In 2008 I wrote a blog post in response to an article and an interview that had appeared online and which were being discussed on my blog. Unfortunately, I can longer find working links to them so I cannot provide the background for what follows in this article of my own. The interview was with Swami Dayananda, the disciple of Swami Chinmayananda, and it contained, to my mind, some odd views on Ramana Maharshi and his state.
I remember discussing this interview with the president of Ramanasramam many years ago, when it first appeared in print. He was understandably annoyed by its rather patronising attitude towards Bhagavan and his spiritual attainments, but we have to accept that there are some people in the world who judge Bhagavan by their own peculiar criteria. This extract from the introduction to the Swami Dayananda interview sums up the most contentious issues:
In fact, both in his writings and in one of our dialogues with him, he [Swami Dayananada] even went so far as to express doubt about the realisation of the widely revered but unschooled modern sage Ramana Maharshi—adding that there may be millions of Indian householders with a similar level of attainment! While such statements initially took us by surprise, we would later discover through dialogues with a number of leading Western Advaita scholars that similar sentiments are held by many Advaita traditionalists. Even one of the living Shankaracharyas—the head of one of the four monastic institutions allegedly established by Advaita’s founder, Shankara—also denies the validity of Ramana’s attainment, apparently for the simple reason that someone who wasn’t formally trained in Vedanta couldn’t possibly be fully enlightened!
In the course of the interview Swami Dayananda explained the logic behind the last statement when he said: ‘We have no means of knowledge for the direct understanding of Self-realisation, and therefore Vedanta is the means of knowledge that has to be employed for that purpose. No other means of knowledge will work.’
That is to say, without a thorough study of the vedantic texts and the arguments they lay out, Self-realisation is impossible. The corollary of this is that people such as Bhagavan who never underwent such a course of study cannot possibly be enlightened.
Bhagavan, of course, took an entirely different view, saying on many occasions that scriptural learning is often an impediment rather than an aid to a direct experience of the Self. Here is an interesting story narrated by Kunju Swami:
I once went to Sri Santhalinga Math at Peraiyur, near Coimbatore, for the kumbhabhishekam of the Peraiyur Temple, which was being performed by the Naltukottai Chettiars. At their invitation, sadhus from Kovilur Math, Sadhu Swami and his group from Palani, and other learned sadhus had come and were staying in the math. Some of them were known to me since they had previously come to have Sri Bhagavan’s darshan. After the kumbhabhishekam we had our meal and then started conversing. The sadhus who had known me earlier introduced me to the other sadhus, saying that I had come from Sri Ramanasramam.
On hearing this, the other sadhus said, ‘Since we have all come together, let us discuss something’.
They first asked me to explain akhandakara vritti [unbroken experience]. As I could remember clearly the explanation Sri Bhagavan had given when devotees raised this question in his presence, I quoted the appropriate verse from Ribhu Gita and explained it. Then the sadhus asked me about pratibhanda [the three obstacles: ignorance, doubt and wrong knowledge]. This too I explained with a verse from Vedanta Chudamani. The sadhus were pleased with my explanation.
It occurred to me that I should know about the vedantic texts that were studied in the maths. I did not want to embarrass the ashram by being unable to discuss these matters when I was sent out by them as a representative. Sri Krishnananda Swami, who is presently the head of the Tirukhalar Math, and who was my boyhood friend, had also come to attend the kumbhabhishekam. He had taken lessons in Vedanta from Mahadeva Swami, the head of Kovilur Math. When I informed him of my intention, he said that sixteen texts, selected by Sri Narasimha Bharati Swamigal of Sringeri Math, were taken up for study. This swami had insisted that vedantins should not read secular literature and polemics.
My friend estimated that it would take many years for one to learn these texts in the proper way, so I asked him, ‘I want to learn all these texts, but not in the traditional way. I will read them by myself. It will be enough if you explain the portions I cannot follow. Is it then possible to learn their meaning within two months?’
