6.3 The Teaching Tradition of Vedanta

This sub-module is based on the teachings of Swami Dayananda and Swami Paramarthananda.
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Vedanta is one of the oldest spiritual traditions in the world. In this sub-module we’ll explore the teaching tradition of Vedanta, and see what makes it so unique from other spiritual traditions.

We’ll discuss:

1) What is meant by a “Teaching Tradition”?

2) What is the difference between a cult and a tradition?

3) When and how did the teachings originate?

4) The different teaching methods of Vedanta.

5) What is meant by indirect and direct knowledge?

Sampradaya – The Teaching Tradition

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In the student sub-module we learnt that to gain Self-Knowledge a student should go to a qualified teacher, one learned in the subject matter.

To be learned in the subject matter includes knowledge of the methodology of teaching. A good teacher is one who has learned from his teacher how to teach. An established method of teaching is called Sampradaya, a teaching tradition i.e., a traditional handing down of instruction.

So the guru, the teacher, should have the Sampradaya, the methodology of teaching. Because the subject matter is so unique, for the knowledge of oneself the method of teaching is as important as the subject matter.

To be a teacher of Vedanta, it is not enough to be a Brahmanishta, one established in Self-Knowledge. The teacher must also be a Shrotriya, one who knows the methodology.

The scriptures clearly state what the nature of one’s self is. “You are Brahman (Self). You are completeness, fullness, the totally complete being you long to be.”

If one hears these words from a teacher and still does not know for oneself “I am Brahman; I am the complete being”, the scriptures are not to be blamed. Scripture has not failed. Either the teacher or the student is not qualified.

The teacher has to make you see that you are Brahman. The teaching does not consist in the teacher simply repeating “You are Brahman”. The teaching must make you see that you are Brahman. But for you to see that fact the teacher must know the Sampradaya, the methodology that leads you to see for yourself the fact behind the words.

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The Teaching Is Greater Than The Teacher

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In this teaching tradition the teaching is greater than the teacher. The guru is great only because of scripture. The guru does not have greatness of his or her own because before he or she studied scripture, the guru was an ordinary person. So the “greatness” was acquired because of scripture.

And this the guru also knows. The student comes to the guru attracted by the character of the guru, by his radiance, by his life. So the student initially comes to the guru alone, and the guru has to educate the student that his greatness is because of scripture.

And scripture is the mirror that the guru has to show to the student. And initially the student will not see the mirror, he will only see the guru. He is attracted by the guru, so he only sees the guru.

But the guru tells the student “Don’t watch me, watch the mirror.” And then he gradually brings the mirror closer and closer and the student starts to sees a glimpse of his own beauty in the mirror.

And gradually the mirror is brought more closer, and then the guru covers his face and places the mirror in front of the student. And the student is no more captivated by the guru, but is captivated by his own glory seen in the mirror.

Then the guru shakes the mirror a little. The student on seeing the mirror shake offers to help hold the mirror along with the guru. And when the student begins to hold the mirror, the guru lets go of the mirror and tells the student “From now on hold on to scripture, not me.”

And then the guru leaves. His job is done. He has more students waiting for him to show the mirror to them. Therefore the job of the guru is to show the mirror and disappear. If you hold on to the guru, admire the guru more than scripture then it becomes a cult.

What Is The Difference Between Cult And Tradition?

In a cult the guru is superior to the teaching, whereas in the Vedanta teaching tradition, the teaching is superior to the teacher. And if you praise the guru more than the teaching, the guru has failed. A guru who creates a cult has failed.

A good illustration to explain the role of a guru is this.. Suppose a company wants to advertise a product. So they hire an attractive model to create their ad campaign.

The purpose of the model is to attract the attention of viewers to the product. But if the model is so attractive that the people look at the model and forget about the product, then the ad campaign has failed. The model has failed to do his or her job.

Therefore the model should be sufficiently attractive, but should not distract from the product. Gurus and teachers are also like models. If the student is captivated by the guru, then it’s great. But gradually the student attraction should move from the guru to the scripture until the time that the student no longer depends upon the guru.

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Guru-Student Tradition

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When did this teaching tradition begin?

The teaching flows from teacher to student. Every guru was once a student. And his teacher also was once a student, and so too, the teacher before him. Trying to identify the first teacher is like trying to identify the first father.

We know there was a father because there is a son and every son has a father, and that every father once was a son. It does not change the example if you say that once upon a time the father was a monkey. He was still a father.

All that can be said is that a father was there because the son is here. The guru was there because the teacher is here. The presence of a student taught by a teacher establishes that the teacher-student lineage has never been broken. In Sanskrit this is called Guru-Shishya Parampara (Guru-Student Tradition), the flow of traditional knowledge handed down from teacher to student.

