Many of you may know that I have been using a guided meditation app called Headspace by Andy Puddicombe for a few years. Those unfamiliar with this person can refer
Andy sometimes uses three sets of ten meditations each. The first set of ten sessions he calls “Learn,” the second “Practice” and the third  “Master”.

Whether the learning sought is secular or spiritual, the need for this sequence – Learn, Practice and Master – is the same. This is best illustrated by a story narrated by one of my Vedānta teachers, Swami Chinmayananda. He was an expert in driving home a point through an unforgettable story. Here is one just right for this topic.

A story by Swami Chinmayananda

A person was fixated on the notion that he was a chicken, so would not go out of his house for years due to fear of dogs chasing to kill him. At the recommendation of his friends and well-wishers a psychotherapist started working with him. His sessions went on for years.
After a long time, one day, at the end of a session, he told his therapist “I now know that I am not a chicken.” The therapist replied “Great! Why don’t you just go round the block and come back. I will be happy to conclude the session today.” 
Barely a few minutes had passed when the therapist heard some barking dogs and someone pounding on his doors, he rushed to open the door.  His patient barged in panting and plopped himself in a chair. After he calmed down, the therapist asked, “What happened?  Why were you panting when you rushed in? Are you alright?” He replied, “Doctor, I know I am not a chicken, but do the dogs know I am not a chicken?


Two factors necessary to learn any subject, sacred or secular are desire to learn and readiness to learn. The first one presupposes that one is aware of being ignorant of a subject. 

Desire to learn: Realizing that one is ignorant leads to a desire to learn. In Sanskrit there is a single word for “desire to learn”:  jijñāsā. We all know that a strong desire remains till the object of desire is gained unless eliminated by mature dispassion, vairāgya. But this does not apply to desire to know who you are, the result of analyzing all the fulfilled desires one had and finding that this did not lead to any lasting sense of contentment. This is why in many sūtra texts, jijñāsā is in the opening aphorism. For example, the analytical text of the ritual portion of the Vedas, the sūtra attributed to Jamini starts:

अथातो धर्मजिज्ञासा।   ॥१.१॥
Athāto dharmajijñāsā (1:1)
Now, therefore, may one entertain a desire to know dharma (1:1)

Another well known sūtra work by Bādarāyaṇa, the analysis of Upaniṣads, starts:

अथातो ब्रह्मजिज्ञासा।  ॥१.१॥
Athāto brahmajijñāsā (1:1)
Now,  therefore, may one entertain a desire to know Brahman (1:1)

Many students of Patañjali are aware of the work Sāṅkhyakārikā of Īśvarakṛṣṇa. His book starts with:

तापत्रयाभिघाताज्जिज्ञासा ।   ॥१.१॥
Tāpatrayābhighātājjijñāsā (1:1)
For cessation of the anguish triad, may one entertain a desire to know. (1:1)(No attempt is made here to explain these aphorisms from three disparate fields of learning since it is not the objective of this article.)

Readiness to learn: When it comes to ancient teachings on the life goal, to be free while living, called mokṣa, the readiness to learn is critical. It means having the ability to learn by setting aside intellectual and emotional roadblocks, based on one’s current perspective, convictions and past experiences. This type of readiness to learn is called śraddhā in Sanskrit, poorly translated as “faith”. This word faith, especially in modern times, may be looked down upon, sometimes equating to blind faith if not also being irrational, superstitious ideas. But faith is particularly relevant to any scriptural study. The best definition of śraddhā was stated by an advaita master, Śaṅkarācārya in Vivekacūdāmaṇi.

