The Vedanta religion focuses on ultimate reality. Not only does it lead aspirants to transcendental consciousness — beyond normal sense and mental awareness — it leads beyond the transcendental into pure spirit — or absolute knowledge.
Many people think of the Vedanta religion as a form of Hinduism. Others consider Vedanta an intellectual kind of yoga.
I visited Swami Swahananda, the Director of the Vedanta Society of Southern California in Hollywood, who greeted us serenely in full-length orange robes and shawl. As he welcomed me and my assistant, spiritual light shone from his eyes and face. In fact, he literally glowed. In his sixties, he was a vigorous man with very short gray hair. Like many religious leaders, he spoke softly. “Come in, please.”
Swami Swahananda came from East Bengal, which is now Bangladesh. He joined the Ramakrishna Order of the Vedanta Society in Calcutta in 1947. Swamiji, as he is called, was a lecturer at Belur Math on the Ganges River in Bengal. He wrote and edited an English magazine in South India, did further spiritual studies in Mysore, and then went to the Himalayas to practice spiritual austerities. After his austerities, he was made the head of the New Delhi Vedanta Center.
After six years serving at the major New Delhi center, he was transferred to San Francisco in 1968. After two years in San Francisco, and then six years in Berkeley, he came to Southern California when the eminent spiritual leader and author, Swami Prabhavananda, passed away. Swami Swahananda became the head of the Vedanta Society of Southern California in 1976.
RA: Swamiji, what is Vedanta, please?
He answered in his soft, firm voice, “Vedanta is the essential philosophy original to the Hindus, but we claim it is the essential philosophy of all religions. The major ideas of Vedanta are, first, the ultimate existence. We hold that all the things we see around us are ultimately reducible to one substance. Normally, in every philosophical system, there will be three main questions: What is the nature of man? What is the nature of God as the ultimate reality? What is the nature of nature?
“Different religious systems and different philosophical systems have different answers. Vedanta, especially the non-dualistic Vedanta — Advaita, as it is called — says that all three are one. Man in his ultimate nature, nature in its ultimate nature, and God in His ultimate nature are the same. This is the basic position of Vedanta.
“Sri Ramakrishna, in recent days, added one little extra diamond from Vedanta which was there before but not so much stressed: God can be personal as well as impersonal. That is a special stress given by Ramakrishna in this present age. Thereby, he harmonized the three different major systems obtained in Vedanta — the dualistic system, the qualified monistic system, and the monistic system. (Dualism holds that God, the universe, and individuals are separate, eternal entities. Qualified monism maintains God alone exists and individual souls exists as “cells” in God’s universal body. Monism views God, individual souls, and the universe as one Reality.) Ramakrishna harmonized these different viewpoints by telling us it is the same actuality which becomes the personalized God.
“Vivekananda, a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, gave the definition of what God is in a very scientific way: ‘God is the highest reading of the Absolute,’ he said. So, Vedanta, and all religions, have this major idea called ultimate existence, or oneness.”
Swami Swahananda looked at me, wondering whether he should continue. I nodded that he go on.
“What is the nature of man, then?” he asked. “Man is of the same nature. But you can approach man’s nature from another angle. You can start a search to find out what is the permanent thing that exists in this universe. You begin the search from those things regarding which you have no doubt. Since you exist — you have no doubt that you exist — start from there. Philosophers may come, scientists may come and try to argue, still you know that you exist. So, all right, start your search from this position — who are you?
“First comes the body, of course. You ask yourself, ‘Am I the body? Is the body real?’ After one hundred years it won’t be here. Scientifically, after seven years all the cells have changed. But anyhow, after one hundred years the body won’t be here. So the body cannot be said to be the real reality, the lasting reality, the ongoing existence.
“So you consider the mind. Is the mind the ultimate existence? But the mind is constantly changing. Even some religions, including Hinduism, which believe in the continuance of mind from rebirth to rebirth, even they believe at some time the mind will come to a stop.
“So, from our method of inquiry, Vedanta says man’s ultimate nature is not the body, not the mind, but the spirit. So here you have the idea of the divinity of man. Spirit is man’s essential nature — not in his manifestation, where there are defects — but in his essential nature. It’s like putting an Indian dress on an American girl. She wears it today; tomorrow it won’t be there. She will change it. A loving mother dresses her child. Today she puts a Japanese dress on her child; tomorrow an African dress; then a Chinese dress. But the child is the same. Similarly the soul is the same, the spirit is the same. The garments — the mind and the body — are all changing.