The Origin Of The Teachings

We do not see the beginning of the teachings. It is just taken back to the Rishis, the inspired sages to whom the Vedas were revealed. We do not bother about the origin of the Rishis. If one must go beyond the Rishis, then it can be said that the first guru is the Lord.

The same thing is said about the first father – he is the creator, the father of all, the Lord. The first guru is the same creator, for it is with the creator that knowledge rests. All knowledge belongs to the creator. Upon careful analysis, no knowledge can be traced to any person – it always leads back to the creator.

So this knowledge of oneself called Vedanta which comes from the creator, which is found at the end of the Veda, which can be traced back to the ancient sages called the Rishis, passes from teacher to student in the traditional flow of teaching called the Guru-Shishya Parampara (Guru-Student Tradition).

Therefore in this tradition we honour not only our Guru, but the entire Guru-Shishya Parampara. In the traditional study every class generally begins by chanting this Guru Parampara sloka (verse):

Sada Shiva Samarambham (From Lord Shiva, the first guru)
Sankaracharya Madhyamam (to Shankaracharya in the middle)
Asmat aacharya Paryantham (and my guru at the end)
Vande Guru Paramparaa (I worship the great Vedanta lineage of teachers)

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The Vision Of Vedanta

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The vision of Vedanta is an equation of the identity between the Jiva (individual) and Isvara (the Lord). This vision of oneness is not available for perception or inference.

Nor is the oneness that is unfolded by Vedanta contradicted by perception or inference. Oneness is purely in terms of understanding the equation.

Vedanta does not promise a salvation to the soul. In its vision, the soul, the Atma, is already free from any limitation. The release of the individual from this sense of limitation is the outcome of understanding the equation.

Therefore, the entire teaching of Vedanta can be expressed in one sentence – Tat Tvam Asi, You are that. All other sentences in the Upanishads are only meant to prove this equation.

The 4 Mahavakyas

Tat Tvam Asi is called a Mahavakya. Mahavakya means a “great saying”. The essence of all Upanishads is the same, and Mahavakyas express this universal message in the form of concise statements.

There are four main Mahavakyas, one from each Veda. The other three are:

1) Prajnanam Brahma – Brahman in pure consciousness.

2) Aham Brahma asmi – I am Brahman.

3) Ayam atma Brahma – This self (Atman) is Brahman.

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Teaching Methods of Vedanta

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To communicate the vision of the Mahavakyas, the Upanishads and the teachers in the tradition employ a number of methods (Prakriyas). Vedanta employs these methods to unfold the identity between the individual and the Self.

We will briefly look at some of the methods. These methods will be elaborated in the Self-Knowledge module.

1. Cause-Effect Method

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One of the main methods is the cause-effect method, which is called Karana-Karya-Prakriya in Sanskrit.

In this method, the Self is presented as the cause of everything: “From which all these elements have come, by which all these are sustained and unto which all these go back, understand that to be Brahman (Self)”.

Brahman, the ’cause’ of the world, is Satya (real), an independent reality. The Universe, presented in scripture in the form of five basic subtle and gross elements, is the ‘effect’ of the cause.

The Universe being an effect is Mithya (apparently real). The scriptures present the ‘effect’ as neither Satya, that which exists, nor that which does not exist; but as Mithya, that which has a dependent existence.

The individual’s physical body, mind and senses are all within the ‘effect’, and are therefore Mithya (apparently real). But the individual’s real nature is the limitless consciousness that is the reality of everything.

If a product is non-separate from the cause, then the cause and effect are not two separate things. The effect is not separate from the cause and the cause, being what it is, is independent of the effect.

The effect is essentially the cause. A clay pot is but clay. If there is more than one pot, then also it is clay.

If the Universe which includes my physical body, senses and mind is from one non-dual Brahman, then the Universe, being an effect, is non-separate from the cause, Brahman.

Brahman, is you, the Self. The recognition of this fact that I am Brahman and that this Universe is non-separate from me, while I am independent of the Universe, is the result of the teaching of Vedanta. That recognition of oneself as the whole, is the ultimate end, called Moksha (liberation).

The Upanishads, praising the one who has the knowledge of oneself as everything, say “that one crosses the ocean of sorrow.”

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2. The 3 States Method

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Another important method employed by the Upanishads is the 3 states teaching, called Avastha-Traya-Prakriya in Sanskrit. This method comes from the Mandukya Upanishad.

The 3 states teaching is the analysis of the three states of experience: waking, dreaming and deep sleep. The purpose of this analysis is to arrive at the true nature of oneself.

The waker and the waking world are absent in both dream and sleep. The dreamer and the dream world are absent in both waking and sleep. In deep sleep both the dreamer and the waker are absent.

