It is a unique characteristic of Advaita Vedanta that most of its prominent modern figures, those who stand out as radiant examples of the power and glory of Absolute realization, generally seem to have had little, if any, formal traditional training. Ramana Maharshi, for instance, probably the most universally recognized teacher of Advaita in the twentieth century, was spontaneously enlightened at the age of sixteen with no prior spiritual practice or study. The fiery Advaita master and author of I Am That
, Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, realized the Absolute after only three years with his guru. And in speaking with a number of contemporary Advaita teachers for this issue, we were intrigued to find that one thing almost all of these individuals have in common is a striking independence from the monastic orders, teaching systems and sacred texts of the very tradition from which their teachings spring.
But Advaita Vedanta is, in fact, a 1,300-year-old tradition that traces its roots even further back to the Upanishads, a collection of divinely inspired scriptures over 2,500 years old. Embodying the Hindu philosophy of nonduality, which holds that only the one Absolute, undivided Self is ultimately real, Advaita has several monastic orders, a rich body of literature and a long history of formal philosophical discourse. Given that our own exploration of Advaita for this issue of WIE
had exposed us to such a diverse array of contemporary teachers and teachings, we had grown increasingly curious about what someone classically trained in the traditional methods and doctrine would have to say in response to our questions. It was our quest for such a traditionalist that ultimately landed us in the jungle of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, at the ashram of Swami Dayananda Saraswati.
Swami Dayananda is, by his own description, a traditional teacher of Advaita Vedanta. A close disciple of the widely respected late Vedanta teacher Swami Chinmayananda, he began teaching over thirty years ago after a disciplined spiritual search that included both intensive study of the classical scriptures and several years on retreat in the Himalayan foothills. In that time, he has gained an illustrious reputation both in India and abroad as a fierce upholder of the tradition. He has published twenty-one books, including several translations of and commentaries on the traditional texts, and has established three ashrams (two in India and one in the United States) where his intensive courses in Vedanta are taught year-round.
Surrounded by rainforest about thirty miles outside Coimbatore, Swami Dayananda's newest ashram, Arsha Vidya Gurukulam,
is a sprawling complex of halls and dormitories capable of accommodating approximately three hundred people. At the time of our visit there were about one hundred students in residence for a three-year course, including thirty or so Westerners, many of whom, we learned, had left behind successful careers in order to attend. In addition to hosting these longer, residential courses, the ashram also receives many distinguished short-term visitors including, we were told, some of India's biggest movie stars and political leaders, the former President of India among them.
During our first day there we had an opportunity to sit in on some of Swami Dayananda's classes, and when we did, it became apparent to us that, in his desire to perpetuate the tradition, what Swami Dayananda has established is not the contemplative retreat environment one might expect to find at the ashram of an Indian guru, but rather a sort of spiritual academy, its goal being first and foremost the acquisition of knowledge about Vedanta. Students' days are spent in the classroom, seated on the floor behind short wooden desks, listening to Swami Dayananda read from the ancient Sanskrit texts, pausing after each verse to give often elaborate commentary. When students are not in class or engaged in their ashram duties, they are either studying independently or meeting with Swami Dayananda, who in addition to teaching three long classes each day makes himself available between classes for less formal discussions.
What we found most intriguing about Swami Dayananda's intensely scholastic approach was its unusual lack of emphasis on spiritual practice. The only formal practice period at the ashram is thirty minutes of meditation in the morning. We would soon learn that spiritual practices have no significant place in the program for one simple reason: to Swami Dayananda, they are essentially irrelevant to the path. The one thing that is
relevant, he feels, is study—sincere study of the sacred texts of Vedanta.
According to Swami Dayananda, most contemporary exponents of Advaita Vedanta are seriously misguided in their approach. He feels that in overemphasizing the pursuit of transcendent experience, they have missed the entire point of the ancient teachings. In traditional Advaita Vedanta, he asserts, it is held that sacred scripture itself is the only reliable means to clear away ignorance and reveal direct knowledge of the Absolute
. He writes: "Just as the eyes are the direct means to know color and form, Vedanta is the direct means . . . to know one's true nature and resolve confusions regarding Atma [the Self]." It is therefore only by applying ourselves to a disciplined study of the revealed words of the great sages, he feels, that we can attain the knowledge that will liberate us from delusion.
Fueled by his conviction in the supreme efficacy of scriptural study, Swami Dayananda is unabashed in his criticism of "mystics" who say that the way to enlightenment is through spiritual experience alone. In fact, both in his writings and in one of our dialogues with him, he even went so far as to express doubt about the realization of the widely revered but unschooled
modern sage Ramana Maharshi—adding that
there may be millions of Indian householders with a similar level of attainment!
While such statements initially took us by surprise, we would later discover through dialogues with a number of leading Western Advaita scholars that similar sentiments are held by many Advaita traditionalists. Even one of the living Shankaracharyas—the head of one of the four monastic institutions allegedly established by Advaita's founder, Shankara—also denies the validity of Ramana's attainment, apparently for the simple reason that someone who wasn't formally trained in Vedanta couldn't possibly
be fully enlightened!
Our visit to Swami Dayananda's ashram turned out to be a fascinating education. Over the course of our three-day stay, we met formally with Swami Dayananda four times for what turned out to be a wide-ranging series of dialogues. During that time, what had begun as an ashram curiosity—a small group of Westerners with an American spiritual teacher who had come to interview their guru—rapidly escalated into one of the most talked about and well-attended events at the ashram. From our second session onward, the meeting room was overflowing out the door as disciples crowded in to listen to the discussion. And between meetings, we regularly found ourselves in conversation with students eager both to discuss points that had arisen in the interview and to suggest questions for the next round.
Throughout the sessions, Swami Dayananda revealed himself to be every bit the traditionalist we had expected, sharing in his answers to our questions his comprehensive understanding of both the tradition itself and the subtleties of Advaita philosophy. Yet while we left his ashram in many respects much clearer about the history and doctrines of the Advaita tradition, our visit had also raised some fascinating questions. Wasn't it intriguing, we found ourselves asking as our taxi made its way back to the airport, that within a tradition dedicated to the profound and radical realization of the Absolute, there are learned and devoted authorities who feel compelled to distance themselves from the powerfully realized mystics to whom many of that tradition's own followers look for inspiration? If, in so doing, they are upholding the "purity" of the tradition, what does that mean about the nature of enlightenment, to which the Advaita path is intended to lead?
Ramana Maharshi said, "No learning or knowledge of scriptures is necessary to know the Self, as no man requires a mirror to see himself." Swami Dayananda, on the other hand, had just told us that "we have no means of knowledge for the direct understanding of Self-realization, and therefore Vedanta is the means of knowledge that has to be employed for that purpose. No other means of knowledge will work."
enlightenment? Is it simply a shift in understanding that can be brought about, as Swami Dayananda insists, entirely through the study of sacred texts? Or is it, as some of the most radiant examples of this powerful teaching have proclaimed, the world-shattering revelation of a mystery that lies forever beyond the mind?