serve only to bewilder those interested in spirituality and lead to frustration. In this respect, Svāmī Rāmānuja development of Bhakti (love) and Mukti (liberation) stands apart, tall, above talks of identities, illusions and emotions, and truly states the case as it is. 

P.S. The goal of this essay is to celebrate Svāmī Rāmānuja's development of theistic philosophy that reconciles Yoga, mysticism and practical life without sublating one with the other. It is not the intention to criticize or put down other forms of thought. The success of any practice lies in the fruit and there is nothing but the deepest respect for all traditions that lead to full realization of oneself. The efforts of meditation teachers of all schools to uplift the state of our consciousness is praiseworthy. 
It is also acknowledged that those claiming to follow Svāmī Rāmānuja commit indiscretions, while there are those who do not claim to follow, but display a highly evolved state of awareness. It appears that spiritual evolution is not tied strongly to how accurately one describes that level of awareness. However, it is important that a teacher not confuse the disciple but teach correctly. It is in this that Svāmī Rāmānuja's success is unparalleled.
Regardless of which school of thought we subscribe to, the need for an awakened state of awareness is urgent and we must all work together in this mission.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

For the redemption of religion

In a recent conversation, an elderly gentleman bemoaned the lack of religion in the modern world, especially among the youth. He also spoke of the lack of interest of youngsters in understanding and treasuring the principles of Śrīvaiṣṇavism. 

Counting myself a youngster and writing on this blog, I feel it apt to address this concern. The voice of youngsters is ignored when seniors think they understand everything. This post can be seen as an open-letter to religious communities in general and the Śrīvaiṣṇava community in particular. 

The key reasons for the perceived decline of religion are the below:

(1) Disillusionment due to immorality
Every other scope of human activity can tolerate the existence of good and bad. For example, science can be put to good or bad use depending on the individual employing its principles. However, this escape route does not and should not exist for religion. Religion makes tall claims of redeeming people and it cannot escape with the excuse that errors committed by practitioners of religion are their own defects and not the defects of religion. If religion fails to redeem a person who comes in contact with it, it has spectacularly failed. Many youngsters are turned off by either the lack of application of moral principles or their outdated nature in the premise of religion. When religion invents spurious reasons to defend the immoral behavior of its elite, it brings no sane person closer to it. 

(2) Exclusivism
In ancient times, when religious groups stuck together and derived a sense of community and strength from their group, it might have made sense to defend the group carefully, even to survive. Common ways of defending the group are (i) very low tolerance for in-group hostility, (ii) suppression of inquiry to prevent any confusion regarding core values within the community, (iii) some form of punishment for blasphemy, heresy or apostasy ranging from indifference or social exclusion to physical abuse or death, (iv) preventing outside views from polluting the community and adopting an aggressive stance with respect to systems other than one's own to diminish their sway among followers, and (v) claims of being the only way to liberation or a better life sustained together with the belief that one's own masters are the highest form of divinity while the masters of other faiths are either complete idiots or manifestations of the devil.
While the methods vary from religion to religion, there are some inevitable consequences:
(i) intolerance
(ii) blind dogmatism 
(iii) selective application of moral principles 
All of these are capable of leading to violence at some level and are dangerous. 

In the modern information age, where information is freely accessible and we live in a diverse world, it is clear that the old objectives of religion regarding community are no longer relevant. Nay, they are even harmful. It is time religions woke up to the challenges of the modern world and reinvented their methods. For this to happen, they would have to give up on some manifestations of their principles. Most of the time, it is apparent that the applications of religion are grossly in violation of their own principles. It is time to introspect whether the particular manifestations of principles at some place and during some period of time are universally and eternally applicable. It is worth pondering if those methods, applied today, do not militate against core religious principles. In some cases, we need to be honest and disown actions that are blatantly immoral, which cannot be permitted under any circumstance, no matter how high a saint prescribed them. 

(3) Lack of innovation
Religions compete with one another and sects even more so on who is the true follower of dogma, scripture or tradition. This is nothing short of comedy. There is no other way to disrespect the core principles of religion than to destroy the creative spirit and discourage innovation. Even those who stake the claim to orthodoxy are innovating all the time trying to force-fit their outdated views and habits to a modern world. If anything, they are the foremost of innovators though they may not see it.

