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Pitfalls in the Practice of Non-duality -Advaita

Advaita Prerequisites

Most Non-dualists Don't Go Far Enough

The author asks the reader for a moment of indulgence to write about the practice of Advaita or non-duality also known as gnana or jnana or the path of Vedanta.  As related in his book Into the Mystic, the author spent ten or twelve years practicing and studying this path prior to taking up the practice of bhakti or devotion to the Beloved.  However, to be clear, the author still enjoys non-dual awareness and contemplation of advaita so the reader should not take this to be a dismissal of this path. Rather, it is an inquirey into the delusions of the abundant masses of expounders, writers and lecturers on non-duality that have stormed the world stage in recent years.

These days the author considers that it might be better if the teachings of non-duality were kept secret and only given to persons who are of sufficient maturity.  This view is bolstered by the author’s own deluded period when he was thinking he was enlightened as a result of certain non-dual experiences and from reading the teachings of Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj. 

Here is a quote from Nisargadatta Maharaj in the book I Am That that underscores the problem:

"There are so many who take the dawn for the noon, a momentary experience for full realisation and destroy even the little they gain by excess of pride. Humility and silence are essential for a sadhaka, however advanced. Only a fully ripened jnani can allow himself complete spontaneity."

A person reads the books and has an experience.  He or she then concludes they are enlightened and it’s all over with.  Never mind the contradiction of their actions which play out as anger, frustration, fear and upsetedness.  The person rationalizes that these emotions are simply the one-Self that is expressing the infinite play of existence.  The newly enlightened person never asks why there is anger if there is only one-Self.  Who is there to be angry with whom?  Why is there frustration if all is my own Self?  The same is true for fear.  Ramana was once asked how to know a Self-realized person and he replied we know them by their utter lack of fear.  Once a person succumbs to this pitfall, it is almost impossible to coax them out of it.  It is very difficult for someone to wake up who is dreaming that they are awake.

The newbie has a moment of non-duality but, due to the fact that they are not spiritually mature, the ego returns and claims the experience.  It says, “I am enlightened.  I had an experience.”  In the experience there was no “I” but it returns now with full force and, in fact, the ego swells.  It is now enlightened.  It is special and above the rest of humanity who have not yet become special (enlightened).  Pride takes the ball and races for the end zone of delusion. 

The effect of this is to make us crazier than we were prior to the experience.  We then see the manifestation of all sorts of perversions of non-duality.  The author refers to persons manifesting these perverted points of view to be suffering from “non-dual disease.”  Here are a few of the symptoms:

1.  No guru or teacher is necessary because our own Self will teach us.  Antidote:  Understand that we end up taking lessons from the deluded mind not the Self. Whether learning carpentry or brain surgery, a teacher is required.  Why not spirituality?  For most of us, we have no awareness of the Self because it is obscured by the mind.  All we know are our fears and desires.  An outer guru is necessary to awaken us to the guru within and guide us around the pitfalls.

2.  We should not do any spiritual practice because that is a denial of the truth that we already are the Self.  Antidote:  We must make an effort to reach the effortless state.  The ego is not real but simply saying so will not get rid of it.

3.  It’s all a dream; nothing is real.  Antidote:  For a Master it's a dream but for us everything is quite real.  Try to stop eating or sleeping to see if you are a Master.  Pull your fingernails out and see if you can smile complacently while repeating, “It’s all a dream.”

4.  Love and compassion are unreal products of the mind.  Antidote:  This is how the intellect sees it because the intellect can’t go there. Love and compassion are all that’s real.  

The internet is full of people saying such things.  They write books and give lectures. Listening to them, the author sometimes feels he is hearing the cacophony of the dayroom in an insane asylum. 

The most unfortunate aspect of having wandered into the false assumption that we are enlightened, is that we become closed to any further progress.  We actually are worse off than before “enlightenment” and the door is slammed shut.  We believe we now know everything there is to know and we are not open to any other suggestions.  This is indeed most unfortunate and it is the main reason why it might be better if these teachings were not circulated among the masses. 

The ironic truth is that if someone says they are enlightened it is a sure sign they are not. 

Amma comments on this in the book From Amma’s Heart:

“Questioner:  Amma, do you claim anything?

Amma:  Claim what?

