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Traditional or Non-Traditional Vedanta

heart writing

We all have reasons to justify our likes and dislikes. Some Vedantins criticize me because of a peculiar duality: traditional vs. non-traditional. Obviously the Truth is beyond tradition. Many years ago Swami Dayananda wrote a small pamphlet to explain why he no longer felt comfortable teaching with Swami Chinmayanada. His first statement is, “I call myself a teacher of traditional Vedanta.” Much later Swami Paramarathananda, Dayananda’s foremost disciple, explained the difference between mystic and non-mystic non-dualists, which I summarized in a recent satsang posted on ShiningWorld, although he did not refer to Chinmaya or Dayananda. It is an important issue that highlights the relationship between experience and knowledge, which is the signature issue of Dayanada’s pamphlet. It is also summarized in an article entitled ‘What is Advaita Vedanta,’ posted in the publications section of ShiningWorld.

Almost fifty years ago I realized that I was the Self at the feet of Swami Chinmaya who was a mystic non-dualist and for several years I taught his style of Vedanta, which was called ‘modern Vedanta’. One day I read the pamphlet mentioned above, when I realized the limitations of mystic non-dualism. Mind you, Isvara sends the teacher you need. If you are qualified and the teacher is skillful you will be set free, irrespective of the style of teaching.

Keep in mind that both mystic and non-mystic non-dualists teach non-duality. One style is easier for experience-oriented people and the other for knowledge oriented people, although both have downsides. The downside for experience-oriented individuals is the tendency to think of liberation as a discrete experience and the downside for knowledge-oriented people is the tendency to expect some kind of non-dual experience to confirm the knowledge. So, in an extremely important contribution to the Vedanta sampradaya, Swami Dayananda made the distinction clear, coming down heavily on the side of knowledge. However, gaining and retaining knowledge is also experiential so you can’t dismiss experience either. You can only know the difference. And you can’t dismiss the experience-oriented approach because epiphanies very often kick-start inquiry which leads to understanding the value of knowledge. Having said that, he was not the first teacher to make this distinction as it is built into the fundamental premise of the Upanishads. If reality is non-dual consciousness, everything is non-dual consciousness, including me and my experience, which means that I am always experiencing the Self which, in turn means that my fundamental problem is ignorance if I don’t enjoy the bliss of Self knowledge.

It is understandable but sad that some Vedanta people who did not know both Chinmaya and Dayanada allowed their views of Dayananda’s teaching to prejudice them against mystic non-dualism. A number of these people look down on me because I got Self knowledge from Chinmaya, even though I have been passionately teaching Dayanada’s non-mystic style for the last 40 years. But when you are a partisan, it is often difficult to see the forest for the trees. There are many Western people who are not just fascinated with Vedanta but with the Indian culture that nourished it. They have the idea that Vedanta is only ‘real’ Vedanta if it comes in a certain package…India, orange clothing, Sanskrit, etc. Recently one of my admirers went off to India to study with one of Swami Dayananda’s disciples because he assumed that study with an Indian in an Indian ashram was required because that was what happened to me. A year later he returned free of that idea. In Atma Bodh Shankara said that circumstances are necessary auxiliaries but only knowledge ‘cooks the food.’ The truth is beyond all forms. Chinmaya wanted me to become a sanyassi but Isvara had other ideas. I am an American and when in Rome I do what the Roman’s do. It is only sensible. Once my path was clear he supported me one hundred percent.

Most people do not know what a mahatma really is. Both Swami Dayananda and Swami Chinmaya were mahatmas. It is important for Dayananda devotees to know that Swami Dayananda served Chinmaya for many years and it was due to Chinmaya’s love for him that he became so well known so early in his life. They simply had different ideas about how to teach Vedanta based on their own svadharama and the needs of the total during their lifetimes. But the point is that Vedanta stands above the teacher. The teacher is glorious because of the teaching. Yes, if a teacher is glorious, he or she will be a great advertisement for Vedanta, but that is all. As long as you use the traditional/non-traditional duality to make yourself feel special, there is still work to do.

It is often the case that people come to me and become inspired about Vedanta and I teach them as best I can. But when I tell them something they don’t want to hear or if I behave like a normal person they lose interest in me and, having heard about Swami Dayananda and some of his disciples, they think that they will get the ‘real’ teaching from a ‘real’ mahatma. So they write me off on some pretext, which is fine for me, but not fine for them because it means that they have confused the name and form with the truth and kept duality alive in their minds.

Your enlightenment is not special because, like mine, it has the smell of India. It is quite lovely if it does, but Isvara stands above concepts like East and West, traditional and non-traditional, my guru and your guru. I make a big point in every seminar that ‘guru’ is just a hat that I put on when I am invited to teach. It is not a career or a lifestyle. When I step down from the podium I am just a regular guy. How can this small person co-opt Isvara’s glory?

Where to Begin?

New to Vedanta?
Resources for those who may be encountering Vedanta for the first time and might be wondering what it’s all about.

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The Vedanta Foundation Course will give you— in plain and modern English— everything you need to become familiar with Vedanta, and prepare you to study the scriptures in depth.

Advanced Course
Once you have developed a firm understanding of Vedanta by completing the Beginners Course, you are ready to undertake a systematic study of the Vedantic scriptures themselves.

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