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Tradition of Traditionalism
You might wonder how a good old boy from the Rocky Mountain foothills in Montana – a place renowned more for its natural beauties than its commitment to self-inquiry – ended up teaching Vedanta in India, the source of the oldest spiritual tradition in the world. It is a reasonable question unless you understand the nature of consciousness. Consciousness is bound and determined to realize itself once it wakes up to the fact that it has fallen under the spell of maya. It knows nothing of East and West, Tamil Nadu and Montana. It does not care what it thought about itself before. Caste, education, gender, wealth, health – mean nothing to it. The Heart is limitless and it will not rest until it has rediscovered itself.
When it decided to wake up in me, I had no choice but to follow its intimations as it revealed itself in the stream of enticing signs that led me home: transcendental ecstasies too numerous to mention, close calls with death, including internment as a Jewish spy in an underground bunker in Cairo, severe beating at the hands of Sudanese soldiers deep in the Sud, a shootout with poachers on the Ugandan border, meetings with yogis and a raft of amazing people in India and elsewhere. My seeking bore fruit one day in 1969 in a small yoga center in San Francisco when I met Swami Chinmayananda who some have called the “Vivekananda of the second half of the 20th century.” At the time I knew that there was a tradition, a sampradaya, that it was ancient and that it sat at the center of Hindu way of life – but little else. I may not have understood it very well but I could feel it in a very inspiring and personal way. I have always had a strong spiritual impulse but Christianity’s demand for blind faith was not my cup of tea; I needed something practical and intellectually satisfying.
My first glimpse happened in a famous bookstore, City Lights, in San Francisco in 1967. A book by Swami Vivekananda almost jumped off the shelf into my hands. When I read a few pages, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and tingly energy washed over my body like a healing summer rain. The second time the tradition saw fit to reveal itself was on a paddle-wheel steamer gliding across the backwater of the Nile as it made its way to Wadi Halfa on the Sudanese border. At dinner one evening I recounted some of my spiritual experiences to a group of first-class passengers who had been invited to dinner with the captain. After dinner a man, on his way to Auroville to participate in the Mother’s dream of a utopian community, sensed the confusion that my many epiphanies had produced and presented me with a book entitled Adventures in Consciousness written by a French author, Satprem. Until that time I was mostly flying blind – following my “heart,” as they say. There is a certain romance involved in following the heart but it is much over-rated insofar as the heart seems to get it wrong almost as often as it gets it right. I needed a more reliable guide, something to take the anxiety out of my seeking. This book was a great inspiration because it made me realize that I was not alone in the bizarre quest that consciousness had decreed was its path to freedom through me. When I got to India I was overwhelmed by the almost daily revelations of the tradition, which is still alive today but less noticeable owing to mindless population growth and increasing materialism.
And then, as mentioned, I saw the tradition come alive in the form of Swami Chinmayananda who was billed as a modern Vedantin. As far as I could see, he was about as “modern” as Moses – the only concession to modernity being an Omega watch – but what did I know!
I was exceptionally lucky because for some strange reason – “grace” is the only word that works – I was granted non-stop access to the Swami. Consciousness cooked up a flimsy reason – he needed someone to carry his oxygen bottle – and I had my foot in the door of the greatest spiritual tradition on earth. Things worked out and consciousness got what it wanted, and I can honestly say that I haven’t had a bad day in forty years. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the tiny handful of bad days were also good days. In any case, this blog is not about me but about the tradition. Once there was no reason to seek anymore the Swami sent me “to explode on the society and bring self-knowledge to the people.” Swami was a dramatic mahatma – some say grandiose although they would be wrong – and during my two years with him I learned to take his frequent hyperbolic pronouncements with a grain of salt. I had no intention to explode on anything but I got the idea that he thought that I was qualified to teach others, which was both true and not true. So I left India and went about the business of teaching Vedanta. I was young and inspired, and it was as much my energy as the teachings themselves that had an impact.
Vedanta is not a spiritual path or a religion. It is just a simple, yet sophisticated, method for removing ignorance about the nature of the self. There are not a lot of different Vedantas. Even the idea of Advaita Vedanta is not correct, since the word “advaita,” non-dual, is a word that indicates the nature of consciousness, not an adjective that modifies a particular means of self-knowledge. You cannot claim to interpret the truth, put your own experiential spin on it and claim to be within the tradition. To teach it you need to be qualified and you need to follow the method of teaching. Because I only knew what I had observed as my guru wielded the means of knowledge on me, I taught Vedanta as he taught it.
