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Is Experience Superior to Knowledge?
Bob seemed rather perturbed by my post about mystic and non-mystic Advaita. I didn’t have any feelings about his reaction, because I know that most conflicts are born of misunderstanding of words. I don’t dispute Bob’s direct experience or the conclusion he drew from it, i.e. that he is limitless awareness. In fact, if you read my writings on knowledge and experience, I point out that moksa can be “gained” by extracting the knowledge from a “non-dual” epiphany. The most well-known example is Ramana Maharshi. He made an inquiry, which produced an experience, from which he drew the same conclusion, which is why he touted self-inquiry as a means to moksa. I had many such experiences and came to the same conclusion when I was an inquirer until knowledge became, as Shankara says, “a hard and fast conviction,” after which the experiences stopped.
However, when you belittle or dismiss knowledge gained purely from the words of shruti because they are not backed up by mystic experience, you make a grave error. Experience-oriented people usually think that knowledge derived by sravana and manana is somehow invalid; only “intellectual” is the word most commonly used to dismiss it. The many people who have gained self-knowledge fall into these two groups: mystic and non-mystic Advaitins, of which the second group is by far the largest. Not one qualification for moksa listed in Vivekachoodami or elsewhere is called “mystic experience” or “direct experience.” If it was, then there would be no point inquiring; one would simply have to wait for Isvara to produce the experience that brings on assimilated self-knowledge. What you don’t see in Bob’s post is all the effort that he must have done prior to his experience. Experience is a decaying time capsule meant to deliver knowledge.
The knowledge can come directly in the sravana phase if the person is highly qualified. It can come in the manana phase during the conscious resolution of self-doubt related to a comprehensive understanding of the complete teachings or it can come in the most ordinary non-mystic situations. I have a good friend who paused on the threshold of her front door and had two thoughts: “the world is not real” followed by the knowledge “I am limitless awareness.” The knowledge remained firm till the day she recently died, and it was proceeded by no formal self-inquiry nor by a mystic “non-dual” experience.
If reality is non-dual, experience is not superior to knowledge. The conclusion Ted drew, like Ramana and others, is purely an intellectual conclusion. Where is the experience that generated it now? When you tout the experience side of moksa at the expense of the knowledge side, you don’t do the world a favor, because most inquirers value experience more than knowledge. So they are forever waiting for the big experience that will prove the words of scripture to be true. Since anything is possible in Maya, there may be such an experience waiting for you, some call it grace. And there may not. All that is required for moksa is an intellectual conclusion because the opposite conclusion – I am limited, incomplete and inadequate – is purely intellectual because you are, have always been and will always be the limitless, non-dual self.
The circumstances that produced this conclusion are irrelevant, once the knowledge is firm. Life goes on. There is no need for some mind-blowing, mystic, non-dual experience henceforth, and generally Isvara doesn’t supply them.
The point is that there is only non-dual direct experience sometimes accompanied by the belief that non-dual direct experience is a special event required for moksa.
The Vedanta sampradaya is a big tent, the biggest in fact. The belief that experience is superior to knowledge is just a belief. You would certainly increase your chances of moksa if you think that knowledge is superior, because genuine non-dual epiphanies are rare and most who have them are not qualified to interpret them properly. And even if they do, the knowledge “I am limitless existence/awareness” rarely becomes firm owing to the presence of binding vasanas. In fact it usually creates a binding vasana for non-dual epiphanies.
People like the idea of experience because it is sexy. Somehow, toiling away daily in the salt mines of self-inquiry is not glamorous. Nobody appreciates you. But when you have a big, mind-blowing, transcendental experience, everyone perks up and listens. You can hang out a shingle and “teach.” You can get fame, money, sex, power, etc. How titillating! I tip my hat to the tens of thousands of simple, humble, unsung heroes who keep their heads down and faithfully do their sadhana until the knowledge that sets one free dawns.