Preliminaries to the study of Vedanta12 min read

The philosophy that lies behind that particular form of Yoga which is propagated in this journal is known as Vedanta. The term “Vedanta” originally meant “the Upanishads,” and later it came to mean the whole body of work as setting forth Upanishadic doctrine in a systematic way. The Upanishads, partly in prose and partly in verse, are inspired treatises proclaiming the fundamental identity of the spirit in man with the infinite spirit underlying and sustaining all. They were composed in Northern India during the course of the first millenium b.c. The founder of Vedanta in its systematic form, however, was the commentator Shankara or Shankaracharya, who is now thought to have lived most probably about a.d.700. While he took the Upanishads as his chief literary source, he wrote important commentaries on two other works and quoted them as authoritative, though as less authoritative than the Upanishads.

These were the famous poem called the Bhagavad Gita, embodying the spiritual teachings of Krishna, the Divine Incarnation, and a work called variously the Brahma Sutras or Vedanta Sutras, which represents an earlier attempt to systematize the teaching of the Upanishads, aphoristic in form and less elaborate than the work of Shankara himself, and dating from perhaps about the beginning of our era. While Shankara claimed only to be a commentator and the representative of an age-old tradition, the high quality of his writings, which have been a constant source of inspiration to the great thinkers, mystics and renunciates of India ever since, proclaims that he was no “scissors and paste” theologian, “awaiting open-mouthed the thoughts of others”, but a man who dominated the texts he was commenting on from the high platform of his own inner consciousness. His work has a classical quality which puts it in the forefront of the world’s philosophical and mystical literature. His works deal with the question that actually is, though it may not at first sight appear to be, the most important and pressing that man can raise, that of the nature of his own Self.

As a Vedantin, Shankara’s first responsibility was to interpret the doctrines of the Upanishads, which form the end of the Veda, and are therefore called the Vedanta or “end of the Veda”. According to the traditional account of the matter, the word “Veda” means that body of texts, divided into three sections concerned respectively with ritual, worship and self-knowledge, which were not devised by man, which are begining- less and which have been handed down without alteration in an unbroken succession of teachers and pupils. The word Veda means knowledge. It is cognate with the Anglo-Saxon word wit, which many of us encountered in Anglo-Saxon history at school in the Anglo-Saxon word for parliament, namely Witenagemot, or meeting (gemot) of wise men.

The Veda, according to the traditional view, is knowledge, and, as knowledge, is eternal. It is not anything created or made. God did not create the Veda, or there would have been a time when He was ignorant, as the Veda embodies the whole of true knowledge, since all other knowledge derived from secular sources concerns the world of change and illusion and is not knowledge in the true sense of the word. The Veda was not created by God, but is, as the Vedic texts proclaim, the very breath of God. Breath is the symbol of the life of man. And the spiritual knowledge, embodied in the texts revealed under the name of the Veda is verily God Himself. God is without beginning or end. And hence the Veda also is without beginning or end. God is omniscient and all-compassionate by nature. And hence the Veda, which is the embodient of God as pure knowlege, is a source of benefit to man on all planes.

The air we breathe is also the breath of God in His cosmic form. All breathe it in and take advantage of it, both pious scholars and fools alike. All men alike breathe in the air, but what sort of use they make of this commodity depends on what sort of men they are. And in the same way, the Veda, being the breath of God also, albeit in a slightly different sense, is also available to all. But it depends on the nature of each individual man what use he puts the Veda to. For those who are identified with their bodies, the Veda contains teaching about rituals and sacrifices and lives to come which will enable them to see that the Self survives the body and is not identical with it. For those who are identified with their minds it prescribes meditations (upasana) which enable a man to break this sense of identification, either through self-identification with some manifestation of God through worship, or through dissolution of the mind through the special practices which lead to “samadhi” or extreme concentration of the mind. And for those who have to a large extent broken the sense of identification with their individual bodies and minds it provides teachings about the nature of the Self which enable them to realise the nature of their own Self and become liberated from ignorance and pain for ever.

Thus, for those who are attached to their bodies and to enjoyment, the Veda provides teaching on how to live in the world according to the spiritual law (dharma). And for those who are attached to their own mental world, it provides teaching about devotion and meditation. And to those who are comparatively free from other attachments but are attached to the joys of meditation and devotion it provides teaching on Self-knowledge. What a man can take from the Veda, therefore, depends on his own nature and spiritual qualifications.

Vedanta or the Upanishads is the last and also the profoundest part of the body of texts handed down under the name of the Veda. The heart of the Upanishadic teaching is knowledge of the Self, and the teachings about devotion and yogic practice are but auxiliaries to this. Devotion and yogic practice are, after all, action. And it is a rule that all actions are undertaken for some end, and that that end is an experience of some kind, that is, a mode of knowledge. The experience that actually follows the action may not be the one proposed as the end, but this is due to the human factor of error. The rule is that action is for the sake of knowledge. And this is true in the spiritual realm also. Devotion and yogic practice are ultimately for the sake of knowledge. But knowledge is its own end. Thus the poet- teacher Tulsi Das says, “All action is ultimately for the sake of knowledge of one’s own real Self.” And in the famous poem called the Bhagavad Gita the Lord incarnated as Krishna says, “Whoso has knowledge has nothing further to do” and “He has no more use for action.”

