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Doubt the Teaching and the Teacher
Seeker: Hi, James.
I have bought and read several of your books, and have studied your website extensively. I have found the information very helpful and appreciate the time and effort that you have spent in providing that information to the public. I was introduced to Vedanta by your YouTube videos. I recently moved to another city and joined the Ramakrishna order. They emphasize bhakti yoga and say that jhana yoga is only meant for a rare few and is an unrealistic path for most people. I have been practicing bhakti yoga for about six months and have obtained some good results, and find that they are consistent with the non-dualistic teachings. I returned to your website to supplement my bhakti practice, but one question still burns within me, and that is concerning your credentials as a Vedanta teacher. I read your autobiography, and it looks as if you are self-appointed and that you were actually instructed by your guru to undergo further training at some facility (I have forgotten the name) but instead went your own way and decided to teach. So are you a self-appointed teacher? And if so, how is that different from all the charlatans out there who claim they are legitimate teachers? Maybe that is the difference between a guru and a teacher? I have learned to be very careful in who I am listening to concerning spirituality and just want to be sure. I would appreciate any response that might clarify this issue for me. Thanks.
James: I agree that suspicion about spiritual teachers is totally warranted. The answer to your question is no. Swami Chinmayananda authorized me to teach. Assuming that I am looking for someone to teach, which I’m not, unfortunately there is no way for you to verify my statement insofar as I am going to say I’m not self-appointed if I am, since you are interested “my” teaching. So the best way to solve this problem is to study Vedanta as Isvara teaches through me and see if it makes sense. Of course there is a problem with this approach too insofar as you actually need a teacher to help you interpret the teachings according to the tradition. But if you trust my answer, I suggest you read The Essence of Enlightenment. It lays out the whole Vedanta teaching with great clarity. Another reasonable way to determine whether or not I’m authentic is through the satsangs on the website, which are all basically testimonials to the power of Vedanta to cause Self-realization and transform lives in line with dharma. It’s pretty unlikely that the hundreds of people that write to me are all deluded.
It’s true that some people think I am totally deluded, usually because I have the temerity to question the teachings of several popular Neo-Advaita teachers in light of the teachings of traditional Vedanta, which I make very clear are not “mine” and are corroborated by the teachings of Swami Chinmayananda, Swami Dayananda and Swami Paramarthananda, who are traditional sanyassis in the Saraswati order. Incidentally, I stayed in contract with my teachers as long as they were alive. I get perhaps one letter informing me that I am deluded to fifty informing me that I am teaching properly, not that popularity is an indicator of truth. I also publish the letters questioning my authenticity and my response to them, as I will do with yours.
As far as the question of jnana and bhakti, here is an excerpt from an article I wrote, based on an essay written by the late Swami Dayananda Saraswati entitled What Is Adviata Vedanta? It will be very helpful, I think, although it is not the complete argument. I attached the whole article to this email for your edification. I think it does not necessarily contradict the idea you picked up from the Ramakrishna order insofar as most beginners are not qualified for jnana insofar as they are not renunciants. The Ramakrishna Mission caters exclusively to householders these days. However, Vivekananda himself had a lot to do with promoting the multi-path confusion in the series of books he wrote around the turn of the last century: Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga and Raja Yoga, which were my first contact with Vedanta and derivative Vedanta-like teachings.
The idea that Self-knowledge can be gained in four different ways is a corruption that took place in India long before Vedanta was exported to the West. According to this idea, each path is called a yoga and is different from the other three. Each was meant for a different type of person. The path of devotion was meant to serve the needs of predominately emotional persons. The path of action was intended for extroverted, action-oriented people, and the path of knowledge was designed for those with an intellectual orientation. And raja yoga, the eightfold path, was for a person who was anyone who was not one of the other types.
That one can gain Self-knowledge through action is an obvious absurdity because knowledge requires a means and action is not a valid means of knowledge. In fact action to gain something someone already has is motivated by ignorance. Rather than erase one’s ignorance of oneself, it will only serve to reinforce the ill-considered belief in oneself as a doer of “selfless” action, a devotee of God, or a knower of truth – all egoic identities.
The Vedas actually only prescribe two lifestyles relevant to the quest for liberation: that of the householder and that of the renunciant. The renunciant pursues Self-knowledge exclusively and has no obligatory duties. The householder is enjoined to perform action in a certain spirit to prepare his or her mind for Self-knowledge.
If someone thinks of himself or herself as a devotee exclusively, this identity is not warranted, because devotional practices like pujas, chanting and meditation/prayer are all karmas, activities. So in fact this person is just a karma yogi, a doer of ritualistic actions. Additionally, devotion is not a quality unique to any individual or path, but is found in anyone pursuing a spiritual goal. One does not pursue Self-knowledge or Self-experience without devotion, for example. So the idea of devotion as a particular path is not found in the Vedas.
Although not found in the Vedas proper, the idea of integral yoga became associated with Vedanta in the last century, primarily through the writings of Sri Aurobindo. According to this view, because the subtle body has three inner centers, the mind (emotions/feelings), intellect and ego, which are often in conflict, three “techniques” are necessary to fuse it into an instrument capable of knowing the Self and retaining that knowledge permanently. Devotional practice is meant to be useful in transforming gross emotions into devotion for God, who is non-separate from the Self. Action yoga is helpful in identifying ego and wearing away its concept of itself as a doer. And the practice of knowledge trains the mind to think from the Self’s point of view, rather than the ego’s, eventually harmonizing the individual with the natural order of things, thus reducing stress and conflict. At best this view is helpful in preparing the mind for Self-knowledge but it does not, for the reasons mentioned above, qualify as a valid means of Self-knowledge.
~ Om and prem, James