It is everyone’s experience that there are two fundamental entities that one is dealing with throughout one’s lifetime, from birth to death. The first one is related to his own presence in this world, who is the conscious entity, the questioner or the individual I, and the second one is the rest of the world which includes both living and non-living entities. The facts as it appears to be are:
(a) that I came in to this world not out of my choice and must quit this world whether I want it or not, and
(b) the existence of this universe which is so vast and so huge beyond anyone’s comprehension.
The fact of the matter is that I am propelled to interact with this universe, which sometimes is conducive to my likes and many times is not. I am forced to live out experiences from this world, day in day out, from birth to death. I find myself happy when my experiences and environments are favorable to my liking and unhappy when they are unfavorable or when I dislike them. Bottom line is, as long as I am here in this world, I want to be happy. This was true centuries ago, this is true now and will be true even in next millennium. Hence I go on looking for environments or experiences that are conducive to my likes so that I can be happy. It is a continuous struggle since the environment keeps changing continuously and does not remain constant to my liking, and even if the environment remains the same, my likes and dislikes keep changing.
The experience which enchanted me the first time looks pale the next time when I seek for it. Thus the same experience or environment does not seem to give me the same degree of happiness as it did before. I seem to be hunting constantly for that ideal environment wherein I am fully satisfied and contended, ever happy, with no more desires to change either myself or the environment and no more longing for one thing or the other. That is a state of mind free from any wanting and therefore is fully contented with what one has.
When I look around I find that everyone is struggling for the same thing, from the beginning of the time whether in past millennium or in this new one. This seems to be a perennial problem – a fundamental human problem – longing for eternal uninterrupted happiness or absolute happiness, whether I am a sinner or a saint, a believer or non-believer, a Hindu, Jew or Christian, a cave man or 21st century modern man with a rational intellect. These are labels; but the problem is common and beyond the labels. Whether I like it nor not, I have to deal with this problem as long as I live. In fact, the essence of my life itself is only to solve this problem – In all my actions (pravRRitti) or inactions (nivRRitti), what I am seeking is only a solution to this fundamental problem.
What I am looking for is not to learn what Shankara said or Jesus said etc., but how do I solve this problem, which appears to be a fundamental and universal problem. What they like may be different, the environments or the experiences they seek may be different, but the bottom line is fundamentally they all are longing for an eternal uninterrupted happiness or absolute happiness, free from any more longing, no more searching or seeking. The approach or the path that each one is taking to solve this problem may be different. Some long for sensuous objects some drugs, some religion, some advaitin lists and some other pursuits in life.
It is the experience of everyone that whatever pursuits one takes to solve these problems, they appear to give only a temporary relief. In the end, one is still left with a desiring or longing or searching mind for a new improved or an additional experience with the hope that the new one will bring him to a state where there is no more seeking or searching, and wherein one is fully contended with what one has gained. The struggle goes on endlessly until one kicks the bucket. The problem, however, remained unsolved.
This is the central problem addressed by Advaita Vedanta. It first acknowledges the fact that however one tries to solve this fundamental problem, one is going to fail miserably, as is confirmed by everyone’s experience. Any effort on the part of a seeker to seek a solution to this problem only reinforces the problem and he will never be able to find a solution. Advaita Vedanta declares that there is no solution to the problem because it is an invalid problem. The only solution is to recognize this. This is because what one is seeking for one has already has. If one already has it and if one is still searching for it what he has already has, it only means that he does not know that he already has it. If I have the bunch of keys in my own pocket, and without recognizing it, I am searching for it all over the house, I will never find it, however much I search. The seeker of the keys is already the possessor of the keys. He has to rediscover his true nature rather than search for a solution elsewhere. Hence self-knowledge is the only solution to the problem caused by self-ignorance.
The problem actually is very simple and therefore the solution is also very simple -similar to finding the keys in ones own pocket, discovering that the seeker of the keys is already the possessor of the keys. But the problem becomes very much muddled because of everyone’s strong preconceived notions about oneself – who we are and what we are; that is, we have firm knowledge about ourselves, which is totally opposite to what we truly are. Hence even if Vedanta, through a teacher, tries to teach us who we really are, our minds are not able to accept the truth or accept with strong conviction about our true identity. It is like a smoker who knows intellectually that smoking is bad, yet he cannot give up being a smoker since his mind has become a slave to being a smoker. The situation of course is worse when he is not even convinced that smoking is bad for his health.
