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Preface and Introduction


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Self Knowledge
Swami Nikhilananda
A translation with notes of Sankaracharya's ( AD 788 - 820 ) timeless masterpiece. "The introduction is a wonderful piece of exposition."
W. Somerset Maugham

ISBN 0-911206
11-6 248 pgs. Cloth $16.00


Cloth $ 16.00



The Atmabodha, or Self-Knowledge, is a short treatise on Advaita Vedanta, the philosophy of Nondualistic Vedanta. It consists of only sixty-eight verses in melodious Sanskrit and is believed to have been composed by Sankaracharya, the great philosopher of Non-dualism.

According to the generally accepted modern view, Sankaracharya, or Sankara, was born during the eighth century after Christ, in the village of Kaladi on the west coast of south India. He belonged to the simple, scholarly, and industrious Nambudri sect of brahmins of Malabar. After completing the study of the Vedas, he renounced the world at an early age in quest of Truth and was initiated into the monastic life by the great ascetic Govindapada. Presently he devoted himself to the practice of spiritual austerities, meditation, and yoga. Before long Sankara's spiritual genius and intellectual acumen were acknowledged by the leading philosophers of India. He engaged himself in reforming the Sanatana Dharma, the Eternal Religion of the Hindus, and with that end in view wrote commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita, the Brahma-sutras, and the principal Upanishads. He became the personification of the wisdom of the Vedas. He traveled the length and breadth of India, preaching the divinity of the soul and the oneness of existence. Before his death at the age of thirty-two at Kedarnath, in the Himalayas, Sankara had established monasteries at Sringeri (Mysore) in the south, Puri in the east, Dwaraka (Kathiawad) in the west, and Joshi Math (the Himalayas) in the north, and had placed four of his gifted disciples, each well versed in one of the four Vedas, in charge of them. He reorganized the ancient Vedic order of sannyasis and assigned to it the spiritual leadership of Hindu society.

Sankara lived during the decadent period of Buddhism. Hinduism was beginning to reassert itself but true leadership was lacking. The country was honeycombed with conflicting sects; a spiritual confusion reigned everywhere and people were perplexed. Sankara's work, at this critical time, was the salvation of the Vedic culture. He met opponents from other schools in open debates, refuted their views, and re-established the supremacy of Non-dualistic Vedanta. In the midst of his ceaseless activities he found time to write small philosophical treatises and compose hymns in praise of the Hindu deities in order to quicken the longing of aspirants after the spiritual life. In him one finds the unusual combination of philosopher and poet, savant and saint, mystic and religious reformer, debater of rare forensic power and passionate lover of God.

There exist three great misconceptions regarding Sankara's philosophy, both in India and in the West. The first of these is that he discourages the performance of duties and advocates the discipline of non-action for the realization of Truth. Sankara's position regarding action and the performance of duties may be briefly stated. The nature of Atman, or the Soul, is Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute. It is the very embodiment of Peace, Desirelessness, Perfection, Truth, Beauty, Infinity, and Eternity. On account of maya, or ignorance, man has forgotten his true nature and finds himself entangled in the relative world of good and evil, pain and pleasure, life and death, and the other pairs of opposites. From the cradle to the grave, the unillumined soul engages in ceaseless action, striving to shun evil and realize the good. But his activities are influenced by love and hate, attachment and aversion, and he hopes to experience, through action, infinite and eternal happiness in the outside world. He roams aimlessly in samsara, the world of change and becoming, rising or falling according to the results of his action. Only gradually does he discover the impossibility of attaining abiding happiness through work associated with I-consciousness and the desire for results. Infinite blessedness is not possible through any finite action governed by the law of cause and effect. Then he learns from his teacher and the scriptures that karma (work) in order to produce a spiritual effect, must be performed as yoga; that is to say, the doer must regard himself as an instrument in the hand of God, surrender to God the results of action, and remain unruffled by love or hate. Work performed in this spirit purifies the heart and makes it inclined to the cultivation of meditation and Self-Knowledge. Gradually, outer action drops away, reduced to a minimum sufficient only for the maintenance of the body. The actor remains satisfied with what comes of its own accord, without feeling attachment to the agreeable or aversion for the disagreeable, devoting himself heart and soul to the contemplation of Atman, which is the sole Reality. By means of Knowledge, or Jnana he at last realizes the true nature of the Soul, attains peace, and is liberated from the endless suffering of the world. The liberated man engages in service to humanity, but his activities are quite different from those of an unillumined person. He is free from I-consciousness and the longing for results. He never loses the knowledge of Atman. In his actions he recognizes the influence of the gunas, which constitute man's physical nature. At their bidding the organs perform actions; but the Soul is always immersed in peace. Thus, though appearing to be active, he is really actionless. He sees non-action in action. If the Soul is identified with action even to the slightest degree, It has not realized Its true nature.

