Sri Ramanuja defines svadhyaya as the study of the Vedas with the conviction that they deal with God, His glories and the modes of worshiping Him. The most important part of the Vedas is their knowledge portion, known as the Upani- shads, or Vedanta. The Upanishads deal with the true nature of God and of man, and the goal of human life, which is God-realization, or Self-realization.
A study of the Upanishads is difficult without a teacher's help. Traditional commentaries are also a great help in understanding the Upanishads. But these commentaries include detailed discussions on opponents' viewpoints and their refutation, and elaborate reflections on finer aspects of Sanskrit grammar. A scholar certainly revels in the mastery of all these details, but a devotee's attitude is different: he studies scriptures in order to keep his mind on a higher level, sharpen his power to discriminate between what leads to God and what leads to bondage, and develop longing for his spiritual goal. He makes scriptural study a part of his spiritual practice.
Sri Ramakrishna validated the truths described in the scriptures by his own spiritual experiences and taught these truths in simple words, often reinforcing them with parables and examples from everyday life. His disciple Swami Vivekananda carried the message of Vedanta to the whole world, interpreting it in the light of his master's life and teachings. Vivekananda thus defined his mission in life: "The dry, abstract Advaita [Vedanta] must become living-poetic-in everyday life; out of hopelessly intricate mythology must come concrete moral forms; and out of bewildering Yogi-ism must come the most scientific and practical psychology-and all this must be put in a form so that a child may grasp it. That is my life's work." The unsurpassed clarity in Vivekananda's teachings makes them an indispensable source for understanding the Upanishads.
Sri Ramakrishna's teachings and Swami Vivekananda's expositions prove that all paths lead to the same goal of God-realization and each is meant for seekers of different spiritual needs and evolution.
A spiritual seeker needs to separate the essentials of scriptures from their non-essentials in order not to mistake the one for the other. According to the Uttara Gita, "The scriptures are endless, and what is to be learned is vast. The lifespan is brief and hindrances are many. We need to understand and assimilate the essence of scriptures, even as a swan separates milk from a mixture of milk and water." (3.1) Says Sri Ramakrishna, "What will you achieve by mere study of the scriptures? The scriptures contain a mixture of sand and sugar, as it were. It is extremely difficult to separate the sugar from the sand. Therefore one should learn the essence of the scriptures from the teacher or from a sadhu."
Svadhyaya also means study of oneself. It is necessary for a spiritual seeker to assess his strengths and limitations. He needs to be aware of the weaker links in his character and try to strengthen them by directing his thoughts and actions to the spiritual ideal. We cannot expect to easily concentrate our mind on God during times of prayer and meditation if we have given it free rein during the rest of the day. We need to be vigilant to understand how the mind functions and what it is after: how inclined it is toward spiritual practices and how resistant it is to change. Such a study is very important in spiritual life.