Saturday, April 12, 2014

Advaita Apostasy


"Be leery of silence. It doesn't mean you won the argument. Often, people are just busy reloading their guns."    Shannon L. Alder


I've been thinking about writing this for quite some time - months, if not years, and have even made a couple of false starts.  So, I'll do what I usually  do, which is just start writing and see what happens. It's also, in part, why I haven't written much of late, as I've been somewhat torn as to what I want to say.

First, to describe the terms of the title: Advaita, of course, means non-dual, and specifically usually refers to the philosophy of Shankaracharya's Kevala Advaita or Absolute Non-Duality, which essentially states that everything is one non-differentiated Absolute and all apparent differentiation is an illusion.  Thus, you have loads of people running around saying things like, "what does it matter?  It's all an illusion." 

Apostasy means to renounce a philosophical belief or community - literally, to stand aside or position oneself away from.  Depending on the religion or community you become an apostate from, it can mean ex-communication or even death.  A little dramatic these days, but you get the point. 

So, if I am 'leaving' advaita, what am I going to? Well, pretty simply, I'm going back to where I started - my Gaudiya Vaishnava roots. Or as most people would call it - Hare Krishna! Hopefully, this piece will give you a little history of my own spiritual journey, and why I may be apparently changing directions.

Forty plus years ago, while still in college, I did an independent study of world religions, comparing Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and so forth.  One of books which I used was Bhagavad Gita As It Is, by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.  As I read this book, and compared it to the philosophies of the other religions, it appeared to me to explain everything the others did, but took over where the other religions stopped.  It answered all my questions, as well as answering questions I had not yet even thought of, and offered solutions to the problems of life.  Within a year I joined the Hare Krsna temple and was accepted as an initiated disciple of the author, Srila Prabhupada, and given the name Aja dasa, or servant of the Unborn.

Now move forward about 15 years to 1990.  By then I was no longer living in the temples, but still followed the Krishna philosophy, more or less.  Being married with children, I explored other paths, and particularly new-agey kinds of stuff, as well as natural healing, crystals, herbology, and also began teaching Sanskrit.  At this time, a very dear and spiritual friend of mine came across a photocopied book about the Enlightenment Intensives, by Charles Berner.  In short, the process was simply two people sitting across from each other and asking the other to "Tell me who you are."  This began a very intense period of my friend and I doing this continually when together, or simply inquiring to ourselves "Who am I?" when alone.  I would even write an "I" on my hand, to remind me throughout the day to inquire into the sense of Self.

Keep in mind, I had no idea who Ramana Maharshi was, or anything about the path of advaita vedanta at the time.  I had studied the path of Bhakti vedanta. I wasn't even interested, per se, in 'enlightenment'.  However, what motivated me, was the recognition that I used the term "I" a thousand times a day, and didn't really know what that meant.  One of the most basic tenets of the Vaishnava philosophy is that we are not the body, and after 15 years, I had a very thorough understanding of that philosophically, but only a little experientially.  So, if I wasn't this body, which I felt was true, then who or what was I?  What else could matter if I didn't even have a direct recognition of who I was.  God, the world, philosophies all became secondary to this most pressing predicament of NOT knowing who I was.  What did it matter what I believed, if the actual direct experience of who I was was lacking?     

The basic premise of self inquiry is also that we are identified with our beliefs. We identify ourselves as the beliefs that we hold - thus, I am an American, I am a democrat, I am a man, I am spiritual, I am... and so on and so forth. Our entire identity structure is the false construct of beliefs that we hold, whether cultural, religious, family, political correctness, everything. So, often the idea is that you have to give up EVERYTHING in order to truly recognize the underlying Reality that You are - not any of the belliefs, ideas, patterns, or mental conceptions. So, while deeply engaged in this process, one of the things that came up very strongly, was my deep beliefs in the ideas of God and Guru, my past with the Krsna Consciousness movement.  This was exceptionally hard, but in the name of truth, I let these go to focus on the more immediate necessity of finding out who or what I was. 

A couple things come to mind at this point in writing this: First, beliefs aren't necessarily wrong or untrue.  A belief that you shouldn't beat small children for fun isn't wrong, it just doesn't have anything to do with the recognition of who you are. You are not assessing morals or ethics. You're simply trying to discover who you are prior to all the collected ideology. The vast majority of people associate and identify themselves AS their body and thoughts. But we don't say I body, or I thoughts, we say MY body and MY thoughts.  So, who is the I that has that body  and those thoughts?  This is what the self inquiry is about. 

Secondly, the theory of non-duality or that everything is One, isn't totally wrong, it's just not complete. Everything IS one, and also differentiated. More on this later.

Anyway, continuing this process and throwing out pretty much everything I believed in, I gradually began to recognize, slowly and in fits at first, that pure sense of "I", until finally, at one point, it just all crashed down and I recognized that Absolute sense of Self, which arose as everything and it was non-different than my Self.  I wasn't any 'thing', but rather Consciousness itself.

So, now, more time is passing, and I begin to hear about and read about people like Ramana Maharshi, whose description of the 'Enlightened' state is matching my own direct experience. I'm having some thoughts of doubt in my mind, and I approach another friend and teacher who I considered enlightened and asked him about it.  "Yes, doubts arise," he said, and suddenly I got it. Simply because a thought arises within the mind doesn't make it true.  Clouds arise in the sky, but that doesn't mean the sun isn't shining.  It's simply a matter of recognizing the thoughts as what they are - simply thoughts - and not identifying with or as those thoughts.