“So you have the idea of the divinity of the soul. We call the divinity of existence Brahman. Brahman is the word for the unity of existence. Atman is the word we use for the divinity of the soul, the essential nature of man.
“The third important idea of Vedanta is the unity, the oneness, of God. Now, how do I define God? As previously explained, God is the highest reading of the Absolute — as the Absolute appears to the limited mind.
“So, the unity of God is another idea. Different religious leaders say, ‘My God is like this, my God is like that.’ Hindus say, ‘God is like this.’ Muslims say, ‘God is like that.’ Christians say, ‘God is like this.’ Can all the people be right at the same time? The normal idea is that either you are right or I am right and, of course, I am always right!” He threw back his head, laughing heartily, and we joined him.
“So, Vedanta says no to this. All the people at the same time can be right,” he emphasized. “How can they be right? We give the example of woman. What is woman? She is mother to somebody, wife to somebody, boss to somebody. She can become even the Prime Minister of a huge country like India, eh? Or a fighting country like Israel.
“But when a child says, ‘My mommy comes,’ is it the mommy portion of the woman who comes or does the entire woman come — the wife, boss, and so on?
“Similarly, Christians say, ‘My God is like this,’ Hindus say, ‘No, God is like that,’ Muslims say, ‘No, like this.’ All are right. All are calling their mommy.” Again he burst into infectious laughter and we did too, but we also appreciated what a deep point he was making in such a simple and straightforward manner.
“The child doesn’t know the wife aspect, or the boss aspect. He knows the Mommy. But she exists in all aspects. So, real God is not known to anybody completely, exhaustively. He cannot be.
“So we have the third idea, the unity of God.
“The fourth idea of Vedanta is the harmony of religions. Ramakrishna said that people speaking different languages came to a pond to take water. Though they used different names — ’jal, pani, water’ — the meaning is the same. Similarly, God has different names, but they all point to the same ultimate reality.
“These are the four major ideas of Vedanta.”
RA: Now, what is the goal of the Vedantist?
“The Vedantist’ s ideal is to realize his or her spiritual nature. The ultimate position, as Shankara says: To know that you are not the body, not the mind, but the spirit.
“But there are intermediate stages,” he added. “In devotional language we call this quest the realization of God. In Vedantic language we call it the realization of one’s spiritual nature.
“In our ordinary lives we human beings don’t represent the full spirit because it is mixed with the body and other mental/emotional aspects — with defects.
“But, realization of one’s spiritual nature is the ultimate goal of life,” he underscored.
“In the process, of course,” he went on, “samadhi (superconscious awareness) is the method. Through samadhi only can you have these experiences. To gain samadhi you practice the four major yogas, which are means of connecting the individual soul with the Supreme Soul. The four yoga paths are: the path of devotion, the path of knowledge, the path of action, and the path of meditation. These are the four major ways to gain samadhi and experience the ultimate goal of life.
“Why four yogas?” he asked rhetorically, and I encouraged him to continue. “A man has three faculties, according to psychology. We think, we feel, and we have a volitional (will) aspect. Now, when these three are very calm you enter the yogic, or mystic, condition.
“Let’s say you come back home after a whole day’s work and lie down on your easy chair. You have no strong emotion in your mind — no love or hatred — no activity is going on, no serious thinking is going on. You are in sort of a neutral condition. This is comparable to a yogic condition.
“So these are the four possible states of mind — thinking, feeling, willing, and the mystic, or yogic, condition. This is why Swami Vivekananda scientifically said there are four yogas.”
Swami Swahananda looked over at me to clarify his point, “Although, any part of yoga is often called yoga, too. The Bhagavad Gita has eighteen chapters and each one is a yoga. Whatever pushes a man to realization is yoga. But, technically, there are four major yogas. Kundalini yoga, Japa yoga, Laya yoga — these are all offshoots — mostly offshoots of Raja yoga. 1 But the major approaches are the yoga of devotion, of knowledge, of action, and of meditation.”
RA: Using these yogas, then, how does a Vedantist become fulfilled, and what is the process?
I was looking forward to learning his views on yoga.