It did not occur to me that Swami’s billing as a modern Vedantin belied a departure from the tradition, albeit a modest one. I thought it was just a clever marketing ploy to make palatable what seemed to Western-oriented Indians to be a musty old relic from the past. Swami was on a mission. He intended to save Vedanta from the onslaught of worldly heathens that the educated Indians had become under the rule of the Raj and, I suppose, the end justified the means, in his view. The funny thing is that Swami’s realization was so deep and powerful and he was such an amazing and inspiring personality that even without Vedanta he would have enlightened many. Maybe he did not think he was cutting corners. I have no way of knowing. At the time I was too wrapped up in my happiness to think about it. Enlightenment was working in spades.
Swamiji had many enlightened disciples and foremost among them was a sanyassi named Swami Dayananda Saraswati whom the swami was grooming to take over the reins of the Chinmaya Mission when he died, which could have been any moment insofar as he had had a major heart attack, triple bypass surgery and was burdened with a number of what seemed to me to be bad habits, although for that kind of mahatma a habit is just a habit. He never exercised, ate Indian food, drank sweet chai, took snuff with abandon and did not whine when he suffered the inevitable ill effects. He was what in the old days one might affectionately have called a “real” man. I understand that nowadays such designations are not politically correct and can be seen as casting aspersions on the fairer sex. In any case, in spite of what happened, Swami Dayananda has risen to the top of the Vedanta world. What happened was that one day Swamiji asked Swami Dayananda to take over more of the administrative duties of the mission. Dayananda refused, saying that he preferred to only teach. And that was the end of their association. At the time I did not understand what all the fuss was about and continued on my blissful way, although it caused a lot of agitation for thousands of mission members who felt they had to choose which guru to follow. Swamiji said it was all a tempest in a teapot. He said that Vedanta, not the swamis who taught it, himself included, was the issue and that people were free to do whatever they wanted.
I always wondered how Swami Dayananda, who was groomed assiduously by Swami Chinmaya to take over the mission, could have taught a style that differed from his guru. For years I did not know that although he worked in the Chinmaya Mission and taught under the aegis of the mission, Chinmaya was not actually his guru. It was easy to come to that conclusion, however, as it was the prevailing view among the members of the mission and Swamiji’s many disciples and devotees, and neither swami said anything to dispel it, which is fine actually because in the Vedanta sampradaya, as Swamiji said, the issue, not who teaches it and why. It was not a burning issue, to be sure, and I probably did not think about the topic for twenty years. Then a few months ago I met someone who had been with both Chinmaya and Dayananda who told me this story, which I suspect is true.
Evidently, one day Swami Dayananda had just finished teaching and stepped off the dais to make himself available to the attendees when a mahatma who had been sitting in the back walked up to him, looked him in the eye said, “You are not teaching the tradition,” turned on his heels and walked away. Evidently, it was a shock for Dayananda who took the mahatma as his guru and learned the tradition as it was meant to be taught. Once many years ago I met the mahatma in Swami Dayananda’s ashram in Rishikesh shortly before he died.
One day, sometime after the breakup, I read a small essay written by Swami Dayananda that opened my eyes. It was called The Teaching Tradition of Advaita Vedanta and although no names were mentioned it was impossible not to understand that it was a direct attack on “modern” Vedanta à la Chinmaya. It was brilliant and in line with my own thinking which had slowly evolved over the years as my study of the tradition had become an obsession, along with trout fishing in Montana. I have rewritten, embellished it and published it on my website under the title What Is Advaita Vedanta?
In any case, it had a profound effect on the way I taught Vedanta. I am a both/and not an either/or kind of person. I was not about to throw out Swamiji’s teaching style altogether because it was terribly effective. And I was not about to continue presenting Vedanta as he had presented it, with an emphasis on the experiential aspect – not exactly at the expense of the knowledge aspect (see Chapter 2 of my book How to Attain Enlightenment for all the arguments on both sides of the issue) – because it was not strictly in harmony with the sampradaya.
It is always true that when you come down heavily on one side of an argument or another, you do yourself a disservice. In this apparently dual reality there is an upside and a downside to every upside and downside. The traditional method of teaching Vedanta is to start with the basics. You establish the terminology – the classic text for this is Tattva Bodh by Adi Shankaracharya – and then you take up an elementary text, unfolding the verses word by word, line by line. As your understanding matures you go into more and more sophisticated texts. It is the long hard slog and, if you have the time, it is very effective. It often takes many years – depending on the obstacles – for the vision of non-duality to firmly establish itself in your mind, but once it does it sets you free and never leaves.
