- Oct 21, 2005From the Book:
By David Frawley
INTRODUCTION TO VEDANTA
The first teachers who brought Yoga to the West came with the
profound teachings of Vedanta as their greatest treasure to share
with the world. They presented Vedanta as the philosophy of Self-
realization and Yoga as the methodology by which to achieve it. Such
great masters began with Swami Vivekananda at the end of the
nineteenth century and continued with Swami Rama Tirtha, Paramahansa
Yogananda, and the many disciples of Swami Shivananda of Rishikesh.
They called their teaching Yoga-Vedanta, which they viewed as a
complete science of spiritual growth.
However, in the course of time asana or yoga postures gained more
popularity in the physically-minded West, and the Vedantic aspect of
the teachings fell to the sidelines, particularly over the last
twenty years. The result is that today few American Yoga teachers
know what Vedanta is or can explain it to others. If they have an
interest in meditation they generally look to Zen or Vipassana, not
knowing that meditation is the very foundation of classical Yoga and
its related traditions.
Even students of related disciplines like Ayurveda or Vedic astrology
may know little about Vedanta, the path of self-knowledge that is the
spiritual support and goal of these systems. Meanwhile, those who
study the great Vedantic gurus of modern India, like Ramana Maharshi
or Nisargadatta Maharaj, generally look at the particular teacher as
the source of the teachings, and they may fail to understand the
tradition that they are part of. In this way the heart teachings of
India's great sages have become progressively lost even to those who
claim to follow their teachings in the West.
The great sages of modern India were all Vedantins. Most notable is
Ramana Maharshi, who emphasized the non-dualistic form of Vedanta and
lived a life of direct Self-realization. Ramakrishna, Aurobindo,
Anandamayi Ma, Nityananda, and Neem Karoli Baba, to mention but a
few, were Vedantins, using the Vedantic terminology of Self-
realization and God-realization. Vedantic traditions remain strong
throughout India today, including many great teachersfor example,
the different Shankaracharyas, who have never come to the West and
are almost unknown here.
Current major teachers from India like Ma Amritanandamayi (Ammachi)
and Satya Sai Baba similarly use the language of Vedanta and its
emphasis on the Self. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Transcendental
Meditation follows a Vedantic view of consciousness and cosmic
evolution. Swami Rama, the founder of the Himalayan Institute, was
another important Vedantic teacher in America. The main Hatha Yoga
teachers in recent times, like Krishnamacharya of Madras or B.K.S.
Iyengar, follow Vedantic teachings for the higher aspects of Yoga.
Devotional approaches like the Hari Krishna movement reflect Vedantic
devotional teachings. Without an understanding of Vedanta, therefore,
it is difficult to understand these great teachers or their words to
THE PHILOSOPHY OF VEDANTA
Vedanta is a simple philosophy. It says that our true Self, what it
calls the Atman, is God. "I am God" (aham brahmasmi) is the supreme
truth. The same consciousness that resides at the core of our being
pervades the entire universe. To know ourselves is to know God and to
become one with all. Vedanta is a philosophy of Self-realization, and
its practice is a way of Self-realization through yoga and meditation.
Vedanta has a theistic side, recognizing a cosmic creator (Ishvara)
who rules over the universe through the law of karma. God is the
supreme teacher, the highest guru from whom all true teachings arise
by the power of the divine word. Vedantic theism takes many forms
such as the worship of Shiva, Vishnu, and the Goddess. In fact, it
can accommodate almost any form of theism that accepts karma and
But in non-dualistic (Advaita) Vedanta, the Creator is not the
ultimate reality. The ultimate reality is the Absolute, called
Brahman, which transcends time, space and causation, standing above
any personal creator. Our individual Self or soul (Atman) is one with
the Absolute or Brahman, which is the supreme Self (Paramatman). The
soul is not merely a part of the Creator but is one with the ground
of Being-Consciousness-Bliss from which even the Creator arises.
