The Bhagavadgītā – background

For many among us who have just heard of the word Bhagavadgītā, but are not quite sure of who wrote, where it occurs and what it is about, the following background would help. For the rest of us, this is just a concise summary of what we already know.

This text, sometimes translated as “The Song Divine” has eighteen chapters, comprising about 700 verses. This is in the epic “Mahābhārata”, a 100,000-verse work attributed to Vyāsa. This epic describes a familial feud among nephews of two royal families that resulted in a fratricidal war leading to almost total annihilation of one of the families. Bhagavadgītā is set at the place in the epic where the nepoticidal war is about to begin. But the Commander-in-Chief of one army was having a crisis of confidence and was ready to give up. This was brought about, not by lack of courage, but by the fact that this war thrust on him by his nephews would result in his killing or death in battles of his brethren and those he respects. His name was Arjuna and his charioteer was Kṛṣṇa, his friend and relative. Bhagavadgītā is a conversation between Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa, where Arjuna beseaches his own charioteer thus

Kārpaṇyadoṣopahatsvabhāvaḥ pṛcchāmitvām dharmasammūdhachetāḥ
Yacchreyaḥ syānniścitam brūhi tan me śiṣyasteham śādhi mām tvām prapannam. (2-7)

My mind is tainted by self-pity, I am totally confused about what is dharma I approach you as your student, please teach me! (Ch.2, Verse 7)

Thus, having set the context, Vyāsa describes this spiritual teaching as an ongoing dialogue between the two, Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa. This dialogue is about 650 verses constituting the rest of the 2nd chapter and the remaining 16 chapters.

Even at that time it was common belief that Kṛṣṇa was an incarnation of Lord Viṣṇu. And in a few chapters in the Gītā he takes on the role of God. In one celebrated chapter he shows Arjuana his cosmic vision. Those who are familiar with the nuclear physicist Oppenheimer may remember his quote from the Gītā (from the 11th chapter, where Kṛṣṇa shows Arjuna the cosmic vision of Himself) on witnessing the first atomic bomb detonation. 

The “Vision” and the “Way” in Bhagavadgītā

Bhagavadgītā is not an easy text to follow: thus, giving rise to a number of interpretations over the last several centuries. This set of 700 verses captures the essence of Vedānta’s vision of what you are in contrast to what you take yourself to be. 

Vedānta means the end portion of vedas. Vedas mean books of knowledge. Vedānta is also called the ultimate knowledge of the vedas. Another name for vedānta is Upaniṣads. Vedānta is usually looked upon or interpreted in three ways: advaita-vedānta, viśiṣādvaita-vedānta and dvaita-vedānta. 

These Sanskrit terms such as advaita, viśiṣādvaita and dvaita are typically translated as philosophies of nondualism, qualified dualism and dualism respectively. The foremost exponents of these three thoughts are Śaṅkarācārya (8th century CE) for advaita-Vedānta, Rāmānujācāya (11th century CE) for viśiṣādvaita-vedānta and Madhvācārya  (13th century CE) for dvaita. It is not correct to assume that they were the ones who came up with these concepts first. It is likely that such divergent views were already present, and they expounded them clearly by writing commentaries to several upaniṣads and the Gītā.

The nondual vision of vedānta and the Gītā is that you, the individual, are essentially not different from the world and God. The qualified non-dualism insists that you and God are not quite nondual while the dualistic vision, which is commonly shared with all Abrahamic religions, is that you and God are separate and your role is to worship Him so after death you will be in heaven with Him. Note that this idea of ultimate duality is also the cornerstone for Sāṅkhya-Yoga philosophy.

In one of the invocation verses for the Gītā usually chanted in India expresses the fact that it captures the essence of Upaniṣads in a poetic way.

Sarvopaniṣado gāvo dogdhā gopālanandanaḥPārtho vatsassudhīrbhotkā dugdhaṁ gītāmṛtam mahat

All Upaniṣads are cows, the milkman is KṛṣṇaArjuna is the calf, the enjoyer is one of clear-mind (who drinks this) great nectar of the Gītā.*

(In olden days the calf is allowed to drink the milk from the cow, then the milkman moves the calf away and milks the cow. The milk is for others to enjoyThis is the basis for this verse. I replaced the words gopālanandanaḥ and Pārthaḥ with the corresponding synonyms for clarity.)

Irrespective of these philosophical differences, one has to agree that the Gītā imparts a vision: of who you are that is at variance from your idea of your relationship to other people, the world and God. Since this Vision is so radically different from our perception, merely presenting the vision as Upanisads do was not enough. So, the Gītā offers a Way to understand and assimilate this Vision. (I use the terms Vision and Way with cqpitalized first letters since these terms are commonly used in a Buddhistic tradition.) Assimilation of this vision manifests in terms of one’s behavior towards people and all living beings as well as ways of  understanding of the nature of God. Thus, one can say that the Gītā has both the Vision of this ancient spiritual wisdom and the Way to own it up.

The Vision of the Gītā

The easy way to introduce the Vision for the reader is to start with a familiar example of what we all know and perceive. But we do not see any inherent problem or conflict between our perception and knowledge. We all know that the Sun never rises or sets. This knowledge can be called Vision. But this vision does not negate the perception and experiential enjoyment of a beautiful sunrise or spectacular sunset. In this simple example of the Vision, the way to retain it is through the  basic science taught in grade schools.

Another more advanced example, one my vedānta teacher Swami Dayananda Sarasvati used to cite, is diamond and charcoal. This illustration shows how day-to-day transactions with people need not conflict with the Vision. Any one who has an understanding of elements, crystalline and amorphous solids has the vision that diamond and a piece of charcoal are but the same carbon. But this vision will not alter the behavior of a man offering a big piece of wood charcoal to his girlfriend as a unique Valentine-day gift! 

The following example illustrates the Vision of non-duality not in conflict with perceptual/ experiential duality. In science it was left to Einstein to remove the perceived duality of mass and energy; this does not mean a piece of rock can light up an object nor can visible light be hurled at one to cause physical harm. 

I plan to use these examples to highlight the most difficult, if not often questioned, Vision of non-duality revealed in the Gītā. Once this is understood, it is easier to see the viewpoint of the other two philosophies. 

The vision of the Gītā is a concise summary of the knowledge stated in all Upaniṣads. The core teaching of all Upaniṣads is captured by a single sentence “Tat tvam asi, That (limitlessness, brahman) you are.” (This is a quote from Chandoyopaniṣad.) The natural question arises in one’s mind, “If I am limitless, then what about the world I perceive?” This is where one can see that perception is not reality only to be sublated by knowledge – this is what science teaches us tirelessly! The examples cited earlier of sunrise, sunset, diamond, charcoal, matter, energy, all tell the human being that perception is not reality, nor does reality alter your perception.

But does this mean advaita-vedānta is a branch of science? As a retired scientist, I will respond, “Definitely not!” The simple reason is that the foundation of science is the invariant observer-observed relationship. The observer is the scientist and the observed is the phenomenon. In Vedānta, this is described as aham-idam, I-this duality. But the edifice of advaita-vedānta is elimination of this observer/observed duality, the ultimate goal of science by the postulate of non-duality. This is why vedānta is treated as philosophy and not science. 

But for many of us who are students of this philosophy it is not just a speculation but sacred knowledge to be understood and assimilated. I must add that for some academics and other scholars, this too is only a belief system not any different from any other theistic dualism or non-theistic philosophies.

While there is no conflict between knowledge of sun rise and perception, if vedānta tells me that non-duality is the reality, I find it at variance with all my waking world experience, my emotions, my conflicts etc., So, where is the catch? The catch is that one takes oneself to be this body, this mind, this intellect, these emotions, to be different from this world, God, Heaven, Hell etc., – simply taking perceived duality as the only reality. That is, idam is really and totally different from and other than aham. The prime substratum for this notion is the total identification with mind by the individual.  And to remove this habituated and society imposed thinking that is defined as “knowledge” one has to have a “how to” manual. And this I call the Way to assimilate the Vision. This is where the Gïtā comes in. 

This, in a nutshell, is what the Gïtā teaching of Vision / Way is all about. Namely, if one follows the Way to hold the Vision, that person’s behavior towards fellow human beings or any living being on the Earth will never result in disharmony. And the person will operate from a center of complete harmony in his / her thought, word and deed. Maintaining harmony is what is technically called dharma in Indian tradition, and this dharma conflict was what drove Arjuna to the exasperating confusion and consequent need for clarity. 

The Way described in the Gītā

While the Vision is easy to communicate. But without emphasizing the Way, it cannot be retained to bless the student. Thus, one very short Upaniṣad, called Māṇdūkya conveys the Vision in just 12 sentences! This Vision is called Brahmavidyā, knowledge of the Timeless (limitless, Brahman, call it God, total, Nature or whatever).