शास्त्रस्य गुरुवाक्यस्य सत्यबुद्ध्यवधारणम्।
सा श्रद्धा कथिता सद्भिर्यया वस्तूपलभ्यते। ॥२७॥
Śāśtrasya guruvākyasya satyabuddhyavdhāraṇām
Sā śraddhā kathitā sadbhiryayā vastūpalabhyate. (27)
Conviction that the words of the teacher and of the sacred work is true:
This is defined as śraddhā (‘faith’) by the wise,
With this one gains the object (of one’s quest) – (Vivekacūḍāmaṇi, verse 27)

Difference between secular and spiritual learning

The first big difference between secular and spiritual knowledge was highlighted to us at the āśrama by our teacher, Swami Dayananda Sarasvati,  “If you study microbiology, you do not want to be a microbe! If you study geology, you do not want to become a rock! But when you study Vedānta, you want to be what Vedānta says you already are.” This is succinctly stated by “Tat tvam asi”, namely you are what you seek! Thus, what you want to be is not different from yourself–the truth of yourself–not what you take yourself to be.’

The second major difference is the effect of such a study on the student. Accomplishments in the study of secular  subjects do not usually transform the student. They will often continue to lead to feelings of wanting, needing, dissatisfaction and emptiness. Having spent my life as a scientist, I can say that there is an acute sense of not knowing everything concerning even a small area of scientific endeavour. This sense of being left unfulfilled and wanting to transcend this grief is highlighted in the following story about Narmada in Chāndogya-Upaniṣad in the seventh chapter.

Story of Nārada approaching his teacher Sanatkumāra

The celestial sage Nārada approached Sanatkumāra and asked him to teach, to which Sanatkumāra replied, “First tell me what all you have studied, then I will teach you.”  Nårada described his scholastic accomplishments in more than twenty different fields of study and concluded, “Despite all this knowledge, I still feel sorrowful. O Lord, may you teach me the way to transcend this sorrow.” The teaching that follows is about self-knowledge; that is, the true nature of oneself.  (Chāndogya Ch. 7, Section 1, Verses 1-3).

Spiritual study transforms the person, while expertise in any branch of secular knowledge leaves the personality of the learner untouched. More often than not one remains the same, perhaps becoming more haughty, looking down on others, be hurtful, unforgiving, lacking compassion and so on.

Learning – When it is complete

More than two millennia ago, a Tamil poet known as Tiruvalluvar in his well-known work Kuraḷ succinctly expressed two aspects of learning: thoroughness and behavior of the student toward fellow beings:

கற்க கசடற கற்பவை கற்ற பின்
நிற்க அதற்குத்தக. (குறள்: 391)
Karka kaśaḍara karpavai kaṭrapin
Nirka adarkuttaha. (Kuraḷ: 391)
Learn without any shadow doubt or confusion.
Having learned what all has to be learned,
May your life reflect what you have learned. (Kural Verse 391)

The word kaśaḍara defines when one’s learning is complete.This word means free of defects. That is, whatever one has learned must be free of doubts, confusion and error. One may have a feeling that the knowledge gained is free of any doubt, but it could still be totally erroneous!

That it is quite possible to have erroneous understanding of what the teacher says is illustrated by another story in the same Chāndogya-Upaniṣad in the eighth chapter. 

Story of Indra and Virocana learning from their teacher Bṛhaspati

Two students, Indra, the king of gods, and Virocana, the king of demons, approached their teacher, Bṛhaspati, seeking knowledge of the self known as puruṣa in Sāṇkhya/yoga and ātman in Vedānta. Both had heard how this ātman is free of birth, death or other limitations known to living beings, be they humans, demons or gods. They stayed with the teacher for years. They were asked at the end of the study to look at themselves in a well to “see ātman.” They both saw their own reflections. The king of demons, Virocana, realized clearly that the body is, indeed, the self and left for his kingdom. He told his subjects to take care of the body and enjoy life!

Indra, on the other hand, started thinking how this is not the case, since what he saw was just a reflection of the physical body. So he went back to the teacher, and he was asked to stay for a few more years. Finally, the teacher explained how the self is enshrined in the body but not limited by the body, and that the truth of one’s being is, indeed, ātman.

Thus, taking oneself to be just the body and its three states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep is not true knowledge. True knowledge is seeing that there is one Being witnessing all these three states. This witness, as it were, is the imperishable, limitless self, the true nature of any living being. Thus, blessed by correct learning, Indra finally left the teacher and went back to rule his kingdom. He imparted this knowledge to his subjects. This story also highlights how expressing and trying to resolve doubts during the learning process is an important step in gaining clear understanding of any teaching.