Because of its emphasis on the Self and its recognition of many forms
of theism, Vedanta lies behind the tolerance and syncretic tendency
that exists in the Hindu religion. Because Hindus see religion as a
vehicle for Self-knowledge they can accept many different sages, holy
books and spiritual paths both inside their traditions and outside of
them. Hinduism has always defined itself as Sanatana Dharma, "the
universal or eternal dharma", which encompasses all dharmas and all
possible spiritual paths. Many systems of Vedanta exist as well, with
various philosophical differences among them covering all major views
of God and consciousness. Vedanta, therefore, is not a closed but an
open system that honors the Self in all beings and does not reduce it
to any particular formula, personality or dogma.
Vedanta is the oldest and most enduring spiritual teaching in India.
It is fully emergent in the Upanishads and synthesized in the
Bhagavad Gita. But it has ancient antecedents in Vedic literature,
which recent archaeological finds now date to 3500 BCE, when the
ancient Indus-Saraswati culture flourished throughout North India.
The main terms and practices of Vedanta exist already in the cryptic
mantras of the ancient Vedas that go back to the dawn of recorded
Reflecting the inner truth of the ancient Vedas, Vedanta is perhaps
the oldest and most enduring spiritual teaching in the world.
Spirituality, after all, is a pursuit of self-knowledge, not merely
religious ritual or philosophy. Vedanta is the most characteristic
philosophy of India and pervades most of the teachings of the land.
Even modern movements like Sikh Dharma reflect the Vedantic idea that
the individual soul is one with God.
Vedanta literally means "the end of the Vedas" but more appropriately
it refers to the essence of the Vedas. From the standpoint of great
yogis like Sri Aurobindo, the Vedas present the truth of Vedanta in a
poetic-mantric language, while Vedanta presents Vedic mantric
knowledge in the form of a rational philosophy. The wisdom hidden in
the mantras of the ancient Rishis shines forth in the clear insight
approaches of Vedanta.
Vedanta in the form of the early Upanishads preceded Buddhism by some
centuries in India, perhaps by over a thousand years. Vedanta and
Buddhism have much in common as ways of spiritual knowledge born of
the Indic tradition. Many scholars see Buddhism as a modification of
Vedanta, while others see it as a revolt against Vedanta. Vedanta
eventually absorbed Buddhism in India, which by the seventh century
had ceased to be a major religion in the country. Vedantic teachers
accepted the figure of the Buddha as an incarnation (avatara) of Lord
Vishnu, like Rama and Krishna, but rejected portions of Buddhist
philosophy, particularly its denial of the existence of a creator.
Vedanta and Buddhism share ideas of karma, rebirth, and release from
the cycle of rebirth (samsara). They have similar practices of mantra
and meditation. They follow the same ethical disciplines of non-
violence (ahimsa) and vegetarianism, and both religious systems have
well-developed monastic orders. Relative to their views of truth, the
Mahayana form of Buddhism and Advaita (non-dualistic) Vedanta have a
similar emphasis on the Absolute and regard the phenomenal world as
maya or illusion.
Like Zen Buddhism, non-dualistic Vedanta emphasizes the Self or Self-
nature as the supreme Reality. It honors that Self in the world of
nature; thus its great Swamis retire into the forests for a life of
meditation. Vedantic teachers laud the great beauty of nature,
revealed through mountains such as the Himalaya, as reflections of
our true being beyond the illusions of the world.
Dhyana, the Sanskrit term for meditation used by Hindus and Buddhists
alike, first arises in Vedic literature. The Upanishads say, "By the
Yoga of meditation (Dhyana Yoga) the sages saw the Divine Self-power,
hidden in its own qualities" (Shvetasvatara Upanishad I.2). Another
Upanishad states, "Meditate on Om as the Self" (Katha Upanishad
II.5), showing the technique of mantra meditation.
Perhaps the most eloquent explication of meditation occurs in the
Chandogya, one of the oldest Upanishads. "Meditation (Dhyana) indeed
is greater than the mind. The earth as it were meditates. The
atmosphere as it were meditates. Heaven as it were meditates. The
waters as it were meditate. The mountains as it were meditate. Both
men and gods as it were meditate. He who worships God (Brahman) as
meditation, as far as meditation extends, so far does he gain the
power to act as he wills" (Chandogya Upanishad VII.7).