Note the word Yoga as many meanings. The most popular meaning is practice of physical postures, called āsanas. The other meaning is a section or topic. Third meaning, mentioned by Vyāsa in his commentary to Yoga aphorisms refers to a mind that is capable of single-pointed attention towards a chosen action or thought, also called samādhi.
The Way is what is called Yogaśāstra, teaching of yoga. Yoga centers on dealing with the mind, accepting the mind with all its existing notions, concepts, conclusions, impulses etc., but consistently and methodically works with it towards its complete rehabilitation. This results in a mind in samādhi, that can hold the Vision. Else the Vision only remains as an intellectual exercise, not blessing the seeker.

This is the reason why in traditional chanting of the Gītā one chants at the end of each chapter the following:   

Brhamavidyāyām yogaśāstre Kṛṣṇārjunasaṁvāde arjunaviṣādayogonāma prathamodhyāyaḥ.
In the knowledge of Brahman and the teaching of Yoga, in the dialogue between Kṛṣṇa and Arrjuna (is) the first chapter called Topic on Confusion of Arjuna.

Each chapter ends in a similar way, as though reminding the one who chants that this is the dialogue between Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna. For those of us who have studied the Gītā the titles of each section beyond the second chapter tells the Way – the means of assimilating this vision while the main focus of the second chapter is to tell the Vision.

The Gīta’s exposition of the Way

Any teaching has to start with what one already knows or believes. The Gītā is no exception. What one knows is this phenomenal world. I, the person, is the one who perceives, knows and thinks. I know I am other than this world. This dichotomy of I and world, known as duality, is the basis of all my worldly pursuits driven by my cravings, desires and aversions . If I believe in a Higher Being, call it God or any other name many religions give, then that God gives me punishment or reward for “good” or “bad / evil” things I do while living. The result is heaven, hell and so on after death. 

Kṛṣṇa, knowing Arjuna’s background, starts with the latter’s world view which includes God as an entity beyond the phenomenal world. For multi-layered idea of God in the tradition, please refer to my post at this site: At the same time, Kṛṣṇa never loses sight of the Vision, whether you are drawn to non-dual or dualistic philosophy.

As long as one takes oneself to be a limited-being, circumscribed by the world of things and beings, then God is as real to that person as this world. For such a one this conviction on dualism is valid. And, this dualistic approach is quite relatable and popular in the context of prevalent theism with Creator – Created dichotomy as the reality among all religions. This dualistic thinking, found in most of Indian systems of theology as well, contrasts with mystic traditions of both the East and the West that assert the essential non-duality despite perceived and experienced duality. The latter is the same as the advaita-vedānta Vision.

Jewels from the Gītā

As the title of this post implies, this will be the first in a series of posts. I take some snippets from this 700-verse text which I call jewels. Since our focus is centered on the Way to hold the vision of the Gītā, these quotes pertain to this primary objective.

I thank Alice and Chris for editing and helpful comments.


I thought about writing this post for a long time. The reason I decided to do it now was, in a way, related to many news events centered on allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against many gurus all over the globe. Perhaps this was triggered by the #Metoo movement, or just the way things work in the scheme of things, I do not know. Whether it has come to the forefront or whispered among devotees and students, or with many folks in denial or ostracizing those who talk about this subject, this type of allegation has been there for ages. Perhaps it will also continue. It is not my goal to dismiss or agree with the truth behind them. Rather, my objective is to point out the ever present danger of apotheosizing the guru. This can result in rather unpleasant situations. In extreme instances there is a danger of ‘throwing the baby out with the bath the water,’ thereby denying oneself a chance to benefit from the teaching one gains from the guru.

The first question that rises in my mind is “What is normally understood by the word guru in modern parlance?” It is used in expressions such as Wall Street guru, Investment guru, Internet guru and the like. The other day while I was walking in our neighborhood, I saw a van with the logo ‘Heating and Plumbing Guru’ with a drawing of a man with a long beard sitting in lotus pose! I think that the word guru in context means an expert, equivalent to the Sanskrit term paṇita.

This word guru in Indian tradition is commonly used for ‘teacher’ for anyone teaching classical Indian arts and scriptural studies—thus it includes dance, music, architecture, medicine, astrology, yoga, vedānta and other branches of knowledge, secular or spiritual. I use the word to include religious, sacred knowledge, such as the three Freedom Philosophies of India I discussed in my earlier posts at this site.

My objective in this blog is three-fold: (1) to explain the additional expectation implied in the word guru in contrast to common understanding of a teacher. I accomplish by introducing three related Sanskrit words—guru, ācārya and paṇḍita, (2) to discuss the potential for deifying (apotheosizing) the guru and (3) how to forestall this human nature to avoid the possibility of deep emotional hurt when the guru’s behavior does not  reflect the teaching he imparted. This hurt can result in throwing away the teaching altogether, thereby missing the benefit from the teaching.

Words paṇḍita, ācārya and guru


This word means teacher. Similar to pandit, this also is used to refer to a caste, rather a family pursuing a specific profession or trade. When I was growing up in India I knew blacksmiths and goldsmiths who were called āsāris, a Tamilized equivalent of ācārya. I was then intrigued as to why and how these artisans came to be called ācāryas.
Also, the main proponents of philosophies of nonduality, qualified nonduality and duality had this epithet attached to their names as well — Śaṇkarācārya, Rāmānujācārya and Madhvācārya respectively. When I came to know of the word guru later, I also wondered why these teachers were not referred to as Śaṇkaraguru, Rāmānujaguru, and Madhvaguru. It thus appears there is a subtle difference between the words guru and ācārya.


This word means a scholar, expert. This has been anglicized as pundit and punditry meaning expert and expertise, respectively. A few of you may remember the word Pandit as a prefix to some names, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Vijayalakshmi Pandit for example. Here it refers to the family or caste. In olden tradition, almost all dedicated pursuits in any trade or branch of knowledge were transmitted from father to son. Perhaps the family name morphed into a caste name, an occurrence not unusual in India. A paṇḍita need not be a teacher, many great scholars are not teachers but a teacher must be a paṇḍita.


This word also means teacher. One can consider both guru and ācārya to be synonyms, but there seems to be a difference. Vaman Shivaram Apte’s Practical Sanskrit English dictionary lists the word guru as both an adjective and a noun. It lists 18 meanings as an adjective and 12 as a noun. Among the 12, one means teacher. Etymologically guru is derived from the verb gṝ meaning ‘to teach, to praise’. There is also a verse that explains the meaning of this word as it applies to a teacher. This meaning is neither in the dictionary, nor based on etymology. There are a few Sanskrit works (Vacāspatyam, Śabdakapadrumā and others) that are something between a regular dictionary and an encyclopedia. These works refer to verses in their citations including meanings, etymology etc., but I have not any translation of these works. This verse on guru states:

guru comprises two syllables, gu and ru.
Syllable gu stands for darkness (of ignorance)
and syllable ru represents its removal.
Thus guru is the one who removes the darkness of ignorance.

Teacher of religious theologies
or any freedom philosophy

There is a big difference between a teacher of sciences or arts and one who teaches religion or spirituality (I call the latter Freedom Philosophies). One does not care if one’s economics professor is quite ethical, moral, amoral or immoral; one can definitely will learn the topic from the teacher. And, the teacher is respected for his teaching not for his behavior. This is not the case in regard to a religious or spiritual teacher. And herein lie the much-publicized current day issues centered on such teachers.

It is thus very important to understand the critical difference between secular knowledge, be it botany or biology or particle physics, and what I call freedom philosophies. This is best illustrated by an example used by my vedānta teacher, Swami Dayananda Saraswati. His explanation follows: “When you study microbiology, you do not want to be a microbe. But when it comes to vedānta, what you want to be is identical to what you want to know, that is, the object of knowledge is none other than the subject, you!”
In the Freedom Philosophies of India series we saw how, irrespective of the name, vedānta, sānkhya or Buddhism, the object of study and practice is non-different from the subject, you. Freedom is coming to understand that you are already free. This is the core of any spiritual study.

One can extend this to religious theologies as well. Thus, regardless of religious tradition, the focus for teachers of all religious theologies is what you will be after death. This is still centered on yourself, not the guru. This subtle but critical difference, imposes an additional qualification for the guru of being the one of impeccable moral and ethical conduct in thought, word and deed. And for the student who seeks and learns from a guru the conundrum is “What if the teacher is not”?

Ācārya and Guru: Gradation of the guru

Though these two Sanskrit words, ācārya and guru, mean the same, i.e., ‘teacher’, the word guru is more popular worldwide. In this section we discuss the potential difference between these two words ācārya and guru and the implication for the student.

Guru: In the Upaniṣads and the Bhagavadgītā there appears to be a dual qualification for the ideal guru. As a corollary, one can deduce three types of guru based on the presence or absence of the qualifications. I do not find any such stipulation where there is mention of the word ācārya!

For example, Munḍakopaniṣad says:

… to know That (Truth about oneself), one may go to a guru
who is a scholar andis established in the Truth he teaches (Ch. 1.12).

