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A critique of Vedanta

Classic Scriptures

(2009)

Here we will discuss four basic notions of the Self and also go into the nature of illusion and show where Vedanta goes wrong


Four notions about the Self

1) The nature of the Self is Pure Existence. Thus in the Self there is no knowledge, no activity and no bliss -- and of course neither pleasure or pain. All these are seen as within the relative sphere that in toto is rejected as illusory. Self-realization according to this understanding of the Self will therefore be eternally unconscious and a complete annihilation without death. This point of view is that of the Indian philosophical tradition known as Vaisesika.

2) The nature of the Self is Self-conscious Pure Existence. Thus in the Self there is no activity or bliss, but there is Self-awareness which is immortal. Self-realization according to this belief is a state of immortal Self-aware Pure Being separate from everything. This separateness is to be understood in its most radical sense. Any kind of fluctuation in consciousness is seen as an illusion and thus bliss and interaction with anything at all is rejected. This state of Self-realization would be somewhat equal to being Self-aware to the highest degree yet in a state of stupor for all eternity. This notion of the Self is that of the Indian philosophical tradition called Samkhya and their notion of Self-realization is called kaivalya. This notion of the Self depends on a strict duality between Pure Self-conscious Being (called purusha) and everything else (called prakriti). Everything else includes anything that moves or changes in any way and therefore all emotions are excluded from the notion of the Self. Those who adhere to this icecold notion of the Self reject bliss as if it is an emotion. They also deny the Self any form of creativity. They therefore have a hard time explaining how the illusory world of "everything else" (prakriti) came about in the first place. For an adherent of Samkhya, spiritual practice is solely a matter of getting out of ignorance. Which means getting out of everything and dissolving into the Big Void.

3) The nature of the Self is Blissful Self-conscious Pure Existence. This notion of the Self is well known from the Indian philosophical system called Advaita Vedanta. Here the Self is called Brahman. "Advaita vedanta" itself means "the highest wisdom about the non-dual Self". That sounds nice, and many teachers, both eastern and western, refer to "advaita" or "vedanta" when describing their teachings. I am not quite sure why, because the majority of them do not know the least about the bliss of the Self and do not mention it at all. They only talk about the Self as Self-conscious Pure Being, their teachings are therefore not Vedanta, but Samkhya. Advaita vedanta relies heavily on Samkhya, as well as on the old Indian wisdom texts known as Upanishads. Vedanta adheres, like Samkhya, to a strict distinction between Pure Existence and "everything else" which is seen as a complete illusion (maya). Vedanta has a big problem here, that any seeker of the Self should understand fully. One should understand it because so many refer to their teachings as Advaita Vedanta, yet they are blind to this problem. And one should also be aware of this flaw in Vedanta, because there are higher teachings more in accord with reality and actual experience. I will go more into this later, but basically Vedanta has the same problem as Samkhya in explaining how the illusory world, mind and ego came about in the first place if the Self is completely inactive and non-creative and separate from everything. Thus there is duality between unmanifest and manifest which Advaita Vedanta can not explain or handle satisfactorily. For an adherent of Advaita Vedanta, spiritual practice is solely a matter of getting out of ignorance.

4) The nature of the Self is Dynamic Blissful Self-conscious Pure Existence. The word "Dynamic" does not capture quite what I mean, because it is hard to understand the unmanifest Self as Dynamic in itself without any duality. There is no appropriate english word. The Indian term is Shakti or Spanda. Shakti is the creative force of everything and it never ceases to be unmanifest blissful pure being. It is difficult for the mind to grasp this and it takes direct experience to understand it fully. This notion of the Self is not so well known, but it is most elegantly expressed in the Indian system known as Kashmir Shaivism. This notion of the Self is generally that of all schools of Tantra. The word "Tantra" has in the west mostly become associated with exotic sexual practices aimed at extended and deepened orgasms. However, Tantra has numerous schools and practices and in fact the possibility of using interrcourse as a spiritual practice is a very minor part, and indeed a rather unimportant part with respect to getting Self-realized. Self-realization is of course the topic at hand. What unifies all these schools and practices, however, is that they agree upon the same notion of the Self. According to Tantra the Self is Shakti, thus most practices of Tantra approach the Self as Shakti. When I use the word Tantra, I generally refer to Kashmir Shaivism, since this is where I am most at home and where my experiences have been explained the best.