More time passes, and as I am teaching Sanskrit around the country and Europe, I begin to speak of my own experience with Self inquiry and gradually begin to write and teach on it, as there is a great interest.  And because I spoke of Ramana and enlightenment or awakening, people assumed I followed the path of non-duality or advaita. But in truth, I never felt that really  fit for me, even though by now it was beginning to become quite popular with teachers like Andrew Cohen, Gangaji, and others, mostly coming from the Ramana lineage through H.W.L. Punja, as well as those coming from Nisargadatta Maharaja and his student Ramesh Balsekar.
Before I knew it, there were dozens or hundreds of advaita teachers and satsangs going on everywhere. Everyone was running off to Tiruvannamalai to Ramana's ashram.  I had never even been there. (My wife and I did go in 2003, mostly because a Swami friend told me that since I had never been to South India or to the Himalayas, I had never seen India - even though I had been there 4 times - so we made a trip landing in South India, stayed at Ramana ashram, took a train up north, visited Rishikesh, and left from Delhi.)  Ramana Ashram was very nice, until some french "sadhu" dressed in nothing but a loincloth, tried to pick up my wife.

So, back to the apostasy thing. What happened?  Much of the time that I was teaching, I felt something was not quite right. My own experience was/is that I am consciousness, only cursorily connected to the body. The body and mind arise in this consciousness. BUT, there was also this sense of being somewhat trapped. I could recognize this all encompassing consciousness, but not the source of this source.  It was as one teacher put it, Enlightenment is like lying on a hammock with your cap over your face. It was contentment, and no particular necessity of anything else, and yet, something was missing. What was missing was a true sense of connection with the Original Source of all, or what I would call Love for God. 

One of the things that most followers of Vedanta in the west don't understand, is that there are more than one Vedantic tradition in India. Shankaracharya's Kevala Advaita is the most well known here, but it is not the only one.  There are at least 3 other main schools, including Ramanujacharya's Vishistha advaita, Madhvacharya's Dvaita, and Baladeva Vidyabhusana's Achintya Bhedabheda tattva - all of which incorporate a personal sentient God. The latter school of Baladeva Vidyabhushana is the line of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition that I belong to. It does not say that everything is NOT one, but rather everythng is One and NOT one. Achintya means inconceivable, bheda means different, abheda means NOT different, and tattva means truth. So, it says that we are both the same as and different from God. In our tradition, there are three energies - 1. Antaranga Shakti or Spiritual Energy, 2. Bahiranga or external or material energy, and 3. Tatastha Shakti or marginal Energy  - being us, the limited but eternal jiva souls, who have the choice of identifying with the spiritual energy  or the material energy. This whole manifestation is for those who have chosen to identify with the material energy, and learn to return to the spiritual energy.  Believing that one IS God, is not really the way to do that. While everything IS a manifestation of God, there is still a distinction between the wave and the ocean, or the sunlight and the sun itself. Similarly, we are qualitatively the same as God but in infinitesimal quantity!

To me, the recognition that one is consciousness is kind of a no-brainer. It's really not that big of deal.  Excuse me if I'm crude, but if you want to know what sex you are, you look down and see what's there. Similarly, once you truly look to see what you  are, you recognize that you are not Your body or Your mind, you are the observer of those. You are the consciousness, which arises as "I Am". Granted, it takes a little more than simply looking down, but once you are aware of yourself as consciousness, what next?  Many choose to teach - hanging up their satsang shingle, which is basically what I did, in large part because there is this sense of compassion that wants to assist others.  But too often, it becomes a major business, charging people hundreds or thousands of dollars for the privilege of sitting with someone who knows who they are.  Big whoop!   Anyone who is charging for spiritual teachings is a business person, NOT a spiritual teacher.  Yes, you may gain some benefit by going, but what kind of consciousness wants to SELL you God?  And, it's an absolutely fabulous marketing strategy. Who doesn't want to hear that THEY are the One True God, only a little confused at the moment.  They have become feel-good classes so you can justify your material desires.  Now, I'm not talking about those like Ramana, who never charged, or Nisargadatta, or about buying books which cost money to print. Even Ramana said there were two ways - Self Inquiry or total surrender to God.  But it feels that the westerners, to a large extent, have forgotten that the great advaitic traditions came from sources where God was an accepted fact.  Even Shankaracharya, the originator of Advaita, wrote numerous devotional songs. He, himself admits that Narayana is the source of everything, and in his famous poem, Bhaja Govinda, he writes:

bhajagovindam bhajagovindam govinda bhajamūḍhamate
nāmasmaraṇādanyamupāyamnahi paśyāmo bhavataraṇe || 34

Worship Govinda, worship Govinda, worship Govinda, Oh fool! Other than chanting the Lord's names, there is no other way to cross the life's ocean.

Both my heart and mind tell me to return to the path I started with some 40 years ago, and follow what is said to be the Yuga Dharma (spiritual process) for this present age of Kali, which is the chanting of God's names. So, that's my plan, to chant God's name as much as I can, and hope that I can develop even a little love for God, and with any luck, share (freely) a little of what I find with you.


हरे कृष्ण हरे कृष्ण कृष्ण हरे हरे
हरे राम हरे राम राम राम हरे हरे

1 comment:

  1. Very well said, Aja. Clear in heart and mind.

    Radha is in love with Krishna.
    From a hundred miles away she feels
    his right eye open.

    You can never go home again? Of course you can! Damn those French sahus!

    My only quibble is you say, "Shankaracharya, the originator of Advaita,...admits that Narayana is the source..." I'm not a scholar but it doesn't sound like he was "admitting" anything. Sounds like he was shouting something, singing something from the depth of his heart.

    Seems like when you look for devotion and want it, you can find it even in Advaita.

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