Q:  That you are an incarnation of the Divine Mother or a fully Self-realized Master and so forth.

A:  Does the president or prime minister of any country keep on announcing, “Do you know who I am?  I am the president/prime minister,” wherever he or she goes?  No.  They are what they are.  Even to claim that you are an Avatar or are Self-realized involves ego.  In fact, if somebody claims that they are an Incarnation, a Perfect Soul, that in itself is proof they are not.

Perfect Masters have no such claims.  They always set an example to the world by being humble.  Remember, Self-realization doesn’t make you special.  It makes you humble.

In order to claim that you are something, you neither have to be Self-realized nor do you need any special skill.  The only thing that you need is a big ego, false pride.  That is what a Perfect Master doesn’t have.”

Do we see this clearly?  If a person is truly enlightened, it means they no longer have a sense of “I” or any identification with being an individual person.  If that is true, then who is there left to be enlightened?  There is no “I” that can claim to be enlightened.  There is no “I” left that can say, “I had an enlightenment experience.”  The phrase, “I am enlightened” is an oxymoron. 

Most persons who claim to be enlightened and who are giving talks and writing books are still deluded.  It is not difficult to read books on non-duality and then repeat it like a parrot and fool most people.  They may even have had a non-duality experience or two which only makes things worse.   However, most of them are themselves fooled because they have put new wine in old bottles meaning their minds were not pure and so the experience has been made putrid by the ego.  Non-dual disease follows.  They may really imagine themselves to be enlightened or awake or partially awake. 

A few of these may have advanced stages of awakening but they are not satgurus.  A satguru is one who has merged in the Self completely.  They function from a completely spontaneous realm as indicated in the previous quote from Nisargadatta regarding “perfect spontaneity.”  They have no desire to accumulate followers and so they make no claims.  They teach only as an act of compassion.  They are fearless.  They do not experience anger or frustration.  If they appear to express anger it is only to get the attention of a student who did not get the message the first few times when it was expressed in a passive tone. These beings are very rare.

Even with the case of avatars or incarnations of the Divine, there will be a period of intense spiritual practice.  This was true for Ramakrishna, Yogananda, Amma, Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj.  For example, Ramana had his initial enlightenment then sat in meditation absorbed in the Self for three years.  He sat 24/7 and did not speak for three years.  He referred to this as a period of purification.  The author interprets “purification” to mean the destruction and dissolution of the ego.  If someone claims to be an enlightened teacher, we should look for this kind of intense spiritual practice in their past.  Imagine – Ramana sat twenty-four hours a day, every day for three years and didn’t speak the whole time!  We need to see this kind of intensity.  A person claiming to have had an enlightenment experience one day out of the blue while walking in the park is most likely still packing an ego.

What would constitute spiritual maturity sufficient to begin the practice of Self-enquiry?  Are there any prerequisites?  Those persons suffering from non-dual disease will claim that Advaita does not have prerequisites and that anyone, anywhere can take up the practice.  This is really a very difficult practice!  Yes, the concept is very simple and intellectually gratifying but doing it is very difficult.  About this Amma says:

“Those who reach the Goal through the path of jnana can be counted on the fingers of your hand.”  Amma, Eternal Wisdom, vol. II, p. 124

Sri Ramakrishna said:

“To know God through jnana and reasoning is extremely difficult.”  Ramakrishna, The Gospel of Ramakrishna, p. 94

Those who propose this path say things like, “All you have to do is be yourself.  Just let go and be the Self.”  The title of one popular book containing quotes from Ramana is Be As You Are.  The problem with this is that we are currently imagining ourselves to be a collection of memories, desires and fears that reside in our minds.  This is what we think we are.  Simply saying, “Be as you are” is misleading.  It sounds easy but getting rid of the memories, desires and fears is most difficult.  Until our habitual identification with these is burnt to a crisp, we not be able to be the Self.  We will only know our dreams and these will continue to create more desires and more fears which will constantly be snapping at our heels like a mad dog.

This path, as with all paths, requires much effort.  Remember Ramana sitting 24/7 for three years?  It all depends on our “earnestness” as Nisargadatta was fond of saying.  It is difficult to coax the mind into remaining in the state of self-enquiry which is meditating on or contemplating the source of the “I.”  It is very dry and unrewarding up until the final dissolution.  There are a few exceptions with Ramana being one.  He had a spontaneous awakening when he was sixteen (which culminated in the three year period he called “purification”).  This occurred because he was already Self-realized from previous births.  Very rarely does this happen.  Nisargadatta Maharaj comments on this in I Am That:

“Q: But can a Guru give realisation without words, without trust, just like this, without any preparation?

