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.

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