These qualifications mean that the guru is one who not only talks the talk but walks the talk. The same sentiment is expressed in a different way in the Bhagavadgītā:

“May you know that (Truth) by approaching with humility, attitude of service and asking questions to the teacher who is also the seer of this
Truth. He will teach you that knowledge” (Ch. 4.34)

Ācārya: On the other hand, Chāndoya-Upaniṣad simply states

“One who has an ācārya knows.” (ch. 6.14.2)

I have not come across any mention of a dual qualification for ācārya in vedānta literature like that found for guru. I wondered if there is any difference in etymology or other traditional definitions for the word ācārya. This word is formed from the verb car meaning ‘to move, to follow the code of conduct’; with the prefix ā and suffix ya. Based on rules of formation, ācārya can mean (i) one who follows the codes of conduct and also (ii) one who make others follow the codes of conduct called dharma. The need for any religious / spiritual preceptor to have this code of conduct need not be overemphasized since it forms the foundation on which any spiritual system is built on.

Traditionally this word means teacher, though classical connotation indicates a teacher of the vedas, though popularly it applies to anyone practicing and teaching any trade. Thus in the epic Mahābhārata, Droṇa the teacher of archery and warfare is addressed as ācārya. (This incidentally explains why a goldsmith or a blacksmith is called āsāri in Tamil.) Over centuries, a number of verses have been in use that elaborate the meanings of many common words. They explain contextually what these words mean. We saw an example explaining the meaning of guru. I found two such well-known statements in the tradition regarding the word ācārya:

ācārya is one who teaches the meaning of scriptures to the students, teaches them the right conduct, while practicing what he teaches”

“Due to clarity of understanding the truth of the scriptures
one who treats all things and beings as equal, and
one who is established in yama etc., is called ācārya”

This is the reason that proponents of the three systems, non-dualism, qualified non-dualism and dualism, have the word ācārya appended to their names – they practiced what they taught.

From the foregoing it is clear that the meaning of the word ācārya includes the two-fold qualifications of a guru stated in Munḍakopaniṣad and in the Bhagavadgītā.

Based on the discussion one can think of a gradation of gurus. One can categorize any guru as belonging to Types I, II and III. This is not a grading of any guru but just to highlight the differences. As the guru, they all deserve our utmost respect.
Type I guru is identical to that of an ācārya. That is, he is not just a teacher of spirituality but reflects in his behavior the essence of what he or she is teaching.
Type II guru is one who has the knowledge and ability to communicate the knowledge to the student but himself is either unable to unwilling to follow the teaching. Thus there is a split between what is taught and the teacher.
Type III guru is a walking symbol of the essence of the teaching, but has no ability or choose not to communicate the vision to the potential student. Such a person is popularly known as a mystic. No one can learn from or study under a mystic. Mystics typically do not publicize, market themselves, travel, give talks, nor do they take on students. Mostly they give satsanga, meaning informal discussions with those who come to visit them. Some of them may even practice maunam, silence.

So, the questions that arise are: ‘What is the student to do who seeks a teacher to gain knowledge?’ By definition, he/she is ignorant and so, does not have the ability to prejudge a potential teacher to be Type I, II or III. Though one may like to seek a Type I guru, there is no way to assess the guru. And, these days the guru is seeking the students! During these “The World is Flat” days, it is far easier to find a Type II teacher. However, one must must understand that even looking for Type II guru is a bit iffy since the student, being ignorant cannot easily assess the qualifications of the teacher.
So,one can go and watch, or listen to the potential teacher. If what the teacher says makes logical sense consistently, then one can go to study under that teacher. Of course, there is always the additional input from friends one trusts. I don’t even want to go near social media as a source to find a guru. Since the student’s goal is to learn, it is best to go to a Type II teacher to study and it is not the role of the student to judge the teacher as to what type he or she is! As mentioned, this categorization is not a guru grading system.

Guru and apotheosis

Apotheosis is deification of a person and this is a far too common human condition. In my own tradition, there is the well-known epic Rāmāyaṇa. For those few among you who may not know the full story, one important aspect of the story is this: Rāma was the eldest son of the king Daśaratha; he was an incarnation of Lord Viṣṇu, the aspect of the ‘Great Spirit’ protecting the world. But in the current incarnation as Rāma, he says

“I consider myself as a human being, the son of Daśaratha”.

In the story he shows himself to be just a human, subject to all too common conflicts of ethics, emotions of despondency and anger. Rāma chose some paths of questionable ethics of war, got chastised for those actions and lived his life following the path of dharma in the best possible way he could. But now, all over India he is worshiped as a God in hundreds of temples and in great celebrations remembering him conquering his enemy who kidnapped his wife; hundreds of thousands consider him as their favorite deity. I wish that people would also understand the story as highlighting the complexity of leading a life of dharma instead of just elevating Rama to God, thereby letting themselves off the hook for continued ethical compromises they make. I believe that living a life adhering to dharma (ethics) is the core message of Rāmāyaṇa.
Here I have to narrate an incident in my life as a kid in India during the 1950s amidst a social milieu of rampant atheism, anti-brahminism and anti-temple worship. It was not uncommon for these attitudes to seep into public school education though not explicitly. One day my father asked me, “Who was Rāma?” Based on what I learned at school, my reply was “He was a king!” You must have been there to witness the anger of my poor orthodox brahmin father at his first-born who appeared not to know that Rāma was the God after whom he was named! By the way, my given name is Ramasvāmī in Sanskrit which can be resolved to mean one for whom Rāma is God.

This deification also happens to gurus. The Indian tradition elevates the guru to the level of God by citing guru-paramparā. This word means an unbroken chain of teachers. If we extrapolate, this unbroken chain of teachers one ends with God as the first teacher. In fact, Lord Śiva, the destroyer of ignorance and delusion is pictured as a guru, once see this south-facing icon called Dakṣiṇāmūrti in all temples dedicated to
Śiva .

There is a well-known verse extolling the guru
“If both my guru and the Lord were to appear together
in front if me, my first salutation goes to the guru”.

At the āśrama I went to study vedānta we used to memorize and chant daily verses dedicated to the guru. One of the verses extols the guru thus:

“Indeed you are my mother, father, relative, and friend;
you are knowledge, wealth, you are everything, my great Lord!”

It is a common practice in India to ceremonially wash the feet of the guru and offer flowers at the feet on a specific day of the year called Gurupūrṇimā. The reason I cite these parts of tradition is not to criticize. I still chant these verses, follow the tradition on Gurupūrṇimā and agree with my former vedānta students to celebrate the day at my home chanting the set of verses I mentioned earlier. On the other hand, my objective here is not to emphasize the tradition but to highlight the reality of how easy it is to forget the symbolism and hold on to symbols. The idea behind all this chanting and rituals is the ideal, namely the teacher is worshipped because of the teaching. It is easy to forget the symbolism and hold on to the symbols.
If this is not kept in focus, the chanting becomes mechanical and potentially meaningless at best, if not resulting in blind faith at worst. This blind faith and following the masses is ironically the antithesis of learning. Learning is centered on questioning, raising doubts and clarifying them through respectful dialogue between the teacher and the taught. A classic example of this type of learning is seen in many Upaniṣads. In Bhagavadgītā all the chapters exemplify this crucial teacher-student interactive methodology of learning.
One other point that is relevant there is how one’s learning is complete. A Sanskrit verse epitomizes this:

“One learns one-fourth from the teacher, a quarter by independent reasoning and analysis, a third by discussion among
co-learners, and the last fourth only in course of time.”

This is true regarding any learning, secular or spiritual. The part regarding interaction among co-learners is particularly relevant and perhaps central to adult learning.

The problem with apotheosis of the guru

Whether one grows up in an Indian culture or imbibes that culture of apotheosizing by association, the fact remains that it affects not just our relationship with guru, the teacher, but co-students and the teaching itself. Unfortunately for us, nowadays the teacher himself, either deliberately or otherwise perpetuates this apotheosis. So, it is relevant to understand why this problem occurs and how to avoid it while being a student as well as for the rest of the student’s life.
Why does the apotheosis happen? As I mentioned, the first factor is the culture of worship of guru due to the natural human tendency of putting the person whom we respect on a pedestal. The commonly happens with any person of great influence, power, or wealth. The psycho-social milieu of the students, especially those who stay in an āśrama with the teacher, promotes this idolization of the guru. The third and important factor is the irony of setting aside the quizzical eye that prompted the student to come to study with the guru; the longer one stays and studies with the guru, the easier it becomes to set aside the very discriminating, analytical  mind that is necessary to learn. Thus the students, instead of using their mind to think, become devotees, followers of the great master who cannot be wrong.
In short, the problem is that we often find ourselves projecting the ‘ideal guru’ on the person who is our guru. And, in many an instance this projection does not stand up to reality and we suffer the consequence. This is not the fault of the guru alone.

