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Spiritualism, Shamanism and Vedanta
Seeker: Hello, Isabella. I am a 55-year-old man and live in the UK. I have spent my life trying to understand the mind and emotions in my own haphazard way, latching onto people like Anthony Robbins, Zig Ziglar and other popular speakers, in order to try and educate myself and get an edge or a better perspective on my life, relationships and work. Despite my efforts, my life changed little for the better, regardless.
So my search for “Truth,” as I now call it, started about five years ago, when I met a lady who spoke to me about the spirit world. She explained that I had a lot of activity around me, whatever, that means! Yet I was totally intrigued by this… had I stumbled across an aspect of my existence totally undiscovered… that might hold answers and vital clues, knowledge and information which would be the missing piece of the jigsaw… the thing that would answer all my questions!!?? I quickly found myself visiting a local Spiritualist Church and was given a message by the medium. She said I had been visited by the spirit world many times but I had sent them away and dismissed them… this shocked me. She also said that I could be a good medium and be standing in her shoes one day. From that day my search began and eventually I found James at YouTube, and Vedanta.
I didn’t find any answers in spiritualism, except more questions that I couldn’t find answers for. The world of spiritualism, spirituality, mediums, channelling, healing, chakras, auras, energy, Tarot, etc. is a mine field and an industry full of people believing something correctly or incorrectly or being misled.
I have read many books and listened to many accounts of phenomena witnessed by many in seances and during sessions of healing. These were physical demonstrations carried out by the spirit world… people who had walked this earth and after death were able to show their continued existence. In some seances the spirit person was able to manifest themselves as a living, solid entity by using ectoplasm from the medium’s body. They would talk and touch those in the seance to witness such apparent miracles. Items have been apported to seances by first being dematerialised and then materialised once in the seance room.
There are hundreds of accounts, all witnessed and documented. There is a religion in the UK and the USA called Spiritualism.
My question, Isabella, is to make sense of this, all this information and the words I find in Vedanta. What is going on? What did the gurus, sages and mahatmas know or understand about the spirit world? What relationship has the teachings of Vedanta with any of the activities we are led to understand about the spirit world?
If the spirit world does not exist, then what is it that people are experiencing? There can only be one Truth… can’t there?
For me… it is simple… my search is only for the Truth so that I can identify and dismiss all things unreal and unnecessary. Is it fair to say that my knowledge of Vedanta is too small and in fact the subject is substantial enough to cover topics such as the ones I describe above?
For example, I need to mention one famous medium called Helena Blavatsky or Madame Blavatsky, who wrote The Secret Doctrine, published in two volumes in 1888. She said the books contained knowledge revealed/channelled to her by mahatmas.
I hope my letter is clear to understand and that you understand my question. If not, please let me know so I can clarify.
I look forward to hearing from you… as I believe the answers to this will be of interest to many.
Sundari: Thank you for writing. It is interesting that you ask this question, as this is the third time in the last month that I have answered it. We don’t get this kind of question very often from inquirers, because for the most part, people who are ready for self-knowledge have negated all objects and are moving past the need for experiential enlightenment, which is the necessary precondition for moksa. It seems pretty clear that you are at that point too.
Unfortunately, the factual basis for Blavatsky’s book is non-existent. Although she claimed to have received her information during trances in which mahatmas of Tibet communicated with her and allowed her to read from the ancient Book of Dzyan… but who knows? There is much controversy around her work, the Theosophical Society and all such teachings based on spiritual or psychic phenomena, not least of which because all such information cannot be verified and comes through the personal filters of the “channeller.” While the basis of the work may have been based on an attempt at being impartial, promoting the good of humanity as a whole, it falls far short of a valid, non-dual means of knowledge and has no teaching. That said, spiritualism, shamanism and their ilk, like other “spiritual paths,” have their place in the world where duality is not recognised for what it is: a superimposition onto non-duality. They bring some form of comfort but no real answers to existential suffering.
Other practices such as the enneagram, astrology and numerology can help the person understand something about Isvara’s psychological order. Unfortunately, for the gullible (which is most “spiritual seekers” in the spiritual supermarket) such practices often pose as (and pretend to offer) self-knowledge, when they are nothing more than a subjective means of knowledge for objects only. Many of them are outright bogus.
For clarification: an object is anything other than you, awareness/the self/consciousness. This includes all gross objects like the body and subtle objects like thoughts, feelings as well as all phenomenal experiences, spiritual or not. All objects arise from, are made up of and depend on awareness to exist, but awareness depends on nothing to exist. It is existence itself and is always the only thing that cannot be negated.
What Blavatsky tuned into (and many inquirers get hung up on) is the idea of the “astral realm,” what the Tibetan Buddhists call the “bardo.” It is a realm of the spirits of “enlightened” beings who intercede for and with humans. This Siddha Loka is a supposedly the realm where previously embodied beings who have burned up their karma reside. Many claim to “channel” these beings. It is true that the subtle body never dies – it is called the traveller. Like the universal Jiva, it is an eternal principle in awareness. When the physical body dies, the subtle body does not. It is “suspended between the world of life and death,” awaiting its next incarnation. According to this theory, the subtle bodies of enlightened beings may or may not return to the embodied realm. As they have no personal karma, Isvara can give them a job to do for the good of the total, so they can come back as re-birthed yogis, lamas, mahatmas or avatars.