According to Vedanta, liberation can be achieved only through
spiritual knowledge, which requires meditation. Other factors, such
as good works or rituals, are merely aids in the process. But such
liberating knowledge is not any ordinary or conceptual knowledge. It
is direct insight into one's own nature of pure consciousness.
Vedanta's main approach is threefold: hearing the teaching with a
receptive mind (shravana), deep thinking about it (manana), and
meditating on it consistently (nididhyasana) until full realization
dawns, which is a state of samadhi or transcendent awareness. Such
hearing is not simply noting the words of the teachings; it involves
a deep inner listening with an open mind and heart. Such thinking
requires full concentration and a firm intent to understand oneself.
Such meditation is a repeated practice of self-examination and self-
remembrance throughout the day as one's primary mental state.
Vedanta is a yoga of knowledge or a path of meditation. But it
recognizes that other yogic paths are helpful, if not indispensable
adjuncts, particularly the path of devotion (Bhakti Yoga), which
takes us directly to the Divine presence in the heart. Vedanta
employs all the limbs of classical yoga from asana to samadhi, using
all methods of the yogas of knowledge, devotion, service and
technique, depending upon the needs of the student.
Generally Vedanta does not prescribe any particular form of
meditation en masse or give the same technique to everyone.
Emphasizing the Self, it recommends different methods relative to the
level and temperament of each person and according to his or her
unique nature and life circumstances. For this reason Vedantic
meditation is hard to characterize and defies any stereotype. There
is no standard formula for it. However, there are a number of common
approaches, particularly the practice of Self-inquiry that this book
highlights. Yet Self-inquiry is also applied on an individual basis,
in which its methods can vary greatly from one person to another.
Vedantic meditation is not only diverse but generally private,
emphasizing individual practice more than group practice. Its model
is the wandering sadhu in solitary retreat, rather than the monk in a
big monastery. However, meditation sessions do occur as part of the
satsangs or gatherings that are common in the tradition. These may
extend over a period of days or weeks. Yet those participating in
such sessions may practice different forms of meditation, based upon
the specific instructions of their teachers.
Buddhist meditation aims to return to the natural state of the mind,
which is regarded as the enlightened state. This occurs through
negating the self or ego and awakening the Buddha-mind (Bodhichitta).
Vedanta, on the other hand, is based on a clear distinction between
the mind (manas), which is regarded as a product of ignorance or
maya, and the Self (Atman), which transcends the mind. The Vedantic
way is to dissolve the mind into the Self which is our true nature
beyond the mind and its conditioning.
This Vedantic emphasis on the Self is perhaps its main
characteristic, as well as its main difference from Buddhism. While
Vedanta approaches pure awareness as the Self or Atman, Buddhism
prefers the term anatman or non-self. This Vedantic emphasis on the
Self finds an echo in Western mystical traditions like Gnosticism,
which influenced early Christianity, and Islamic Sufism; all refer to
God as the Self or the supreme I-am. This Western tradition of the
Self dates at least back to the Biblical revelation of God as I-am-
that-I-am to Moses, but it was generally obscured by a greater
emphasis on monotheism as the highest truth. We also find such
utterances of the Divine I am in pagan traditions, like those of the
Celts, Greeks and Egyptians, which have many factors in common with
Vedanta's theism, honoring the Divine Father and Mother, is another
point of difference from Buddhism, which does not recognize the
existence of any Creator apart from karma. Vedantic theism has some
connections with the theistic traditions of the West, though it is
more diverse and gives a greater place to the Goddess.
With its theistic side Vedanta recognizes surrender to the Divine as
a primary method of spiritual practice along with Self-inquiry. By
surrender to the Divine within our hearts we can go beyond all our
difficulties and limitations. Yet surrender, though easy to conceive,
is also a difficult process because it requires giving up the ego and
all of our fears and desires that go with it. To facilitate this way
of surrender is added chanting of Divine names and other devotional
forms of worship. These can also be practiced along with knowledge-
oriented techniques like Self-inquiry.
