1.5 Is Vedanta Relevant Today?

This sub-module is an exact representation of a Satsang written by James Swartz.
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The Question

James Swartz

James Swartz

For ten years I have been replying to questions by email. My website ShiningWorld.com has more than 1,500 pages of satsangs generated by these questions. Most of them stick to the topic – self-inquiry – but sometimes I get one that is suitable for my blog. A woman from California whom I shall call Cathy wrote:

Some individuals believe ancient traditions need to evolve as ‘we’ do – that a new, integral spiritual evolution is called for. Like a Neo-Neo-Neo. It’s the new mantra. I hear you (and others) saying, ‘Hey, it worked for thousands of years for millions of others… why wouldn’t it work for “me”?’ Then I hear those who say the opposite – that we’re different humans – physiologically, mentally and perhaps also spiritually, and that we need to evolve our traditions to keep pace6 or something like that. What is your view?

The Answer

And here is my reply:

The Human Mind Is Still The Same

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This is what I call a chronocentric argument. Mind you, I am not a fundamentalist who thinks the world was created in six days. Darwin’s idea, which corresponds with common sense and reason, makes sense to me.

That the body we presently inhabit is marginally different from what it was one or two million years ago is a fact, but that it is an improvement is not necessarily a fact, assuming that the word “evolution” means improvement.

It was probably as perfect as it needed to be for Cro-Magnon man and the issues he faced. The one we have now is not significantly different but will probably get us through the difficulties we face too.

But a human being is more than a food tube. In spite of the minor changes to the body over time, there is no evidence that in the days of yore we were not conscious, had more or less than ten senses, a mind, intellect, memory and ego and were not driven by driven by fear of and desire for various things.

For the spiritual evolution argument to make sense, its proponents would have to show that the subtle body – the mind, intellect, ego and memory – were fundamentally different from what they are today. And they would have to show that human beings then did not desire and fear the same kinds of things we do.

If human beings had the same equipment for experience then as we do now and similar priorities and values – security and pleasure, power, virtue, etc. – how much evolution has taken place?

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Advanced Technology Does Not Make Us Different

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Additionally, the elements and forces that make up the field in which we live are the same as they were millions of years ago. Granted, the gadgets we use to cope with our environment have changed. But is technology a reasonable basis for the belief that we are different from our ancestors?

The plow, for example, is still an iron implement that disturbs the earth. Is it an improvement over its wooden predecessor?

Did not the wooden plow – or the sharp stick that proceeded it – serve the needs of the humans that used it at the time? You may consider a long bank of steel plows or a device with dozens of nozzles that sprays poison on the earth as it is pulled by a huge polluting tractor an evolutionary advance, but is it an improvement?

It is apparently what we need to survive these days but is it a sign of advanced intelligence?

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Modern Human Life Isn’t Much Different

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Furthermore, on the human side, are we actually doing anything different from what we have done for millenia? The sun comes up and the sun goes down – as it has forever. We procreate, eat, sleep, walk, talk and die.

We seek food and shelter. We love certain things and hate certain things. We lie, cheat and steal. We wage war. We paint on our walls like the cave dwellers at Lascaux. We worship our idea of God and believe in angels and devils.

Some of us think the world is about to end disastrously and others believe that The Millennium is at hand. Did the human beings who went before do anything else? Did they think differently?

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We Are Not “Evolved”

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Chronocentrism is a disease that afflicts every generation. To put it simply, it is the belief that complex technology is a sign of superior intelligence, “evolution,” if you will.

When you look at the effects of complex technology on the environment and the human body, it is difficult to accept the idea that we are somehow better than our ancestors, that we are in fact even superior to our animal brethren.

No animal that I am aware of builds a nest, defecates in it and lives in it. And even if some animals do, they can be excused insofar as they have yet to evolve intellects.

Yet today the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat is hopelessly contaminated. How evolved does that make us?

One might rather make the argument that in spite of our mighty intellectual powers we are actually less evolved than our predecessors.

So if we cannot even get our relationship to the physical environment right, how likely is it that we can evolve new “spiritual” institutions?

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Nothing Ever Happened

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At the bottom of the chroncentric argument is the idea that time began at one point and is moving to another distant point.

But there is no evidence that time is linear or that it is anything more than an intellectual projection based on a faulty view of the nature of reality.

If reality is non-dual, time is non-existent and can at best be said to be an apparent reality, an attempt to measure transient events with reference to each other.

If events are projections brought about by the nonapprehension of the non-dual nature of reality – an attempt to structure the formless ocean of conscious in which we live and move and have our being – then nothing actually ever happened– which admittedly is not how it seems, but is actually the way it is.

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So I do not believe that we are basically different from our predecessors. We are definitely not different from humans who have lived in the last ten thousand years.

The Bhagavad Gita, a document that is perhaps two thousand years old, says:

The one who sees action in inaction and inaction in action is indeed wise.