If the status of the subject is real, one cannot give up this status at any time. What is intrinsic to an object should be present in the object as long as the object exists. If it is not present, then it is an incidental attribute.

An example often cited in this context is the crystal assuming a colour in the presence of a coloured object. If the colour is intrinsic to the crystal, it will be always present as long as the crystal exists.

But when the coloured object is taken away, the colour, which was seen in the crystal, disappears. Therefore the colour assumed by the crystal is incidental.

In the deep sleep experience there is absence of the subject-object relationship, there is no status of oneself as the subject. Hence, the subject-object status must be assumed to be incidental.

Analysing these experiences, scriptures present the Self as free from all attributes imputed to it. Consciousness is invariable in all the states of experience while consciousness itself is free from any attribute. All attributes like doership and enjoyership are purely incidental.

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3. The 5 Sheaths Method

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Another well known method is the 5 Sheaths teaching which is known as Pancha-Kosha-Prakriya in Sanskrit. This method comes from the Taittiriya Upanishad.

Kosha means a cover, a sheath. The 5 sheaths are presented as the covers for the Self. If the Self is invariable in all the situations, there cannot be any cover for the Self. So how can they be covers?

We have to understand that they are only seeming covers. Born of self-ignorance, there are five universal erroneous notions. The cause for each notion is said to be a sheath.

The five sheaths are:

a) The physical body (Anna-Maya Kosha) is one sheath inasmuch as it is taken to be oneself. I am mortal, I am tall, I am male, I am female, all these notions are imputed to the Self with reference to the physical body. Thus the physical body becomes a sheath.
b) So too, when one says, “I am hungry, I am thirsty,” the Self is taken to be subject to hunger and thirst and the physiological system (Prana-Maya Kosha) becomes a sheath.
c) The notions that I am sad, I am agitated, are due to the mind sheath (Mano-Maya Kosha).
d) The intellect (Vijnana-Maya Kosha) is also a sheath because the sense of doership, which is its attribute, is taken to belong to the Self and the notion “I am the doer” is the outcome.
e) And lastly the bliss sheath (Ananda-Maya Kosha) is a sheath with reference to enjoyership, in the form of degrees of experienced happiness.While the presence of the Self is there in all the five sheaths, the Self itself is free from all of them.
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4. Seer-Seen Discrimination

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This methodology is called Drg-Drsya-Viveka in Sanskrit and is used to differentiate the Self from the objects and experiences it illumines. This teaching methodology is based on the logical premise that the subject cannot be the object; the seer cannot be the seen.

Simply put: I see the horse, therefore, I am not the horse. When the horse moves, I need not move. When the horse leaves, I need not leave. The knower/subject is independent of the known/object. This, of course, seems obvious.

A normal person does not commit the mistake of identifying himself with objects external to the physical body. But the same logic that distinguishes the Self from an external object such as a horse can be easily extended to include objects with which one does identify without a second thought.

For instance, the same five sense organs that perceive the horse, making the horse a known object, also objectify the physical body. Were one’s sense organs to be removed, the perception of the world, including the physical body, would cease accordingly. And yet, there is a strong natural identity between one’s Self and one’s body.

By objectification of objects of identification such as the body, as well as the mind, the conscious subject, the one who is the knower of the body and mind, is separated from the object both logically and experientially. Anything that can be objectified is separated from the subject.

When this process is complete the Self alone remains. All else is an object, and is seen to come and go, thus transitory in nature.

The Self is the only constant in experience. The presence of this unchanging Self must be recognized amidst the transitory modifications of the body, mind, and sense organs.

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In addition to the above there are a few more Vedantic methods like:

5) The Real and the Apparent (Satya-Mithya-Viveka)

6) Substrate and Name-Form (Adhisthana-Nama-Rupa-Viveka)

7) Essential and Non-Essential

8) Change and Changeless (Chala-Achala-Viveka)

9) Non-dual nature of reality (Advaita-Vichara)

10) Location of Objects

11) Resolution of Objects

12) Mirror of Awareness

13) Perception is Creation (Drishti-Srishti-Vada)

14) Nothing ever happened/Non-Origination (Ajati-Vada)

Recognition Of Oneself As The Whole

As briefly shown above, the methods adopted by the Upanishads are meant to reveal the truth of the self being attribute-free, limitless Brahman (Self). Since Brahman does not undergo any change whatsoever, the cause-effect method is only meant to unfold the fact that the self is limitless and the world is non-separate from it.

The vision of Vedanta is not so much in presenting a cause-effect relationship between Brahman and the Universe as it is in unfolding the Universe as non-separate from Brahman. This recognition of oneself as the whole is the vision of the scriptures.