In worldly knowledge, which, as we have said, is from the standpoint of the Vedanta knowledge only in a lower sense, knowledge leads on to further action. We discover, for instance, that so-and-so is a good and congenial man, and this leads us to seek out his company, to cultivate friendship with him and so forth. And if we discover that someone else is a bad fellow, then we may find we have to take active steps to avoid him. But this association with action only occurs in that form of knowledge which is concerned with distinctions. Knowledge associated with value, with the notions of good and bad, is all knowledge associated with distinctions, and this is the only kind of knowledge that prompts us either to activity or to refrainment from activity. Knowledge of good promotes activity, knowledge of bad promotes refrainment from activity. But the knowledge with which the Veda is ultimately concerned is knowledge of one’s own real Self. When one is aware of one’s own real Self, and of all as being nothing other than one’s inmost Self, there is then no further sense of distinction, and this awareness cannot result either in activity or refrainment from activity. One cannot, as Shankara frequently insists, either obtain or abandon one’s own Self.

All prompting for or against any activity, all commands and prohibitions, apply to those afflicted with ignorance, to those who do not know the nature of their own Self as the one consciousness sustaining all. They do not apply to the one who knows the Self. The Upanishads, which deal with the knowledge of the Self, are the culmination of the Veda. In the earlier part of the Veda there is scope for commands and prohibitions. But when the Self as taught in the Upanishads is known, there is nothing further to be done, there is nothing further to be given up, there is nothing more to be known.Whoso has understood the truth taught in the Upanishads has become “krit- artha,” all his ends are realised.

Long before Shankara’s day the Vedantins had spoken of four requisites for profitable study of the Upanishads, requisites without which proper “hearing” (shravana) of the Upanishads could not take place. Shravana, or hearing, is defined as the achievement of the settled conviction, based on a study of the Upanishadic texts as a whole according to the traditional rules of interpretation, that one is in one’s own inmost Self identical with the Absolute. Thus the mere vibration of the eardrum set up by the words of Upanishadic texts when spoken is not shravana in the technical sense. The Upanishads are not said to have been “heard” until there is the mental conviction that the ultimate meaning of the word “Thou” in the phrase “That thou art” is identical with absolute reality, which is “non-dual”or undifferentiated in form, and is the ultimate meaning of the word “that.” This mental conviction is not in itself the final enlightenment, which takes place, as the Vedantins express it, in a realm above the mind. Yet mental conviction of the truth of the Upanishadic doctrine of the Self is an important stage on the path. It is the springboard from which the soul makes the final leap into the Absolute. Once mental conviction has been achieved it has to be often revived by dwelling on it in meditation, and this practice has to be continued until enlightenment. This is the highest form of meditation, and meditation in this sense is termed not upasana or dhyana but jnanabhyasa.

Amongst the qualities required for the achievement of mental conviction we find “discrimination.” It means discrimination between the eternal and the passing. In worldly experience we perceive many objects through the senses and conceive many ideas as objects of thought. Objects are sometimes present to consciousness, sometimes not. Sometimes they are present in one form, sometimes in another. The perceiver and conceiver of all these objects is one and constant, but the objects themselves are variable. All objects, including objects of thought, belong to the realm of time, change and unreality. But that which knows them as objects is absolutely different from them in nature, being conscious where they are non-conscious, changeless and above time while they are in time and subject to change and decay, and without limit or form in space whereas they are limited in space and consequently possessed of form and shape.

The goal of the philosophical discipline known as discrimination is to discriminate the element of changeless consciousness in oneself from the changing objects which it illumines, including one’s own body and even the ideas of one’s mind. But this is not ultimate enlightenment. For it is a form of knowledge that pertains to duality and difference. The result of the practical attainment of discrimination between the real and the passing is the abandonment of feelings either of attachment or of aversion for the passing objects and the awakening to a kind of natural joy in the ever present Self.

Discrimination, unlike enlightenment, can be achieved in varying degrees. When it begins it gives rise to another quality that is regarded as a necessary preliminary to success on the path, that of indifference to objects. As a present day Vedantin has put it, “when the feeling of indifference to passing objects comes, itself springing from discrimination of the passing from the constant, you begin to feel, ‘Let me not undergo bondage to wealth, let me not become a slave of this or that person, all this is passing and I am indifferent to it. I am the eternal Self, the changeless consciousness within all’.” In this state, lust, anger, greed and infatuation begin to lose their hold. This is not the result of the quality of indifference but its very nature.

Of the remaining two qualifications for achieving mental conviction of the truth of the Upanishadic teaching about the Self, one is the deep desire for enlightenment or liberation from the miseries of transmigration. And the last is a further group of psychological qualities known as the Sixfold Wealth. The keynote of the latter is self-control For those practising Vedanta in the world the “wealth” or quality of “shama” is said to be the virtue of enjoying legitimate pleasures from sense objects without attachment to them and without giving way to the passions. The further quality of “dama” is said to be the virtue of practising voluntary restraint and self-denial even among legitimate pleasures. The quality of “uparati” is the virtue of remaining engaged in work but at the same time remembering that the work and its immediate goals are not the ultimate goal, that all work is ultimately for the sake of Self-Knowledge. “Shraddha” means faith in and devotion to the traditional texts and teacher and is the medicine with which to cure the disease of pride. “Titiksha” means contempt for comfort. The last item is “samadhana” or concentration. It can be summed up as the difficult virtue of mastering the habit of day-dreaming and also rising above the desire for special psychic powers accruing from yogic practice.