“Now, the Vedantist recognizes that man has two aspects — the essential spiritual aspect and the manifested aspect. When man is in the manifested aspect, that is (mainly conscious) in the body and the mind, he must try to bring perfection of the body and mind as far as possible. So, bodily virtues are to be cultivated. Mental virtues also are to be cultivated. And gradually, transcending the worst aspects of his mind and body, he gradually cultivates the higher aspects.
“When man is in these lower stages, he visualizes that he will be going beyond both good and bad into the higher stage. But, in the normal stage, or the struggling stage, he is to replace the bad tendencies he has with good tendencies, bad habits with good habits, bad ideas with good ideas.
“Now, bad and good are all relative ideas, but in social norms there is a standard, and eventually higher and higher ideas will gradually come. But the major idea is that through love of God, through devotion to God, a man will try to feel the disembodied condition — the ultimate stage, the ultimate existence.
“Now, as to fulfillment for a Vedantist, there are different levels he’ll have to take. On the human level, a man knows that he is the body. He knows that he is the mind. So long as he feels that, he has got to do something for the body and something for the mind. Philosophically, he knows he’s not the body and not the mind, but Vedanta is not a religion of doctrines. Unless and until he feels it, it has not yet become his full religion.
“So, his God is changing all the time!” Swamiji raised his voice. “As his conception of God changes, his God is actually changing (in his awareness). This developing Vedantist may hear people say that God is impersonal and Absolute, but to him, knowing God as personalized is much easier. That personal God may bless him or help him directly, or in the form of a saint, an avatar, a great teacher, or a deity.
“The Vedantist’s conception of God changes as he realizes he’s neither body nor mind but spirit. So, along the way, when he is mainly aware of his physical body, some physical satisfactions are necessary; when he is aware mentally, some mental satisfactions are necessary; and then both physical and mental aspects should push him toward what will become spiritual realization.
“So, Vedanta is serious, spiritual, and practical. The enjoyments of the body and the mind are continued for the time being. But the Vedantist feels the body and mind are not eternal conditions for him. He knows he is in a temporary position and must gradually transcend the body idea — and, in time, the mind idea.”
Swami Swahananda looked at me for the next question. I simply nodded, feeling he was beautifully explaining Vedanta.
“And then again, there is another idea: What is pulling man? Our theory is that oneness is there all the time pulling man. A double pull is going on all the time. On one side the body pulls, but on the other side spirit pulls. A constant struggle is going on, even in the very ordinary man, not to speak about spiritual seekers.
“So, in answer to your question, I would say that spiritual fulfillment comes on three levels — physical level, the mental level (including intellectual, aesthetic, and moral), and then the spiritual level. On all three levels this fulfillment must come; then only will you be fully satisfied.
“Some monks will say, ‘We don’t want other fulfillments.’ Some others will be saying, ‘I want only physical enjoyments.’ Someone else will say, ‘I want only intellectual enjoyment.’ Go ahead and have it! But then a time will come when you will find this is not enough. You want something more.”
RA: Are there levels or states of spiritual fulfillment?
I was eager to hear Swami Swahananda’s explanation.
“Yes. Vedantists, or any spiritual seekers, work it out, stage by stage. There are several stages.
“Wonderful. Can you tell us the main stages, or perhaps tell us all the stages?” I urged.
“At first comes questioning. A person searches in his young days for higher ideals. Sometimes people come in direct contact with some overwhelming experience, especially the death of a near, and dear one. Sometimes a very good experience, like being saved from an accident, may also make him more reflective. Questioning arises when things become different. The inquiry for a purpose of life and the meaningfulness of things brings some answers. Then he is inspired to practice spiritual disciplines. Some type of uplifting experience comes to confirm the intellectual formation.
“In the beginning comes faith, general faith. The search brings company of the holy—books, as well as persons. That in turn brings the desire for spiritual practice. As a result, obstacles are removed, body and mind cooperate better; then comes steadiness in practice and also in attitude. Spiritual life is basically a change of attitude based on spiritual reality or philosophy of life.”
RA: What attitudes?
“Various attitudes are practiced: self-surrender, detachment, discrimination, love of God. And self-purification is based on the chosen attitudes.
“Then a change of valuation in life takes place. Many people give up at this stage but those who persevere acquire peace and tranquility and steadfastness. Sattvic (balanced, wise) qualities develop. He becomes more compassionate and less judgmental because of the awareness of the inadequacies of his life.
