Put simply, Vedanta’s claims can be summarized as:
You are not your body. You are not your mind. You are Consciousness. You are the Awareness in which the entire world plays out.
You are Happiness. Why seek inferior happiness outside when Happiness is your real nature?
You are Existence. Why fear death when you are eternal?
Followers of Vedanta may recognize the above as “Sat-Chit-Ananda”.
As a seeker, if you get these concepts, you are done. You are enlightened! Congratulations! You are a jeevan-muktha. You don’t need Bhagavad Gita or The Upanishads to tell you this. You know it.
An enlightened person does not suffer. He/she acts with compassion. He/she enjoys whatever the world has to offer but is not bound by it. He/she is beyond the dualities of the world (likes/dislikes, craving/aversion, etc). He/she does not work to seek happiness. They work from happiness.
Why, then, are we all not enlightened/jeevan-muktha/liberated?
We feel we are our body and we are our minds. Consequently, we suffer when the body is ill and we crave a body that the society thinks is perfect. We let the gamut of emotions, thoughts of likes & dislikes, craving & aversion in the mind drive us. We are not enlightened. We feel we are far from it. Why?
The answer is in the word “get” — to understand, assimilate, and internalize the claim, we need a mind that is subtle and inward-looking. This understanding happens in our minds. But, our minds are in different stages of development.
Our mind is but, matter. It is influenced by experiences, not just in the present life but from previous births. Experiences leave mental imprints in our minds — in the deep subconscious mind. These imprints (Samskaras, Vasanas) determine our preparedness to “get” the claims. This is why all of us are in different stages. Some of us may be ready to receive the knowledge, some amongst us are further along and many others are not ready to receive the knowledge yet.
Please see my detailed analysis of samskaras in this post.
How Samskaras affect our ability to assimilate the claims?
As mentioned earlier, we need a clear and subtle mind to understand and more importantly, assimilate the claims. Our samskaras force our minds to be extroverted, outward-looking. To understand these claims, we need to turn our minds inward. This is only possible when the mind is calm and still, free from negative thoughts, free from fear, stress, regrets. It is like getting a huge, heavy ship to make a U-turn.
How do we turn our minds inward? How do we neutralize our Samskaras?
This cannot happen overnight. Years of actions and behavior patterns cannot be unlearned immediately. The unlearning has to be consciously and consistently performed. But there are many tools in the form of practices.
What is the roadmap?
The roadmap is as follows:
- Neutralize the samskaras, thereby making the mind pure. This leads to a still and calm mind. This is done by getting rid of certain behavioral patterns (anger, greed, jealousy, lust, etc) and acquiring others (equanimity, compassion, forgiveness). The practices of Karma Yoga and the Ashtanga Yoga limbs of Yamas (Ahimsa/non-violence and Satya/truth among others) and Niyamas are the recommended ways to do this in our daily life.
- Inquire: Observe the claim for ourselves. Spirituality is not a blind belief of claims. It is a process of inquiry to convince ourselves of the claims. Meditation is prescribed to walk the inward path cutting across the different layers from the body — prana — sense organs — mind — intellect and beyond. In meditation, we begin to “see” the claims. If the claims are teachings in the theory class, then meditation is the lab where we verify the claims. Only a still mind is able to meditate upon this Reality. Hence, step #1 is a pre-requisite.
- Surrender: As we make progress along this path, we realize that this is not an easy undertaking. We need more than just our efforts. Life needs to cooperate and help us down this path. Call it divine intervention, God, Life, Grace. Often, we may have to surrender to Life, accept it, and believe in the process.
- Internalize the Knowledge: The process changes us from the inside out. Our body and mind become more subtle. The claims begin to make sense. We asked many questions, cleared many doubts along the way. We begin to see the Reality.
If the Reality is one, why does it seem like there are so many approaches?
In the Bhagavad Gita itself, the Reality is often referred to by different names in different contexts. It is called Atman, Purusha, Kshetragna, etc. Why give it so many names?
There are also many approaches to point to the Reality.
a) Negation: By performing the object-subject discrimination, negating the objective universe, and arriving at the subject.
b) By analyzing the waking, dream and deep sleep states
c) By directly observing the reality (Samadhi) through the path of meditation.
Different Upanishads take different approaches and emphasize the importance of a specific path. The Bhagavad Gita captures the essence of many Upanishads and hence it discusses the Reality from different contexts, calling it by different names based on the origin.
My understanding is that different approaches work for different people.
If the claims are simple as stated above, why are there 700 verses in the Bhagavad Gita? Why so many scriptures and related texts?
The Bhagavad Gita states the claims from various Upanishads and charts out the roadmap. Most verses are on #1 — purification of the mind. Why? This is the stage where most of us are. It also discusses at length the metaphysics of the universe and helps us understand the equivalence of the Reality experienced in ourselves and the Universal Reality.