Secondly, it is contended, especially in the West, that because of Sankara's staunch loyalty to the Non-dualistic ideal of Brahman, or the Absolute, he is an enemy of the gods and goddesses of popular religion. Undoubtedly he held Ultimate Reality to be beyond name and form and of the nature of Pure Consciousness. He also stated that the direct method for realization of Brahman is not worship, but the path of knowledge, which consists in hearing the instruction of a teacher, reflecting on its meaning, and lastly, meditating with single-minded devotion on Truth. Philosophical discrimination (viveka) and renunciation of the unreal (vairagya) constitute for Sankara the basic disciplines for realization of Brahman. Yet he was aware that few aspirants are strong enough to climb this steep path. The majority require a tangible symbol of Truth, anthropomorphic or otherwise, and also a human relationship with a Personal God. For them prayer and supplication form an indispensable part of worship. Out of compassion for these seekers Sankara composed many hymns in praise of such popular deities of Hinduism as Siva, Vishnu, and the Divine Mother. As one reads these hymns, one is impressed by the magnanimity of Sankara, who, having attained the highest vision of the Absolute, brought himself down to the level of ordinary worshippers smitten with the idea of many transgressions, assumed their attitude of insignificance and helplessness, and prayed to the Lord for grace to attain liberation from the many miseries of earthly life. These hymns are recited daily by countless devotees all over India at times of prayer and worship. A few of them are given in the Appendix of the present volume, along with several others of a Non-dualistic nature. They will demonstrate the grand sweep of Sankara's mind. Through all the hymns, dualistic or monistic, is expressed the longing of the devotee for freedom from ignorance, which alone is responsible for suffering in all its forms. Even in his theistic hymns Sankara never permits one to forget that Brahman alone is the foundation of all relative ideas and that the effulgence of Pure Consciousness radiates through the vesture of name and form. The devotee catches a glimpse of the Absolute through the form of the Personal God, who is the highest manifestation of the Infinite that a finite mind can comprehend on the relative plane. Sankara reiterates this principle in his philosophy. The beginner learns the art of concentration through worship of the Personal God (Saguna Brahman) and acquires purity of heart through performance of unselfish duties. Endowed then with concentration and purity, he sets himself to the task of acquiring the Knowledge of Brahman and realizes, in the end, the Impersonal Absolute. Sankara initiated the worship of Sakti, or the Divine Mother, in his monasteries.

Thirdly, it is said by some of Sankara's Western critics that he moved away from the teachings of the seers of the Upanishads. The Upanishads, these critics contend, hold forth an optimistic and affirmative view of life, whereas Sankara, through his doctrine of maya, describes the world as a snare and a delusion. His philosophy is regarded by them as pessimistic and negative. That this charge is without foundation will be realized by readers of the Introduction and the text of this book. It is to Sankara's everlasting glory that he points out, through unimpeachable reasoning, the spiritual nature of the world and the individual soul. Sankara takes every opportunity to insist that the true essence of man and the universe is Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute. It is only when the individual sees a difference between Brahman and himself and the universe that he becomes a victim of fear, suffering, and misery. The characterization of deluding names and forms as maya, and the injunction to renounce the unreal as a means to realization of Truth, are not new ideas of Sankara's but are both explicit and implicit in the Upanishads.

I have deemed it necessary to write a rather lengthy Introduction to the present book in order to give an outline of Non-dualistic Vedanta philosophy. Many things discussed therein may be unfamiliar to the average Western reader and therefore difficult to comprehend; but with a little labour and concentration the contents will become intelligible. It will be helpful to understand the method by which the startling conclusions of Vedanta have been reached. Some of these, such as the ideas of the divinity of the Soul and the reality of the Absolute, have become part of common human knowledge. Yet Western scholars often think that Brahman is either a dogma of the Hindu theologians or the private experience of the Vedantic mystics, and that it can never be proved by the rational and experimental methods of philosophy. Vedantists, on the other hand, contend that Brahman is neither a dogma of religion nor a private mystical experience, but a metaphysical truth based upon universal reason and experience. Vedanta is a systematic philosophy and aims at the demonstration of Ultimate Reality with as much reason as can possibly be brought to the understanding of the problems of transcendental Truth. A careful study of Vedanta will reveal that it not only makes room for many conflicting opinions of intellectual philosophers, but also dares to indicate their ultimate synthesis.