M: Yes, one can, but where is the taker? You see, I was so attuned to my Guru, so completely trusting him. There was so little of resistance in me, that it all happened easily and quickly. But not everybody is so fortunate. Laziness and restlessness often stand in the way and until they are seen and removed, the progress is slow. All those who have realised on the spot, by mere touch, look or thought, have been ripe for it. But such are very few. The majority needs some time for ripening. Sadhana (spiritual practice) is accelerated ripening.

Q: What makes one ripe? What is the ripening factor?

M: Earnestness of course, one must be really anxious.”

It should be noted that Nisargadatta left his family, and spent all day, every day concentrating on Self-inquiry for four years.  Then he attained permanent realization.  It is said the floor cracked beneath him from the intensity of his concentration where he was pacing back and forth.  He was deeply absorbed all day, every day.

Bhakti, or the path of devotion and love, is an easier path because one begins to get the bliss right away.  God invites his lovers directly into the living room of the heart.  Also the practice of bhakti is not nearly as prone to the pitfall of pride.  Jnanas, or practitioners of Advaita / non-duality must wait until the very end to experience the bliss of the Self.  This is why it is so difficult to maintain the earnestness and intensity practicing non-duality.  Few can do it.  Thus Amma says the number of people who will achieve the goal with this path can be counted on one hand.

Advaita should only be practiced in the presence of a fully Self-realized satguru.  This guru should possess the yogic power of being able read all of our thoughts.  If the practitioner succumbs to pride and/or becomes a victim of non-dual disease (which is guaranteed to happen), the guru will be able to make corrections.

 Advaita Prerequisites and Requirements


In the Advaita Bodha Deepika, it says Advaita should only be taught to those...

"...who are fitted (by all) their sins (adharmic actions) having been burnt off by austerities practiced in several past births, their minds made pure, their intellects discriminating the real from the unreal, themselves indifferent to the pleasures of either this or the other worlds, their minds and senses under control, passions held down, actions given up as a worthless burden, faith firm and minds tranquil, eagerly seeking release from bondage."

In these modern times, there are many people who believe that there are no prerequisites for Self-enquiry.  They believe Advaita can be pursued by anyone, in any circumstance and that their life-style and background has no relevance.  They reason, using their intellect, that Advaita is a simple concept of abiding in our true Self which is ever present in all persons.  Why should that be prefaced by requirements? 

This idea of no requirements and the afore mentioned perversions of non-duality, are often referred to as neo-Advaita philosophy. Among the teachers of this line of thinking, the idea of conditions or prerequisites is rarely discussed. We are told that we can practice non-duality within the context of an affluent, hedonistic lifestyle and that little or no modification of our behavior or mental tendencies is required.  Of course this is very convenient and therefore appealing.  This attracts followers, fills lecture halls and retreats with high-paying customers and sells books.  Few would show up if they were told the truth.

However, if we look at classic texts on Advaita, we see a much different story.  The necessity of “fitness” on the part of the student is a fundamental topic discussed at the beginning of the teaching.  The requirements are not for those lacking in courage or commitment. They are daunting to say the least. 

First of all, the applicant should renounce the world, be celibate, and become adept at other yogas such as Raja Yoga, Karma Yoga and Bhakti Yoga.  One can read texts such as the Vedanta Sara I.6-26 for greater illumination of this subject.

We can probably assume few were ever in possession of one hundred percent of these requirements.  It will nonetheless promote humility for both the student and the teacher who may himself be short on some of the requirements!

Ramana Maharshi summarizes all of this by stating simply that one must have a “ripe” mind to pursue Advaita. This is the sum of the essence of it all.  It sounds simple but, upon closer examination, we may find that the condition of having a ripe mind is quite elusive.  A ripe mind is not easy to come by and few have one.  Nisargadatta also mentions in his quote a few pages back, that for most people “ripening” is needed and for this he recommends doing spiritual practices.