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Tantra is often thought to have originated in Buddhist Vajrayana. Undoubtedly Vajrayana has been a strong influence, but Tantra is much older than Vajrayana. As mentioned above, Tantra is the recognition of ultimate reality as blissful and dynamic Selfawareness and also that this awareness incorporates the world and enjoyment of life. This can fit into many mythologies, schools of thought and practices. Basically Tantra teaches that Selfrealization and the dance of life are entirely compatible.

Vedanta, like Samkhya, holds that knowledge of the Self is not different from the Self, the Self is Self-aware. But Vedanta maintains that this knowledge, this Self-awareness, is passive and indeed a state of passivity. Tantra on the other hand recognizes that the Self is vibrant and dynamic and therefore inherrently active. While Samkhya believes that knowledge of the world is structured in the intellect (buddhi) and that it is therefore the intellect that has knowledge and knows, Tantra will reply that the intellect is merely the instrument of knowledge and that the knower is the Self. But in general Tantra is not interested in such knowledge and its aquisition, Tantra is focused on developing the Self's Self-awareness and on the recognition of everything as a play of consciousness inseperable from the Self. This also means that Tantra does not rely on revealed knowledge (like for example Christianity, Islam and other semitic religions); the knowledge of Tantra is based on direct experience and it is aquired through direct experience only. Tantra does not reject revelation, but it maintains that the revealed knowledge can be verified through ones own direct experience. In contrast the semitic religions do not go beyond faith in what a prophet or messiah has revealed in the scriptures.

This brings us to the interesting question of illusion (false or wrong knowledge). Vedanta says illusion is neither a projection of the Self nor something unreal; it is simply false and neither real or unreal. In contrast Tantra maintains that illusion is real enough and that its nature is the same as any other knowledge, but in the case of illusion it is wrong knowledge. This has interesting implications because it means knowledge can be more or less perfect. Thus Selfrealization is one thing, but realization of the Self in other is a matter of degrees of purity and perfection. Ignorance is not absence of knowledge, it is wrong or imperfect knowledge. Vedanta on the other hand denies illusion any ontological status by maintaining it simply does not exist. Vedanta therefore has a problem explaining why everybody is not living in utter wisdom, enlightenment and Self-realization. The best Vedanta can do is say that people already are enlightened, they just don't know it. Which is quite true, but vedanta offers no explanation for why people don't know they are already enlightened; vedanta then refers to something called "Maya". The Maya of Vedanta is generally translated as "Illusion" and ignorance is ascribed to this mysterious force. However, where does Maya come from? Vedanta has no satisfactory answer, thus we are still in the dark about why people are ignorant about their own Self.

The basic problem of Vedanta is the self-contradictory nature of Vedanta's fundamental teachings:

1) The Absolute, the Self, is unmanifest, inactive, pure being.
2) Because of maya, people do not recognize this and live in suffering.
3) The world of plurality is an illusion.
4) Non-duality is the Absolute reality.

Now, what's wrong with this? First of all Vedanta claims non-duality is the Absolute reality, yet at the same time Vedanta poses duality between the Absolute and Maya; meaning a duality between the unmanifest Absolute and everything manifest. Vedanta of course has a sense of this predicament, but offers no solution and just replies that everything is an illusion and therefore the objection is also an illusion and a sign of ignorance. Yet it is a fact that the world has existed for millions of years, that people live in it and that people generally are not consciously aware of the Self as unmanifest pure being. Vedanta can't deny this, but rather than admitting Vedanta doesn't understand how this can be, Vedanta goes into denial and simply rejects the world as an illusion. Vedanta's main problem is explaining where maya comes from if the Absolute is passive, inactive and ever unmanifest.

Tantra offers a solution to this. Tantra rejects Vedanta's notion of the Absolute as a passive nothingness; instead Tantra maintains that the Absolute is both unmanifest and a dynamic creative force. From this creative force everything arises; both the world as well as personal consciousness. Maya is thus understood to be both thefirst sense of separateness from which individual consciousnesses and objects arise, as well as the play of life at large. It is interesting that this notion of Maya is actually how Maya was understood prior to Vedanta. In the Bhagavad Gita and the Shvetashvatara Upanishad, Maya is described as a creative power with a three-fold nature known as the three gunas. This understanding of the Absolute Self does away with the predicament of Vedanta, and instead of everything being an unreal illusion, everything is a blissful play of consciousness. Personally I find my experience concurs with Tantra, not Vedanta. In a developmental scheme, Vedanta is a phase prior to this blissful unitary consciousness. Vedanta is therefore not actually wrong, it is just inferior knowledge and inferior understanding.

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