6.1 The Student of Vedanta

This sub-module is based on the teachings of Swami Dayananda and Swami Paramarthananda.
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In this sub-module we propose to lay the road map a student of Vedanta can expect on their spiritual journey.

We’ll discuss:

1. How the student comes to Vedanta?
2. What the student should do to gain Self-Knowledge?
3. The 3 stages in our spiritual journey towards Moksha or liberation.
4. The pitfalls the student should be aware of on this journey.
5. The ideal attitude and behaviour of a Vedantic student towards others and to their own studies.

The Fundamental Problem

In the module “Why do I suffer?” we saw how by analyzing our life experiences we find the basic motivation behind all our striving is the desire to be free of the feeling of limitation and incompleteness.

The fundamental human problem is the feeling of incompleteness. And the universally chosen solution to achieve completeness is the pursuit of security and pleasures.

A mature person discovers that security and pleasure do not solve his basic problem in spite of the pleasures he has enjoyed or the security he has obtained.

Pleasures, which always depend upon the favourable alignment of various changing factors, do not last. Neither does one find lasting completeness in them.

Security is bound by time and limited in nature. For every gain, there is a loss. Security too does not last forever.

Mumukshu – The Seeker of Freedom

When I realize that what I am really seeking is a solution for my incompleteness, a problem centred on myself, I become a mature seeker who knows what he is looking for. In Sanskrit there is a very precise word for such a seeker: Mumukshu.

A Mumukshu is one who desires freedom from all limitation. A Mumukshu knows that his pursuit of the first three (Artha, Kama and Dharma) of the fourfold human goals (discussed previously here), does not solve his problem.

He is then ready to directly seek completeness. This completeness is called Moksha or liberation.

Jijnasu – The Seeker of Knowledge

When I, a seeker directly pursuing freedom from all limitation, discover that what I seek is not something apart from me, something yet to be achieved, but is something separated from me only by ignorance, my goal becomes the destruction of that ignorance. Then I seek knowledge.

When you know that you are not different from what you seek, then you become an informed Mumukshu. You know you are seeking knowledge. An informed Mumukshu is called Jijnasu. A student of Vedanta is a Jijnasu.

A Mumukshu who has not discovered that knowledge is what is required may do many futile things in his search for liberation. Many examples can be found in almost all religions of severe, painful, and sometimes strange practices undertaken for the sake of deliverance from limitation.

Every Mumukshu, every seeker, will become a Jijnasu when he understands the nature of the problem. The problem is to dispel self-ignorance. The solution is to gain Self-Knowledge. Self-Knowledge is what is called liberation.

The Means for Gaining Self-Knowledge

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This Mundaka Upanishad verse describes the need for knowledge, and also tells what to do to gain that knowledge.

Having analysed the worldly experiences achieved through effort, a mature person gains dispassion, discerns that the uncreated (limitlessness) cannot be produced by action. To know That (the uncreated limitlessness), he, with twigs in hand, should go to a teacher who is learned in the scriptures, and steadfast in the knowledge of himself.

Mundaka Upanishad

To know that uncreated limitlessness which cannot be produced, which can only be known, but not by such means as perception and inference, one has to go to a teacher, a guru, “with twigs in hand” – which means with hands ready to serve, and with a right attitude.

This verse tells what a Mumukshu, an informed seeker, should do. An informed seeker knows that his search is for knowledge; he has become a Jijnasu, one who desires knowledge. For that knowledge he must go to a teacher, a guru.

For Self-Knowledge go to a Qualified Guru

A guru is one who dispels darkness. The word itself reveals the function; “gu” stands for “darkness” and “ru” means “the one who dispels darkness”.

He doesn’t produce anything. He doesn’t even produce knowledge. He throws light on something that is already there. A guru is a teacher, who has the capacity to dispel the ignorance covering whatever it is one wants to know.

If I want to end my ignorance of astronomy, I need to find someone who knows something about the stars and the planets. It will not do me any good to go to a marine biologist.

I must find someone who has lost his ignorance in the area of my interest; someone who has the knowledge I seek.