In Ramana’s own words, a ripe mind possesses deep detachment and profound discrimination.  At the top of the list in order of importance is a powerful longing to be liberated from the body and Samsara (the seemingly endless cycles of birth, death and rebirth).  This is not a shallow mental fascination but rather an irrevocable conviction that runs deeply into the very root of our feelings and thoughts.  Detachment and discrimination themselves will open a universe of discovery should one undertake a study of these prerequisites.  It will then become clear just how “unripe” our minds actually are. We can read more about this in Ramana Gita VII 8-11.

A ripe mind is a sattvic mind.  Sattvic means a state of peaceful and harmonious equilibrium.  Sattva is one of the three states of existence which are needed to compose the universe.  The other two states are “rajas” and “tamas.”  These are the qualities of passion/activity and ignorance/inertia respectively.  To have a ripe mind, the qualities of rajas and tamas must be diminished in the mind and also the body so that sattvas predominates.  Vedic thought sees the body and mind as connected so the sattvic condition is necessary for the body as well. Otherwise the mind will have difficulty being sattvic.  In our current times, we can see that our culture is dominated by rajas and tamas.

To arrive at a sattvic or ripe mind, it is necessary to practice a dharmic life-style.  This is like the prescription of the “do’s” and “do not’s” of the yamas and niyamas which are prerequisites for the practice of Yoga.  Regarding this, Ramana especially recommended a vegetarian diet which is sattvic and therefore beneficial to acquiring a ripe mind. Alcohol is very tamasic and should be avoided.

The basic problem with neo-Advaita practice is that most people take Ramana’s “ripe mind” in a shallow, self-serving way.  No one wants to sacrifice anything  or feel the heat of tapas (denial of desires).  No one wants to change their mental behavior.  No one wants to challenge their pride or their anger or stop being judgmental of others.  Few want to be vegetarian.  Everyone wants Advaita but nobody wants to give up anything.  As a result, the concept of “ripe mind” is put on the shelf as no more than a quaint aphorism to which one need not pay much attention.

Most Non-dualists Don't Go Far Enough

It is the author’s opinion that most practitioners of Advaita do not go far enough. 
The Indian philosopher and spiritual practitioner Adi Shankara (circa 800 CE) is widely regarded as the father of modern non-dual philosophy. Curiously, he was an ardent devotee of the Divine in the form of the Divine Mother.  He wrote many beautiful hymns and poems of adoration to her.  Most neo-Advaitans would not consider worshipping the Divine in any form believing as they do that all form is unreal and only the formless is real.  This is because they have not developed far enough in their insight. Sankara’s three point axiom illustrates this.

1.         The world is an illusion
2.         Brahman (God) is real
3.         Brahman is the world

Most practitioners of the path of Advaita are stuck at step one or two.  Remember, according to Amma, the number of people in the entire world who can realize the end game of complete and irrevocable absorption in the Self by the path of Advaita can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Few non-dual practitioners will ever realize that Brahmin is the world.  However, Shankara did and this explains his deep undivided devotion to the Divine Mother.  He states in his book The Crest Jewel of Discrimination, that form or Maya is eternal.  It was not created.  It will not cease to be.  It just simply always has been and always will be.  This eternal status of the universe is further underscored in the Vedas which explain that the universe comes into being, expands, then contracts and is dissolved.  Then the cycle repeats again and for all eternity it does this.  The Self or Brahman is eternally unchanging while the universe is eternally changing.  Such a pair they are!  There is no beginning or end to either and they are really one whole.

The result of step three is that we realize and understand the entire universe(s) to be a single, conscious being who expresses intelligence, design and will. Not only that but it will communicate with us, talk to us, love us and accept our love.  Call it what one will – Adi Shankara liked to call it the Divine Mother.  Thus devotion is not only the simplest, and the safest but also the highest form of spiritual practice.

Mother showed the tip of one of Her fingers.  “In front of bhakti (devotion for God), mukti (liberation from the cycle of birth and death) is no more than this.”  Amma, Eternal Wisdom, book 2, page 194

"The state that we attain by calling and crying to God is equal to the bliss that the yogi experiences in Samadhi."   Amma – Awaken Children book 3

"If you can pray to Him with an open heart and shed a few tears out of love for Him (Her), then you are saved."   Amma, Eternal Wisdom, vol. II, p. 72.