While I was in school I studied Sanskrit as the third language. In those days it was mandatory to memorize and “regurgitate” in the exams to get a high score. The incidental benefit of this focus on rote memorization is that one remembers things decades after school! One verse I remember talks about how and when learning is complete:

आचार्यात्पादमादत्ते पादं शिष्यस्स्वमेधया।
पादं सब्रह्मचारिभ्यः पादम् कालक्रमेण वै।।
Ācāryātpādamādatte pādaṃ śiṣyassvamedhayā
Pādaṃ sabrahmacāribhyaḥ pādam kālakrameṇa vai.
One learns a quarter from the teacher,
the second quarter using the learner’s reasoning,
Another quarter from co-students and the last, only with passage of time.

Learning – Mark of the learned

The last part of Kural’s verse – nirka adarkuttaha, May your life reflect what you have learned – tells the real mark of learning. This is relevant to any spiritual study. This is what is popularly called “Walk the talk”. This means one’s learning is reflected in his/her behavior towards all living beings.

Unfortunately, we generally are very good at learning once we set our minds to it but fall by the wayside when it comes to living an exemplary life and being a shining example of what the teaching is all about: being free of impulsiveness, cravings, hurtfulness to others in thought, word and deed, and other baser instincts that propel a person to act based on “ends justify the means”’ type of reasoning. The hallmarks of a learned person, jñânin, wise one, are described in the Gītā in the second chapter (Chapter 2:55-72). I will elaborate on the mark of wisdom in a later post, entitled Master.

Here I do not mean only actions motivated by the theological concepts of God, Heaven and Hell or the need to be good in life (not sinning etc.), these result in a person leading an ethical life. My focus here is what is called “liberation / freedom theology,” though I prefer the term liberation-centered philosophies. One can include in this category Buddhist, Sāṅkhya /Yoga  and Vedānta philosophies.

The primary thrust of these systems is living-liberated; that is, freedom here and now, not as a posthumous reward of heaven as described in Abrahamic religions or the different heavens described in the ritual section of the Vedas. Even in Vedānta, in the Upaniṣads there is mention of liberation after death, videhamukti. Liberation after death is more like a response to the polemical question, “If I am really liberated, how come I still am bound to this body”  and not the real intent of Vedānta.

Though the word liberation sounds almost mystical, it is synonymous with the word freedom, which is easy to understand. The question then is “What is this freedom?”  No one is free from aging, illness and death. Also, freedom implies the idea of being in bondage from which one gains freedom! The freedom one talks about in these philosophies is not something to be gained. Anything gained can be lost as well, so a liberated person can be bound again. The freedom discussed in these philosophies is not a two-way street because liberation is not an event in time.

In reality, one is free and the sense of bondage is due to total identification with the mind.  If the mind is agitated, “I am agitated.” If the mind experiences an emotion of sorrow, joy or hurt, then “I am sad, joyful, hurt”. I remember at the end of one of our Vedānta residential courses, Swami Dayananda encapsulated the essence of the Vedāntic vision of living-liberated thus:  “You are free from the moment you no longer take yourself to be an existing emotion in your mind.”  This freedom is described by the famous analogy of sculpting an elephant out of a big boulder. One does not make the elephant but only chips away the non-elephant until only the elephant remains. What is being chipped away in the life of a seeker is just his or her  identification with the mind and its emotions.

Thus, the focus of liberation philosophies is to make seekers realize that they are already free and only have to free themselves from identification with the mind. In a mind that is besieged by regrets, cravings, hate, anger and similar emotions, the philosophies do not work. The transformation of the person to manifest the understanding of the core of these philosophies is not possible. The philosophies remain at best at the level of intellectual appreciation of a lofty concept.

This leads us to the second word of the triad Learn, Practice, Master.  What Practice is and why it is critical for the student of philosophy forms the subject of the next post.

I thank Alice, Candace, Chris and Philippe
for their valuable comments and edits.