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Vedanta Is Not a System
Martin: Dear James, I was reading about Swami Dayananda at Wikipedia and found this quote:
“In 1961, with the permission of Swami Chinmayananda, Natarajan went to study under Swami Pranavananda at Gudivada (near Vijayawada) to clarify many of his doubts on Vedanta and self-enquiry. The stay with Swami Pranavananda helped Natarajan learn one thing clearly – that Vedanta is a pramana (means of knowledge) to know the truth of the Self. In Natarajan’s own words, ‘I saw the Swami giving direct knowledge to the people he was teaching. This resolved all my conflicts. My problems with Vedanta had been my mistaken notion that it was a system.’”
I’m not sure exactly what he means; what is the difference between Vedanta and a “system”? Thanks.
James: Generally, Vedanta is thought to be a philosophical “system,” a body of ideas concerning a certain topic, in this case, self-knowledge, or moksa. A philosophy or a system of thought is the contention of an individual or a group of individuals. Existentialism or Marxism, for example, are systematic attempts to explain variously existential or social and economic phenomena. Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Sufism are spiritual or mystical “systems.” Vedanta looks like a system, a complex and detailed body of ideas, about consciousness and its relationship to suffering and freedom. Mostly it is thought of in this way by seekers and intellectuals. They “study” it like you would study the stock market or any other discipline of thought. And if they are dedicated they become knowledgeable about Vedanta.
But this is not what Vedanta is for. It is unlike any other discipline because the topic is the self, the one who wants to study Vedanta. The problem with studying the self is that it is not something that can be objectified. That is to say that it cannot be an object of thought. Vedanta can be an object of thought but the self cannot. And since you cannot see the self or feel the self or think the self, studying Vedanta won’t reveal the self. So how does Vedanta work? Just as you need eyes to see objects, you need a special kind of “eye” to see the Self. It is called the jnana chaksu, the “eye” of knowledge. The eyes are a pramanam, a means of knowledge, for objects. Vedanta is a pramanam for the self. And just as when you open your eyes you see objects, when you see though the teachings of Vedanta you see the self. So it is a pramana for the self.
The eyes you can operate yourself. You can direct them to certain objects and gain knowledge of the objects. The mind you can operate yourself. It is a pramana, a means of knowledge, for ideas. You can think according to certain rules. But you cannot operate Vedanta yourself. It has to be operated ON you. You have to understand what it does and be qualified to have it worked on you, meaning that you have to keep your mind open, follow the logic of the teachings as they are unfolded by the teacher. The scripture, the qualified student and a skillful teacher constitute the whole means of knowledge, the pramana.
Vedanta pramana does not give you a bunch of ideas about the self. It uses logic to destroy the ignorance about it. The only thing standing in the way of your appreciation of yourself are certain incorrect ideas about yourself, like “I am the body, mind, Martin,” etc. So the teacher works the logic on you and your ignorance drops. You are the self before, during and after Vedanta does its job. But once the pramana has done its job you are freed of erroneous notions about who you are.