Vedanta is the foundation of the spiritual culture of India. It has kept Hindu society alive for the past seven thousand years. It is the philosophy of all the important religious sects and groups. In its various phases Vedanta represents the progressive thought of man, beginning with Dualism, passing through Qualified Non-dualism, and ending in absolute Non-dualism, the doctrine of the total identity of the subject and object, beyond which human reason, thought, and experience cannot go.


The conclusions of the Non-dualistic philosophy are epitomized in four statements, the importance of which is felt as keenly today as when they were first revealed to the ancient Indo-Aryan seers living on the banks of the Indus and the Ganges. They are, namely, the divinity of the Soul, the unity of existence, the Oneness of the Godhead, and the harmony of religions.

Every soul is divine, though, during the state of ignorance, it remains oblivious of its spiritual nature. While sojourning in the relative world it assumes various bodies and identifies itself with them. It is then regarded as a finite creature. But in the heart of every individual the divine light shines with undiminished lustre. Hence all men are entitled to our respect. The divinity of the Soul is the unshakable spiritual basis of democracy, self-determination, freedom, and other aspirations of modern minds. Even a noble human ideal, when guided only by expediency, can be an instrument of oppression and exploitation.

The unity of existence is the foundation of all ethical codes. Properly understood, it widens the bounds of charity beyond humanity to include the animal world as well. Self-love is the mainspring of man's action and the raison d'etre of his love for others. We learn from Non-dualistic Vedanta that the true Self of man is the Self of all beings. Therefore self-love finds its expression and fulfillment in love for all. The Golden Rule of Christianity can be rationally understood and appreciated only when it is realized that by hurting others one really hurts oneself and, conversely, that by making others happy one brings happiness to oneself. Without consciousness of the unity of existence, ethics becomes a mere device for makeshift adjustments among conflicting interests; and when these interests are at any time seriously threatened, the ethical codes break down. Without a spiritual sanction, justice is in the interest of the strong.


The Oneness of the Godhead is well emphasized in the statement of the Vedas: "Truth is One, but the sages call It by various names." These names, honoured and worshipped by the various religions, are but symbols which enable finite minds to grasp the Infinite. The deities they designate are so many facets of the ineffable Reality, which is One. What is needed is steadfast loyalty to one's own ideal, and positive respect, not mere toleration, for the ideals of others.

Religion is not the goal but only a path by means of which the aspirant attains ultimate perfection. Different religions are necessary to suit different minds at varying levels of evolution. All religions are working for the good of mankind. Each religion takes up, as it were, one part of the great Universal Truth and spends its whole force in embodying and typifying it. The much sought-for Universal Religion has always been in existence. It runs through all the various religions in the form of God-consciousness, which is the foundation of them all. Truth is the thread that holds together the pearls of the different faiths. Therefore religion should emphasize harmony and not dissension, unity and not discord, love and not hate, friendship and not enmity.

The Introduction that I have written is based on the Vedantasara (The Essence of Vedanta), by Sadananda, who probably lived during the middle of the fifteenth century. Important materials have also been taken from the Drig-drisya Viveka (The Discrimination between the Seer and the Seen) and Sankara's immortal Vivekachudamani (The Crest-jewel of Discrimination). I have used the English translation of the latter by Swami Madhavananda. All these books are considered by orthodox Hindus to be authoritative treatises on Non-dualistic Vedanta.

The notes and explanations given with the text are based on the traditional interpretation of Vedanta. Vedantic writers have always used analogies and illustrations to explain their points; for the subject matter is of a supersensuous nature and cannot always be adequately explained by reason. These illustrations, culled from the daily experiences of life, help to bring home the Truth.

I am indebted to Mr. Joseph Campbell for revising and editing the manuscript, and to Mr. John Moffitt, Jr. for assistance in translating the hymns given in the Appendix. I am also grateful to Swami Satprakashananda for many valuable suggestions.

The very name of the book - Atmabodha, or Self-Knowledge - suggests its perennial interest and universal value. Self-Knowledge is vital. All other forms of knowledge are of secondary importance; for a man's action, feeling, reasoning, and thinking are dependent upon his idea of the Self. His view of life will be either materialistic or spiritual according to his conception of himself. If he regards himself as a physical creature, and his soul (provided he believes in such a thing) as subservient to material ends, then he is a materialist; he follows the ideal of material happiness, devoting himself to the attainment of power and the enjoyment of material pleasures. Whenever a large number of people follow such an ideal, society becomes materialistic and there ensue bloodshed, war, and destruction. If, on the other hand, a man regards himself as a spiritual entity and believes that his material body should be utilized to serve a spiritual end, then he is spiritual. He follows the path of unselfishness, consecration, and love, and thus becomes a force to promote peace and happiness for all. Therefore it behooves everyone to cultivate Self-Knowledge at all times. Self-Knowledge serves the practical purpose of destroying pain and suffering (which are always caused by ignorance of the Self) and also the positive end of helping everyone enjoy supreme peace and blessedness here and always.



