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Dharma and Social Mores
Don: Dear Ramji, as always, I hope that you and Sundari are well. I’m glad that you could get some value out of my questions for your Trout Lake seminar.
James: Yes, we are quite fine. I love your emails, Don. You are clear about Don’s clarity and lack thereof on various teachings and you are obviously a deep thinker.
Don: I finished watching your Vivekachoodamini video. It is really good and clarifies so many points. I’ve moved on to Aparokshanubhuti and that is excellent too. I like that each portion is only about 20 minutes so I can easily watch one whole section and contemplate on that.
I find now that since I first wrote to you my understanding of brahman/self, Isvara/maya, jiva and the relationship of these is so much clearer. I’ve also got a good handle on satya and mithya, the five sheaths and the three states. So now it’s just all application and then building confidence – I need to accept too that the non-dual vision is counterintuitive and appears to run completely contrary to how the world appears and is experienced. The fundamental problem I had when I first wrote to you earlier this year was that I had realised that life is unreal, an impossible dream, but I was frightened of it – a lonely individual inevitably hurtling toward an existential void. Thank God, your unfolding of Vedanta has cleared up so much of that. Now to get into the habit of application and cleaning up the ignorance of so many decades (“right thinking”).
James: I think you have properly understood the essence of the teaching so the first stage of Vedanta sadhana, listening (sravana), is more or less complete. And you understand that inquiry continues in the form of the application of the teachings to your mind on a daily basis and the building of confidence in them. You seem to be well into this stage – reflecting to remove doubts (manana). I think it is also fair to say that the final assimilation phase (nididyasana) is also going on. Shying away from initiating new activities is mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita as one of the characteristics of a “man of steady wisdom.” If you don’t initiate new actions, your prarabdha will exhaust more quickly. Knowing what we know, there is nothing to “get,” obviously. The gradual reduction of anxiety and subsequent increase in self-confidence though the application of the opposite thought shows that you are on the right track.
Don: One of the relative changes that has been happening is that I’ve started to shy away from initiating new activities, especially in relation to my work. I’m more relaxed and willing to just respond to what the field throws my way rather than setting new wheels in motion. I’m less concerned with success and failure and almost entirely unconcerned with “getting anywhere” in “my career” (although I did say “almost”!). The anxiety that had hounded me is by degrees, and day by day, just ebbing away as I keep applying the opposite thought “nothing is missing” and “I am fine, I am whole.”
Anyway, James, I had a few questions for you, if you have time and if you don’t mind:
1: This question is purely from the relative point of view and concerns the significant moral questions. It’s not my intention to offend anyone and the particular values he or she may prescribe to. It seems that the Vedantic texts were committed to writing at a time within a highly stratified and “conservative” culture where a whole lot of moral imperatives are just assumed – so they don’t appear to explicitly address questions of what is right behaviour. In Western culture today we are beset daily with issues about same-sex marriage and adoption, in-vitro fertilisation and surrogacy, abortion, euthanasia, terrorism and so on. Now, it’s clear that Vedanta speaks of action in accordance with dharma (for those doers who are practising karma yoga), but it doesn’t seem to spell that out in terms of moral “dos and don’ts” such as one finds in Judeo-Christian/Islamic systems. Is that sort of thing covered in the other portions of the Vedas? It’s particularly these controversial questions I’m thinking about here – how does one approach living in relation to these questions when one is going for liberation? If it is only a matter of time, place and circumstance, why does someone such as Swamiji Dayananda Saraswati take up what would be decribed in our culture as a very “socially conservative” position (supporting traditional marriage and the family)?
James: Vedanta per se doesn’t provide a specific checklist of dos and don’ts. It presupposes a dharmic life. The Vedas and yoga, however, do provide very a very detailed discussion of enjoined and prohibited actions. That portion of the Vedas that deals with dharma is called – surprise, surprise – the Dharma Shastras. It comprises 85% of the four Vedas. If you want the details read the Dharma Shastras. I have attached a chapter of my new book on dharma that should be helpful. Basically, however, if you understand the non-dual nature of reality, the most fundamental dharma, non-injury (ahimsa), will guide your actions. All dharmas flow from it. It is based on the fact that reality is non-dual. Furthermore, you will not only not injure yourself and others, you will make a positive moral contribution to life because the fullness of the self (love) will inform every action.
From the point of view of spiritual practice, however, the rule of thumb is: if an action produces mental and emotional agitation, the disturbance is probably due to a contravention of one of the many dharmas (principles) that govern the apparent reality. So one learns by observing the connection between one’s actions and one’s state of mind which actions are in harmony with dharma and which aren’t. This kind of dharma is called visesa dharma. One might call it “situational ethics.” Dharma is a very nuanced and complex topic. Which actions are dharmic and which aren’t for an individual in a given situation becomes increasingly clear as inquiry pacifies the mind because dharma is built in to every being. Please read the chapter and get back to me if it doesn’t clear up the issue.
