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Throw Away the Shell
Saul: Good day, Ramji.
Do you like walnuts? I love them – as long as they are in a shell: non-dual walnut bhakti. It’s non-dual because I don’t eat the shell, just the walnut. I crack the shell open, consume the nuts inside and toss the shell away. That’s how I feel about Vedanta and Hinduism.
You have spent a good amount of time in India and gotten immersed in the culture. But as with most Westerners studying Vedanta, I have not. I know you have said in the past that one does not have to go to India or become a Hindu to study Vedanta. But Vedanta does arise from Hindu culture, at least, if not from Hinduism. So, where does one draw the line?
Years ago, I was turned off by the plethora of deities and various realms in Tibetan Buddhism, and I turned to Zen Buddhism instead. Now, I come up against the same thing at my local Chinmaya Ashram. I am the only non-Indian there and find myself completely in the dark as to references to so many deities and realms in satsangs and readings, even in the Gita, not to mention the seemingly endless chanting in Indian-led Vedanta satsangs.
For example, yesterday I went to a two-hour, two-lecture satsang. It was preceded by a half-hour of chanting and closed with another 20 minutes of chanting. I was already aware of the three points Swamiji made in the first lecture. In the second lecture, I learned an interesting facet about Swami Chinmayananda that I had not known. But I felt really uncomfortable during all the chanting, especially being the only non-Indian there. So I smiled politely and offered up my discomfort as a sadhana, and sat to the end, doing my own mental japa – in English of course. This is the second time that has happened.
I stopped going to a Ramana study group due to over an hour of opening chants before the lessons begin. Now, I am considering not going to any more of the Indian-led Vedanta satsangs. My Vedanta study group at a satellite center is fine – limited chanting – although the archarya has a thick accent and speaks too fast. But I can live with that.
Whether attending or listening to one your satsangs, there is minimal chanting to open and close the satsang. You may drop a couple of chants in the lecture to make a point, but you always explain the meaning, the same with any Sanskrit terms.
I realize that many of the deities and realms presented in the Vedas and the Puranas are symbolic of various psychological and subconscious factors, including vasanas that drive the human condition. Perhaps if I were young, I would be more inclined to immerse myself in this aspect of Hindu culture. But at this stage in life, just like eating a walnut, I would prefer to draw out the nectar of Vedanta and leave the flower of Hinduism to those good souls who have been nurtured and raised on it. So I have learned some of the important Sanskrit terms as well as a few standard chants and have discarded the rest. Hopefully, it is enough to do my sadhanas and karma yoga, and continue with the readings, my study group and your satsangs.
What is your advice to a jiva like me? Where would you draw the line? How much Sanskrit, chanting and scriptures is enough for sadhana and eventual qualification for nirguna Isvara jnanam? Of course it varies by person and how much diligence one is willing to perform.
I will give you an example from martial arts. There was a young man in Southern China who began studying Baguazhang, which has eight basic palm changes and up to 64 advanced changes. Well, this young man only learned the first two changes, then went up north to seek work, as his old parents were destitute. For five years he practiced those two palm changes every day while working in the field. Meanwhile, his fellow Bagua students had learned all the palm changes. When the young man returned to his school in the south, the other students were astounded. None of them could defeat him. In fact he could easily defeat several of them at a time.
I realize it is difficult to give a definitive answer, since every jiva has different vasanas. But any guidlines you can give with regard to Sanskrit chanting and attending Indian-led rituals and satsangs would be much appreciated.
Thank you once again for very clear and always to-the-point teachings.
~ Be well, Saul
James: Hi, Saul.
I understand the problem. The chanting and deity worship aren’t necessary. If it agitates you to chant, etc. then don’t go. It seems you are clear that you want moksa, which is the primary qualification. You have more than enough knowledge to practice inquiry. Just discriminate the objects from the subject on a moment-to-moment basis and take the karma yoga attitude with reference to action, and make a point of enjoying yourself whatever you do. Self-inquiry is bhakti yoga (read my book The Yoga of Love), so the devotional side is already in place. To recap: throw away the shell.
~ Love, James