Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Interview with Swami Dayananda Saraswathi

interviewThe interview that follows was excerpted from over eighty pages of transcripts documenting a series of dialogues between Swami Dayananda and Andrew Cohen in February 1998. What is Advaita? Andrew Cohen: In the last twenty years or so there has been great interest in Advaita in the West, as you know, and it's my impression that there has also been a lot of confusion about this teaching, that it has been very misunderstood and even abused in some cases. We wanted to speak with you so that we could present an authoritative traditional view. So, to begin, could you please explain what the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta is? Swami Dayananda: The word "advaita" is a very important word. It's a word that negates dvaita, which means "two." The "a" is a negative particle, so the meaning would be "that which is nondual." And it reveals the philosophy that all that is here is One, which means that there is nothing other than that One, nor is it made up of any parts. It's a whole without parts, and That they call "Brahman" [the Absolute], and That you are—because the nondual cannot be different from you, the inquirer. If it is different from you, then it is dual; then you are the subject and it is the object. So it has got to be you. And therefore, if you don't recognize that, you'll miss out on being the Whole. AC: Can you please explain the historical background? SD: The Vedas [sacred Hindu scriptures] are the most ancient body of knowledge we have in humanity. And the tradition looks upon the Vedas as not having been authored by any given person, but given to the ancient rishis [seers] as revealed knowledge. It is considered that the Vedas are traced ultimately to the Lord as the source of all knowledge, and it is this body of knowledge that is the source of Advaita. The Upanishads [the concluding portions of the Vedas] talk about God realization—and they not only talk about it, they methodically teach it. What I am doing today is what is taught in the Upanishads. The Upanishads themselves are a teaching and also a teaching tradition. And it's a communicable tradition—there's nothing mystical about it. But I don't think advaita is only in the Vedas; I think it's everywhere—wherever there is the idea, "You are the Whole." That is advaita, whether it is in Sanskrit, Latin or Hebrew. But the advantage in Vedanta is that it can be taught and it is taught. We have created a teaching tradition, and it has grown. Whereas in America, when suddenly people turn vegetarian, for example, all that they have is tofu and alfalfa and a few other things, because there's no tradition of vegetarian cooking. It takes time. You can't create a tradition overnight! AC: Who are considered to be the foremost exponents of the Advaita teachings? SD: There have been a lot of teachers who have maintained this tradition whose names we don't know. But from the Upanishads down we can say: Vyasa, Gaudapada, Shankara, Suresvara—these are the names we repeat every day. But Shankara occupies a central position because of his written commentary. It is the written commentary that gives you the tradition of teaching and the method of teaching, and the method is very important in this tradition: How do you teach? There are a lot of pitfalls in this process, and one of them is the limitation of the language—the linguistic limitation. But the teaching has to be conveyed through words, which means that you must have a method—a method by which you can be sure that the student understands, because the enlightenment takes place as the teaching takes place and not afterwards. That's the tradition. So Shankara occupies an important place because of his commentaries, because he left written commentaries on palm leaves for us. But I wouldn't say that the other teachers were any less important. AC: Before Shankara there were no written commentaries? SD: There were some. In fact, what I'm teaching every morning now is a commentary on one of the Upanishads, by Shankara's own teacher's teacher, Gaudapada. There are a few others also—Vyasa's sutras. These sutras are analytical works in a style of literature that has very brief statements, one after the other, so that you can memorize them. But these, again, are part of the tradition of teaching, so they are always backed up. You write the sutra and then you teach it to a group of people, and these together are what is handed down. Then, when you recite the sutra, you remember what we call "the Tradition." In fact, the whole of Advaita Vedanta is analyzed in the sutras. The Self is already present in all experience AC: Why is it that you feel the study of the scriptures, rather than spiritual experience, is the most direct means to Self-realization? SD: Self-realization, as I said, is the discovery that "the Self is the whole"—that you are the Lord; in fact, you are God, the cause of everything. Now nobody lacks the experience of advaita, of that which is