The excessive wealth underlying our liberal, desire-oriented, materialistic societies causes many moral problems. Swami Dayananda takes up a conservative position because he understands Isvara as the “king of dharma” (dharma raja) which means universal moral principles (samanya dharma). It is not difficult to connect the tremendous dissatisfaction in our societies with its failure to appreciate eternal truths. If I weren’t so busy working on other projects I would write about this topic. It is a contentious topic because individuals in our societies do not like to inhibit their freedom to act according to their desires. We don’t understand the meaning of Vedanta’s statement “I am the desire that it not opposed to dharma.” Getting what one wants when one wants it is the enemy of dharma. There is a lot more to this issue, Don. It might raise a few eyebrows but, as a person who did his share of adharma and as a person who knows who he is and tries to impeccably follow dharma now, I think one can make a case for the conservative point of view. Of course, we can’t go back and there are many positive moral aspects in modern societies. In the end it is not a social but a personal issue.
Don: 2: The texts proclaim that the self is the “cause of the universe” (the first part of the Brahma Sutra particularly hammers that home). As the self is actionless, because it is non-dual, how can it cause something to be (the universe)? At the same time, how can there be a universe without the self causing it? Is this that same point of maya “making the impossible possible”? I’ve thought about this a bit, and I think it comes down to the self being the efficient cause (the aware, intelligent consciousness) as well as the material cause (through the operation of maya, which makes the consciousness appear to be inert). Thus maya appears to be the cause on account of the three gunas, but this is ignorance. The self is the source of all, and therefore the prime cause, even though from its perspective “nothing has happened.”
James: Good thinking, Don. The self is the cause and it is not the cause. It doesn’t cause anything because there is nothing other than it. Maya doesn’t cause anything either because it is insentient. When and where the self illumines maya, action happens. It is the causeless cause.
The Brahma Sutras hammer on the topic of causality because an effect can’t be anything other than the cause in a different form. So if brahman is the cause, the world is also brahman. This teaching is called karya karana vada.
Don: 3: As per the above, I’ve been “dipping into” Brahma Sutra. I’ve been reading the commentary by Sri Sivananda (DLS) on Shankara’s and it is very dense. Do you have or are you planning any teachings (videos or otherwise) that specifically deal with that text and break it down? I ask because it’s cited as one of the three canonical texts of Vedanta.
James: I don’t teach it because it is, as you say, “dense.” It is not required for moksa. It is basically creation theories and arguments meant to make the point that the Vedas are about moksa, i.e. inquiry, not action, i.e. dharma.
Don: 4: I recently read a little about Vishishtadvaita. It obviously has a lot in common with unqualified or pure Advaita, except for its being “qualified” non-dualism. I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of what the main “qualification” is: is it that Vishishtadvaita holds that the person of God is real/satya?
James: It is the self plus maya. Non-duality means no maya. So the self is “qualified” by maya. In fact, this is not possible because they are not in the same order or reality. So it basically boils down to a non-dual kind of dualism. It says that jiva, jagat and Isvara are real and espouses bhakti for Isvara as the means of moksa. They are presented as three equal but separate principles, which they aren’t. They are all real insofar as they are all awareness but two are mithya and one is satya. I’m not an expert on it.
Don: 5: I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about maya and “how it all works,” and something occurred to me that I wanted to check with you. Would it be correct to say, speaking metaphorically, of course, that brahman, coming “under the spell” of maya as the principle of the divine feminine and the matrix/womb, assumes a Creator aspect (male/Isvara) and so it is (again, metaphorically) this relationship of the divine male and female principles from which the universe appears? In accordance with non-dualism, however, it all resolves back into parabrahman, the absolute without attributes. Is this what is meant by those stories about Shiva or Vishnu and their consorts?
James: Yes. If you are familiar with Puranic iconography you will see the self appearing in the form of “male” dieties and maya shakti appearing as “female” dieties. This symbolizes creation, the union of the self and maya. The higher principle is paramatma or parabrahman insofar as there is no duality in reality, only the appearance of duality.
Don: Thanks, James, for all that you’ve done for me. God bless you and Sundari.
James: You are most welcome.
Don: Thanks again, James, I’ll definitely read that and think about it. It’s one thing to have heard the teachings and assimilated them to some degree, it’s another to live within this dream and know what is the appropriate, right and dutiful action in a given circumstance from a karma yoga point of view.
I guess the classical Vedantins are steeped in the whole of Vedas, obviously including the Dharma Shastras, so there is a moral guide. We in the materialistic West seem to be all at sea on these questions – but at least the ahimsa ethic provides a good imperative.
James: Yes, the non-injury value pretty much covers the whole visesadharma question. We are not so much concerned with actions that relate to others because we assume that inquirers are well-mannered people. From a self-knowledge perspective we are concerned with the dharmic implications of certain types of thoughts: do they injure the mind? Non-injury is defined as “non-injury in thought, word and deed.” If you control the thought by analysis, the words and the actions don’t come. Jealously, for instance, injures the mind whether it is expressed outwardly or not. Does the food I ingest injure me or bless me? Etc. Karma yoga first applies to one’s thinking. If the thought is positive and generous, the actions that flow from it will be helpful, at least, non-injurious. Once it is clear that the thought is sattvic, the action is permitted and the result left to Isvara.