Seeing my keenness he replied, ‘We will try to complete them all in three months. You must come to Tirukhalar, though, to study them’.
After telling my friend that I would come to study with him as soon as I could, I returned to Sri Ramanasramam.
A few days after my return to the ashram I told Sri Bhagavan about the events that had taken place in Peraiyur.
I concluded: ‘When people from other maths who have studied Vedanta find out that I have come from Sri Ramanasramam, they start asking me philosophical questions. I feel that if I do not give fitting answers to their questions, it will reflect badly on our ashram. Because of this I asked Sri Krishnananda of Tirukhalar to give me lessons on Vedanta. He has asked me to come to Tirukhalar and he has agreed to give me lessons on Vedanta, and to complete them as early as possible. I am now thinking of going of Tirukhalar to learn Vedanta.’
Sri Bhagavan replied with a mocking smile, ‘Now you are going to study Vedanta, then it will be Siddhanta, then Sanskrit, and then polemics.’
As he kept adding more and more subjects, I stood before him dumbfounded.
Seeing my depressed look Sri Bhagavan said, ‘It is enough if you study the One’.
He could see that his answer had puzzled me, so he added, with some compassion, ‘If you learn to remain within your Self as the Self, that will amount to learning everything. What Vedanta lessons did I take? If you remain as the Self, the echo from the Heart will be from experience. It will be in agreement with the scriptures. This is what is called “the divine voice”.’
On hearing Sri Bhagavan’s words, the desire to learn Vedanta in order to answer the questions of others left me for good. From that day onwards, if someone asked me questions related to Vedanta, I was able, through Sri Bhagavan’s grace, to get the appropriate answer from within. As Sri Bhagavan himself has written in Atma Vidya Kirtanam, verse three:
‘Without knowing the Self, what is the use if one knows anything else? If one has known the Self, what else is there to know? When that Self that shines without differences in different living beings is known within oneself, the light of Self will flash forth. It is the shining forth of grace, the destruction of “I” and the blossoming of bliss.’ (The Power of the Presence, part two, pp. 69-71)
In one of his responses to the last post Broken Yogi expressed a curiosity about how advaita Vedanta was perceived and taught in India nowadays, and in times past. I don’t want to digress too much into this topic, but I would like to mention that the monasteries (maths) of the Tamil-speaking world have a syllabus of sixteen texts through which Vedanta is studied. These works are almost unknown outside the Tamil maths in which they are taught, and until recently copies of these texts were quite hard to find. Fortunately, the Kovilur Math (mentioned by Kunju Swami in the last story) is proposing to bring out all sixteen works in a ‘Collected Tamil Vedanta Texts’ series entitled Kovilur Marabu Vedanta Noolgal. The first two volumes have already appeared and they contain the following works:
- Nana Jeeva Vada Katalai, a very free rendering of a portion of the Taittriya Upanishad
- Geeta Saara Talattu, by Tiruvenkata Nathar
- Sasi Vanna Bodham, by Tattvaraya
- Maharaja Turavu, by Kumaradeva
- Vairagya Satakam, by Santalinga Swami
- Vairagya Deepam, by Perur Santalinga Swami
I mention these texts merely to show that the Tamil Vedanta tradition is substantially different from the Sanskrit one, where students are more likely to find themselves being instructed in the Upanishads and the works of leading Sanskrit commentators such as Gaudapada, Shankara and Suresvara.
The independent Tamil Vedanta tradition really began with Tattvaraya around the end of the sixteenth century. Bhagavan often told the story of Swarupananda, Tattvaraya’s Guru, and he once included the Tamil advaita poem Sorupa Saram, Swarupananda’s only known work, on a ‘six essential books’ reading list that he gave to Annamalai Swami. For those of you who have not read it before, I highly recommend it.