nondual—there's always advaita. But any experience is only as good as one's ability to interpret it. A doctor examining you interprets your condition in one way, a layperson in another. Therefore, you need interpretation, and your knowledge is only as valid as the means of knowledge you are using for that purpose. As the small self, we have no means of knowledge for the direct understanding of Self-realization, and therefore Vedanta is the means of knowledge that has to be employed for that purpose. No other means of knowledge will work because, for this kind of knowledge, our powers of perception and inference alone are not sufficient. So I find that by itself there is nothing more dumb than experience in this world. In fact, it is experience that has destroyed us. AC: It has been my experience as a teacher that for most human beings, generally speaking, simply hearing the teaching is not enough. Usually they do need to have some kind of experience that makes the meaning of the words obvious in a very direct, experiential way. And then the person says, "Oh, my goodness, now I understand! I've heard this for so many years, but now I recognize the truth of it." SD: Yes, but even that experience is useless without the correct interpretation. Suppose your sense of being a separate individual falls away for a moment or ten minutes or even an hour, and then suddenly that apparent duality seems to come back again. Does that mean the one true Self gets displaced? Of course not! Then why should enlightenment require an experience? Enlightenment doesn't depend upon experiences; it depends upon my shedding my error and ignorance—that is what it depends upon, and nothing else. People say that advaita is eternal, that it is timeless, and at the same time they say that they are going through an experience of it at a particular time and under certain conditions. That's not traditional! But that is what we hear everywhere. The tradition says: "What you see right now is advaita." Suppose a fellow has an experience and then he comes out and says, "I was one hour eternal." No time means timeless, and timeless means eternity. Whether it is one hour eternal or one moment eternal, it is always the same. So confidence in truth cannot depend upon a state of experience. Confidence in truth is in your clarity of what is. Otherwise what will happen is, "I was non dual Brahman for one hour and then I came back and now it's gone." Then every thought becomes a nightmare because when I am not in nirvikalpa samadhi [ecstatic absorption in nondual consciousness], then I cannot even relate to the world; I have to be stoned forever, you know? Whereas enlightenment is just knowing what is. That is called sahaja, which means "natural"; it means just seeing clearly. If people insist on having a particular experience, that simply means that they have not understood the teaching. Even right now, for example, we are interpreting our experiences. For example, you are experiencing me right now. AC: True. SD: And your experience seems to reveal two things: one is the subject, the other is the object. But let us suppose that both of them happen to be one reality. AC: All right. SD: Then you don't have any lack of raw material here. The experience of seeing me or seeing anybody, seeing anything or hearing anything, thinking about anything—inside, outside, whatever—that experience is advaita. And if that is so, then we are not lacking experience, and therefore we need not wait for any experience to come. Whatever experience you encounter within yourself, that experience reveals advaita, reveals nonduality. And if your interpretation of that experience is that there is an object other than yourself, then it is your interpretation itself that is duality. Therefore, it's a problem of cognition, and that problem of cognition is to be solved. AC: Cognition of? SD: Of this nondual! Am I talking about something that is absolutely unknown to me? No. Unknown to anyone? Not at all. Right now, for instance, you see me and you say, "Swami is sitting here." How do you know? You say, "Because I see you, I hear you; therefore you are here." Therefore I am evident to you because you have a means of knowing, you have a means of seeing, you have a means of hearing; therefore Swami is. Swami is because he's evident to you, just as anything is because it's evident to you. Sun is, moon is, star is, space is, time is—all these are evident to you. The same is true of your experience of yourself. Suppose I ask you, "Do you have a physical body?" "Yes," you'll say—because it's evident to you. "Do you have any memory of being in such-and-such a place?" Yes—because it's evident to you. To whom are all these evident? To you! To yourself. That means you are self-evident. When are you not self-evident? Tell me—when? It is because you are self-evident that you don't need to become self-evident at any time. All my experiences are because of my self-evidence. Therefore, the Self is already experienced—that's what I say. Self is experienced as the ultimate