Lack of innovation inhibits creative solutions to the challenges of the modern world. By forcing solutions of a world past on the world today, religious leaders alienate people from their own religion. There is no use complaining about the lack of faith if the creative principle of life is suppressed.  

(4) Reversal of priorities
The very complaint that faith is on the decline is a sign of misplaced priorities. Some religious elites engage in guilt-mongering to keep their flock. It is not the purpose of humans to serve religion. It is the purpose of religion to serve humans, to transform & redeem them and to enable them lead better lives, here and now. It is indeed very simple: If people are happy, why are you concerned? But if there is suffering, what is your solution?

It is ironical that leaders of religion spend more time attracting resources to protect their religion than understanding the problems of the day and offering solutions. They fail to realize that religion lives for and in people. If they are able to make the world a better place and enable people to live with or overcome their problems, there is no need to defend or protect their space. The religion will live by itself. It appears that the leaders/elites of religion are concerned about their own political power which might be compromised if the doors are thrown open.

(5)  Attitudes towards women
Even when religious systems become more open to all walks of people, they seem intent on disowning or ill-treating half the population. It appears that broad-mindedness extends only up to all kinds of men. Women are well-educated, intelligent and successful in the modern world. It is joke that they are deprived of equal religious rights. While there may be justified arguments for separating roles of men and women due to real differences between them, there is no reason to treat women as secondary citizens and then use twisted reasoning to argue that this is not the case. 

My View of Religion
There is a fundamental urge in every human being to understand truth and live with dignity. Our mundane life creates scope for neither of these. Thankfully, science provides one (significant) part of the answer to understand the world around us. Religion is the other part that speaks directly to the soul. Religion is not the matter of descriptions about reality but a portal to connect with reality, all of reality, the ultimate reality. It must be noted that modern science has done an admirable job in opening our perspectives with respect to reality. The fact that all our sense data are different forms of signals, that our minds produce their own approximations of the world, the fact that all life evolved and continues to evolve from a common origin, that all life is continuous and there is no hard dividing line between species, that our universe is incredibly more wonderful than we think and can think ... these are all capable of waking us up and question our narrowness of mind, our false certainties, and our ignorant arrogance. They instill in us a sense of belonging to the world, and a sense of sanctity and unity of all life. It would be tragic if religion served a purpose less than that of science in broadening our vision. Religion should go even further and enable us to relate to reality in ways, deeper still. Religion is not the way of escaping the world; it is the way of connecting with it. It is not the museum of dogmatic relics, it is life itself - dynamic, evolving, understanding and relating. 

Religious institutions and followers alike must understand and recognize the fundamental drive for a spiritual life that exists in all of us. They must realize the ennobling effect of spirituality and the scope of redemption in connecting first to ourselves, in looking deep within, in finding oneself in the universe and finding the universe in oneself. 

Ultimate reality, the suchness of things, God, Brahman, the Universal Self or Spirit, the Great Law, the Absolute, the Transcendent, the Ground of all being, the Being, the Presence, the Numinous, the Divine - is certainly above and beyond the trivial walls of institutional structure and language invented and managed by us. Yet, it is also directly available to us and is everywhere. It is available to everyone, not just the so-called chosen ones. It is the glimpse of this greatness available to every soul that inspires religion. The pillars of religion are understanding, humility, love and compassion. Religion is for those who have a relentless commitment to truth, and an appetite for discovery. Religion takes great courage, not because it demands faith, but because it is the enterprise of puny and humble humans to spiritually consume all of reality, to consume God. 

In this sense, all religions, ranging from the most 'primitive' ones that engage in self-mortification to appease a deity to the most sophisticated ones are voices coming out of the same basic enterprise; they communicate the intent of grasping the infinite. Even atheists are our allies in the process of religion; they may be our truest allies. Sincere atheists are without faith not because they hate God but because they find our God and our systems too petty to trust in. They expose how our understanding of God denigrates God, how our systems or institutions denigrate humanity. They show where religion fails. They do not and cannot deny God, for who can or will deny what is beautiful, what is true, what is life-transforming and full of love? 

There is no use complaining. Please wake up.