In the Vedanta we approach the Creator as a means of discovering our
true Self, in which both the soul and God are one. Union with God is
part of the process of Self-realization. The Deity worshipped is
ultimately the same as oneself and we must come to see it in all
beings. Until we see the Divine beloved within our own heart, our
devotion has not yet reached its highest goal.
Vedanta postulates certain ultimate principles of the Absolute, God,
the Soul, and Nature. It recognizes the supreme reality as Being,
Consciousness, and Bliss (called Satchidananda), which is eternal and
infinite. In this regard Vedanta follows an idealistic philosophy
much like the Greek philosophies of Plato, Plotinus or Parmenides.
Part of Vedantic meditation is contemplating these higher principles
for example meditating, on the formless Absolute and its laws
(dharmas) behind the world of nature.
Meditation on the oneness of all is another important Vedantic
approach. Vedanta sees pure unity or oneness as the supreme principle
in existence. It recognizes a single law or dharma governing the
entire universe. Whatever we do to others we do to ourselves because
there is really only one Self in all. This is also the basis of
Vedantic ethics that emphasize non-violence and compassion, treating
others not like our self but as our Self.
Vedantic meditation aims at returning us to this original state of
unity, in which all beings abide in the Self within the heart. While
Vedanta like Buddhism does recognize the Void, stating the Self is
like space, it holds that the Self pervades even the Void and
witnesses it. For this reason Vedanta seldom regards the Void as the
ultimate principle and emphasizes the unity of Pure Being more than
Vedanta does not neglect the psychological side, either. Like most
Indian spiritual systems, its purpose is to show us how to
permanently overcome all suffering. Vedantic meditation involves
meditating upon suffering and removing its cause. Vedanta regards
ignorance of our true Self as the cause of all our life problems.
Because we don't know our true Self, which is pure awareness beyond
the body and mind, we must suffer, seeking to find happiness in the
shifting external world. By returning to our true Self we can
transcend psychological suffering and detach ourselves from any
possible physical suffering as well. The pain of body and mind do not
belong to the Self that is beyond time and space.
Vedanta has a profound understanding of the different layers and
functions of the mind, from what we call the unconscious to the
highest superconsciousness, for which it has a precise terminology.
It recognizes the role of samskaras, the tendencies created in
previous births, as causing our present condition and its
difficulties as well as rewards. Vedanta sees fear and desire as the
main roots of the mind that get us caught in the cycle of rebirth. It
regards the ego or the false I, the I identified with the body, as
the basis of these problems. Another part of Vedantic meditation is
clearing our minds of the afflictions and karmic residues that block
the practice of meditation. This involves affirming our true Self,
which is the master of the Universe beyond all fear and desire, birth
Vedanta recommends regular meditation for everyone, particularly
during the hour or two before dawn, which it calls Brahma Muhurta or
the hour of God. Sunrise and sunset are other important times for
meditation because at these transitional periods in nature, energy
can be more easily transformed. The times of the new, full and half
moons are also excellent, as are the solstice and equinoctial points.
Meditation is part of the very rhythm of life and nature and its
Very important for meditation is the period immediately before sleep
in order to clear the day's karma from the mind. Vedanta regards the
deep sleep state as the doorway to the Self, our natural daily return
to God. Its practices develop our awareness through waking and dream
to deep sleep and beyond. Deep sleep is the knot of ignorance; when
it is removed through meditation, we can discover our true nature and
eternal peace. Maintaining awareness through dream and deep sleep is
an important and ancient Vedantic approach.
Vedanta is perhaps the world's oldest continuous meditation
tradition. Like our eternal soul, it witnesses all the changes of
time and history. It takes on new forms and inspires new teachers in
every generation. Such an ancient and diverse meditation tradition is
of great importance for all those who wish to understand what
meditation really is and how best to practice it.