How to avoid the ‘side effect’ of apotheosis? If one imagines ignorance to be a disease and seeking knowledge is the means of ending the disease, this apotheosis is not dissimilar to the phenomenon of iatrogenesis (treatment caused complications) in medicine. Extending the analogy of medicine, one prevents medicine-induced-complications by being very alert to a medicine’s side effects and taking preventive steps. The prescribing doctor may not be aware of the potential for iatrogenesis in a patient.
Regarding avoiding the “side effects” while studying with the guru, the student should keep the focus on the objective and be aware of the need to separate the teaching and the teacher and not to idolize the teacher. This is difficult, but it is necessary to avoid a very natural apotheosizing. With such a razor-sharp focus on learning, one may be able to observe the faults of the teacher even while still learning from the teacher. If, after leaving the āśrama the student learns of misbehavior by the guru he may not be swayed by the news or become emotionally distraught to dismisses the entire teaching.
One of the foundations of spiritual wisdom is based on a good analysis of human nature – understanding impulsive actions driven by cravings for, or aversions to things or living-beings and to cultivate the ability to master them. Certain basic values any spiritual aspirant must hold dear and practice include compassion, understanding and forgiveness. With these one avoids reacting to things one hears, knows or believes regarding moral and ethical lapses of any human being, including gurus.
Discrimination and objectivity are invaluable long after the study is complete and the student is leading his life in the world. If one does not hold onto these traits, the undesirable side-effect of apotheosis, that is, rejecting the teaching can manifest decades later if bad behavioral issues of the guru come to light. If you make the guru an idol, and he starts to behave badly, the students often question or reject the teachings rather than the teacher’s actions.
The following story exemplifies this point of point of keeping an open mind without idolizing the teacher. This is a story of the sage Dattātreya in Bhāgavata-purāṇa. When asked by a king as to how the sage was so carefree and at ease with himself despite having no possessions while he, the king, is full of concerns. The sage replied how he learned from 24 ācāryas. The sage went on to list them, and all were centered on observations of the world around. His main thrust was that one learns both from the positive and negative sides of a teacher. Thus, one of his teachers was the honey-bee. Its prime focus is nectar in a flower, unmindful of, and unconcerned by the beauty of the flower or the environs in which it grows. Dattātreya learned to have this focus towards his objective, freedom. The other lesson he learned from the same bee is how not to be in life. The bee collects and stores in a beehive only to be chased away by humans (or bears) that rob the honey. This taught him not to hold on to things. Those of us who studied vedānta remember the dictum ‘āgate svāgatan kuryāt, gacchantam na nivārayet, welcome whatever comes to you, do not hold onto things’, be they fame, money, power, etc.


The most important thing for the student of any heaven-centered or freedom-centered study (both are called theologies by academicians) is to learn what is needed from a competent teacher. The objective is not to use that knowledge to assess the teacher’s ability to reflect the teaching in his behavior, or to judge anybody else. As the story of Dattātreya amply illustrates, such a behavior, if true, only enhances the role of the teacher! The guru also teaches one not to be what he is, in addition to the actual teaching of the spiritual topic of freedom.
If this objective to learn is kept clear during the study, there will be lot less of idolization but a greater degree of respect for the teacher for the teaching he or she imparts. After the study, it is the role of the student to be what the teaching says one already is. I may conclude this stressing the fact that the teacher is respected for the teaching the student receives.


Freedom Philosophies of India: Similarities and Differences

  Buddhism, Sāṅkhya/Yoga and Advaita-Vedānta: Unifying Concepts

In my last September post, Freedom is not Gained by Action I discussed the unifying concepts of freedom among three Indic philosophies of freedom – Buddhism, Sāṅkhya/Yoga and Advaita-Vedānta. All three systems start with ignorance as the root cause for the sense of bondage, and knowledge as the only way to realize that one is already free. For this understanding to stay in one’s mind, however, a long and sustained practice to rehabilitate the mind is necessary to free it from attachments, aversions, cravings, distractions, likes and dislikes, generally included in the term saṁskāra meaning subtle impressions and habits of thoughts.

An important addition to the three philosophical system’s unifying concept to be noted here is this “How does this sense of bondage manifest in one’s life?” The systems express this by three Sanskrit words – tāpa in Sāṅkhya,  śoka in Vedānta and duḥkha in the teachings of Buddha.

The seminal work on Sāṅkhya was by Kapila in a series of terse aphorisms. Īśvarakṛṣṇa in the well known Sāṅkhyakārikā presents them in a way easier to follow. His work starts with the need for the ultimate removal of three-fold tāpa (Sāṅkhyakārikā 1:1).The word tāpa has the meaning ‘burning’ but it does not imply any physical sense of heat and burning but applies to the mind. That is, a mind that is restless and tries to totally eliminate the source of this burn (the effect on the mind caused by natural, man-made and internal that is, memories etc.,).

A well known Vedānta text, the Bhagavadgītā, starts with the student, Arjuna, asking his friend the way to remove śoka – grief (Bhagavadgītā 2:8). The Buddha’s first noble truth (Dhammacakkapavattanam-sutta )is that the world is duḥkha – usually translated as suffering. The point to be emphasized is that all these Indic systems, despite different ways of expressing these human emotions, are centered on the human mind, not the physical body. Also, none of the systems focus on freedom after death, as a posthumous award in an afterlife, unlike most of religious theologies.

Unfortunately, for a chronology-obsessed modern reader, the exact time frame for when the many of the systems came into vogue is well nigh impossible to determine with any degree of certainty except for Buddhism. The time of Gautama, the Buddha, is known to be the fifth century BCE though the Buddhist tradition holds that he was preceded by many other Buddhas.

It may be that you, esteemed reader, are a pragmatist, and being a seeker after freedom here and now, are not concerned with these philosophical differences. It is easy to dismiss them as futile intellectual exercises!  However, it is useful to be informed about these differences, to understand why there are so many heated arguments among proponents of these three systems, not unlike the “my God is the only God” type of religious belief-system-centered fierce discussion in today’s world.

Conceptual Differences
Among the Three Systems

This post summarizes the marked philosophical, that is, conceptual differences among the three systems as these differences have an impact on the practices they recommend for one to see the fact that one is never bound, but always free. Indian systems of philosophy have two distinct but related aspects – epistemology and metaphysics. The first one seeks to define how one gains knowledge. In Sanskrit it is called pramāṇa, the way one gains knowledge also called the means of knowledge. The second tries to explain the nature of reality, technically known as ontology as well as the structure of the universe called cosmology.


Buddhist philosophy accepts only direct perception (pratyakṣa) and inference (anumāna) as valid means to gain knowledge (pramāṇa). These two sources of knowledge tell us that everything perceived in this phenomenal world continuously changes starting with one’s mind. Nothing remains unchanged, that is, nothing is permanent nor eternal. Since the permanent, unchanging realities of ātman, brahman, puruṣa, prakṛti, Iśvara and similar words of Vedānta and Sāṅkhya are not directly perceived nor inferred in this phenomenal world, seekers of freedom need not pursue them. Thus, one of the tenets of Buddhism, expressed by the Pali word anattā (Sanskrit – anātma meaning no ātma), is a denial of the fundamental tenet of Vedānta – which posits a permanent, timeless reality. Tangentially, this also includes the permanent dualities of Sāṅkhya, prakṛti and puruṣa. Metaphysically, this is reflected in the belief that no permanent reality exists including the world, the cosmos.

The four Noble truths of the Buddha centered on duḥkha, function as the cornerstone of Nirvāṇa, freedom. He lays down the way to gain this freedom in his fourth noble truth of an eight-fold path which stresses right vision (understanding), right thought, right speech and others. Recognition of this freedom is the ultimate goal. All these practices, such as developing positive qualities of compassion and love for all living beings or leading an ethical life of reflection, are in order to fully appreciate the impermanence of everything in this phenomenal world starting with with one’s thoughts, feelings etc., Continued and prolonged practice results in clarity of understanding of the impermanence of the phenomenal world: thus, discovering the Buddha in your true self. This is nirvāṇa (nibbāna in Pāli) while living in this world, samsāra. I think perhaps this was the basis of the famous quote from the great Buddhist master Nāgārjuna, “Nirvāṇa is samsāra and samsāra is nirvāṇa.”

There is a certain charm and freshness to this reasoning founded on observed impermanence of the phenomenal world that includes oneself. As I heard from a friend of mine, “There is no fairy dust” to bless you with freedom: it is all your own effort to see that you are free here and now and not after death. The world and you remain the same, impermanent before and after nibbāna or satori . This is exemplified by the famous story in the Zen tradition of Buddhism. A novice seeker approached a Zen master and asked, “What were you doing before you gained Satori?” The master replied “Chop wood, carry water.” The eager seeker asked, “Master, what did you do after gaining Satori?” The master replied, “Chop wood, carry water.”