content of every experience. I say, in fact, that our very experience is the Self. In all experiences, therefore, what is invariably present is consciousness, and no object is independent of that. And consciousness is not dependent on and has none of the attributes of any particular object. Consciousness is consciousness, and while it is in everything, it transcends everything. That's why I say: this is advaita, this is nondual, this is Brahman, this is limitless; timewise it is limitless, spacewise it is limitless. And therefore it is Brahman, and therefore you are everything already. This is the teaching, and what it means is that I need not wait for any experience because every experience is Brahman, every experience is limitless. AC: But this is a subtle point that is not necessarily easy to grasp without some previous direct experience of the nondual. SD: If the person doesn't see, then that means I have to teach further; or maybe they do see but in spite of that they say, "I still have got some cobwebs here or there." But that is not a problem; they just need to be cleared away. First, you have an insight that is knowing, and then, as difficulties arise, we take care of them. I don't say it is not a matter of experience, but I say that experience is always the very nature of yourself. Consciousness is experience, and every experience reveals the fact of your being Self-evident. And what is Self-evident is, by definition, nondual. So subject and object are already the same. Here is a wave, for instance, that has a human mind. It thinks, "I am a small wave." Then it becomes a big wave, swallowing in the process many other waves, and begins boasting, "I am a big wave." Then it loses its form, and again becomes small—files a "Chapter Thirteen," as you say in America, you know, bankruptcy—and now it wants to somehow get to the shore. But from the shore, other waves are pushing into the ocean, and from the ocean, waves are pushing to the shore, and this poor little wave is caught in between, sandwiched, and begins crying, "What shall I do?" There is another wave around, a wave that seems to be very happy, and so the first wave asks him, "How come you are so happy? You also are small—in fact, you are smaller than me! How come you are so happy?" Then another wave says, "He's an enlightened wave." Now the first wave wants to know, "What is enlightenment? What is this enlightenment?" The happy wave says, "Hey, come on! You should know who you are!" "All right. Who am I?" And the enlightened wave says, "You are the ocean." "What?! Ocean? Did you say that I am the ocean, because of all the water by which I am sustained and to which I will go back? That ocean I am?" "Yes, you are the ocean." And he laughs. "How can I be the ocean? That's like saying I am God. The ocean is almighty, it's all-pervasive, it's everything. How can I be the ocean?" So we can dismiss Vedanta's statement of the non dual reality, or we can ask, "How come? How come I am That?" The nondual teaching is not necessary if our identity is obvious, if what is apparent to us is not a difference but an essential nondifference. Here, there is nondifference. There is no wave without water, and there is no ocean without water. Every other wave, and the whole ocean too, is one water alone.

Nondual realization and action in the world AC: One of the subjects I'm very interested in is the relationship between the nondual realization that you've been describing and action in the world of time and space. For example, in the empirical world, in empirical reality, even the realized soul who has no doubt about his true nature finds that he still must take a stand—against, in opposition to—the forces of delusion and negativity operating there. SD: We need not impose a rule like should and must—he may take a stand. AC: May take a stand? SD: Yes. Because once he's free, who is to set rules for him? You see, if he is free enough to do, then he is just as free not to do—that is what I say. He will spontaneously do what he has to do. Perhaps he thinks that everybody is all right. In fact, that's what the truth is. Because until you tell me that you have a problem with me, I don't have a problem with you. AC: But let's say, for example, that the realized soul is sitting in a room and then a killer comes in and starts killing people. Some people might say, "Well, it's all one Self and there's no opposition, so there's no need to interfere." But someone else would say, "I have no choice; I have to interfere." SD: Why should he not interfere? Clearly, at that level, there is hurting— AC: Yes. SD: And maybe he is not even killing, maybe he is only using abusive language. Why should this realized soul not say, "Foolish man, change your language. What are you doing?" So he can help him; he can help him to change. And he can do it without creating any big problem for him; he can be angry without causing anger to this fellow, he can talk to that person and make him see that he is abusive because of his background and help him to change. So