September 11, 1944





(Vedanta: Its Theory and Practice)


A study of the early philosophical and religious writings of the Hindus indicates that the Indo-Aryans, who lived in ancient times in the valleys of the Indus and the Ganges, were keen and thoughtful observers of both the outer and the inner world. One of the things that greatly impressed them was the changeability of everything in Nature. Oceans, mountains, rivers; trees, plants, herbs; birds, animals, insects; the sun, the moon, the stars-in short, all animate and inanimate objects - are subject to the law of change. And this is equally true of the states of the mind. Happiness is followed by suffering, joy by sorrow, serenity by restlessness, courage by fear, exaltation by depression. Of every experience, both subjective and objective, it may be truly said, "Even this shall pass away." And so a question naturally was raised: Is change itself the ultimate reality, or is there an unchanging essence, the ground of all change?

Like change, suffering, too, was observed to be a universal phenomenon. No one escapes its cruel jaws. Rich and poor, high and low, old and young, learned and ignorant, righteous and unrighteous: all embodied beings suffer. Asked by a king about the meaning of life, a sage once replied, "A man is born, he suffers, and he dies."

Sorrow, indeed, is the price of our birth on earth. It afflicts a man's body or his mind. It may be caused by other human beings, by the denizens of the animal world, or by such uncontrollable cosmic phenomena as rain and drought, heat and cold, earthquake and storm.

Twenty-five hundred years ago a great Indian seer Buddha, the Enlightened One - declared that if all the tears that had flowed from human eyes since the beginning of creation were gathered together, they would exceed the waters of the ocean. The four Noble Truths which he discovered and announced as the basis of his religion are all related to suffering: its existence, the cause of its existence, its cessation, and the way leading to its cessation. Any glimpses of happiness that may seem to brighten our days on earth are both fugitive and deceptive. Every enjoyment is marred by a haunting fear. The rich are afraid of thieves' the beautiful' of deformity, the healthy of disease, the learned of rivals, the aristocrats of dishonour, the virtuous of slander. Yet man somehow forgets this truth in the rhapsody of his fear-haunted and momentary happiness.

To illustrate the illusive nature of human happiness Buddha narrated the vivid story of a man who, while roaming in the forest, was discovered and hotly pursued by a tiger. He suddenly came to the brink of a deep precipice. The ugly beast was about to pounce. With only a split second for decision, the man perceived a vine hanging down the cliff and, catching hold of it, gave a jump. But the creeper was not long enough to land him on the ground. Looking down, he beheld, just below him, a second tiger, almost within reach, viewing him with glowering eyes. The first, meanwhile, was still roaring at him from above. And then, as though his circumstances were not precarious enough, two mice, one black and one white, began to gnaw at the vine that he was clutching for his very life. It was then that he spied a strawberry growing on the side of the cliff, ripe and luscious, and just within his reach. He stretched forth his hand, plucked the fruit, put it in his mouth, and exclaimed with delight, "Ah! How perfectly delicious! "

If all our joy on earth is momentary and illusory, what is the basis of the illusion? Can there be illusion without a background or substratum? And how may one put an end to the suffering and attain peace? Or is there any peace?

The ubiquitous presence of death stirred the thoughts of the ancient Hindus. Does death mean the complete annihilation of a man, or is there something within him that survives the destruction of his body? And if death puts an end to the whole man, then why is he born at all? What purpose does one serve on earth if the flame of life is snuffed out at a tender age? What is the meaning of death and how is it related to life? Is there any way to overcome it?

The early Indo-Aryans had an insatiable appetite for knowledge. Nothing short of omniscience would satisfy them. One reads in the Vedas of a disciple who asked his teacher, "What is it, revered sir, by the knowing of which everything in the universe can be known?" Like the Greek philosophers, the Hindus first hoped to win knowledge by the analysis of external Nature. Extraordinarily detailed and poetical descriptions of the objects of nature appear in the ancient Vedic literature. But after a time the futility of such an effort to gain omniscience became apparent. One cannot adequately know an infinitesimal part of the earth through the study even of a whole lifetime. And there spread before our vision the sun, the moon, and the stars without number.

Presently, however, a clue was found to the solution of the mystery of knowledge. The Hindu philosophers observed that by knowing the nature of clay one knows the nature of everything made of clay, by knowing the nature of iron or gold one knows the nature of everything made of iron or gold. Is there not likewise, they asked, something that is the basic material of the universe, by the knowing of which everything in the universe will be known?