Sāṅkhya/Yoga System

In contrast to Buddhism, the Sāṅkhya epistemology adds āgama, scriptures (or the words of the teacher who explains the scriptures, also called verbal testimony) as the third valid source of knowledge. The core idea is the superiority of āgama based-knowledge over perceptual and inferential knowledge. In other words, what is missing from the two sources or knowledge of direct perception and inference, is acquired by using this third means of knowledge (pramāṇa).  Thus, scriptures, which are but words communicated by a teacher become the primary way for one to gain knowledge that results in freedom during one’s lifetime. Accepting āgama, scriptures as a valid source of knowledge, Creation, Heaven, Hell, Karma, Reincarnation, and other related concepts are brought into the fold of this system.

Sāṅkhya metaphysics postulates two independent and permanent (eternal, meaning timeless) realities of prakṛti and puruṣa. The prakṛti is one while puruṣas can be an infinite number. Before Creation, prakṛti’s three components or guṇas: sattva, rajas and tamas were in equilibrium. Creation is the result of a disturbance of this equilibrium by the  puruṣas. This results in multiples stages of evolution resulting in this cosmos including all animate and inanimate things.

An offshoot of the Sāṅkhya is Patañjali’s Yoga philosophy as described in yogasūtras . Note that this is different from what is usually understood as ‘yoga’. The popular word yoga refers to just the practice of āsana, postures. This practice, despite its undisputed value, is based on a very different philosophical system called Haṭhayoga. This system describes in detail how to assume postures (āsana), breathing techniques (prāṇāyāma) etc., but with a very different underlying philosophy. The aphorisms of the sage Patañjali, called Yogasūtras is what I refer to as Yoga philosophy here. His work is an extension of Sāṅkhya philosophy. Since he mentions āsana, prāṇāyāma etc., as part of the eight limbs of his yoga system with no “how to” instruction, it is popularly misunderstood to just teach āsana practice.

Patañjali’s yoga philosophy, on the other hand, rests on the bedrock of the Sāṅkhya system. The only conceptual addition he made was the introduction of a special puruṣa, Īśvara, The Lord, also known by the term God, but unlike the God of theistic religions, this one has no form but is just represented by the mystic syllable Om (Yogasūtra, 1:27). This puruṣa is special in that unlike other puruṣas who are driven by karma, this one is untouched by ignorance or karma and its consequences (Yogasūtra, 1:24). Patañjali has an eclectic view of yoga practices saying that one can attain freedom via different paths, either devotion to God and or following the eight limbs including āsana. Thus, it is common to treat Sāṅkhya/Yoga as a single system and different from Haṭhayoga.  The sense of bondage keenly felt by all human beings, according to Sāṅkhya/Yoga is due to the association between Prakṛti and Puruṣa. Thus, freedom is best described by sage Patanjali in his aphorism: “absence of association (between Prakṛti and Puruṣa, brought about by removal of ignorance) is indeed Kaivalya” (Yogasūtra 2:25). Thus, the understanding of ignorance and the way for its total elimination is quite different from Buddhist philosophies.

Typically, a seeker after freedom identifies with the mind, which is but an evolute of insentient prakṛti.  This mistake rooted in ignorance that gives rise to the I-sense, likes, dislikes, etc. Patañjali defines this ignorance: “Taking what is impermanent, impure, sorrowful, non-self to be the eternal-pure-happiness self is ignorance” (Yogasūtra, 2:5). By following the teachings of the Sāṅkhya precepts with a mind freed from the hold of one’s likes and dislikes and consequent distractedness and by following the practice manual Yogasūtras of Patañjali, you come to appreciate that you are, indeed, the ever free Puruṣa (Yogasūtra, 2:18) .

Vedānta: Advaita-Vedānta

Vedānta means the end portion of the Vedas. Vedas, also called śrutis are four in number and are considered to be millennia-old according to academicians.. But tradition believes it to be as old as creation. The end portion of the Vedas are called Upaniṣads.  Vedic analytical method admits six pramāṇās or ways of gaining knowledge: the three already mentioned above and presumption, illustration, and non-cognition (arthāpatti, dṛṣtānta, and anupalabdhi respectively). It is beyond the scope of this post to elaborate in detail on all these pramāṇās and their application for understanding Vedānta philosophy. The essence of Vedānta is described in the Bhagavadgītā and this text also is treated as a Vedānta text. While the śrutis declare that you are what you seek, but most of verses in the Bhagavadgītā describe in detail as to how to deal with the mind for getting ready to integrate the core teaching of Vedānta so it does not remain an just another piece of information. In this sense it is akin to the ‘practice manual’ of Patañjali with reference to Sāṅkhya.

In stark contrast to the Sāṅkhya/Yoga system, the Vedānta paradigm states that there  is no eternal duality of Puruṣa and Prakṛti but only the single non-dual reality of Brahman, that is you, the self, ātman. This is stated explicitly in an Upaniṣad, “This Ātman is Brahman” (Atharvaveda, Māṇdūyaka-Upaniṣad 1.2).

The metaphysics of Vedānta, in contrast to the impermanence of Buddhism and the eternal and independent dualities of Sāṅkhya postulates just one reality of Brahman. Creation has the appearance of plurality due to the power inherent in Brahman, called māyā, often translated as either illusion or just nonexistent. The correct way to understand the term māyā is “indeterminability”. This idea is exemplified by modern physics’ understanding of matter. Freedom is to see the existing non-duality of you, the human being, as none other than Brahman as revealed in the śruti. Accepting perceived duality as the reality is ignorance, and this can be removed only by the knowledge revealed in the pramāṇa, the śruti.

But to make sure that this not an intellectual idea but is integrated by the seeker, one has to have clarity and stability in this knowledge. That is, it is necessary to have a pure and steady mind. Most of the qualities a person must cultivate to develop such a mind are described in the Bhagavadgītā: humility, being unpretentious, not hurting, forgiveness, the alignment of thought, word and deed, etc., (Bhagavadgītā 13: 7-11).

Practices to develop a pure and steady mind are not elaborated in Vedānta, the teaching of the end-portions (veda-anta) of the Vedas. The earlier section, which forms the bulk of the Vedas, is centered on rituals and meditations. These actions result in the seeker having a mind capable of understanding and assimilating the teaching. The presumption is that one does not enter the portals of the Upaniṣads unless the mind is prepared by prolonged Vedic practice.  For the modern student of Vedānta who is not exposed to the prior sections of the Vedas, yogic practices do help to prepare the mind. In this regard, one may note that most of the ancient commentaries to the terse statements of Kapila’s and Patañjali’s sūtras are attributed to Vedāntic masters – Vyāsa (the author of the Bhagavadgītā) , Gauḍapāda, Śaṅkara, Vāspati Miśra and others.

Irrespective of the important philosophical differences among these three systems, the common baseline is the necessity to have a mind that is free of its usual trappings of the desires that drive the human being. Gaining such a mind by steady practice is the first step of any seeker. One can call this cultivation of a pure and steady mind relative freedom, a stepping stone to see that one is really and totally free here and now.

Three different freedoms or one?

Given the philosophical differences among the systems, Buddhism, Sāṅkhya/Yoga and Advaita-Vedānta, are there three freedoms? I can only think of modifying the answer given by my dear friend, an eclectic Catholic monk. When asked a similar question regarding heavens of Hindus, Muslims and Christians, his reply was “There are no Zip Codes in Heaven”!  Similarly, there are not three freedoms: there is just one. The conceptual approach and terminologies may be starkly different, but the end is just the same – to be totally free of the dictates of the mind, here and now, while living. Freedom is not a posthumous award such as the heaven of religions. This total freedom, however, is not possible unless there is relative freedom from the shackling hold of one’s impulsive actions driven by likes and dislikes. I conclude this discussion with a well known Vedic declaration

What IS, is one: the learned describe it differently
(ekam sat viprā bahudhā vadanti – Rig Veda).

I thank my dear friends Chris, Philippe and Richard for their valuable input.

Suggested sources for further reading

  1. Introduction to Indian Philosophy Paperback – December 1, 2012 by Satishchandra Chatterjee  (Author), Dhirendramohan Datta (Contributor)
  2. A History of Indian Philosophy (a 5-volume paperback Set) – July 16, 2009 by Dasgupta (Author)
  3. What the Buddha Taught – Second and Enlarged Edition, 1974 by Walpola Rahul
  4. The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation Paperback – June 8, 1999 by Thich Nhat Hanh (Author)
  5. The Sánkya Aphorisms of Kapila, With Illustrative Extracts From the Commentaries: Translated by James R. Ballantyne (Classic Reprint) Paperback – February 9, 2017 by Kapila Kapila (Author)
  6. The Sánkhya Káriká (Classic Reprint) Paperback – November 16, 2016 by Íswara Krishna (Author)
  7. Gheranda Samhita/Commentary on the Yoga Teachings of Maharshi Gheranda Paperback – December 19, 2012 by Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati  (Author)
  8. Hatha Yoga Pradipika Paperback – Laser printed, September 1, 1998 by Swami Muktibodhananda
  9. The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary Paperback – July 21, 2009 by Edwin F. Bryant  (Author)
  10. Journey From Many to One / Essentials of Advaita Vedanta Paperback – January 1, 2009 by Swami Bhaskarananda  (Author)
  11. The Six Ways of Knowing: A Critical Study of the Advaita Theory of Knowledge Paperback – January 1, 2017 by D. M. Datta (Author)

In the blog on freedom (July 2016) we saw what freedom means for a pragmatist, one who is not attached to any theology or religious thought centered on an afterlife in Heaven. The focus is entirely practical and action oriented, “What can I do to become free now?” is the most asked question. This freedom (mokṣa) is expressed differently in many philosophies of India.