that's what he will do. But we cannot say that he should correct. For that, who is to set the rule for me? Suppose one is enlightened; who is to set the rule for that person, for the enlightened person? Nobody has to set the rule, because he is above all the rules. AC: He's above the rules? SD: Yes, he's above the rules and not subject to any rule. Nobody can objectify the Self; there is no second person to objectify the Self. And therefore the Self is not subject to hurt nor guilt, and therefore is free from hurt and guilt. In other words, it is neither a subject nor an object, and if that is so, then "should" does not come into the picture—not even into the picture of empirical transaction—because it's just not an issue. The issue is: Here is a person who has a certain problem and therefore he is abusive, and that person can be helped. So of course he will help! AC: Everything that you're saying obviously is completely true because, ultimately, the nondual cannot be affected and has no preferences. But what I am saying is that there is always a profound effect on the human personality of the one who has realized that nondual, and I'm using this extreme example only to make the point that some criterion has to be there. For example, historically, individuals who have deeply realized this nondual Absolute have expressed sattvic nature, have expressed egolessness. So even though I know that enlightenment takes many forms, and the expression of enlightenment is different in different people, still, fundamentally, there is always an expression of selflessness and compassion which allows us to say that if someone was truly a realized person they would not be able to act in a profoundly self-centered manner. Therefore, there are certainly things a person wouldn't do if he or she was an enlightened person. That's my point. SD: So how will you judge an enlightened person? AC: Well, if he was raping and killing people, then we could at least say, "This is not an enlightened person." Correct? SD: But that doesn't come into the picture anyway because in the traditional system he has to have gone through a life of rigorous moral and spiritual training, and only then is he enlightened, and this fellow has not done that, so clearly he still has some problems. There is a statement, though: "It takes a wise man to know a wise man." If you are a wise man, then you don't need another wise man to become wise; if you are otherwise, you need a wise man, but because you are otherwise, you cannot discern him. So you are in a helpless situation. Therefore, the criterion for a wise man, I tell you finally—the way to find out whether he is wise or not—is if he makes you wise. Then he knows. That is the only criterion, and there is none other because the forms his compassion can assume are very varied, and with all our actions we don't always console people. The Mystic and the Vedantin AC: Shankara and Ramana Maharshi are generally considered to be two of the greatest exponents of Advaita teaching and advaita realization. And yet I've always wondered why Shankara's teaching gave rise to a monastic system in which one is encouraged to renounce the world in order to pursue the spiritual life in earnest, while often when people would ask Ramana Maharshi—who was a renunciate himself—"Master, should I give up the world?" he would encourage them to inquire into the nature of who it was that wanted to give up the world, and discourage them from trying to make any external changes in their lives. SD: Shankara is just a link in the tradition, as I said before. He's not the author of any particular system or monastic order. It's true that he himself was a sannyasi, a renunciate—as a young person he renounced everything—but a sannyasi is different from a monastic. A sannyasi doesn't belong to any monastic order. He is simply a noncompetitor in the society. He is a person who has gained a certain maturity, a certain discriminative understanding, which drives him to pursue spiritual knowledge in a dedicated fashion. In Shankara's time, such a person was absolved from all familial, social and religious duties by a ritual in which he said, "All is given up by me. I don't compete. I'm not interested in money or power or security or in anything else here." That is a sannyasi. He is not a member of an organization or order. There is no monastery to protect that fellow. He's "under the sky." But there is still a deeper level of renunciation which this sannyasi, this renunciate, has to gain, and that is the knowledge that "I am not the doer, I am not the enjoyer, I never did any karma, any action, before"—direct knowledge of the nondual Self, which is also actionlessness. Action is always there as long as doership is there. Even "not-doing" is an action. So the freedom from doership that comes in the wake of knowledge of the Self is not an act of giving up. It is: "I know and therefore I am free. And so there is no choice." This is what is called the real sannyas, the true renunciation of all actions at all times, and that