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Vedantic Meditation

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  • Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati
    From the Book: Vedantic Meditation By David Frawley INTRODUCTION TO VEDANTA The first teachers who brought Yoga to the West came with the profound teachings of
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      From the Book:
      Vedantic Meditation
      By David Frawley


      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 teachers—for 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


      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
      and death.

      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
      ongoing transformations.

      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.

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