Three Indic systems of philosophy

Enquiry into the goal of every human being – freedom – is the bedrock of all Indian philosophic thought. Of several such systems, from mechanical materialism (Cārvāka), Vedic ritualism (pūrva-mīmāmsa), asceticism (Jainism etc.,) and others, I choose to focus on three – Buddhism, Yoga and Vedānta.

In most English translations of works on these systems of thought, one finds the expression ‘freedom from pain’. Though pain is a correct translation of the Sanskrit word (tāpa) often mentioned in these philosophies, it can restrict one to think only of physical pain. No one can be really be free from inherent limitations of the body – disease, accidents, aging with its attendant issues . The human problem of bondage is centered on the mind – it can be a sense of dissatisfaction with life despite one’s achievements, or a deeply felt sorrow about one’s condition in life, or fear of mortality – all summed up by one Sanskrit word duḥkha, sorrow, is the closest translation for this word.

Basic concepts of the three philosophies of freedom

Unifying concept (1) – Freedom is not gained but ‘to be known’: This is a unifying concept of all three systems, that freedom is unlike something that one gains or achieves by doing something, such as striving to gain wealth, success, power, fame, progeny and so on but that you are already free and you do not know it.

In this world, whatever one gains is invariably short-lived, never permanent. According to Indian thought even the Heaven one gains by religious and ethical actions in this world is only a temporary sojourn. Once the accrued results of such actions are exhausted, one returns back to Earth, reborn.  So, if freedom also were to be gained by any action, that gained freedom also would be subject to be lost; that is, one can become bound again! This potentially infinite loop cannot be freedom.

This understanding, and the means to gain this understanding are what all three philosophies are about – freedom is not something that is gained as a result of any action, to accrue at a future date, but one has to understand that “you are free here and now”.

This is illustrated by the analogy of sculpting an elephant from a big block of granite, one does not create an elephant that was not there, but only removes the non-elephant chips from the piece of stone. It is in this sense that the Buddhistic tradition says you are already the Buddha, the Yoga tradition stresses that you are the puruṣa and vedānta declares tat tvam asi, You Are That.

That you are what you are striving to become is driven home by the story of ‘finding the tenth man’, one that is told by my Vedanta teacher. Once a group of ten men were going on a pilgrimage. They took off from their small village and travelled for a long time. On the way they had to cross a river, which they swam across. Not sure whether all had successfully crossed the river, the leader started counting. He lined up all his group, counting them, he only reached nine, and got worried about the missing tenth man. Looking around in turn, each of the group counted only nine. So all started searching everywhere, even jumping into the river, but could not find the tenth man. All were worried and sad about the lost tenth man. A passerby saw this group and asked why they were sad. On hearing their story, it was clear what the problem was. But simply insisting ‘there is no missing man’ would not solve their unique problem.  So the passerby asked them all to line up and for the leader to count again. Again the leader reached only nine – and the passerby, pointing to the leader, announced “And you are the tenth!” Each had neglected to count himself! After a moment of embarrassment, all were very happy that the ‘missing man’ was not in fact missing! This knowledge ‘brought back’ the ‘missing’ tenth man, which no amount of searching or crying could have accomplished.

Both the analogy and the story highlight the fact that one has to know that one is ever-free, never bound and that any amount doing this or that, sacred or secular actions, is not going to gain freedom for anybody.

So, to the inevitable question ‘If I am already free as these philosophies posit, why do I feel limited and still want to be free?’ To this all these three philosophies stress one thing, namely the sense of bondage is due to ignorance – called avidya in Yoga (/ Sāṅkhya) and Advaita Vedānta traditions and avijja (Pali word for avidya) in Buddhism.

The question as to when this ignorance began is never addressed except to say that it is beginning-less (anādi). Though at the outset this does not look convincing, if one were to ask you ‘When did your ignorance of the string theory of the universe begin?’ one cannot come up with any clear answer but to say “I do not know how to answer that question, perhaps it had always been there”. Thus one can see that ignorance has no beginning, but can have an end (anta). The ignorance of string theory ends when one starts to learn about it.

Ignorance centered on any topic, be it string theory or the nature of oneself, cannot end unless one strives to know. And to gain knowledge of anything, one must use a source, a valid means of knowledge (pramāṇa). My teacher used to illustrate this idea as follows: For recognizing color, the eye is the valid means / source of knowledge, for sounds the ears; and for knowing that you are free and never bound, there must also be a valid source of knowledge, and that can be the scriptures or the words of the wise.

The sources of knowledge show that you are never bound, that the sense of bondage and thus the sense of freedom are due to the mind. All three philosophical systems reveal this – (1) Yoga aphorisms of Patañjali, its foundation of sāṅkhya system (2) the Upaniṣad-s for vedānta and (3) the teachings of Gautama the Buddha.

Unifying concept (2) – Why one feels bound and seeks freedom: The logical question then can be “Simple ignorance cannot cause me to feel bound, e.g. ignorance of quantum physics does not cause any problem to me!”

For this the response by all the three Indic systems is this: it is true that pure ignorance, of oneself and the world, as exists in deep sleep is no problem. But in the waking state, due to this ignorance of the nature of oneself, there is total identification of oneself with the body and mind, so the sense of limitation arises. It is but common to hear ‘I am fat, I am short, I am hurt, I am sad, etc.,’. All such statements show the identification of “I” with the physical body, mind, accomplishments, failures, memories etc., the dis-identification of this natural (svābhāvika) identification is the core of these philosophies.

Knowing and Being – the difference and the role of practice (abhyāsa)

Types of questions that a practical, goal-oriented person will ask

  • I get the logic of it all, I can even see that a study of any of these systems will be of use to me. But, how will I feel free by mere study? It all seems like magic to me!
  • This is all too intellectual and seems to be yet another belief system, not different from religions.

In reply, I have to resort again to my teacher who started giving classes for the three-year study of Vedānta I attended. These doubts have a simple answer, he would say, “Just try it and see if the magic works or not! There is no need to prejudge without adequate testing!”

When one discusses the idea of freedom that you already are, based on these ancient teachings, there is confusion between knowing and being. This is because the object of this knowledge is yourself, the subject. Knowledge of microbiology or quantum physics or even psychology is always about a thing other than you. But here the object and subject are one and the same. By studying microbiology one does not become a microbe! But by studying about freedom, you ‘become’ free – that is, you discover the freedom that you always are!

But one hears this oft repeated comment from even serious students of Vedānta who have dedicated years to study “I know I am free, but how come I feel no different, continue to be the same old person?”

While the books and teachers teach you what you are, that you are free and the sense of bondage is in the mind, to own it up one has to work with the mind. This difference between knowing and owning is what is typically expressed as the difference between knowledge and wisdom. The former can be gained, but the latter you must develop, and this takes practice (abhyāsa).

Differences among the three philosophies in practice, abhyāsa

The three liberation philosophies I discuss here have some radical differences, not just in their epistemological and metaphysical constructs but in practice modes as well. I will devote a separate blog to the different paradigms of these three systems since I do not want this blog post to be too technical to be useful. Here I will focus on differences in practice (abhyāsa) only.

Vedānta:  An eighth century advaita-vedānta master provides two distinct terms to differentiate between knowledge and wisdom. One who has studied the Upaniṣads is called śrutaprajña in contrast one who has gained the wisdom enshrined in the Upaniṣads, avagataprajña. The practice (abhyāsa) paradigm in Vedānta is summarised in an Upaniṣad thus: “May (you) listen, analyze and reflect upon Ātman (the truth of yourself).” Thus the cognitive aspect is the central focus of Vedānta, perhaps the reason that many yoga students dismiss Vedānta as theoretical or intellectual!

If one were to examine the reason for this stress it is clear by the term itself – Vedānta, end portion of the Vedas! The vast bulk of the Vedas, usually dismissed as ritual / meditation oriented, focuses on preparing the mind, freeing it from its ravings and cravings. Such a pure and steady mind alone is ready to receive the teaching and see the fact that the person is ever-free and was never bound. Unfortunately for the modern student of vedānta with no such prior preparation of the mind, the teaching leaves her typically at the śrutaprajña state, wondering “I know I am free, but why do I feel no different, continue to be the same old person?”