There are many sub-commentaries and sub-sub-commentaries by spiritual geniuses like Adi Shankara. Many enlightened souls felt a calling to share their insights into this knowledge for the benefit of humanity. This has led to many Vedantic texts like Vivekachoodamani, Panchadasi, etc.
How do this knowledge and practice relate to my goals in life?
When we ask ourselves this question — “What is my goal in life?”, we may come up with various things like getting a job, buying a house, getting married, having kids, etc — a never-ending list of things. I also discuss this part in Part 1: The Happiness Equation.
As we mature in our understanding, we graduate from seeking pleasure -> wealth -> meaning. But in each case, if you further ask the question “Why?”, we eventually arrive at the answer “I want to be happy”. You cannot further ask “Why do you want to be happy?” because that has no answer other than the fact that because Happiness is my real nature.
In other words, our ultimate goal in life is to be happy. But happiness is not the fleeting happiness we get from achievements and pleasure. We are in search of lasting, unconditional happiness. This is what spirituality is pointing at and this is why it is relevant to us.
I am ambitious and driven in my career. I am afraid the spiritual path will somehow curtail this. How do I reconcile my career ambitions with spirituality?
This is a common misconception. This question assumes that somehow spirituality makes us less ambitious resulting in achieving less in our career. On the contrary, we find more meaning in work and work from happiness rather than work for happiness. Our mind is more clear and focused resulting in far higher productivity and clarity in decision making. We feel contented and fulfilled sharing happiness around us and building better relationships. We work without fear or stress and enjoy better health and well-being.
A Karma Yogi (practitioner of Karma Yoga, part of Step #1 above) does his/her work for the intrinsic value. of work. The quality of work is the highest. It is easier for such a person to get into a state of flow at work, as described by the famed psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Even if we don’t become enlightened, wouldn’t you agree that this transformation is worth it?
Gautama Buddha taught his followers for nearly 45 years after he was enlightened. Swami Vivekananda achieved so much in the short span of 37 years he lived. Adi Shankara lived for 32 years and he packed more work into the short span than many of us can do in a lifetime of work. Mahatma Gandhi is well known for following the principles laid out in Ashtanga Yoga (Ahimsa and Satyam: non-violence and truth) and Karma Yoga.
What does spirituality say about acquiring wealth?
Vedanta claims that our goals in life can be categorized into 4 buckets — Pleasure, Wealth, Meaning, and Liberation. Our initial goals are related to pleasure. We then realize that it does not last long. We move on to the goal of acquiring wealth. Once we acquire the necessary wealth, we find that adding more does not necessarily make us happier. Many of us look for meaning in work — such as serving society at large. The last goal is primarily about seeking lasting happiness in ourselves, which is the goal of spirituality. The other 3 goals are all considered legitimate goals as they contribute towards the final goal.
Vedanta has no issues with the seeker acquiring wealth or pleasure as long as it is within the context of “Dharma”. Dharma can be loosely defined as “not doing onto someone what you don’t want them to do to you”. It is not a moralistic code of conduct that someone has set for you. It is about following the moral compass that we all have in our core.
Sold. Where do I start?
The focus should be on Step #1 as this is where most of humanity is. The Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras (Ashtanga Yoga — Yamas and Niyamas) are a great place to start. However, they are best taught by Gurus who have assimilated this knowledge.
Personally, I am learning virtually from my Gurus by listening to structured audio classes (see links below). Having understood the value of the knowledge, we set forth on the path with a strong commitment to learn and practice.
I am a student and practitioner of Yoga and Vedanta. I learn The Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and the scriptures by listening to the audio classes conducted by Swami Paramarthananda, Swami Guruparananda, and Swami Sarvapriyananda. I owe what little I understand to these great teachers. Any mistake in the analysis is the result of my limited understanding. While I am not eligible to teach, I can point people in the general direction, show a trail map based on my own experience. Ultimately, you need to be a seeker, learn from a teacher, and walk the trail yourself.
I also pay my deepest respect to the lineage of gurus and commentators like Adi Shankaracharya. It is through their commentaries that we have been able to unlock the teachings from the Upanishads, Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, and many other spiritual texts.
The Bhagavad Gita — lectures by Swami Paramarthananda and Swami Guruparananda
Yoga Sutras — Swami Guruparananda
The teaching of the Bhagavad Gita — Swami Dayananda Saraswati
Brahmavidya Abhyasa — Swami Bhoomananda Tirtha
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali — Dr. Edwin Bryant
Power of Now — Eckart Tolle
Vedanta Talks — Swami Sarvapriyananda
asato mā sadgamaya,
tamaso mā jyotirgamaya,
mṛtyor mā’mṛtaṃ gamaya,
Om shanti shanti shanti hi.
From falsehood lead me to truth,
From darkness lead me to the light,
From death lead me to immortality.
Om peace, peace, peace