I entitled this post ‘Through Knowledge or Through Practice?’ because there seems to be a fundamental division of opinion on this matter between the methods espoused by Swami Chinmayananada and Swami Dayananda on the one hand, and those promulgated by Bhagavan on the other. The former stress the necessity of undertaking a rigorous intellectual study of key vedantic texts, with little time set aside for practice or meditation, whereas Bhagavan minimised the importance of studying and instead recommended continuous inner enquiry. Swami Dayananda’s ideas can be found in the interview I linked to earlier. Bhagavan’s contrary views can be found in the following verses, which are taken from Padamalai, pages 300-305:
For all the myriad religious scriptures, the essential truth is only the supreme reality of consciousness.
The true love of the Vedas, the mother who declares your real nature to be ‘You are That’, is the bridge for you [to cross samsara].
Bhagavan: Each one knows the Self but is yet ignorant. The person is enabled to realise only after hearing the mahavakya. Hence the upanishadic text is the eternal truth to which everyone who has realised owes his experience. After hearing the Self to be Brahman, the person finds the true import of the Self and reverts to it whenever he is diverted from it. Here is the whole process of realisation. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 647)
Learning the jnana sastras is only an incidental cause for travelling the path to samadhi. You should understand that its value is limited.
It is the nature of the ignorant to feel proud and superior by mastering scriptural knowledge that consists of pretentious verbiage.
The rare benefit that accrues from the jnana sastras will only come to the jiva that possesses a longing to know the truth. Not for others.
Hoping to get a revelation of jnana through scriptural knowledge is like resolving to cross the ocean on an insignificant blade of grass.
The truth of the one who reads books is not in the books themselves. It is in the experience of [that] vedantic knowledge.
Question: Bhagavan, I have read much of the Vedas and the sastras but no Atma jnana [Self-knowledge] has come to me. Why is this?
Bhagavan: Atma jnana will come to you only if it is there in the sastras [scriptures]. If you see the sastras, sastra jnana [knowledge of the scriptures] will come. If you see the Self, Self-knowledge will shine. (Living by the Words of Bhagavan, p. 217.)
When the mind, one-pointed and fully focused, knows the supreme silence in the Heart, this is [true] learning.
As a result of the knowledge obtained from this true learning, all false misery will fall away, and a profound peace will flourish.
Bear in mind that the benefit of scholarship is prompting the mind to turn about, enabling it to be captivated by the light of the Self.
The benefit of learning is simply to become established within the Heart, in the concept-free state of reality, which is your own nature.
As long as the holy feet do not touch and come to rest squarely upon the head [of the jiva] what benefit can scholarship give?
This verse is speaking obliquely of saktipata, the power that is transmitted by the Guru to the disciple.
Question: Saktipata is said to occur in karmasamya, i.e., when merit and demerit are equal.
Bhagavan: Yes. Malaparipaka [a mature state in which impurities are ready for destruction], karmasamya and saktipata mean the same. A man is running the course of his samskaras; when taught he is the Self, the teaching affects his mind and imagination runs riot. He feels helpless before the onrushing power. His experiences are only according to his imagination of the state ‘I am the Self”, whatever he may conceive it to be. Saktipata alone confers the true and right experience. When the man is ripe for receiving the instruction and his mind is about to sink into the Heart, the instruction imparted works in a flash and he realises the Self all right. Otherwise, there is always the struggle. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no 275)
Only the learning of akhanda-vritti [unbroken experience], one’s truth, the substratum, is true learning.
The true purpose of scriptural knowledge
Mere scholarship derived from copious learning, without putting it into practice, will harm the well being of the jiva.
Bhagavan: Ancients have said that the superabundance of book knowledge is the cause of the rambling of the mind. That will not carry you to the goal. Reading of sastras and becoming pandits may give fame to a person but they destroy the peace of mind which is necessary for the seeker of truth and deliverance. A mumukshu [a seeker of deliverance] should understand the essence of the sastras but should give up the reading of sastras as that is inimical to dhyana [meditation]. It is like accepting the grain and discarding the chaff. There will be many big almirahs [cupboards] with many books. How many of them can be read? There are so many books and religions that one life is not enough to read all the books relating to even one religion. Whenever then is the time for practice? The more you read, the more you feel like reading further. The result of all this is to go on discussing with other people who have books and spend time thus but that will not lead to deliverance. What books had I seen and what Vedanta discourses had I heard except to close my eyes and remain peaceful and quiet during the first two years of my coming here? (Letters from Sri Ramanasramam, 2nd July, 1949)
Even if one has huge amounts of book knowledge, it is of no use unless the inner attachment [the ego] is destroyed.