is enlightenment. AC: It's not true that Shankara started a monastic tradition? SD: No, he didn't start any monastic tradition. They said so afterwards, but that was because he was such a popular teacher and because he was a sannyasi. His disciples had maths [monasteries] that they had created, but it wasn't a new order. Some of his disciples were perhaps dispatched to different places, but we don't know whether he sent them or they went. My feeling is they went—he didn't send anybody anywhere. That's how I would be, anyway, if I were Shankara; I'd say, "Go wherever you want!" Now if a small person like me would do that, then I don't think Shankara would have done anything else. So that's one perception taken care of. Then there's Ramana. Some people say that Ramana is the highest, the one who in the modern world has accomplished advaita. That's the perception because he's known to some people, but there could be unknown millions we don't know—some may even be householders, people who are at home, some of them just your ordinary housewives. In India, you know, you can't take these people for granted; some of these women are enlightened. They are! And they may be housewives, mothers of ten children. We don't know. India is a different country. There are no criteria to find out whether this person is enlightened or not. And so Ramana is said to be enlightened, but we should ask him, "Are you enlightened?" And he will say, "Why do you want to know? Who are you who wants to know? Find out who you are." He discovered this way of speaking with people that did not require him to answer any questions. One fellow comes and asks, "What is God?" and he answers, "Who are you that is asking this question?" This is a way of answering questions that he adopted as an attempt to turn the person toward himself. Therefore, his attention was not toward any particular style of living. He neither encouraged sannyas nor anything else. He was only telling people: "Understand who you are. That's what is important." AC: In fact, if people would say that they wanted to leave their family and take sannyas, he would discourage that. SD: Every sannyasi will say the same thing, because otherwise all those people would end up in the ashram! Certainly I would say the same thing in this case, because anybody who says, "I want to give up everything," has got a problem. AC: Why? SD: Because he's doubtful! If he were not doubtful he would have left already; he wouldn't have come and asked me. Because the mango fruit, when it is ripe, falls down; it doesn't ask, "Shall I fall down?" Ramana was not dumb; he knew exactly what he had to say. If I were he, do you know what I would have said? I would advise the person, "Hey, come on, you need not change anything. Be where you are; it's a change of vision." Even Shankara would say the same thing. Shankara had only four disciples. He traveled up and down this country on foot, which means he met thousands of people, yet he had only four disciples! That means he was advising everybody, "Stay where you are." AC: Yet at the same time, from what we have heard, both Jesus and the Buddha encouraged people to leave everything and follow them in order to pursue the spiritual life. So this is an intriguing question. SD: They encouraged, they encouraged—I don't know what for. Perhaps they wanted people to spend time with themselves. But the value of a contemplative life has always been there in the Vedic tradition, and a contemplative life can be lived anywhere. And you can be in the midst of all activities in the contemplative life, or you can be alone and not contemplative at all. AC: In one of your books, you make a distinction between a mystic and a Vedantin. When referring, for example, to Ramana Maharshi as a mystic, you seem to be distinguishing him in some way from a Vedantin, and since many people consider him to be the quintessence of Vedanta, I'm curious to know what that distinction is. SD: The only difference here is that a mystic has no means of communication to make you a mystic, an equally great mystic as himself. AC: To clear up empirical confusion—is that what you mean? SD: Yes. Suppose this mystic has got the knowledge of his being always All—that kind of a mystic's experience. So that person is a mystic, but he has no means of communication to share that experience. If he has a means of communication by which to make another person equally a mystic, then there is nothing mystical about what he knows. Therefore, I will not call him a "mystic"; I will call him a "Vedantin." AC: In Ramana's case, everybody said that he communicated through silence. SD: Again, this is an interpretation, because there are a lot of people I know who went to him and then came back saying that he didn't know anything. AC: But there are also many people who said that they had profound experiences in his presence. SD: Each one has to interpret in his own way. But we can only say someone is a Vedantin as long as they teach Vedanta!

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