A Jijnasu, because he wants to know, goes to the teacher with a readiness to serve, with a fresh open mind, with a loving heart. The above verse indicates this attitude by saying “with twigs in hand”; bringing fuel for the teacher’s fire is a traditional way of showing willingness to serve the teacher.

In the next sub-module we’ll discuss the topic of Guru in more detail.

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The Spiritual Journey of a Seeker

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In this section we’ll take a look at the 3 stages a seeker goes through on his road to Moksha, liberation.

Stage I – Getting Qualified for Self-Knowledge

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In the first stage the seeker gains all the necessary qualifications for the attainment of Self-Knowledge. One of the most basic qualifications is to understand the importance and role of Self-Knowledge.

Other qualifications include developing a burning desire for liberation, and developing a mind fit for Self-Knowledge. The topic of qualifications was discussed in the sub-module “The 4 Qualifications“.

The scriptures talk about two Sadhanas or spiritual practices for gaining these qualifications:

1) The first is Karma Yoga. Karma Yoga is defined as “doing proper actions with a proper attitude”. Karma Yoga involves employing a specific attitude towards action and its results. The benefit of Karma Yoga is a peaceful mind which is fit for Self-Inquiry. Karma Yoga will be discussed in more detail in the “Practising Vedanta” module.
2) The second Sadhana is Upasana Yoga, which involves various forms of meditations. The primary purpose of Upasana Yoga is to develop a disciplined mind. Only a disciplined mind can engage in effective Self-Inquiry. Upasana Yoga will be discussed in more detail in “Practising Vedanta” module.

So by practicing Karma Yoga and Upasana Yoga one attains the qualifications necessary for gaining Self-Knowledge.

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Stage II – Gaining Self-Knowledge

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Now that the seeker is qualified, the next stage is about gaining Self-Knowledge. This stage involves 2 sub-stages:

1) The first stage is called Shravanam. Shravanam is defined as “the consistent and systematic study of the scriptures for a length of time under the guidance of a competent teacher”.
2) The second stage is called Mananam. Knowledge is meaningful only when it is free from doubts. Doubtful knowledge is as good as ignorance. Therefore for the knowledge to be beneficial, I should remove all doubts.

And since doubts vary from intellect to intellect, every seeker has to remove his or her own personal doubts, either through one’s own individual reflection, or by studying more texts, or by taking the help of the teacher.

Any thinking intellect will have doubts, which is but natural. Once all doubts are removed, the knowledge is transformed into conviction.

So the benefit of Shravanam and Mananam is conviction, and through these two Sadhanas (spiritual practices) one gains Self-Knowledge. The topic of Shravanam and Mananam will be discussed further in the “Practising Vedanta” module.

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Stage III – Assimilating Self-Knowledge

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The final stage in the spiritual journey is assimilation of Self-Knowledge. In Sanskrit this is called Jnana Nishta, being established in Self-Knowledge. In this stage knowledge is assimilated or internalized to such an extent that there is no gap between what I know and what I am.

Assimilation means I do not need to put forth special effort to invoke the knowledge. The knowledge is spontaneously available whenever I want it. This is called Jnana Nishta, and Jnana Nishta alone brings about a transformation in my life.

This is where I start getting practical benefits from Self-Knowledge. What was just intellectual knowledge earlier gets converted into emotional strength in this stage.

There are 2 Sadhanas to achieve this transformation:

1) The first Sadhana is called Nididhyasanam. In Nididhyasanam, I keep my mind on the scriptures in one way or another. The mind can dwell upon the teachings in multiple ways. Which way you choose is up to you.

(i) Reading scriptures is one way of Nididhyasanam.

(ii) Repeated listening is another technique. Even though I have done Shravanam, even though I know the content of the scriptures, I continue to listen again and again.

(iii) Writing is another way. Whatever I know, I put in words.

(iv) Sharing or discussing with other students is another good way to practice Nididhyasanam.

(v) I can also teach others. If someone shows an interest in Vedanta, I teach them whatever I know.