The excellence of the subtle intellect is only its ability to enter the Heart – that which possesses great nobility – not its ability to research and understand anything.
Question: Bhagavan, I would like to read books and find out a path whereby I can attain mukti but I do not know how to read? What shall I do? How can I realise mukti?
Bhagavan: What does it matter if you are illiterate? It is enough if you know your own Self.
Question: All people here are reading books but I am not able to do that. What shall I do?
Bhagavan: What do you think the book is teaching? You see yourself and then see me. It is like asking you to see yourself in a mirror. The mirror shows only what is on the face. If you see the mirror after washing your face, the face will appear to be clean. Otherwise the mirror will say there is dirt here, come back after washing. A book does the same thing. If you read the book, after realising the Self, everything will be easily understood. If you read it before realising the Self, you will see ever so many defects. It will say, ‘First set yourself right and then see me’. That is all. First see your Self. Why do you worry yourself about all that book learning? (Letters from Sri Ramanasramam, 1st February, 1946)
Everything that one has learned is total falsehood if it does not become a means for [mind-] consciousness to subside within the Self.
Guru Vachaka Kovai, verse 143, Pozhippurai: The knowledge of scriptures should prompt one to reach the Heart, the source of the ego, by taking the grace of God to be the primary support in such a way that the ego ceases to be. If it does not [help in this way] the knowledge borne as a burden by those who behave as if they are the body, the illusory lump of flesh, is nothing but the swinging, fleshy beard of the goat.
Vilakkam: The grace of God is that which springs forth naturally in every being all the time. Since knowledge that does not help one to reach the Heart is totally useless, it has been compared to a goat’s fleshy beard. Until one reaches the Heart, the ego will not cease. Hence it has been said, ‘To reach the Heart in such a way [that] … the ego ceases to be’. Any effort to reach the Heart that relies primarily on ego-consciousness will be utterly futile. This is why it has been said, ‘by taking the grace of God to be the primary support’.
The benefit of learning should be nothing less than to dwell upon the gracious feet of the one whose form is the wealth of pure consciousness.
Pandits and scholars
Only those who are dwelling in the land of Atma-swarupa, which is consciousness, the supreme, are scholars. The rest are madmen.
Even though they have acquired knowledge of other things, what have those lowest of people really gained, they who have not learned to enquire into and know the state of the Self in a fitting manner?
He who sees an object as separate from consciousness cannot be a pandit who has known consciousness.
Guru Vachaka Kovai, verse 132, Pozhippurai: Why do many of you who have moved with me call me a pandit? The indispensable mark that should be present as a characteristic of the true pandit is only knowing the one who has studied, right from the beginning, all the arts and sciences that are apart from himself in such a way that they cease, being known to be ignorance.
Guru Vachaka Kovai, verse 133, Pozhippurai: By enquiring deeply within oneself, ‘Who is the one who has known all the arts and sciences?’ the ego that says ‘I am a knowledgeable one’ ceases immediately, without raising its head. Along with it, the knowledge of arts and sciences that was known by the ego also ceases. Only he who has unerringly known, as it really is, his true state, the Self that remains after this enquiry, is a pandit. How can someone with an ego, who has not known the Atma-swarupa, become a pandit?
What can be accomplished by intellectual mastery, which overcomes opponents through clever arguments, humbling them and preventing them from opening their mouths?
Even if one studies and knows in minute detail the subtlest of books, unless there is [nishkamya] punya it will be impossible for the mind to enter the Heart.
‘Punya’ here refers to the merits that come from spiritual practices performed without any thought of a reward.