I take this to mean that events are apparent realities. When looked at against the substrate of reality, they are little more than ephemera.

Life is eternal. The more things happen the more they stay the same. Things apparently move. Life, which seems to be going somewhere, is like the experience of sitting in a stationary train when a train on an adjacent track pulls out of the station. Sitting still, you move.

Resolving The Little Person Inside Us

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There is a wonderful Chinese proverb that says: “When doing evil, avoid punishment. When doing good, avoid fame.”

Inside every human mind lives a frightened little dwarf that longs to be loved and respected. Doing good is the royal road to fame. When you do good, people love you and you feel important.

But if you know who you are, you do not care one iota what people think. You do not have to do good – because you are good. Goodness flows automatically from you. Doing is not involved.

You can never be sure when a person’s good deeds are motivated by an un-self-conscious response to suffering.

Probably the first few times you lend a helping hand, no thought is involved. In an unconscious way you understand “there but for the grace of God go I” and you extend yourself to yourself in the form of the other.

But then, as time passes, you see results: people love you. That little person inside feels “better” and motivates you to do more good.

No blame, but goodness is not generated by good deeds. It is the nature of the self, something that can only be understood and appreciated.

If the little person within has not been resolved, after a few good deeds the un-self-conscious impulse gets buried beneath a self-conscious desire to make oneself feel virtuous, ergo evolutionary spirituality.

Come up with a world-saving idea like new institutions and traditions and that unrecognized little person inside will trouble you no more. People will flock to your banner and you will feel important.

Let the evolutionary people actually “evolve” institutions that save our poor souls. Until they do, it is all grandstanding.

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There Is Nothing Wrong With The World

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A new integral spirituality?

In the first place true spirituality has nothing to do with society or institutions. Behind that small, inadequate person lies a gigantic person – a timeless, universal person – who has been sleeping for a very long time.

One fine day that person begins to stir and from that point on it does not matter if there is a world outside, much less institutions, to help it actualize itself. All that is required is that you listen to that person’s voice and let it guide you home. It cannot be denied.

In the second place, the argument that we need to evolve our traditions “to keep pace” presupposes that there is something wrong with the world as it is and that keeping pace with the rat race is desirable.

As far as I can see there is no evidence that there is anything wrong with the world, apart from the belief that there is something wrong with it.

Wrong from whose point of view?

In reality, “the world” is just an individual’s idea of the world, a thought in consciousness. It has no objective reality. If you think it is good, it is good for you. If you think it is bad, it is bad for you.

Even if you take the world to be a real place with real things going on, you would need an impartial study to determine if your new institutions had actually corrected the problem.

Before you evolved your institutions, you would need to wire up sensors to every living being and monitor its happiness index over a long period of time and compare it with its unhappiness index.

Next, you would need to develop a way to determine degrees of happiness and misery.

Finally, you would have to subtract the unhappiness totals from the happiness totals to come up with a proper figure.

Then you would need to evolve the new institutions, analyze the figures and compare the previous results with the new results.

Not only is this impossible, our sources of information about the state of the world are biased and inadequate. In the media world there is a famous saying: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Disaster and misery sell.

But for every Taliban killed by the Americans there are five million little old men and women sitting on their verandas happily nursing their beers as they watch the sun go down.

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Duality Is A Zero-Sum Game

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Vedanta contends that the apparent reality – the world – is not the reality. It is projected by ignorance of the nature of the non-dual substrate. Non-apprehension produces the dream of duality.

Dream good and dream evil exist in it. The yin-yang is a good symbol of it. The white yang contains a black yin dot and the black yin contains a white yang dot.

The white yang shrinks as the black yin grows until it eventually becomes a full-blown yin. But as soon as the yin attains its full potential it begins to wane and eventually becomes what it was before, a black yang.

When it is yin, is it really yin? When it is yang, is it really yang?

In this apparent world good and evil are just two ways of looking at the same reality. They are constantly equilibrating.

Sometimes it seems that one dominates the other and vice versa, but is anything actually happening? The law of unintended consequences bears this out.

To wage war in Afghanistan, which many think is a bad thing, the American military buys gasoline from Saudi Arabia for $1.00 a gallon delivered to the port of Karachi, Pakistan. By the time the fuel convoys wend their way across the plains and work their ways through the treacherous Kyber Pass and reach the battlefield, it costs $423.00 a gallon!

Even for profligate Americans, this is untenable. So the Pentagon invited companies to develop renewable technologies that could supply power on the battlefield, many of which are now being tested in Afghanistan.

When America gets bored with its war, declares victory and leaves, these technologies will eventually become available to the public and the world will benefit greatly.

In this world every downside has an upside, every upside a downside. Duality is a zero-sum game. Everything – the good and the bad – serve the self, the one reality.

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Human Nature Is Human Nature

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Were our modern spiritual leaders to actually contemplate on the teachings of Vedanta, they would not feel compelled to change the world. Only technology changes. Human nature is human nature.