(vi) And the final way is meditation. In Vedantic meditation, the purpose is not to attain a blank mind, but to meditate on the teaching itself. Also, meditation need not necessarily be done in an Indian sitting style. Simply close your eyes in any comfortable position and dwell upon the teachings.

So whether you are reading or writing or talking or sharing or teaching or meditating, your mind is on the teachings. All these methods help in assimilating Self-Knowledge, and this is called Nididhyasanam.

2) The second Sadhana is also Nididhyasanam, but in a different form. In this type of Nididhyasanam you act as thought you are a Jnani, an enlightened person, someone who has already gained Jnana Nishta.

In the scriptures, especially in the Bhagavad Gita, it’s mentioned how a Jnani will conduct himself in worldly affairs. So even though I have not fully assimilated the knowledge, I behave just as a Jnani would.

However it’s important not to misconstrue this Sadhana and develop a big spiritual ego by considering oneself an enlightened person. The objective is to make our values and actions conform to those mentioned in the scriptures, even if they have not yet been internalized.

So slowly through our behaviour and our actions we assimilate the knowledge. Swami Dayananda calls it “Faking it and making it”.

So by these two Sadhanas I assimilate the teachings and gain Jnana Nishta.

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spiritual journey of a seeker

How do I know whether I have attained Jnana Nishta?

Jnana Nishta is indicated by a transformation in our personality. The scriptures talk about the behaviour of a transformed person, and the primary definition given is: “freedom from all emotional disturbances”.

A Jnani is free from attachment, fear, anger, elation, intolerance, jealously, anxiety and any such negative emotions. So this is the yardstick through which we can know whether Self-Knowledge has been fully assimilated or not.

The Firefly Stage

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Now when the scriptures define a Jnani as one who is free from emotional disturbances and reactions, we are going to judge ourselves based on this criteria.

Because I am a serious seeker, I am interested in knowing whether I am progressing or not. A serious student of Vedanta wants self-transformation, and therefore there is going to be constant self-introspection and self-analysis.

I am going to check whether I am free from the previously listed emotional disturbances.

And when we do this introspection, sometimes we find we are able to retain our emotional balance even in negative situations. Even when others around me are upset, my mind is calm and tranquil. Vedanta seems to be working, and I am very happy.

And when I am so happy with my performance, here comes an event so powerful that it manages to destroy my equanimity. And then I am upset, depressed and angry at myself, and self-doubt emerges.

I thought I was a Jnani. Now I know that I am nowhere near, and depression sets in for 2-3 days.

This is a common occurrence for all Vedantic students. James Swartz calls this the firefly stage, the intermediate stage between gaining Self-Knowledge and assimilating Self-Knowledge. In this stage, while the knowledge has not been fully assimilated, the knowledge blinks on and off like a firefly.

When the knowledge is active, we feel calm and peaceful and retain our equanimity. And when the knowledge is not active in our minds, we emotionally react to external situations, and get upset not only at the situation but also at the fact that we reacted.

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The Secondary Samsara for Vedantic Students

In the firefly stage, Vedantic students have a double fold problem. That I had the original reaction to a negative situation is a problem. And that as a Vedantic student I reacted to it, I feel was not appropriate at all. So I react to my reaction; reaction towards my mental performance during the negative situation.

So a Vedantic student has a secondary reaction which worldly people do not have. They just get upset. We get upset, and we also get upset at the fact that we got upset. This is unique to Vedantic students, and is another form of Samsara.

So if I have to become a Jnani, I should be free from the primary reaction and I should also learn to handle my secondary reaction.

How to deal with Secondary reactions?

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To handle secondary reactions requires another form of Nididhyasanam. To deal with the firefly stage we have to remember 6 important points:

1. The mind can never be 100% free from emotional reactions

The mind can never be totally free from emotional reactions and disturbances. This is the truth.

Krishna emphasizes this in the Gita where he says that even in the mind of a Jnani, the 3 Gunas fluctuate. (We’ll discuss the Gunas in the “Practising Vedanta” module. For the moment understand Gunas to be the different energies operating in the mind. In simple terms, Sattva signifies a calm mind, Rajas an agitated mind, and Tamas a dull mind.)