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Indirect And Direct Knowledge

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Words can give indirect or direct knowledge, depending on the relationship between the knower and the object. If the object is away from the knower’s immediate experience, words can only give rise to indirect knowledge.

If the object is within the range of the knower’s immediate experience, words can bring about direct knowledge. Indirect knowledge becomes direct knowledge when confirmed by experience.

For e.g. Someone gives a detailed description of the appearance and flavour of the tropical jackfruit to a person who has never seen or tasted jackfruit. Subsequently, the latter comes to India where he has the opportunity to sample many tropical fruits strange to him. One day while eating an unknown fruit he tells his host, “This is very good, but some day I would very much like to try jackfruit. I have heard so much about it.”

Words have given him indirect knowledge of this fruit. His host replies, “It is jackfruit you are now eating”, imparting knowledge of something the guest is at the time experiencing. “Oh”, says the traveller, “now I know jackfruit”. Words have brought him direct knowledge.

The Story Of The Tenth Man

There is another famous Vedantic story that shows how words can give both, direct and indirect knowledge.

Ten students were given permission by their guru to go on a pilgrimage. In the course of their journey, they crossed a swift river. After the crossing, the leader of the group assembled them on the river bank and counted them.

He counted nine. The tenth student was missing. He counted again, very slowly, up to nine. Still, there was one missing. The leader looked all around but nowhere could the tenth man be seen. He stood there in shock and despair.

An old man standing a short distance away had been watching the scene. He walked over to the sorrowful leader and asked, “Why are you so upset?” The leader told him about the missing tenth person.

The old man looked at the group, smiled a little and said “Don’t worry. The tenth man got across the river with you. He is here now. I’ll show him to you.”

One of the other students was more sceptical, but the leader said “I have not yet seen the tenth man, but this gentleman says he exists and I believe him”.

At this juncture in the story, the leader has only indirect knowledge that the tenth man exists. Through the words of the old man he has gained indirect knowledge of the existence of the tenth man. The leader has faith in the correctness of the indirect knowledge, a faith that the indirect knowledge will be confirmed by direct knowledge. It is faith (Shraddha – link to Qualifications module), pending discovery.

The old man’s credibility is given weight by the fact that the old man has said “I will show the tenth man to you, here, now”, not sometime later in some other place. The promise held out by the old man does not involve effort on the part of the leader or change of place or passage of time.

The story continues: The old man tells the leader to assemble all the other boys in front of him in a line. And then he says to the leader “Now, come stand by my side and count these fellows one more time.”

The leader counts one more time up to nine, and turns to the old man, “Sir! Where is the tenth man?” he demands.

The old man says “Tat Tvam Asi, You are that. You are the tenth man. You, the leader who forgot to count himself, are the tenth man you are seeking.”

The Words Of The Guru Give Direct Knowledge Of The Self

What kind of knowledge can the words of a teacher give about oneself? Indirect or direct? I seek knowledge of myself, of “I”.

Where is this “I”? Is it near me or away from me?

It is neither. It is I, immediate. Words throwing light on oneself will give direct knowledge of “I”. Either they must give direct knowledge or no knowledge at all.

When the teacher, who has knowledge of himself teaches, he will throw light on me which is here, now, the available, immediate me. The knowledge will be direct, immediate knowledge.

That is why the teacher of Self-Knowledge and the teaching are regarded as sacred; they are a direct means of knowledge of oneself.

The teaching is a body of knowledge in the form of words and sentences – known as Vedanta – which throws light upon oneself. Vedanta is called a Sabda Pramana, a verbal means of knowledge. Through words, it is a direct means of knowledge of oneself.

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1. An established method of teaching is called Sampradaya, a teaching tradition. And a qualified teacher of Vedanta should know and apply the Vedantic methodology in his or her teachings. The flow of traditional knowledge handed down from teacher to student is called Guru-Shishya-Parampara (Guru-Student-Tradition).
2. In the Vedanta teaching tradition, the teaching is greater than the teacher. Whereas in a cult, the guru is considered superior to the teaching.
3. The vision of Vedanta is to establish the identity between the Jiva (individual) and the Self. The essence of the teachings are expressed in the form of Mahavakyas (great sayings). There are four main Mahavakyas in Vedanta.
4. Vedanta employs a number of methods (Prakriyas) to unfold the identity between the individual and the Self. Some of the main methods are: cause-effect method, 3 states method, 5 sheaths method and the seer-seen discrimination.
5. Words can give indirect or direct knowledge, depending on the relationship between the knower and the object. If the object is within the range of the knower’s immediate experience, words can give direct knowledge. When the knowledge of Vedanta is fully assimilated, it gives direct knowledge of “I”. The words throw light on me, which is here, now, immediate me. This is called Self-Realization.
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