Monday, November 24, 2014

An Introduction to the Study of Vedanta


            There is an interesting Indian story that is relevant to the commencement of your studies here:

A great Sanskrit scholar, whose father and grandfather were also scholars, had set out on a pilgrimage. He had to cross a wide river on a boat. Since he was the only passenger, he struck up a conversation with the boatman and asked him if he had studied grammar (vyËkaraÙa).

“No. What is grammar?” the boatman replied. Because his father and grandfather had been boatmen, he had not thought it necessary to study in order to make a living. Nor did he know that there was a discipline of knowledge known as grammar. The scholar was both astounded and horrified. He had lived among scholars all his life and could not imagine anyone not knowing grammar. He said to the boatman, “You do not know grammar? You do not even know what grammar is? What kind of a life is that? You are only living three-fourths of a life. One fourth is gone!” The boatman did not seem to mind.

The scholar continued, “Did you study literature?” The boatman once again answered that he had not. “Did you study poetics? Did you study Kalidasa?” Again the answer was no.
The scholar then told him that another fourth of his life was gone.

“Can you read and write?” he asked him. “No, I cannot read nor write. I cannot even sign my name.” “You cannot read! You cannot write! What can you get out of life? You can only enjoy what your simple senses can satisfy, nothing more. This means that yet another fourth of your life is gone.”

The scholar concluded that the boatman was living only one-fourth of his life since he was alive and rowing the boat. So he told him that three-fourths of his life was gone. With that, the boatman became very sad. Rowing the boat, he thought to himself, “I should have gone to school. I am living only one fourth of my life!”

As the boat continued to proceed, the scholar noticed water seeping into the boat and brought it to the boatman’s attention. All efforts to block the hole failed. The boat was now half-filled with water and sinking. Knowing that he could not save the boat, the boatman asked the scholar, “Panditji, can you swim?” “No,” the scholar replied. “I cannot swim.” Then the boatman said to him, “Panditji, I am very sorry. Your whole life is gone!”

When I look at my experiences in life, I see one invariable: the struggle to be different, to be different from what I am. The struggle is universal. Man or woman, young or old, there is a continuous effort to be different. This process of becoming begins at birth and has its basis, not in joy or in some creative power, but in a certain sadness on my part that is self non-acceptance.

Self non-acceptance is the basis for all attempts to become different. If I want to become someone in order to be somebody, there is definitely a self-image that I don’t accept. There is the idea that I am a nobody, and so the need to become a somebody arises. The expression “wanting to become somebody” refers to any form of struggle with a particular end, whether be it  money, profession, or family. If having achieved a particular end, I can say that I no longer want to become somebody, then I can say I have made my life; nothing more needs to be done; thereafter, any becoming is just for the joy of it.

Whatever end I pursue, it is for me and not for the sake of the end itself. This is a very central fact in the life of a human being. In the BÎhadaranyakopanishad, this is beautifully presented in one sentence:

                        atmanastu kamaya sarvaÑ priyaÑ bhavati

“All things become dear for one’s own sake.”

The whole tradition of Vedanta is based on this one fact. Any struggle is meant for myself alone. The self I want to be is different from what it is now. In the different self that I am going to fashion out of some economic addition, rise in social status, or some other comfort, the central figure throughout is ‘I’, the self. 

I do not accept myself as I am now, nor have I since the day I was born. Crying as a child for want of something is no different from the crying I do now for want of something. This non-self-acceptance is the invariable basis for all human struggles. The question is, when am I going to accept myself?

Is there any goal in life that is not aimed at total self-acceptance? Suppose someone says, “My goal is to go to heaven.” If we ask him why he wants to go to heaven, what will he say? Whatever words he uses will reveal that he does not accept himself. There will be heavenly pleasures and so on in heaven. All of these are nothing but possibilities of seeing himself as acceptable.

Generally, you prefer to have others accept you. “If they accept me, I will be more acceptable to myself.” The more you seek the acceptance of others, the less you accept yourself. The poorer your self-image, the more you depend on the favorable opinion of others. When others say something nice about you, you think you are acceptable. This is why love becomes so important. At least in one pair of eyes, you are acceptable and through that person, you can accept yourself, if only a little. But you also seek recognition or acceptance from society that further proves that you do not accept yourself. Thus, whichever way you look, the problem is one of self-non-acceptance.

If self-non-acceptance is the problem, self-acceptance must be the solution. This seems quite simple, but in order to accept yourself many facts need to be addressed. Anyone can say that all you have to do is to accept yourself and the problem will be solved. But in your life there are so many deficiencies that you have to come to terms with, such as deficiency in memory, knowledge, health, and so on. This list is long, and ever getting longer. And yet you are told that the solution is to accept yourself. How can you? You cannot. Therefore, the struggle to become perfect continues.

Another problem with your constant effort to become different is that with any change there is something lost as well as something gained. In every gain brought about by effort or by a process of change, there will also be some loss. This is why positive thinking is improper thinking. Positive thinking is seeing only the good side of things while the other side, the negative side, remains hidden. But it does make its presence known at one time or the other because each side is as true as the other. What you have is as true as what you do not have. What you gain is as true as what you lose. Positive thinking does not change this fact. It may be useful in changing the habitual thought patterns of someone who thinks negatively, but it is not a solution for the problem of self-non-acceptance.

By a process of becoming, you are not going to become the acceptable self. Therefore, there is only one possibility: perhaps the self is already acceptable. If you are acceptable to yourself, and you can know this fact, then gaining this knowledge becomes the only meaningful pursuit. When you have this knowledge, everything else becomes meaningful.

You also need the knowledge that will enable you to cross from self-non-acceptance to self-acceptance. This knowledge is not subject to choice, but once it is gained, you are free to exercise your faculty of choice. When you accept yourself, then you will find that you have the choice to desire, to do, and to know. When this particular knowledge that “I am acceptable just as I am now” is there, then other disciplines of knowledge and interests can be explored and enjoyed.

Why are we taking three years to study Vedanta? In fact, three years may not be required at all, but this knowledge does seem to have a particular element to it. It seems to grow, not in linear way, but in terms of clarity. You hear me speaking today and you think you understand. But when you hear the same topic again, perhaps after one or two years, you will say, “Oh, now I understand.” Clarity comes in increasing degrees—like a Polaroid picture. When the picture first comes out of the camera, nothing can be seen; it is dark. As the picture develops, the image is still a blur. The whole picture becomes clear gradually. There is a lot of difference in what is actually seen between the initial recognition and the final confirmation of the picture.

To know that the self is acceptable entails study of the world and God also. Why do we need to study the world? Because the self is connected to the world, an understanding of it is important. Why should we talk about God? For the same reason: if there is a God, we are definitely connected to that God. What are these connections? Are we connected permanently, or are we “as though” connected?

As we proceed, we will find a new vista of knowledge opening up. What starts out simply, and appears to be very innocuous, becomes complex in the sense that there are many things to be understood. This knowledge is gleaned from certain major texts, the study of which traditionally takes twelve years. Thus, both the study and clarity take time.

Inauguration of the three-year course
Arsha Vidya Gurukulam
Saylorsburg, PA.