A Jnani is predominantly Sattvic, but even in the case of Jnani, Rajas does come in from time to time, and brings along with it Rajas induced disturbances. And similarly Tamas also comes in, and Tamas induced disturbances, however mild they may be, do occur.

So the first point to be remembered is that total elimination of emotional disturbances is not possible, only the reduction of emotional disturbances is possible.

2. Reduction of emotional reactions is a gradual process

The 2nd point to be remembered is that reduction of emotional reactions and disturbances in any individual’s mind can never be instantaneous. This reduction is a gradual process.

So how do we know if it’s reducing? To evaluate our progress we use the FIR method. FIR stands for frequency-intensity-recovery.

a) Frequency – How frequent are the emotional disturbances? How often do you experience negative emotions in a day? Is the frequency reducing?
b) Intensity – Is the intensity of emotions reducing? Emotional disturbances are expressed at 3 levels: mental, verbal and physical. The most intense emotions express at all 3 levels when we lash out physically. When the intensity is lesser, we express them only mentally and verbally. And the least intense emotions are expressed only at the mental level. We retain control over our speech and do not express verbally what we feel mentally. So to judge our progress, we need to see whether the intensity of emotions is reducing.
c) Recovery – And finally the recovery period needs to get shorter and shorter. By recovery we mean how quickly we’re able to get back our equanimity after experiencing an emotional disturbance. So as my recovery improves, even if I am disturbed, I enjoy a resilient mind which is able to regain its emotional balance quickly.

So therefore the reduction in emotional reactions is gradual, and rate of reduction varies from individual to individual. In certain individuals the transformation is faster, and in certain individuals it’s slower.

And even in the same individual, their progress with certain emotions will be faster and some emotions will take longer. For example in one individual anger is so dominant that it reduces at a much slower rate than other emotions. And in another individual depression is more dominant, and it takes him or her longer to get rid of depressive thoughts.

3. Reduction of emotional reactions is not a linear process

What do we mean by linear?

The emotional disturbances are not going to reduce uniformly over a period of time. Sometimes you’re going to enjoy periods of relative quiet, and then without any reason you might experience periods of turbulence.

And then it will get quiet again. There will be ups and downs. There is a general reduction over a period of time, but in between there may be a slight high and then a low high. It won’t be a straight line.

4. Emotional reactions are caused by several unknowable and uncontrollable factors

Emotional disturbances and reactions are caused by several factors. Just as our health issues are caused by several factors, emotional disturbances are caused by several factors, many of which are unknowable.

Mind is an complex instrument which has no beginning. What do we mean by that? Our physical body has a specific date of birth, but the mind does not. As you will learn later in the “3 Bodies” and “Creation” sub-modules, the Subtle Body (mind) was caused by beginningless ignorance (Maya). We do not know what our sub-conscious hides. We can never tell how many factors are influencing the mind at any point of time.

And not only are many factors unknowable, even among the known factors, many are uncontrollable. When we say uncontrollable, it means they cannot be controlled even through Self-Knowledge.

That is why we sometimes find sorrow and Self-Knowledge existing side by side. Even a Jnani, who is established in Self-Knowledge, may have mild emotional disturbances. As we will learn later, the 3 Gunas – which cannot be totally controlled – also influence the mind.

5. Refinement of the mind is not the primary purpose of Self-Knowledge

Reduction of emotional disturbances, or in other words refinement of the mind, is not the primary purpose of Self-Knowledge. It’s an incidental benefit or a by-product of Self-Knowledge.

Sure, we can use Self-Knowledge to refine our minds, but we need to remember that it’s not its main purpose.

6. The primary purpose of Self-Knowledge is to know “I am not my mind”

The primary purpose of Self-Knowledge is not refining the mind, but in understanding that “I am not my mind”. What this means is that I should not be over-obsessed with the conditions of my mind.

No doubt I should try to purify my mind, but it should not stress me or create anxiety within me. Therefore without anxiety or stress, while remaining detached from my mind, in an objective manner, I try to improve my mind and enjoy the process.

And this is possible only if I remember the fact that the real purpose of Self-Knowledge is to know that “I am not my mind, I am the Self”.