The problem is, even if there is some subjective truth to this theory, the bottom line is if one does not have discrimination, how does one interpret the information from this field? It is not a valid means of knowledge, because it is open to interpretation. Only the scripture is vetted, tried, tested and proved to be trustworthy as a valid means of knowledge for moksa because it is independent of any one person or person’s opinions or beliefs. Vedanta is not contaminated by personal filters – and it is therefore NOT open to interpretation, which is why Vedanta has to be taught to a qualified mind or the likelihood of the mind interpreting the scripture according to its conditioning (vasanas) is very high. Usually, those interested in these “out-of-body” realms are not qualified for self-knowledge and do not know the difference between ignorance and knowledge. Worse, ignorance is taken to be knowledge. The mind hears what it wants to hear and the ego believes what makes it feel validated.
It is possible to change the individual’s world and experience when conscious and unconscious thoughts are understood in light of self-knowledge. But many people erroneously believe that they can use tricks, such as hypnosis, positive thinking, contact with the spirits through séances or shamanic practices to prevent bad things happening or pervert the course of unconscious negative thoughts – and gain what they want to gain or avoid what they don’t want. Many so-called (usually self-proclaimed) masters have no knowledge of how the dharma field functions or karma yoga, and teach that nothing is impossible with the “right” thoughts. The shamanic way says that the laws that govern this universe can be bent to the will of those who are free from the belief that it is impossible to get what you want with the right attitude, or “magic.”
Vedanta says you can change the programs that run the mind through self-knowledge (even if it’s based on a secular understanding of the mind and the world) and one can work on having a positive attitude. But although you can cultivate deliberate thinking – you have no real control over what thoughts arise in the mind, as they originate from the causal body (the unconscious), and not the mind. And you cannot change the laws running the universe. Karma yoga is an attitude one takes towards actions and their results. It is (1) an attitude of loving consecration of one’s actions based on the understanding that life is a great gift that requires reciprocation and (2) that the results of any action are not up to the individual. All results are up to the Field of Existence, or Isvara. Karma yoga means responding appropriately to what life asks on a moment-to-moment basis.
The main reason that spiritualism, hypnosis and shamanic practices ultimately do not work is because they do not take maya/Isvara – and the vasanas – into account. All you will get with these practices are more vasanas for phenomenal experiences, hypnosis, New-Age The Secret type nonsense and shamanic tricks. The spiritual option is bullshit because it’s underlying premise is based on duality. This “you are master of your destiny” idea is partially true in the short run, but it does not solve the fundamental problem of existential suffering: the binding vasanas and the belief in doership. It does not take into account the sad fact that the conditioned person identified with being a person (duality) is the problem in the first place. As a person your life needs to conform to the truth of existence if you want peace of mind – but the ideas proposed by spiritualism will NOT produce freedom from bondage, as you experienced.
Whatever “truth” or actions these practices promote, the underlying idea is that you can (or must) “do” something to improve or perfect the person and their karma. Vedanta says there is no point in improving the person, because even though it exists it is not real, “real” being defined by “that which is always present and never changes,” which can only ever be applied to awareness. Vedanta also says that no action taken by a limited entity will result in a limitless result – freedom from limitation and suffering. It says that all experience takes place in time and so will end, leaving ignorance untouched unless self-knowledge is assimilated from the experience. Only self-knowledge is capable of removing ignorance. The foundational principle of Vedanta is that, as reality is a non-duality and not a duality, you are not the person, the doer, but awareness. As such there is nothing wrong with you (the person) or your life. The only problem you have is an ignorance problem, thus you believe happiness/freedom is something to be gained. You do not know that your true nature is whole and complete, non-dual, actionless, unlimited, unchanging awareness. And you cannot gain it, because you are it.
Vedanta is unambiguous about ghosts, angels and other disembodied beings. As there is only awareness and all objects have a dependent existence on it, disembodied jivas of whatever ilk are not much different from the supposedly embodied jivas. As reality is non-dual, they are objects that arise in you and are known to you, awareness. The apparent reality is all a dream within a dream; none of it is real. Freedom from limitation means that you have non-dual vision and so have the ability to discriminate awareness (you) from the objects that appear in you – at all times, no exceptions.
