Advaita Vedanta has most definitely been one of the key revelations in my life. Nearly twenty-five years ago “my eyes were wide opened” reading the book I Am That from Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. And after that—a mighty rollercoaster took off, launching me in the depths of the “spiritual quest.”
Certainly, over time my Advaita interpretation has known many changes, transformations, and renovations, but her base assumptions were, and still are important aspects of the way I have come to approach life and living.
But then, what exactly is Advaita Vedanta?
A-dvaita (which is a Sanskrit word for non-dual or non-dualistic) is a rather influential Indian spiritual Enlightenment philosophy. As from the 80’s of the former century, Advaita rapidly conquered the mind of Western “seekers.” It became a state-of-the-art intellectual tool used in “the quest for Enlightenment.”
Vedanta essentially points to the Upanishads (a set of Indian holy books) and means “the end of knowledge.” It has a double significance: “We now know all what there is to know” and “Liberation and Enlightenment is to be found in the rejection of acquired knowledge.”
If we would take the liberty to translate Advaita Vedanta, it could look a bit like this: “Reality (or Enlightenment) is to be found by rejecting (the truth of) all knowledge by way of a non-duality approach.”
Around the second part of the 20th century, a quickly growing group of Westerners started visiting India to “sit at the feet of the Masters” and “drink the nectar of grace at the Guru’s feet.”
There are, and have been, different Yoga’s and lineages (the four main types being Karma, Bhakti, Jnana, and Raja Yoga), but when it comes to Advaita (a Jnana-Yoga tradition), Shri Ramana Maharshi (Tirruvannamalai), and later on Shri Nisargadatta Maharaj (Mumbai) and Ramesh Balsekar (Mumbai) became the foremost representatives in the past century.
Advaita is a Jnana-Yoga (also called the Royal Path) intellectual discipline, and is renown for her neti-neti approach which means not-this, not-that. It refers to the continuous rejection of perceived phenomena as being (part of) me.
It goes something like this: “I’m not mind, not emotions, not body, nothing that I perceive is me. I have no properties at all. I’m not this, I’m not that. I’m impersonal. All that I can say is that I am, but not what I am.”
Quite some Advaita disciples came back to the West to become Advaita Gurus themselves. I’m not the one to say if they are or were genuine, authentic, or truthful, but we cannot always avoid the suspicion that at least some of them either did-it-for-the-money or just didn’t really know what they were talking about.
In past years, I visited a few Advaita Gurus myself (some more regularly than others), read some of their writings, and I have also watched a substantial set of videos. As I’ve just mentioned earlier: I don’t know if they are, or were Enlightened, because I myself don’t know what Enlightenment is. So when it comes to giving an opinion—how can I judge?
Now of course, I’ve learned something from them, as one can learn from anyone, and from any given situation. But on a personal basis I would say a spiritual Guru is authentic, if he or she encourages you to find out the answers yourself. The thing however is, that anyone can say that, and explicitly or implicitly claim to be the Guru.
In fact, if you’re honest to yourself, this leaves you with no other choice than to find “the truth” independently anyway. And so I asked myself—what’s the point of having or visiting a Guru?
Besides that, the particular trouble with Advaita is, that she sometimes tends to breed a certain class of fuzzy people, hopelessly detached from daily life.
Nevertheless, the attraction of her “method” is very understandable: by supplying a non-dual denial-antidote it gives seekers the individual means to flee and dwell in an antiseptic intellectual sphere. It’s usually poorly understood that Advaita is only the antidote and that after that—Vedanta still needs to be practiced.
Vedanta surely supplies us with interesting foundations to understand. But how one “reaches” that understanding, may it be through Jnana, Bhakti, Karma, or Raja Yoga is of no real importance.
But the very essence of Vedanta is unquestionably her practical application. Once understood, one should leave the theory (the antidote) behind. It resembles quite perfectly what Ludwig Wittgenstein once said: “One must so to speak throw away the ladder, after one has climbed up on it.”