Therefore we require two forms of Nididhyasanam; the primary Nididhyasanam towards our reaction to external events, and the secondary Nididhyasanam towards any judgement of our mental performance.

So we have to eliminate both the primary as well as secondary reactions. Only then will we find our spiritual journey be an enjoyable one. Otherwise there will be constant self-judgement and self-criticism, feelings of not progressing spiritually.

I should remember that I don’t have any progress at all because I am the whole and complete Self, whether the mind progresses or not. So we have to take care of both primary and secondary reactions to attain Jnana Nishta i.e. to assimilate Self-Knowledge.

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Attitude and Behaviour of a Vedantic Student

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In this section we will discuss the ideal attitude and behaviour a Vedantic student should employ with respect to others and to their own studies as well.

Don’t try to change the world

By studying Vedanta we’re not trying to change the world or other people. The purpose of material science is to change and improve the world, whereas our scriptural studies are not meant for changing the world.

We’re not meant to change other people, because we cannot change others. The primary purpose of Vedantic study is to change ourselves because the only person we can change is ourselves, and the only person who can bring about this change is ourselves. Not even my guru can change me.

Isn’t this a selfish attitude

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When we say that scriptural study is only meant for ourselves, and we don’t want to do anything to the world, a doubt may arise as whether this is a selfish attitude. Will it not create an unsympathetic attitude that whatever happens to others, let it happen, we need not care?

We say we cannot change others, but we certainly can help others to change. So we are not taking a totally pessimistic attitude towards others. We only say that we should not be over-optimistic.

If we hope to change others then we are taking an over-optimistic attitude which will lead to frustration. But we can certainly help in changing others provided three conditions are met:

1) The first condition is that the other person must have decided to change, and only then can we help.
2) The second condition is that even if the other person has decided to change, he or she should desire to take help from me. You cannot give something unless the other person is willing to receive.
3) The third and most important condition is that if the other person decides to change, decides to take help from me, I should be competent to help him or her.

If these three conditions are fulfilled we can hope to do something for others. And if you study the external world, the society, your family members and your co-workers, you’ll find the majority do not want to change because they think they are paragons of perfection.

And if you try to offer unsolicited help to them, they will on the other hand advise you on how to live your life.

And even if there are people deciding to change, many people may not want help from us, so we cannot do anything for them.

And even if the first two conditions are met, we have to ask ourselves whether we are competent to help others. And if we do some introspection, we will find that most of us need to transform ourselves first before we are ready to help others. So therefore there is no question of trying to change the world.

In fact the best help we can do is to mind our own business and not interfere with others.

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I have to decide to change

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As we progress with our Vedantic study and keep applying the teachings to our life, you will find a radical change happening in your personality; not suddenly, but gradually.

A good illustration is a butterfly. When you look at a butterfly egg, it’s difficult to believe that one day it will transform into a beautiful butterfly.

Nature transforms the egg first into a caterpillar, then into a chrysalis, and finally into a beautiful attractive butterfly. Each stage in the butterfly’s lifecycle is radically different than the previous.

Similarly, we can also transform ourselves internally into a beautiful attractive personality. This transformation will not happen overnight; it will happen gradually.

But there is a caveat. In the case of the butterfly, the changes happen naturally. It is part of its genetics, it need not use its will. It has to just survive and the changes will happen automatically.

But in our case, if Vedanta has to transform our personality, it is not going to happen automatically. I have to initiate the change. I have to use my will.

And if I am not willing to change, scriptural study will be just information gathering. There will be only information, and no transformation. Whether I want information or transformation does not depend upon my guru, nor does it depend upon the scriptures, and nor does it depend upon God; it depends upon my decision.

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Change is painful

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And one unfortunate fact is that change is a painful affair because we are comfortable with the status quo, comfortable with our habits and behaviour. We do not want to give all that up because it is cosy and comfortable.

Therefore we do not want to give it up. But without giving up the present petty small personality, we cannot change.

Change is painful because we have to give up some part of us, some traits, some attitudes, some types of behaviour, which is like death. Change is a type of death, therefore we are afraid that it would be painful.