The “modern” approach is somewhat different although Swamiji unfolded the texts word for word, line by line too. You present the big picture in broad strokes more or less all at once in the beginning and then you let the seeker, armed with this knowledge, fill in the blanks on his or her own. You see both approaches in the Bhagavad Gita, the signature scripture of both swamis. Arjuna is in crisis and needs teaching so Krishna steps up and rains down the truth right from the beginning. Sad to say, in spite of his intense desire to know who he is, Arjuna is not qualified to understand so Krishna gets down to brass tacks and presents the whole Brahma Vidya step by step. And in the end, after working through many doubts, Arjuna is set free.
The modern approach works quite nicely if the seeker is highly qualified. He or she will have all the experience and knowledge necessary under his or her spiritual belt so that when the big picture is unfolded quickly and efficiently all the pieces of the existential puzzle will fall nicely into place and seeking will stop. But if the seeker is immature this approach will only cause confusion. Such seekers should start at the beginning and slowly develop the maturity necessary to assimilate the import of the teaching which, not to put too fine a point on it, is: nothing needs to be added to you to complete you. Or if you want to look at it negatively: nothing can be taken away from you either. In short, you are fine as you are, assuming you know the actual meaning of the word “you.”
If the seeker is not qualified and hears the modern teaching the vision of non-duality does not stick owing to the presence of various obstacles, the main one being the obdurate tendency to think of oneself as a limited inadequate little worm. You get very high and “enlightened” when you first hear it – you know that there is a self and that you are it and you feel great. But because self-inquiry is not the basic habit of the mind, you “come down” and find yourself flopping around in samsara like a fish out of water when you leave the teacher and return to your everyday life.
In a way, the modern approach is the only way for Westerners because they are so completely time-constrained. The traditional approach began at a time when there were almost no distractions and “survival,” as it is conceived today – which is a joke, really – was not an issue. The Brahmins sent their kids to the home of the teacher where they were treated like family members and taught the tradition from the bottom up. The vision of non-duality was established little by little in an everyday setting and slowly became the natural state of mind.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the traditional approach is that, like any tradition, it acquired trappings, rituals that are beautiful and highly meaningful in a specific context – ancient India, for example – but which have little or no meaning outside of the original context. So when you transpose the tradition and its trappings to the West where so many are turned off to religion, owing to its failure to minister to the spiritual needs of the people, people are put off. Vedanta isn’t a religion and it’s not even vaguely similar to Catholicism with all its apparently mindless rituals, yet when the swamis come to America sporting long beards, dressed in orange robes and set up ashrams with four-armed deities in temples with brass candelabras and marble lotuses and employ priests to chant Sanskrit mantras, it all seems a little cultish and ritualistic. Another danger of the traditional approach is that it often attracts the kind of person who easily gets caught up in the trappings – the lifestyle – and forgets the ultimate purpose of Vedanta.
So what is the sampradya, the tradition, really? It is just a handful of brilliant but common-sense ideas and a way of communicating them that destroys the beliefs and opinions that separate an individual from the self, the only source of lasting happiness. Whether you establish the big picture at the beginning or let it evolve slowly out of the verses, it is all the same, assuming that the seeker is qualified for self-inquiry. So when I read Swami Dayananda’s declaration of independence from Chinmaya, I decided to jettison certain aspects of my guru’s teachings that did not strictly square with the tradition (many did, incidentally), retain the top-down teaching and once the big picture is clear enter the texts verse by verse. It has proved to be a remarkably successful adaptation.
The other day there were five modern Indians in my Bhagavad Gita class in Tiruvannamalai and two of them said that although they had known both Swami Chinmayananda and Swami Dayananda and heard their teachings, they felt that the way I was presenting Vedanta was much better. It isn’t better or worse – Vedanta is Vedanta – but it was better for them. It was a great pleasure to see them light up when they heard the teachings from an irreverent Montana redneck who had cobbled together the best from both mahatmas.
Often people ask how I dared to question my guru’s teachings. Wasn’t it disloyal to jump ship and accept Swami Dayananda as my guru too? It is an understandable doubt because people have the idea that the guru has some kind of final word on all matters spiritual, and to question the teaching and the teacher is a sign of willfulness and lack of devotion to the tradition. But the Vedanta sampradaya is nothing if it not about freedom and discrimination. In fact, Swamiji ignored his guru’s advice at one time and the world is probably a better place for it. Dayananda stuck up for what he believed and reinvigorated the tradition even though it cost him his relationship with a mentor who had nothing but good will for him. It is not a bad thing when gurus do not get what they want or have difficulties in life. They are just people like you and me.
I know that Truth is the only guru and the truth is not fussy about subtle points involving the sampradaya. However we wish to coax it out of the Heart to awaken the mind is fine with it.