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Where to Begin with Vedanta
Joe: Is there a site that list all Advaita teachers? And their lineage? There are so many teachers of Hindu tradition that I am kind of lost.
Rory: The best listing of Vedanta teachers I have found is at this link. Advaita.org is quite a good resource. It’s created by a British guy named Dennis Waite.
I suggest traditional Vedanta for the simple reason that the sampradaya (teaching tradition) has carefully guarded the teaching over the millennia to retain its pristine clarity and purity. Vedanta is a body of knowledge – the teacher is simply an instrument wielding it and should refrain from fiddling with it or trying to modify/improve it. It basically can’t be improved – it’s a time-tested methodology that has been setting people free for many centuries.
I recommend teachers from my lineage simply because I can vouch for the integrity and purity of the teaching. Obviously, I highly recommend James Swartz, my own teacher. He is an excellent entry point for many because he makes the teaching highly accessible to Westerners without compromising its purity and integrity. His books The Essence of Vedanta and How to Attain Enlightenment are superb and cover everything.
I also recommend anyone from the Swami Dayananda Saraswati lineage.
Swami Paramarthananda is superb – one of the greatest teachers alive today; check the introductory talks here.
Joe: Is Advaita Vedanta a unified view or do diffferent teachers have variations in their views?
Rory: Vedanta is a body of knowledge based upon the “triple canon” of the Upanishads, Brahma Sutras and Bhagavad Gita. What is generally called “Advaita Vedanta” is Vedanta as it was consolidated and taught by Adi Shankara in the eighth century. It’s structured and taught a certain, precise way because that’s the way it get results.
There are some discrepancies that have crept in when certain teachers have deviated a little from the teaching tradition. This can create some confusion. One notable example is Swami Vivekananda, who brought Vedanta to the West at the turn of the twentieth century. He tried to adapt the teaching a little in a bid to “market” it to the Western mind. That’s why I’m a little more cautious recommending anyone in the Ramakrishna/Vivekananda lineage without knowing more about the teaching.
The Dayananda lineage is, as far as I know, pure and completely in line with what Shankara taught.
Joe: I read that some differentiate between Advaita and Neo-Advaita.
Rory: Indeed. This article by James Swartz explains the differences between Vedanta and Neo-Advaita (generally, Neo-Advaita teachers do not consider themselves “Neo-Advaita”; they usually call themselves “Advaita” teachers, which should maybe be the red flag. ☺
Neo-Advaita consists of often predominantly Western people cherry-picking parts of Vedanta’s teaching and offering that as “pointers,” while lacking a clear and coherent teaching methodology. They may or may not be enlightened, it’s impossible to say, but they generally aren’t particularly great teachers, because they lack the complete teaching and usually just wax lyrical about how it’s “unteachable” and a “pathless path,” etc. I don’t know anyone who has got enlightened by Neo-Advaita teachers, but for many it can be a first step. For instance, before I discovered Vedanta I’d been quite into Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti. It’s highly unlikely to take you the whole way, but it can get you into the ballpark.
Joe: Do you know what are the most recognized living teachers that I can watch on YouTube?
Rory: This series by James Swartz is about as good as you’ll find.
Joe: Is Rupert Spira or Eckhart Tolle Advaita Vedanta?
Rory: Neo-Advaita. They are probably on the better end of the Neo-Advaita spectrum, and their teachings may be of some help to beginners. But their teaching is limited. I don’t know much about Rupert Spira. I haven’t really listened to him. I’ve heard people compliment him and say he’s quite good. As far as I understand, as with the other Neos, he doesn’t have A to Z teaching, however. In order to “get” this, a certain framework and structure is really necessary, one that covers all the bases.
Joe: Personally, when I hear Rupert Spira saying that we are already enlightened and there is nothing to do, I think it is bullshit.
Rory: Well, this demonstrates the problem with Neo-Advaita. Rupert Spira and others can make statements like that, but they aren’t able to adequately explain them, so it often just confuses and deludes people.
In one sense, it’s true. The self, which is what we actually are, was never “unenlightened,” because it’s the very light by which we experience everything – the self-luminous awareness in which all objects and experiences arise and subside. But “enlightenment” doesn’t apply to the self, only the mind. Until the mind is aware that our nature is pure awareness and not the body-mind-ego and whatever mental concepts we have of who we think we are, we continue to suffer according to that false identification.
The self is already there, already ever-present – we don’t have to DO anything to become this self. But there is ignorance in the mind, ignorance with regard to our essential nature, and until that ignorance is removed, suffering continues. That does take work – i.e. preparing the mind and exposing it to the teaching repeatedly until the knowledge is assimilated and the locus of our identity shifts from the ego to the self (awareness).