Just as the butterfly, at each stage we have to undergo a change, and it can be painful. Therefore unless we are willing to undergo that pain, there cannot be a change.

Therefore if the time and energy that we put in our Vedantic studies has to be beneficial then we have to take the decision that “I want to change”. And if others want to change, and want my help, I am ready to give what I can. But if they are not willing to change, or don’t want my help, that’s also okay. Let me change myself first.

And scriptures also emphasize this point that along with the studies there should be a change in the personality as well. As learning takes place, the internal change must bring about a change in our external personality. As our thought patterns change, our speech and action must also change for the better.

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Acceptance of the Past – A Prayer

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Swami Dayananda

Swami Dayananda

O Lord, help me. Help me accept gracefully what I cannot change. Let me be free of blaming anyone, including myself. I cannot blame myself for what happened to me. Nor can I blame others because others have others to blame.

O Lord, help me accept gracefully what I cannot change. Blaming means I want to change the past. I want my past to be different. How can it be? O Lord, help me accept gracefully what I cannot change. I let go of my resentment, anger, and dissatisfaction by accepting gracefully what I cannot change. O Lord, perhaps what I went through was meant to happen. Perhaps it was all in order.

O Lord, all the years of pain and struggle seem to have paid off, for I pray and by this prayer everything has become meaningful. My pain, my past, has resulted in my coming to you to seek help. Intimately, I acknowledge my helplesness. I seek your help, your intervention, to make me accept what I cannot change, even what you also cannot change. You cannot change what has happened, nor can I or anyone else. Intimately, I acknowledge this fact: what has happened cannot be changed.

O Lord, help me totally accept what I cannot change. My mother’s behavior, her omissions and commissions, my father’s neglect, his anger, his indifference, his lack of care, his mishandling, his mismanagement, his drinking, the fights between them, the confusion at home, my being left alone, not fondled, not cared for, not loved. I was wrong perhaps, but this is how I felt.

O Lord, I cannot change what has happened. Please help me accept gracefully what I cannot change. I do not want to bury the past, nor do I want to forget the past. I cannot. I just want to accept the fact, accept the past. Gracefully, I accept the past. I even begin to see an order in all this, for do I not pray now? I have come to be objective. I see some order here. Please help me accept gracefully what I cannot change.

Swami Dayananda

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1. A mature person is one realizes that the problem of incompleteness cannot be solved by gaining more security and pleasures. Such a person who is directly seeking completeness or Moksha is called a Mumukshu, a seeker of freedom.
2. When the Mumukshu discovers that what he is seeking is not something apart from him, but is something separated only by ignorance, then he seeks knowledge. Such a person is called a Jijnasu, a seeker of knowledge.
3. The scriptures say that to gain Self-Knowledge one should go to a teacher, a guru.
4. A student of Vedanta goes through 3 stages. In the first stage he gains all the necessary qualifications for the attainment of Self-Knowledge. Scriptures recommend practising Karma Yoga and Upasana Yoga for gaining these qualifications.
5. The second stage has two sub-stages. In the first sub-stage (called Shravanam) the student listens to the teaching in its entirety. In the second sub-stage (called Mananam) all doubts concerning the teaching are resolved, and the knowledge is turned into conviction.
6. The final stage is called Jnana Nishta which means being established in Self-Knowledge. In this stage knowledge is internalized or assimilated to such an extent that there is no gap between what I know and what I am. This is accomplished through a Sadhana called Nididhyasanam.
7. A Vedantic student can track his or her spiritual progress through the FIR method. If the “frequency” and “intensity” of emotional disturbances is gradually reducing, and our “recovery” period from such disturbances is getting shorter, then we are progressing spiritually.
8. A Vedantic student shouldn’t try to change the world. The primary purpose of Vedantic study is to transform ourselves. We can help others provided three conditions are met (a) the other person wants to change (b) the other person asks for our help (c) we are competent to help the person.
9. Any change is painful. Vedantic study will be beneficial only if we are ready to put the time and effort in applying the teachings to our daily life, and be ready to bear the pain such a transformation will bring.
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