This uniquely contemporary issue has to be addressed by practices intended to provide purity and stability to the mind. The well known text, the Bhavadgītā, hence devotes the bulk of its 700 verses on ways to deal with the mind, while a mere 30 or so verses focus on teaching the central message of the Upaniṣads.

Yoga: I use the term yoga here not to refer to the practice of physical postures called āsanas. This is part of what is called Hathayoga. I use it to mean the Yogasūtras, aphorisms of Patañjali which many experienced āsana practitioners are drawn to and begin to study. A perusal of this book shows that it is essentially a practice manual to gain mastery of the mind. Vyāsa, the author of the commentary to this book defines Yoga – a word mentioned in the very first aphorism, ‘Atha yogānuśāsam’ – as samādhi, a tranquil mind. Note this word yoga does not mean yoking or joining as popularly misunderstood and promoted in almost all modern books on yoga.

If Yogasūtra is a practice manual, what is the philosophical basis for this work? It is the Sāṅkhya system, attributed to sage Kapila, and is summarized in Sāṅkhyakārikā by Īśvarakṛṣṇa. Like Vedānta,  this system also stresses that one’s true nature (puruṣa) is free from all that is material, such as the physical body, sense organs and the mind (prakṛti).  Taking any of these as oneself is the cause for bondage and seeing the ever-existing fact that I, the puruṣa am not prakṛti (this body mind complex and the phenomenal world) is freedom.

It is possible that Patañjali realized that for this ‘theoretical’ knowledge to sink in one needs a mind that is free from cravings and unsteadiness. So, he chose to focus his book on practice to rehabilitate the mind to see the truth as taught by Kapila. This is why he uses various synonyms for knowledge in a few places in his aphorisms. Unfortunately, these critically important sections are not sufficiently examined but many move on to do’s and don’ts as well as the other six limbs of this eightfold yoga.

Buddhism: For those who have read or heard about Buddhism, it is necessary to know the meaning of the word buddha, the name given to the founder of Buddhism, prince Gautama. This Sanskrit word is the noun form of the verb budh meaning ‘to know, to understand’. Thus his name means ‘one who has understood’, commonly translated as “the realized One, the enlightened One”.

By reflecting upon this impermanence of all things, beings and phenomena one gains freedom from hankerings of the mind towards impermanent things, called sasāra. This phenomenal world and the mind that dwells on it are devoid of any reality, also known as śūnya, nothing. Hence some argue that śūnyatā means no-thingness to the world. And appreciation of this śūnyatā of the phenomenal world is nibbana / nirvana, freedom while living.

This way of life being mindful of the impermanence during waking hours needs a relatively pure mind, less buffeted by desires, likes and dislikes. To gain such a mind, Buddhism, not unlike Yoga prescribes sets of practices for the student of Buddhism. Unlike yoga and vedānta, Buddhism over the two millennia has innumerable branches with various practices that one can choose, though all are grounded on ethical living conducive to gaining freedom.


To be free here and now and not after death is the quest of any pragmatic person. This freedom or liberation, called jīvanmukti in Sanskrit is the goal of the three Indic philosophical systems, Buddhism, Yoga/Sāṅkhya and vedānta. Though they have significant differences among themselves, the underlying common theme is the same – that freedom is not gained by any action but by removing the cause for the sense of bondage, namely ignorance of the true nature of oneself, that you are already free and was never bound. Since it is something connected with the mind, major effort is directed at preparing the mind, that is, gaining a mind that is relatively free from the domination of desires and develop steadiness. Only such a mind can grasp this simple but subtle fact that one is already free and the sense of bondage is due to total identification with the physical body and the mind.

I thank my friends Phillipe and Richard for their helpful comments.




It is more than six months since my last blog on Freedom. Recent Global events that affect all of us made me to take a break from the intended series of posts on freedom but write about positive affirmations the help us to cope with difficult situations.
We were in Tasmania, Australia on a hiking tour during our presidential election and heard the news while on a long hike. We returned back home on December 1. As everyone knows this has been an interesting time ever since. The stark increase in polarization, marked absence of empathy, compassion and accommodation, the rise of ‘me first’ thinking, intolerance and the resultant uncertainties in life made me wonder about what a concerned human being can do to help humanity at large. What adds to the sense of deep anguish is that this situation here may represent a microcosm reflecting happenings nowadays in other developed and developing nations as well. This made me think about the living tradition in which I was born and brought up, whose philosophical underpinnings I studied in depth. I find solace in some of well-known daily affirmations (prayers?) chanted by many in India, the ones I know and used to chant daily!


While reflecting on these lines, I remembered a reply I read in a small magazine in Tamil when I was about ten years old. To a question about what one could do under emotionally draining situations when the mind gets stuck in an infinite loop of real or imagined helplessness, the author of the magazine wrote “ இருகரம் கூப்பி இறைவனைத் தொழுவதன்றி வேறு வழியொன்றில்லை! – Other than holding both hands (in prayer) and praying to God, there is no other go.”
Thus such a daily prayer came to my mind. But, when I see the meaning of the words of these Sanskrit verses, I do not find anywhere the word God or its equivalent. To me it looks more like what one says when meeting someone “Good day, mate!” or, when one is sick, saying “wish you a speedy and complete recovery” or a ‘bon voyage’ to a friend going on a journey. These are not really prayers, but are nevertheless sincere words wishing for the good of people or offering words of solace.
There is no explicit mention of God or Higher Being in these Sanskrit verses. These cannot be considered to be religious, nor restricted to any single faith or theology. Not long ago, I heard one of these verses chanted at the closing of a talk by a Teravada monk from Sri Lanka at a Stanford University Hospital Spiritual Care Interfaith conference. At that time I was serving as a volunteer Hindu Chaplain at the hospital.

The English rendering (not a literal translation) of these Sanskrit verses captures the spirit of these affirmations

“May the rulers of nations follow the right path, may the subjects be prosperous
May animals and seekers of truth be at ease, may all the world be happy.
May the rains come at the right time, may the Earth be bountiful
May the nations be free of adversity, may seekers of truth be fearless.
May all be happy, may all be free of afflictions
May all see goodness, may none be sorrowful.”

The verses in Roman transliteration and in devanāgarī script follow.

Svasti prajābhyaf paripālayantām nyāyyena margeṇa mahīm mahīśāḥ
Gobrāhmaṇebhyaś śubhamastu nityam lokāssamastāssukhino bhavantu.
Kāle varṣatu parjanyaḥ pṛthivīśasyaśālinī
Deśo’yam kṣobharahitaḥ brāhmaṇāssantu nirbhayāḥ.
Sarve bhavantu sukhinaḥ. Sarve santu nirāmayaḥ.
Sarve bhadrāni paśyantu. Mākaścidduḥkhabhāg bhavet.

स्वस्ति प्रजाभ्य: परिपालयन्ताम् न्याय्येन मार्गेण महीम्महीशा:।
गोब्राह्मणेभ्यः शुभमस्तु नित्यम् लोका: समस्ता: सुखिनो भवन्तु।।
कालेवर्षतु पर्जन्यः पृथिवी शस्यशालिनी।
देशोsयं क्षोभरहितः ब्राह्मणा: सन्तु निर्भया:।।
सर्वे भवन्तु सुखिनः। सर्वे सन्तु निरामया:।
सर्वे भद्राणि पश्यन्तु। मा कश्चिद्दु:खभाग्भवेत्।।

For the few of among us who like to hear these chants in Sanskrit I have attached an audio file. If you are so inclined, this chanting helps you memorize them in order to repeat them daily before you go to bed and also when you get up from bed. I believe, like many a wise person in India, the more participants in this affirmation, the more it gains potency for the affirmations.

A comment on my English rendering

Many of you who know the Sanskrit language may not think that my rendering is precise. The reason is the popular meanings of some of the Sanskrit words, such as  ‘go – cow’ (animal) and ‘brāhmaṇa – member of the brahmin caste’ (seeker of truth). As most of you know, one of the objectives of these affirmations is to highlight the intent, called tātparya in Sanskrit, and not the words of the verse. These verses have nothing to do with the ‘holiness of cows’ for Hindus or with members of the caste called ‘brahmins’. The fact is that both animals and seekers of truth – be they scientists, scholars, philosophers or journalists – have relatively limited means of defending themselves. World history, ancient or modern, clearly shows how those who pursue the path of truth are typically persecuted, and helpless animals neglected, during political or religious upheavals. It is the role, if not the responsibility of the rulers to follow the right path to protect the innocent and defenceless. These affirmations reflect a keen understanding of the world and what can and does seem to happen too often.
Regarding the question of authorship or age of these verses: in India authorship and the date of compositions are relegated to the background, often just unavailable and untraceable. It is true of these affirmations as well. I do not know the origin or the author. It has been part of the Indian tradition.

I thank my friend Richard Goeller for his input and for editing this post.