The processes of quitting the smoking may involve three stages:
(a) First step is to hear from a reliable or trustworthy authority, say a Doctor, that smoking is bad for his health so that he realizes the importance of it.
(b) Second, one develops the firm conviction in his mind beyond any doubt that smoking is indeed bad for his own survival and
(c) finally one has to make a deliberate attempt to divert the mind from indulging in smoking into something better till the mind comes under his full control, till the teaching that he heard from authority fully sinks in and becomes part of his understanding.
In Vedanta these steps are called shravaNa, manana and nidhidhyAsana. shrvanNa is the most important step, hearing from an authority in whose words one has full faith. manana is to contemplate on it to get convinced beyond any trace of doubt (where discussions as in advaitin list are helpful – reflection of the teaching) and nidhidhyAsana is to withdraw the mind that habitually runs out to earlier notions, redirecting it to dwell on what one has heard and convinced oneself about.
Thus shravaNam is the essential cause for liberation while the other two are preparation of the mind to get fully established in what one has heard. Advaita insists that this is the only way to solve the fundamental human problem which is the core of all human suffering.
So what do I gain by knowing who I am? I gain what I am longing for in all my pursuits. That is the very fulfilment of life itself since everyone is only seeking this – uninterrupted absolutely happy state of mind – a mind free from wanting or longing. I am not looking for Brahman, I am not looking for God or I am not looking for Atma – These are words, words and words. What I am looking for is true understanding of my own self which is free from all limitations – since all limitations are just products of my misunderstanding about the true nature of myself.
What Advaita Vedanta declares again and again is that the true nature of myself is: I am the Existence-Consciousness-Bliss beyond all forms and names and limitations. The self I am is the self in all, the very life principle in all – the very consciousness that pervades everything – and that consciousness is nothing other than Brahman – “praj~nAnam brahma” says the Upanishads, i.e. consciousness is Brahman. It is not ‘that consciousness’ – it is not an object for me to experience, it is not a conceptual thought – I am that consciousness – I am that Brahman – There is No world – No God – Nothing – I am that totality – Everything is in the consciousness that I am – The world rises in consciousness, is sustained by that consciousness and goes back into that consciousness that I am. “sarvabhUtasthamAtmAnaM sarvabhUtAnichAtmani” (Bhagavad Gita VI.29) – I am in all and all are in me.
This is the teaching of Advaita Vedanta which is brought out beautifully by Adi Shankara – The purpose of the list serve or discussions is to focus on the essential teaching of Advaita Vedanta as taught by Shankara not just for quoting what one knows or what Shankara said or the other one has said – but (a) to learn from each other till one is fully convinced beyond any doubt about the teaching- that is to reflect on the teaching till one is fully convinced. (b) to provide a forum for ones own contemplation to think deeper and deeper till the habitual mind slowly gets out of the wrong habitual thinking about oneself – that is removing ones own wrong notions about oneself. These two – mananam and nidhidhyAsanam – are the well established methods, proved by many who have tried successfully in the past, for understanding the teachings of the Advaita Vedanta.
Now a brief comment about what is God or who is God, without going into exhaustive details. In Advaita Vedanta, God is a factor brought in (like X in mathematical problems) to explain the second entity discussed above in the first few paragraphs. In the final understanding, the concept of God itself disappears, or more correctly dissolves into that Brahman that I am. Hence if Mehar Baba or some other realized soul claims that he is Brahman or God, it is from that state of understanding that the claims are made. Sitting in the state of ego or limited entity, it is difficult to appreciate that state. But remember all those that claim that they are God also claim that you are too.
The only difference is they know it and we do not – If one has faith in them and in their understanding then one can follow their teachings and reach the same state of understanding that they have reached. But a right teacher is one who, even though he has realized that state, directs his disciples not to take him as an authority but to accept the Vedanta as the basis for establishing the truth – a means independent of individuals, time and place. Hence Vedanta provides the pramANa or source of knowledge and not the teacher per se, the teacher interpreting Vedanta in the background of his experience. If we hang on to the teacher we become a burden to him and to others. They are there to direct us to the path, pointing out the pitfalls. We have to follow the path ourselves, taking the Vedanta as the light and using the guidance of the teacher to insure we do not get trapped in the path by forgetting the goal. As Swami Chinmayananda-ji used to say – there are no mule Gurus in this world to carry their disciples on their back to the state of realization. One has to know oneself by oneself in oneself – and that is the real teaching of Vedanta as explained by Adi Shankara and the real purpose of our existence.