“Then comes a plateau, as if nothing new is happening. And there may be many ups and downs. If these seekers stay on the path, they develop a special taste and natural intensity of inclination for higher realities. When this intensity of taste has come, the development becomes more automatic, though God’s grace plays a part. Final illumination is in the hands of the Divine, and so the last word in the devotional path is surrender to the Lord.”
I enjoyed the clarity of his words.
“According to Advaita Vedanta (non-duality, monism), Brahman is realized, through meditation, as the Self within. To practice meditation on the Atman (the Divine Soul) as identical with Brahman, it is necessary to have the preceptor. Then an aspirant forms a clear idea of the nature of both Atman and Brahman by contemplation. He becomes convinced of the truth of their identity through reasoning. When he forms a definite idea in his mind of quality-less Brahman, he makes the mental mode conform with Reality.
“Ultimately comes realization — removing primal ignorance. Hearing, contemplation, and persistent practice of meditation ultimately gives the final realization.
RA: But what happens to the seeker who is not focused on realization?
Swamiji calmly answered, “For a normal man who is not yet fully caught up by the idea of realization, but who has a desire for bodily enjoyment and mental achievement, as well as realization, for him the spiritual achievement will be like this: At times he does some meditation with devotion to the Lord, or he does some other type of meditation. Some calmness comes, some measure of calmness comes into his mind. He has serenity of mind once in a while, losing himself in the spiritual thought which is the immediate product of his meditation. His spiritual attitude brings him some calmness, and then through practice of meditation his mind becomes gradually quiet a little. Once in a while his mind becomes absorbed in Spirit.
“Then, other devotees often try to cultivate devotion and love for God. For them, sometimes — because of their singing, spiritual talking, or spiritual thinking — a sort of Godfulness idea comes. They feel God’s presence, or feel ecstasy.
“Now, for many people these early stages are enough. They enjoy the attitude, or the occasional serenity, or the idea of God’s presence.
“But those who go forward suddenly find their mind becomes completely absorbed. In meditation they completely forget their body and mind. They become aware of Spirit.
“So, in all these different kinds of people, if they persist, their minds become completely absorbed. Those who have practiced emotionally in their meditation begin to have visions of God. They may first have dreams about God and these dreams and visions in meditation become a little encouraging. In Vedanta we don’t stress too much about these things, but if experiences give us true encouragement, a little boosting in our energy, then they are good.
“But, all the different kinds of meditators come to a stage where form melts away. They experience a formless aspect of God.
“Swami Brahmananda, the first President of our Order, said that both forms of meditation are real — those in which God is seen in vision and those in which God is experienced in formless aspect, pure Spirit. But Brahmananda said that in the higher stages of meditation the forms melt away into formless experience of Spirit.
“Swami Vijnananda, another disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, explained this in yogic language. Vijnananda said that the forms of the chosen deities are seen in vision as long as the mind is at the plane of consciousness relating to the throat level or lower. But when the mind goes above that, all forms melt away. All forms melt away, and with this a feeling of the presence of the Divine comes.
“As for the pure meditators, their mind gets fully absorbed, and the theory is that when the mind is fully free from all waves — modifications of the mind, they’re called — then the natural bliss of the Atman will come for awhile. This is the reason why we feel happy at times in meditation.
“There is a physiological reason also for this happiness in meditation: blood pressure is improved and other body functionings are improved. There are true physiological benefits to meditation.
“But, why does it come? Why do I feel a welling up of joy? The Vedantic explanation is that man’s ultimate nature is the Spirit: eternal existence, eternal knowledge, and eternal bliss. So when all the obstacles within me are removed by raja yoga meditation, 2 there is no thought remaining in the mind. Then the nature and bliss of the Atman, the true self, manifests itself. This is the theory, the Vedantic explanation.
“Another idea is the jnana yogi’s idea. Jnana yogis 3 analyze themselves and their experiences. Their method is to lessen their attachment, lessen their consciousness of the physical and other realms — especially the body.
“So, they stress non-attachment and they become more and more free. Their idea is, as they analyze, ‘This is not worthwhile, that is not worthwhile, this is temporary, this is immaterial.’
“Then a stage comes when these yogis of the intellect feel that there is something that must be in existence which is real. Sri Ramakrishna explains this higher reality in giving the analogy of an onion. You go on peeling the onion and then what remains, remains.
For those who prefer to connect with their spiritual nature through the yoga of action, Swami Swahananda explained karma yoga in a nutshell as having two methods.