Disembodied beings are jivas too and have a subtle body; they still have great attachment to the world of gross objects, just like embodied jivas do. It is desire that keeps them attached, so they are driven by their vasanas. But vasanas cannot be directly seen, whereas the subtle body can be seen, even if it is not seemingly attached to a gross object, like a physical body. Some people can see subtle energies such as disembodied jivas (of whatever nature) more clearly than others and are called “sensitives” or “psychic.” It is just the ability to tune into a different bandwidth, so to speak, much like tuning into a different TV or radio channel. It is no big deal. The magical-thinking types who abound in the spiritual marketplace use this subjective knowledge and present it as though it is truth with a capital “T” – and of course you need to give your power over to them because THEY know what is the truth for you. There is more nonsense in this so-called spiritual world than there is almost everywhere else.
This ability to perceive the subtle realm of disembodied beings is the stuff of mythology and mysticism, and has been around since people walked the planet. It does have some minor benefit in that it can give one the understanding that there is something outside of the information available through the normal organs of perception. The insights available in such cases are much like the insights a drug-induced high or an epiphany can provide. The problem comes in when more import is given to these insights than they actually hold. As stated above, like all subjective experiences, seeing or channelling disembodied beings is of little use unless it delivers self-knowledge – and the knowledge is understood and assimilated. The knowledge this kind of subjective information is supposed to give is that YOU are the knower of what appears in the mind – you are not the experiencing entity. If you see it as coming from some magical, mystical place outside of and beyond you – you are still trapped in duality (ignorance), bound to objects and subjugated by them. It is spiritual materialism, no different from any other materialism – but perhaps more dangerous in terms of giving your power and self-confidence (not to mention common sense!) as the self away.
For knowledge to qualify as knowledge it has to be true to the object and not the subject; therefore subjective knowledge may or may not contain truth, whereas self-knowledge is not dependent on the object; it is self-revealing. Vedanta calls the subjective realm of experience “pratibasika,” which means apparently real, and the information obtained from this is dependent on interpretation. Everyone will experience this realm differently, through the filters of their conditioning, meaning their vasanas.
Vyavaharika refers to the realm of empirical reality, such as Newton’s world of billiard balls and clocks. This realm is apparently predictable and relatively stable. If we are both looking at a mountain, we will probably both agree that it is a mountain. But I might find it a scary mountain and you might find it a peaceful mountain, which will be a result of our subjective view of the mountain. Lastly, one has the realm of paramarthika – the perspective of awareness. This is non-dual vision, where everything is seen as arising from and made up of awareness, as you, even though it depends on you to exist but you do not depend on it. As awareness, you depend on nothing to exist, because you are existence itself, meaning that which is real, always present and never changing.
The Vedas have a body of literature called the Karma Kanda which deals with the different realms in the apparent reality, all the lokas and the myriad jivas that inhabit them, from angelic to demonic. It offers many rituals for jivas who think they are doers and who believe they can supplicate and propitiate the “gods” to fulfil their desires. Spiritualism fits the bill here. Much mystery, import and hype have been attached to this by the spiritual world. These “teachings” are dualistic, desire- and fear-based.
Vedanta – Veda means truth, anta means end, so Vedanta means the truth that is “at the end of the Vedas,” or as we like to say, the knowledge that ends the quest for knowledge – says very clearly, so what? What difference does it make if it is a jiva with or without a gross body? What difference does it make it you can see subtle energies or receive messages from them? If you do not have self-knowledge, you are still ignorant and still suffer. There are no solutions to ignorance in these practices, because there is NO teaching. Spiritualism of every ilk (it bears repeating) is not a valid means of knowledge for awareness. It may be a means of knowledge for subtle objects, but subtle or not they are still objects. At best this kind of relative and highly subjective knowledge may be a leading error in that it makes you realise there is something more than what you think you know or can perceive with the tools and organs available for perception. In your case this seems to be true as it led you to Vedanta, which is a valid means of knowledge and is capable of removing ignorance.
As Vedantins, we are interested in moksa, not silly rituals or the so-called arcane and mysterious world of spirits, “channelled” information or ghosts, because we are engaged in self-inquiry in order to negate the doer and render the binding vasanas non-binding. If you know that your true nature is awareness, and therefore non-dual, you do not supplicate the “spirit realm” (even if you see it as Isvara). The appropriate response as an inquirer is to understand, appreciate, love and serve Isvara in all its forms, with the karma yoga attitude of gratitude because you know that although as awareness you are beyond Isvara, as a jiva – enlightened or not, embodied or not – you live in the apparent reality, and so you are subject to the laws that run the dharma field.
The spiritual circus which for the most part has no idea what non-duality really is makes a big deal about this subjective reality of disembodied beings, thinking it has special powers to give. This is false and a product of ignorance. Having contact with this realm has no more inherent import than seeing a bus going past, a stranger crossing the street, a cat sitting on the neighbour’s wall, a full-moon night, tea leaves in your tea cup, etc. It has the meaning you read into it. Vedanta is about common sense.
Only self-knowledge sets you free of it all. And when you have self-knowledge, all of these things that so fascinate the ego fall away and are seen for what they are: distractions. They make no difference to awareness whatsoever.
I strongly suggest you read James’ books and watch as many videos of him teaching as possible. Feel free to write it you have any further questions.
~ Namaste, Sundari