Vedanta - Just Another Story?
We thrive on stories, it’s the very air we breathe. From the moment we are able to speak and understand language, we are ingesting stories of every kind. We use stories to communicate, teach, sell and entertain. Stories can give our life a sense of purpose, foundation and strength. Stories can also leave us confused, distraught or worse.
To the outsider, Vedanta and the teaching of non-duality may appear an elaborate fabrication—another story cooked up by a people from a bygone era. After all, in a world full of spiritual charlatans who like to feed on the desperation of people seeking an escape from their sorrow, it’s prudent to be skeptical and not just dive in head first. “Choose your story wisely,” is one of the best pieces of advice to anyone at any age.
But there’s something different about Vedanta and what it teaches. As an ancient wisdom tradition, Vedanta has the unique status of not being a religion or a philosophy. Even “spirituality” doesn’t seem to fit it. Vedanta is closer to a science and yet, in addition to having a psychology and cosmology, it has a theology. Perhaps, it’s best to simply define it as a unique means of knowledge that explains consciousness and removes a sense of limitation.
Vedanta provides a systematic means called Self-inquiry that progressively reveals the nature of the truth and ultimately, alleviates our suffering. Because Vedanta is an objective analysis of our experience, it is indifferent to historical, cultural or personal opinion. One of its important aspects (like all great knowledge traditions) is that it is universally applicable.
The teachings of Vedanta are counterintuitive, so one’s first exposure to it most likely will inspire more skepticism than faith. But faith in the teachings is only meant to be provisional. In Vedanta, faith is always taught as faith pending your own investigation, much like a scientific formula before putting it through the rigor of application. In Vedanta, these forms of proofs are called prakriyas or methods of Self-inquiry.
Because Vedanta is an objective analysis of our experience, it is indifferent to historical, cultural or personal opinion. One of its important aspects (like all great knowledge traditions) is that it is universally applicable.
When one is first introduced to chemistry or physics, it also feels implausible to learn about something not immediately recognizable. This is why scientists rely on empirical evidence, because otherwise it’s all just theory or worse, elaborate conjecture. Science never asks you to believe, instead it provides you with the tools with which to draw your own conclusion. When thousands of scientists are able to follow the same process and draw the same conclusion, it’s no longer just a hypothesis.
In science, there are certain inarguable principles like gravity and the speed of light. We may not understand how these phenomena come to be, but we cannot deny their existence and should we have the interest, know that the we can retrace the steps of scientists in order to investigate and prove to ourselves their validity. For this reason, we say science is a process for discovering objectively verifiable facts. In much the same way, the teachings of Vedanta appear mysterious and encrypted until we take the necessary steps (prakriyas) to understand it.
Any proper teaching includes a methodology—a sequence of small learning increments that slowly build up to more complicated and subtle concepts. As such, Vedanta’s methodology begins with the basic premise that as conscious beings we feel limited, and it ends with the enigmatic Sanskrit phrase tat tvam asi—“You are that.” As curious students eager to have all the answers, we might want to jump to the end of the teaching, just like we would for a novel whose ending we want to know. Many "Neo-Advaita" teachers, knowing what seekers really want, will deliver the goods first without providing a proper teaching. It’s for this reason that even today, there’s much misunderstanding around the concept of enlightenment, and it’s why many traditional Vedanta teachers will go out of their way to debunk enlightenment myths.
Vedanta is taught as two distinct practices or yogas. A yoga is a discipline or means of preparing the mind in order to help make the truth accessible. Vedanta recommends various yogas such as meditation to help steady the mind, but mostly emphasizes karma yoga and jnana yoga. Karma yoga (the yoga of action) is a preparation for jnana yoga (the yoga of self-knowledge). The karma yoga teaching is relatively straightforward, and yet many Westerners initially don’t appreciate its value and will choose to bypass it, only to find out later they need to come back to it to complete their practice. The reason for this is because it involves our relationship with God. Needless to say, most Westerners who come to Vedanta seeking answers to life’s biggest questions aren’t interested in God. In fact, it might be God (the biblical one) they’re trying to run away from! Nevertheless, God-knowledge is an important part of the Vedanta equation and in the end, becomes difficult to ignore.
God or "Ishvara," as it's used in Vedanta, is responsible for creating, maintaining and recycling the field of experience. Isvara provides the results of our actions and is the keeper of dharma—universal physical, psychological and moral laws. Unlike some religions, Vedanta doesn’t portray God as an old man sitting in the heavens rewarding the “good” and punishing the “bad.” Instead, it shows God as the force behind nature. God isn’t so much an entity, as it is a principle—like gravity. For this reason, Vedanta doesn’t suggest one believe in God. Vedanta asks, “Why believe in God when you can know God?” In other words, God needn’t be a story.
The word karma means action and the result of action. What karma yoga teaches is to practice whatever you do as an offering to Isvara—whether it be preparing food for a meal or just brushing your teeth. Karma yoga also teaches that we are not responsible for the results of our actions—Isvara is. We accept all results, good and bad, as prasad, or a gift from God (God's grace). Sometimes those gifts may come in a negative form as a lesson meant to correct our understanding, and sometimes prasad arrives as something delightful to encourage us along our journey. In short, karma yoga is about having “God on your brain.” More than just a practice, karma yoga is an attitude that promotes gratitude and acceptance. The effects are two-fold: First, it relieves stress because we are no longer looking at just the negative aspects of life or believing it’s all up to us. Second, it softens the ego and diminishes its fallacious argument that it’s an independent entity. More often than not, it’s our egos that get in the way of our understanding. Most important might be the point that without the sincere practice of karma yoga, jnana yoga becomes a cold intellectual exercise. So, karma yoga is necessary, even if you have to come back to it later.