The Chhandogya Upanishad describes a dialogue between Narada and Sanatkumara. Narada approached Sanatkumara and said, "Teach me, sir." Sanatkumara said to him, " Please tell me what you know; afterwards I shall tell you what is beyond." Narada said: "I know the Rig-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, the Sama-Veda, the Atharva-Veda, history and mythology, grammar, the rules for the sacrifices for the ancestors, the science of numbers, the science of portents, the science of time, logic, ethics, etymology, the science of pronunciation, ceremonials, prosody, the science of elementals, the science of war, astronomy, the science of snake-charming, and the fine arts. All this I know, sir. 'But, sir, with all this I am like one who knows only the words, the sacred books. I do not know the Self. I have heard from men like you that he who knows the Self overcomes grief. Do, sir, help me over this grief of mine." Sanatkumara said to him, "Whatever you have read is only a name.

The search for the Great Cause is linked with the search into the nature of man himself. Is man only a physical being, or has he a spiritual basis? The study of man opened before the Hindus a new vista. How does the mind think? Is the power to think inherent in the mind itself or does another extraneous power impel it to think? What has set in motion the life-breath? Who engages the tongue to speak, and the ears and eyes to hear and see?

The ancient Hindus wondered whether there was a First Principle or Ultimate Reality underlying the outside world, and also whether there was such a thing underlying man himself. If so, were the two the same?

It was apparent that the questions that agitated the Hindus, living on the banks of the Ganges and the Indus in that prehistoric time, could be adequately answered only by a true knowledge of man, the universe, and Ultimate Reality. These, then, engaged their attention and formed the subject matter of their philosophical systems. For centuries they discussed these problems -in conferences and assemblies, in royal courts and sylvan retreats, around the sacred fires of the householders and in the hermitages of monks. They tried to work out answers through the most rigorous reasoning. They sought light in the depths of meditation. Some, inquiring about the First Cause and the ultimate explanations of things in the outside world, thought that the gods, the different personified forms of the Universal Consciousness, held the key to knowledge and happiness. So they worshipped with elaborate rituals the sun, the moon, the sky, and other deities, and sought to propitiate them with appropriate oblations. But it did not take them long to discover that as everything existing in time and space is doomed to die, the gods, too, must die; and as all beings living in time and space are limited, the gods, too, must be limited. It is said in one of the hymns of the Rig-Veda, concerning the creation and its cause:

Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation?

The gods are later than this world's production. Who knows, then, whence it first came into being?

He, the First Origin of this creation, whether He formed it all, or did not form it,

Whose eye controls this world in highest Heaven, He verily knows it, or perhaps He knows not.

So it was clear to the Hindus that the gods cannot remove man's ignorance nor show him the way to blessedness and immortality. The problem of Ultimate Reality cannot be solved through study of or devotion to anything in the visible outside universe.

Other seekers directed their attention to a different world, the inner world within man himself. By means of such spiritual disciplines as severe self-control and concentration they discovered that the realm of the mind was infinitely more real, interesting, and deep than the realm of gross physical matter. There, after patient search, they at last discovered the clue to the supersensuous truths relating to the Self, the hereafter, man's destiny, and Ultimate Reality.



The supersensuous experiences of the ancient Hindu seers have been embodied in the Vedas, the sacred scriptures of Hinduism.1 The Hindus consider that the Vedas, containing truths regarding the soul, the universe, and Ultimate Reality, are eternal (nitya), without beginning (anadi) and not ascribable to human authorship (apaurasheya). They are co-existent with the Creator and they form the very basis of creation. These truths are revealed from time to time to the hearts of men and women purified by the practice of self-control and meditation. Such fortunate souls are called rishis, or seers of Truth. Rishihood cannot be confined to a particular class or faith, time or country, or sex. The seers of the Vedas include both men and women, householders and sannyasis, and also people outside the brahmin caste. Many recensions of the Vedas have been lost. The Vedic teachers known to us at the present time were for the most part householders. They imparted their instructions in the crowded courts of kings as well as in retreats beyond the bustle of the city. The Vedic teachings were handed down by word of mouth. The Hindus hold the very words of the Vedas in the highest respect; for through them were revealed great spiritual truths. Therefore they would not dream of changing a single syllable of these books. Hindu boys have always been noted for their prodigious memories. These scriptures have come down to us in an undistorted form.