This fact came home to me with particular force during the war in Serbia between the Christians and the Muslims. When I read about the atrocities – I don’t have TV nor do I watch it – I was horrified.

My idea was that that these people were some kind of stooped, hairy, apelike troglodytes with prehensile tails skulking around in slimy sub-Saharan swamps.

Then one day I was near a TV when the news came on, and I got an idea of what the country was like. I was astounded to learn that those who were raping and killing and torturing each other lived in nice, tidy, bourgeois homes watched TV, wore Adidas, drove Toyotas and paid with plastic. They are “modern” people, but so what?

At one time the spiritual world thought that Theosophy was the answer and that Krishnamurti was going to usher in The Millennium.

Later, Aurobindo and the Mother, two do-gooding worldsavers, burst on the scene with the idea that the Overmind was about to descend and if we just transformed our cells we could save the human race. To date our cells remain untransformed.

In keeping with the times – the Eighties – Rajneesh offered his “copulate your way to God” idea and tens of thousands flocked to him. He even updated the ancient institution of sanyass, renunciation. Where are the Neo-Sanyassis now? 

Perhaps the best example of the failure of modern man to evolve new institutions is Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a man who in the Seventies made upwards of a billion dollars on Transcendental Meditation.

He declared the dawning of the Age of Enlightenment and established a laughable “world government” that was meant to usher in The Millennium. Where is his Golden Age now? TM is just another failed utopian movement consigned to the dustbin of history.

Even Neo-Advaita, which briefly flirted with non-duality in the Nineties like a nervous teenager at a cotillion, has lost its luster. These were all “modern” spiritual solutions for modern people. Where are they now?

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God bless the world-savers, the do-gooders and the evolutionists. Their hearts are in the right place but their brains are a bit fuzzy.

Instead of blabbing about the importance of a modern means of  enlightenment, let’s see something that works, something that sets the masses free. Let them “evolve” our traditions, whatever that means.

In fact, nobody evolves anything. Evolution is not a conscious process. What is not useful dies and what is useful remains.

The evolutionary spirituality idea may be having its day in the sun today but, like The Secret, the Oneness University and a plethora of other recent “spiritual” ideas, it will go the way of all things. Only the truth remains. In the meantime, I will stick with Vedanta.

Vedanta Is Self-Knowledge And Hence Beyond Time

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In fact, the Neo-Neos cannot attack Vedanta because it is not an ancient science. It is self-knowledge and the self is beyond time. So the chronocentric argument does not apply.

It is not a means of salvation, like religion, available to everyone. It saves qualified individuals from ignorance of their true nature. It was designed to save “the world.” It has been successfully doing what it does for thousands of years.

Only a handful of people in any age attain enlightenment and they do it irrespective of time, place and circumstance.

Vedanta is like the wheel. The wheel is eternal. It is pure knowledge. It goes around and does its job. There is no need to “evolve” it.

If somebody wants to invent a square wheel or an oval wheel or an oblong wheel – God bless his pointed little head – let him do so, but the attempt is little more than well-meaning vanity.

How is the chronocentric view any different from the belief that one race is superior to another or that one religion is superior to another? There is no time. There is knowledge and there is ignorance. Beliefs are ignorance. How can anyone take the Neo-Neos seriously?

The nail in the coffin of the evolutionary spiritual idea is the fact that revelation is independent of time. For truth to be revealed, all that is necessary is a pure mind.

The Upanishads, which are the source texts for Vedanta, were revealed to people whose minds were pure. There are pure sattvic people in every age and truth is revealed to them too. Not everyone who lives today is contaminated by the extroverted vulgarities of our neurotic modern world.

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Vedanta does not think that human beings can be improved upon. However, it does offer a way that human beings can rid themselves of the impurities – the greed, the vanity, the superstitions – that bedevil them and stand in the way of their appreciation of their innate goodness.

It provides methods – Yogas – that create a pure mind through right living and right knowledge.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with us. Only our values are skewed. They are not in harmony with the non-dual nature of reality and with our own non-dual nature.

It is not time that has corrupted our minds. It is ignorance. Ignorance is beginningless, out of time. There is no temporal solution.

Vedanta, a means that removes ignorance of one’s nature, and yoga, the methods that purify the mind in preparation for self-inquiry, did not come FROM the ancients.

Consciousness revealed Vedanta and yoga TO the ancients, just as the self and the means to realize it is revealed today to those whose minds are pure.

Spirituality is a personal, not a social, quest. It is for mature people.

Modern materialist society is not a mature society. It is a “sibling society,” to quote Robert Bly. So all these well-meaning evolutionary ideas do not apply.

Societies become enlightened when individuals mature. And people mature when they assimilate the meaning of their experiences correctly.

There is no outside solution. Life is a zero-sum game. So rather than talk about institutions that will solve the problem, the Neo-Neos should talk about values – why we believe that there is an objective solution to the problem of suffering and why the solutions that our fears and desires cook up do not work.

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