“Either be detached in work, saying, ‘I shall keep my mind in a calm and serene mood, whatever the provocation,’ or the other way is the way that devotees do it: ‘I offer all my actions to the Lord. My beloved Lord sees my heart and does everything through me, so who am I to take the credit? Or, more importantly, who am I to be discredited, to feel guilty?’
“So, by practicing in this way, those who practice the yoga of action give up the body and the mind by surrendering to the Divine and they experience the Divine.
“Through the right attitude, through devotion, meditation, or action, samadhi (superconsciousness) will take place. Then through samadhi, experience of oneness and the ultimate existence will come.
“At the superconscious stage a joy feeling comes. At the next stage of superconsciousness, the joy feeling will go away, but the feeling of oneness will be there.
“Also, in samadhi, there are two types of experiences. One samadhi is of the personal God. You feel that you exist and that God exists and a little separation is there between you. The second type of samadhi, the final one, is called nirvikalpa samadhi. In this super-conscious state there is no other thought. What remains, remains. This is experience of the Absolute. It cannot be described because it is beyond the mind.
So, that is the goal of Vedanta,” he finished.
Swami Swahananda urged us to stay for tea. Since we could not join him but had to rush to future appointments, he urged us to accept some chocolates. A friend of all mankind, he bid us farewell.
Swami Swahananda inspired me to study the words of Swami Prabhavananda, the saintly man and author who formerly directed the Vedanta Society in Southern California. Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood collaborated on a number of spiritual classics, including Shankara ‘s Crest Jewel of Discrimination and How To Know God.
In the magazine Vedanta And The West, published in May, 1954, Swami Prabhavananda sums up Vedanta in this way: 4
The fundamental truth as taught by all religions is that man has to transform his base human nature into the divine that is within him. In other words, he must reach the deeper strata of his being, wherein lies his unity with all mankind. And Vedanta can help us to contact and live that truth which unfolds our real nature — the divinity lying hidden in man.
Vedanta is not a particular religion but a philosophy which includes the basic truths of all religions. It teaches that man’s real nature is divine; that it is the aim of man’s life on earth to unfold and manifest the hidden Godhead within him; and that truth is universal…
Thus Vedanta preaches a universal message, the message of harmony. In its insistence on personal experience of the truth of God, on the divinity of man, and the universality of truth it has kept the spirit of religion alive since the age of the Vedas (ancient scriptures). Even in our time there have been Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, and men like Gandhi. The modern apostle of Vedanta, Vivekananda, describes the ideal religion of tomorrow as follows:
“If there is ever to be a universal religion, it must be one which will have no location in place or time; which will be infinite, like the God it will preach, and whose sun will shine upon the followers of Krishna and of Christ, on saints and sinners alike; which will not be Brahmanic or Buddhistic, Christian, or Mohammedan, but the sum total of all these, and still have infinite space for development; which in its catholicity will embrace in its infinite arms, and find a place for, every human being, from the lowest grovelling savage not far removed from the brute, to the highest man, towering by the virtues of his head and heart almost above humanity, making society stand in awe of him and doubt his human nature. It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, which will recognize divinity in every man and woman, and whose whole scope, whose whole force, will be centered in aiding humanity to realize its own true, divine nature.”
This “sum total” of all religions does not mean that all people on earth have to come under the banner of one prophet or worship one aspect of God. If Christ is true, Krishna and Buddha are also true. Let there be many teachers, many scriptures; let there be churches, temples, and synagogues. Every religion is a path to reach the same goal. When the goal is reached the Christian, the Jew, the Sufi, the Hindu, and the Buddhist realize that each has worshiped the same Reality. One who has attained this knowledge is no longer a follower of a particular path or a particular religion. He has become a man of God and a blessing to mankind. 5
1 In brief, Raja yoga is union with God through attuned will and activity. Kundalini yoga is spiritual realization through gathering and focusing the life force. Japa yoga is meditation through chanting spiritual phrases, or syllables, called mantrams. Laya yoga is spiritual enlightenment through development of the seven spiritual centers in the spine and brain.
2 Raja yoga meditation is usually based on concentrating on the play of life force within the body and the mind’s energy centers until, free of mental modifications, the true nature is apprehended and experienced.
3 Jnana yoga is union through wisdom and spiritual discernment
4 The following is used with the permission of the Vedanta Society of Southern California.
5 Vedanta And The West Magazine, May, 1954. Used with the permission of the Vedanta Society of Southern California.
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