Much later the great sage Krishna Dvaipayana, also known as Vyasa, arranged the Vedas into four books called the Rig-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, the Sama-Veda, and the Atharva-Veda. According to Hindu tradition he flourished at the time of the battle of Kurukshetra, immortalized in the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita. But it must be kept in mind that the Vedas had been in existence for many centuries prior to Vyasa, who was only their compiler, not their author.

There is no agreement among Hindu or Western scholars regarding the date of the Vedas. They have been assigned dates very far apart indeed. But it would not serve any useful purpose to enter here upon a discussion regarding this highly controversial matter. According to the majority of Hindus the age of the Vedas is not germane to the significance of their teachings. They deal with timeless Truth and hence may be called eternal and unrelated to human authorship. Likewise, next to nothing is known about the personalities of the Vedic seers. It appears that they cared more about Truth than about themselves. It is certainly true that the people of ancient India did not cultivate the sense of history as it is understood in our times.



In Sanskrit, philosophy is called darsana, derived from the root dris meaning to see. The purpose of philosophy is to enable its students to see Truth directly. Therefore, with the Hindus, philosophy is not a mere intellectual pursuit of an abstract ideal, but the actual perception or realization of Truth. In the West, especially since the beginning of the modern era, philosophy has been divorced from religion. The result seems to have been disastrous for both. But Hindu thinkers have always maintained a close alliance between the two. The one is incomplete without the other. The goal of philosophy may be Truth, and the goal of religion, God; but in the final experience God and Truth are one and the same Reality. Religion insists on faith; philosophy emphasizes reason. These are two functions of our thinking mind and, if followed sincerely, often cross each other's path. The ultimate experience of Truth may be an act of faith, but its validity is judged through reason. Truth may transcend reason, but it is never illogical. One may not be able to arrive at Truth exclusively through reason, but one's experience and statement of Truth cannot be valid if they contradict reason. A direct experience that destroys one's doubts and is followed by an inner reassurance and peace is the ultimate proof of Truth, in the realization of which both faith and reason play vital parts. Religion without philosophy tends to become dogmatic, superstitious, and jejune. Philosophy without religion degenerates into inane and dry intellectualism. Reason moves in a circle, creates doubt, and never arrives at finality; it may indicate the possibility, nay the probability, of an Ultimate Reality, but if not animated by faith, it makes its user an agnostic. Religion, in which emotion plays an important part, becomes mere sentimentalism if it is not strengthened by the fibre of philosophy. It is the practical application of philosophy to life, and philosophy supplies it with an unshakable foundation. Religion supplies the aspirant with feeling or passion, and philosophy prevents him from wandering into dark alleys or up dead ends. Therefore the Hindu seers harmonized, in Vedanta, both religion and philosophy, faith and reason; and this fact accounts for its adequacy and universality. A true philosopher has something of the spirit of awe, adoration, and reverence cherished by a religious person; and a truly religious person is not without the intellectual understanding and insight which are the chief characteristics of a philosopher.

It is important to note that whenever religion has emphasized mere forms and dogmas, and thereby clouded men's vision regarding Truth, philosophy has raised its voice in protest and corrected the errors of religion. Thus, the Upanishads and the teachings of Sankara may be regarded as protests of philosophy against the excesses of religion. But the Hindu philosophers recognized the importance of religion and never discarded it altogether.



Ultimate Reality is transcendental. It is not perceived by the senses or comprehended by the mind. It is a matter of indubitable experience for the inmost consciousness of man. It is directly and immediately experienced without the instrumentality of the senses and the mind, and does not depend for Its proof upon any external authority. The perception of the external world is neither direct nor immediate, but is dependent upon the senses and the mind and is always coloured by them. On the other hand, the experience of Reality is both immediate and direct, and becomes possible only when the senses and the mind, through the practice of rigid spiritual discipline, have been made absolutely calm. It is the consciousness in man that experiences the Universal Consciousness, the two being, in reality, identical.

But there are infinite possibilities of self-deception.

To protect the aspirant from error and delusion the seers of Vedanta lay down three Criteria a of Truth. These are scriptural authority (Sruti), reasoning (yukti), and personal experience (anubhava). Any one of these, singly, may enable a man to realize partial truth, but when all three point to the same conclusion, the aspirant may be assured that he has realized the whole of Truth. The meaning of the scriptures, which contain the recorded experiences of knowers of Truth of the past, must be explained by a competent teacher. In order to free reasoning from the pitfalls of rationalization, rigorous mental disciplines are prescribed so that the aspirant may be grounded in detachment not only from the external world but also from his own pet ideas and exclusive loyalties. The aspirant must be able to view his own thinking objectively and submit it to a searching analysis. Ultimate values must be judged by the standard of eternity and not of time. Lastly, the conclusions of the scriptures, reaffirmed by reasoning, must be experienced by the aspirant himself. Ultimate Truth, the basis of the universe, is self-evident, non-contradictory, and free from fear and friction. The seer perceives Truth everywhere and in everything, and thus becomes completely free from fear, sorrow, and expectation, which characterize the life of falsehood in the relative world.