Jnana yoga, or Self-inquiry, is a three-stage process: hearing (shravana), reasoning (manana) and actualizing (nididhyasana). Notice that the first stage, shravana, is hearing (not listening). In order to hear what someone is telling us, we must first silence our own commentary so that we can understand and consider what’s being said. During the shravana stage we temporarily subdue our beliefs and opinions until we hear what Vedanta has to teach. The manana, or reasoning stage, involves comparing the teachings with our own experience and resolving any doubts. The last stage is nididhyasana. During this stage we regularly contemplate the teachings and let the knowledge work on us. Nididhyasana is an on-going practice because the cost of freedom from ignorance means constant vigilance (or as Vedanta encourages, constant discrimination).
Jnana yoga, or Self-inquiry, is a three-stage process: hearing (shravana), reasoning (manana) and actualizing (nididhyasana).
Part of Vedanta’s ability to deliver moksa or liberation is in its use of a proven methodology. If Vedanta had a curriculum, the course outline might look something like this:
Vision As an introduction to Vedanta we’ll learn about its origin and find out what Vedanta is, what it offers, and what it is not.
Motivation In the next segment we’ll discuss the three human pursuits and humanity’s fundamental problem. Other topics will include the limitations of object-oriented happiness and the qualities of samsara—that which keeps us trapped in suffering.
Preparation As preparation for Self-inquiry we will begin by asking “What is enlightenment?” and also debunk several enlightenment myths. We will introduce a few traditional teachings, namely the location of experience and the location of joy, followed by a definition of non-duality. We will go over the qualifications for and obstructions to moksa (liberation), and end with dharma and the “value of values.”
Inquiry At the heart of Vedanta is Self-inquiry or jnana yoga. We begin the process by identifying, as an individual, what I am not (neti-neti). Discussion will include the difference between subject and object, the five sheaths, the three states of experience, and how Vedanta defines what is real. Next, will be an in-depth look at awareness—the essence of everything. We will define existence, as well as define that most interesting of human emotions— love. Lastly, we will introduce the next section with an explanation of the three orders of reality.
God (Ishvara) No spiritual teaching is complete without a discussion on the relationship between individuals, the world and God (the creator, sustainer and destroyer of the world). In this section of the course we’ll share Vedanta’s view of God and why it’s valuable to have God-knowledge. We’ll discuss the Field of Experience, as well as maya and dharma. We will finish the section with an explanation of karma yoga and why it’s preliminary to Self-knowledge.
World (Jagat) To continue the topic of God (Ishvara), we will take a look at Ishvara’s creation, as well as its constituents, namely the five elements and the gunas.
Individual (Jiva) To round out our trio, next we’ll move to the jiva (person, being, or conscious life form). The jiva is explained in the context of the three bodies (gross, subtle, and causal). Karma will be examined in detail, as well as popular topics such as free will, birth and death, and the difference between a person and other life forms. We’ll finish by talking about jiva’s unique relationship with Ishvara.
Purification Purification is about preparing the mind for Self-inquiry and sustaining clarity by leading a healthy lifestyle. We’ll discuss various yogas or disciplines, including raga-dvesha (likes-dislikes), upasana yoga, triguna vibhava yoga, and bhakti yoga.
Scripture While we frequently refer to scripture, in this final phase we will reveal the meaning behind some of the more important phrases and texts of Vedanta including the mahavakyas or “great statements.” We will also identify and summarize some of the more important Vedantic texts.
As seen by this example of a curriculum, there is a sequence to how Vedanta and the truth is unfolded. It’s by this process that—if both student and teacher are qualified—there are no questions left unanswered and the nature of experience is explained. As mentioned from the beginning, Vedanta is a complete teaching that includes a psychology (the person), a cosmology (the world), and a theology (God). All of these topics resolve into a fourth factor that Vedanta reveals as the core of its teachings—non-dual awareness.
Vedanta is a complete teaching that includes a psychology (the person), a cosmology (the world), and a theology (God).
So, to conclude, how do we know Vedanta works and is not just another story? The primary evidence is that once we have understood the teachings well, all further seeking ceases. Our appetite for new philosophies and spiritual experiences dissipates. In short, we feel satisfied—full. We will also see old attachments and tendencies fall away—sometimes effortlessly, sometimes with much work. Life will still be appreciated for what it is—a temporary and fleeting experience—but will no longer be chased after or feared.
In summary, Vedanta isn’t a story because:
It’s verifiable based on personal observation. Vedanta asks that you examine your own experience closely and see if it confirms with the teachings. Faith, in Vedanta, is always faith pending your own investigation.
It has a proven methodology with a beginning and an end. While most stories also have a beginning and an end, few if any show a process for achieving an objective. Studying Vedanta needn’t be a perpetual process for those wanting moksha. Once the objective is met, the vehicle is discarded.
It has utility, it’s practical. The teachings of Vedanta are applicable to any situation, place or time. If you have an intellect and a burning desire to better understand your experience, you can learn and apply the teachings to your life.
It’s the truth. The truth is that which exists no matter how many times ignorance tries to hide, dismantle or destroy it. The truth is impartial to gender, race, cultural biases, time and place, and is always there to be discovered—just as it has been for centuries. The truth has no “alternative facts,” only stories do.