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Is the Ego an Illusion?

An interview with Bannanje Govindacharya
by Andrew Cohen



Flying in India is always a frightening proposition. In a land where daily power outages are more predictable than train schedules, and where traffic signals (when they work) hold about as much authority as The Clean Water Act, the thought that aircraft maintenance and air-traffic control could be anything more than sophisticated guesswork is, at the very least, a stretch. But as our chartered eight-seater twin-prop plane began its descent back into the Bangalore Airport that stormy evening last December, despite the trepidation with which we had begun our journey that morning—and the wind and rain buffeting our thin sheet metal hull—somehow the only experience any of us could relate to was bliss.

Only a few hours before, we had been deep in the jungled foothills of southern Karnataka at the beautiful new ashram of the man we know only as Ajja or "grandfather"—the extraordinary sage of Advaita Vedanta whose moving declarations of absolute freedom graced the pages of our Fall/Winter 1998 issue—a man whose rare spontaneity, uncontainable joy and infectious peace of being had left all of us convinced beyond a doubt that we had encountered one whose ego truly was no more.

Our meeting that afternoon—our third in as many years—had been a seamless experience. As always, Ajja had been welcoming, generous, delightful, radiant—and absolutely uncompromising in his insistence that for him, there is no personal existence. As a delicious South Indian lunch soon gave way to dialogue, in a matter of minutes the discussion was hovering on that most important and delicate topic that always seems to come to the fore when we encounter a teacher of the ancient Indian nondual philosophy of Advaita Vedanta: How does Advaita, a teaching that proclaims the absolute unity of all things, deal with the complexity of the human experience?

Like the words of the great twentieth-century sages Ramana Maharshi and Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj—men immortalized in the modern spiritual canon as legends of nondual attainment—Ajja's emphatic declarations that "there is nobody here," "the person who sees has gone" and "there is only bliss, there is no one to experience that bliss" were alive with the undeniable presence of that which is forever beyond time and action, name and form. It was clear from his rare purity and simplicity of being that when Ajja said, "There is no ego," he was simply articulating his own ongoing experience.

But coming from contemporary America—where two-day Advaita-based "enlightenment intensives" have become the latest addition to the health spa weekend workshop circuit, and where the unreality of the ego is being boldly declared by a "newly awakened teacher" in nearly every town large enough to have a Wal-Mart—we felt it was worth asking whether Advaita, at least in its contemporary Western form, might be oversimplifying the enormous challenge of genuine spiritual transformation. So when we began our research for this issue and simultaneously began planning our tour of India, we had left open the possibility that perhaps, somewhere along our journey in the land of mystery, we would stumble upon someone who could bring further insight to our ongoing questions.

Enter Bannanje Govindacharya. A pundit and guru of great renown, Govindacharya is known throughout India as a man for whom the scriptures are second nature. With over fifty books and five hundred published articles to his name, the largely self-taught teacher draws enormous audiences nationwide to his public discourses on Vedanta and many other aspects of Indian religion and philosophy. He had first come to our attention two years before as the legendary pundit who had "discovered" the previously unknown Ajja—a fact all the more interesting in light of his own philosophical allegiances. For although Govindacharya is regarded by many to be one of India's foremost experts in Advaita philosophy and had the eyes to recognize Ajja, one of the purest expressions of nondual attainment in modern times, he himself is not an advaitin, but a dvaitin or dualist—a proponent of the devotional Tattwavada school of Vedanta which, in contrast to Advaita, does not deny the reality of the manifest world. Curious to find out what this avowed dualist would have to say about the modern incarnation of Advaita that is capturing the imagination of so many Western seekers, we had been hoping to at some point have the opportunity to speak with him. By luck, our chance to do so all but fell in our laps when a few of Govindacharya's disciples attended a talk by our spiritual teacher, What Is Enlightenment? founder Andrew Cohen. Eager to arrange a dialogue between the two teachers, they invited us to join them at the pundit's home on the evening of our return from Ajja's ashram.

As our plane touched down with a lightness and agility that seemed to paint the morning's fears as merely the play of maya [illusion], our group was abuzz with talk of the coming meeting. What would this classical pundit have to say about Vedanta's views on the ego? Would he only be a man of knowledge or would he also be a man of experience? Looking forward to what the next leg of our journey would bring, we thanked our pilots for our safe deliverance and climbed aboard a motor-rickshaw, hoping we would fare as well in our journey across town as we had in India's friendly skies.


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Our Ego Issue


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