A spirit of synthesis generally pervades the philosophy of Vedanta. The search is always directed to the discovery of the First Principle, through which the multiplicity of the universe can be known and explained. The Hindu seer insists that the aspirant after knowledge should first, through self-control and meditation, realize Ultimate Reality; only then can he know the nature of the world. As Ramakrishna said, "To know the many, without knowledge of the One, is ignorance, whereas to know the One is knowledge." But it must not be overlooked that some noted Indian philosophers, such as Kapila and Patanjali, have shown remarkable acumen in their analysis of the mind and the material world.



The doctrine of karma and rebirth forms an important part of the Upanishadic teachings and has exerted the greatest practical influence upon Hindu society up to the present time. It is one of the strong pillars on which the Hindu Dharma rests. The doctrine was formulated in response to the question as to what becomes of a man after death. It also explained for the Hindus the inequality between man and man at the time of birth and gave them reasons to believe in a moral foundation of the universe, in which virtue is, in the long run, rewarded and iniquity punished. The doctrine of karma and rebirth is certainly an original contribution of Hinduism to the philosophical thought of the world. It must be clearly understood that this doctrine cannot be applied to the Soul, or Atman, which is, in Its true nature, beyond birth and death, and unaffected by time, space, and the law of causation. It has reference only to the jiva, or embodied soul. It belongs to what is called the "inferior knowledge" (Para vidya) by which one seeks to explain the relative world, and not to the "Superior Knowledge" (Para vidya) which is the science of Atman.

Karma, literally meaning action, denotes both action in general and the fruit-producing subtle impressions which remain with the doer even after an action is outwardly accomplished. It is in the latter sense that an action plays an important part in moulding a man's future, not only here on earth, but after death as well. The law of karma is the application of the law of cause and effect in the moral world. No action is exhausted without producing its effect both on the body and on the mind. At the time of death the actions of a man remain in seed form, and the seeds develop when he assumes a new body either on earth or on any other plane of existence. "Every man is born in the world fashioned by himself." 7"The good and evil are laid down on the scales in the yonder world; and whichever of the two sinks down, that will he follow, whether it be the good or the evil... He who does good will be born as good, he who does evil will be born as evil; he becomes holy by holy deeds, evil by evil. Therefore in truth it is said: ' Man is altogether and throughout composed of desire (Kama) in proportion to his desire, so is his discretion (kratu); in proportion to his discretion, so he performs acts (karma); in proportion to his acts, so does it result to him."'

Hinduism teaches that the good and evil tendencies of this life, and a man's happiness and suffering, are the inevitable consequence of the actions of his previous life, and the actions performed in this life determine those of the next. This conviction has taught the Hindus to regard the pain of this life as self-inflicted and to accept it with calmness and resignation. It is also an incentive to right conduct, because if a man sins no more in this life he will be spared grievous suffering in a future existence. Thus a man is free to accelerate or hinder his evolution. Neither his growth nor his action is determined by an outside factor. Through the law of karma the Vedic seers tried to explain the moral foundation of the universe according to which the righteous are rewarded and the wicked punished, in this life or hereafter, not by the whim of God but by their own action.

The theory of rebirth is the necessary counterpart of the law of karma and the immortality of the soul. The soul, being eternal, cannot be annihilated with the death of the body. The idea of eternal reward or eternal punishment after death did not appeal to the minds of the gentle Hindus. It is disproportionate to the law of cause and effect to imagine that the actions of a short span of life, liable to error, should bear fruit that will last for eternity. The idea that the erring soul should not be given another chance to rectify its mistake seemed both unjust and unmerciful to the seers of the Vedas.

The Vedic mystics often speak of the four courses that men may follow after death. These are determined, as we have seen before, by one's actions and thoughts while on earth. First, the highly developed souls who lead an extremely righteous life, meditate with whole-hearted devotion on Brahman, and practice the various spiritual disciplines, but who do not succeed in attaining complete Self-Knowledge before death, repair to Brahmaloka, or the plane of Brahma (roughly corresponding to the heaven of the Christians), and from there, in due course, attain Liberation. Some, however, return to earth for rebirth. This journey lies through a path known as the devayana, or "way of the gods." Second, the ritualists and philanthropists, who cherish a desire for the fruit of their actions, go after death to Chandraloka, or the lunar sphere. This journey lies through a path known as the pitriyana, or "way of the fathers." After enjoying immense happiness there as the reward for their meritorious action, they come back to earth, since they still cherish desires for worldly happiness. Third, those who perform actions forbidden by religion and ethics assume, after death, subhuman bodies and dwell in what is generally known as hell. After expiating their evil actions, they are reborn on earth as human beings. Fourth, those persons who perform extremely vile actions spend many births as such insignificant creatures as mosquitoes and fleas. They too, in the long run, return to human bodies on earth.9 These four courses, obviously, do not apply to the fortunate soul who attains the Knowledge of Brahman in the body before or at the time of death. For him no going or coming can be imagined. He is absorbed in Brahman. The sojourn of the soul in a body superior or inferior to a man's is temporary, being of the nature of a reward or punishment. The actions performed by creatures through these bodies do not produce any results like those performed in a human body. When the soul again assumes a human body, it takes up the thread of spiritual evolution, which was suspended at the time of death. As the attainment of perfection is not possible in one life, the soul assumes many bodies to attain it. According to the Hindus, all souls will ultimately attain perfection. 10


The purpose of spiritual knowledge is the awakening of the soul and the transformation of life itself. The Hindu tradition emphasizes the point that spiritual knowledge, in order to be effective, must be transmitted from one living soul to another living soul. Even the great Incarnations such as Christ, Krishna, Buddha, or Ramakrishna, accepted human teachers to guide them in their spiritual practices - if for no other reason than to demonstrate that true spiritual wisdom should come down from teacher to disciple. The teacher is known as the guru, and the disciple as the sishya. The guru may be compared to a lighted candle that ignites the disciple's soul. Books may give information, but not inspiration. Religion, if it is not transmitted, but merely preached, degenerates into intellectual sermons. The ancient spiritual wisdom of India has come down to the present time through an unbroken succession of teachers.

Naturally, a high perfection is expected of the teacher. The ideal guru is, of course, endowed with the direct Knowledge of Brahman; he is established in Brahman. Well versed in the scriptures, he can dispel the disciple's doubts and confusion. He is sinless and free from any worldly motive. Calm and self-controlled, he is like a boundless reservoir of compassion. The apparent limitations of the disciple do not prevent the teacher from showering his grace upon him if the disciple approaches him with true humility and eagerness. The guru is often compared to the season of spring, which, of its own accord and without any selfish motive, covers the winter-withered shrubs and trees with leaves and blossoms.

The teacher is like a father to the disciple. He is accorded even more respect than an earthly father; for he gives the disciple his spiritual birth and shows him the way to eternal life. The disciple serves such a guru with the utmost humility and places at his disposal body, mind, and soul. Afflicted by sense-experiences, confused by the transiency of physical objects, and frightened by the seemingly endless chain of birth and death in the mortal world, he beseeches the teacher to lead him from the unreal to the Real, from darkness to Light, from death, disease, and suffering to Immortality. The sishya approaches the benign guru and says to him, in the words of Sankara "Save me from death, afflicted as I am by the unquenchable fire of the forest of this world, which is shaken violently by the wind of bad deeds done by me in previous lives. Save me, who am terrified and so seek refuge in thee; for I know of no other man with whom to take shelter. How I shall cross the ocean of phenomenal existence, what is to be my fate, and what means I should adopt - as to these I know nothing. Condescend to save me, and describe at length how to put an end to repeated births and deaths, fraught with suffering and frustration."

Complete disillusionment about enjoying true bliss on this earth or in heaven through the experience of finite, material objects is necessary before one seeks Liberation. As long as a man cherishes the slightest hope of perfection in the relative world, he is not yet ready for the highest teaching of Vedanta, namely, the Knowledge of the Supreme Brahman. The Upanishad declares that the pupil should relinquish all desires for happiness on earth through wealth and progeny and for felicity in the celestial world.

It is through compassion that the guru most effectively influences the life of the disciple. The disciple is more impressed by the teacher's compassion than by his erudition and spiritual experiences. His distressed mind is soothed by the kind words of the preceptor and feels reassured. "Fear not, 0 blessed one!" he is told by the guru, to quote again the vivid words of Sankara. "There is no death for you. There is a means of crossing the ocean of apparently interminable births and deaths in this transitory world. The very way the sages have trod before I shall point out to you." Continuing, the teacher says: "It is only through the touch of ignorance that you, who are the Supreme Self, find yourself under the bondage of the non-Self, whence alone proceeds the round of births and deaths. The fire of Knowledge, kindled by discrimination between the Self and the non-Self, consumes ignorance with its effects."

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Copyrightę 1996, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York.

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