What is mokṣa, freedom?

In Heaven and Freedom I discussed the popular theistic idea that an eternal sojourn in Heaven after death is considered to be mokṣa, freedom. This concept is common to almost all religious theologies of the world. But there is a contrarian view about freedom in two ancient Indic systems – Vedānta and Sāṅkhya / Yoga – which stress that real freedom is not something promised after death, but is to be enjoyed while living. This freedom while living, known as jīvanmukti is what we will discuss now. Before we go into technicalities, we must first understand the rather loaded words, mokṣa, nirvāṇa, kaivalya, jīvanmukti, satori, freedom, liberation, living-liberated, liberation/salvation-here-and-now, as well as several similar expressions meaning the same thing.

 Freedom / liberation
pragmatists’ question

Whether Heaven is eternal or temporary is a subject of belief and not verifiable until I am dead. A pragmatic person might think: I am not interested in such a posthumous reward but something here and now, while living. I also do not care about theological belief systems or philosophical wranglings about what freedom really means. One may consider me perhaps an agnostic or an atheist. What does mokṣa mean to me? It obviously cannot mean to be free of this body and mind, since liberated-while-living means the person must be alive! And, as long as I am alive, I am subject to natural laws and so cannot be free of them. So what does it really mean ‘to be free’?

Such a questioning pragmatist indeed existed about 2,500 years ago. He was a born prince who was turned off by Vedic ritualistic tradition; nor did he care about an Eternal Self, ātman. Nor did he subscribe to another equally ancient tradition of Sāṅkhya / Yoga stressing kaivalya. He was convinced that direct perception and inference alone were sufficient for him to gain any knowledge and thus there was no need for scriptures or a guru to talk about unverifiable things. Thus he set out to find a way to end human suffering and later was called the Buddha. This Sanskrit word means ‘one who has understood’; usually this is translated as ‘the enlightened one’. Today his teaching forms the basis of a ‘religion’ practiced by hundreds of millions of people in all countries of the world.

My purpose here is not to talk about Buddhism per se but just to highlight the simple fact that pragmatism in this matter is not confined to the 21st century; mankind’s desire to be free of human limitation is found throughout human history. This quest for freedom is called, in the Vedic tradition, parama-puruṣartha, the ultimate quest of any human being. More about this later (in my next blog post).

Freedom / liberation is
freedom from sorrow / fear

This fundamental quest was best expressed by the commander-in-chief of an army facing an imminent fratricidal war about two millennia ago. He was torn about what was the right thing to do – to fight or just refuse to fight and walk away. His poignant question to his dear friend, who chose to be his charioteer was:

“If I were to win this war, or even gain overlordship of the Heavens,
I do not see a way to remove the sorrow that saps all my senses.”

Na hi prapaśyāmi mamāpanudyāt  yacchokamucchoṣaṇamindriyāṇām
Avāpya bhūmāvasapatnaṁṛddham rājyaṁ surāṇāmapi cādhipatyam.
(Bhavadgītā, Ch. 2-8)

This indeed is the human problem, a life tinged with sorrow that saps us all. This is not a negative or pessimistic view of life as many describe about Indic thought, but is experienced by all human beings. In and through all our achievements, there is this underlying fear of loss and consequent sorrow that saps all our senses.

This fear has been expressed eloquently by a sixth century king-turned-saint, Bhartṛhari in Vairāgyaśataka, One hundred Verses on Dispassion thus

In enjoyment,  there is the fear of disease; in social position, fear of fall
n wealth, fear of kings in honour, fear of humiliation
n power, fear of being overthrown; in beauty, fear of old age 
In erudition, fear of opponents; in virtue, fear of slanderers
n body, fear of death;  all the things of this world are attended with fear
Dispassion indeed is fearlessness. (31)
Bhoge rogabhayaṁ kule cyutibhayaṁ vitte nṛpālādbhayaṁ
         māne dainyabhayaṁ bale ripubhayaṁ rūpe jarāyā bhayam
Śāstre vādibhayaṁ guṇe khalabhayaṁ kāye kṛtāntādbhayaṁ
         sarvaṁ vastu bhayānvitam bhuvi nṛṇāṁ vairgyamevābhayam. (Vairāgyaśatakam, 31)

Mind is the cause of both Bondage and Freedom

Whether it is fear or sorrow or a sense of being hemmed in on all sides, they are not centered on the body or bodily pain. They are centered on one’s mind. Thus one can say that the cause of both bondage and freedom are the mind:

Mind indeed is the cause for bondage and freedom,
(mind) attached to sense objects is bondage, and
freedom is to be free of (attachment to) sense objects.
Mana eva manuṣyāṇāṁ kāraṇaṁ bandhamokṣayoḥ
bandhāya viṣayāsaṅgi mokṣo nirviṣayaṁ smtamiti.”
Maitrāyaṇyupaniṣad (6-34)

If one explores further, one finds that in both waking and dream, one experiences joys and sorrows due to contact with objects of the world, or impressions of such past experiences in one’s own mind. In dreamless sleep one is free of the mind and its activities. But whether in a  dream world created by oneself, or in this waking world, one identifies with the mind and suffers the consequences. Almost all spiritual literature, whether theistic or nontheistic stresses this simple fact of the mind dominating almost all aspects of human experience and activity.

Though seemingly a simple matter, it is not easy to get away from the mind; one cannot just be mindless or use drugs or stay in deep sleep or in samādhi (as popularly understood by this word) and be free. Nor is it easy to be the master of the mind. This mastery of the mind, our existing desire-ridden mind, is the journey one has to undertake in this life to gain freedom.

In the next post we will start exploring the tools used in spiritual traditions of the East to accomplish this, how apparently contradictory philosophical bases of the systems are all centered on this task of gaining freedom from the mind, being the master of the mind rather than being a slave of it.

I thank my dear friend and gurubhai, Richard Goeller for his helpful comments and edits.

Karma (consequence of action),
svarga (heaven) and mokṣa (freedom)

Karma, consequence of action: In my previous three blogs I covered a few topics centered on karma – that it is not fate, what dharma is, and the role of prayer in mitigating karma’s effects.The word karma has two distinct meanings. One, the actual etymological meaning of the word, is action. The other is the more popular meaning in the world at large: the result of action, more precisely called karmaphala. There is a better English word for karmaphala, namely ‘‘consequence of action”. If the word is used in this sense, karma implies that every deliberate action has a consequence, not just within this birth but one that gets added to the soul’s store of ‘consequences’, that is, sañcitakarma .

Svarga, heaven: This Sanskrit word is derived from the verb ṛj (to obtain, acquire, gain) with the prefix su (well) and suffix a (to arrive at the noun form). Thus etymologically it means a state acquired or gained. That is, one gains svarga after death due to deliberate actions performed in this world while alive. The English word nearest in meaning to Svarga is Heaven.

Mokṣa, freedom: This Sanskrit word is derived from the verb muc meaning to liberate, to release, to be free. Another synonym for mokṣa is mukti, also derived from the same verb. There are many words pointing to the same meaning in different philosophical systems of India and of the rest of the world  – nirvāṇa, satori, asamprajñāta-samādhi, nirvikalpa-samādhi, liberation, freedom, salvation – to name a few.
These two words, svarga and mokṣa are well known to most Hindus and to those who are familiar with Indic culture, with diverse religions subscribing to different philosophies and theologies. Despite this diversity of Indic systems, there is a common thread, one of freedom for the saṁsārin, the human being, from this world called saṁsāra.
The two words heaven and liberation mean two different ends that can be sought by a human being. In the current blog post we discuss the idea of svarga and will take up the concept of mokṣa in later posts.

Svarga, Heaven

The idea of svarga, heaven is common to almost all religions of the world, not unique to Hinduism, though details and descriptions of heavens differ. The commonality is that one reaches heaven after death as a result of righteous actions performed while living on this earth. The opposite, naraka or hell also has commonality in all theologies in that unrighteous actions performed on the earth result in a trip to this place after death.
The meaning of righteous and unrighteous actions, called dharmika or adharmika karma, starts at the societal level, centered on actions that maintain harmonious living. Thus it includes desisting from actions such as stealing, telling lies, coveting others’ possessions, greed etc. In addition, there is a set of positive actions to engage in — charity, helping the needy, selfless actions and so on. Religious theologies postulate ‘consequences’ to these actions that accrue in another world, call it heaven or hell. No point is served in exploring hell since no one wants a continuation of suffering either here or hereafter in another place called hell.
Despite diversity of religions, there is a consensus that leading a righteous life in this world will result in the posthumous reward of heaven. There are differences relating to whether one goes to heaven with this earthly body or gets a different body or something else, but this also is not the focus of discussion here.

Eternal stay in svarga

This vision of heaven as the posthumous reward for leading a righteous life here is common to Judaism,  Christianity,  Islam and Hinduism, particularly in bhakti-mārga, the path of total devotion to God. All these theologies postulate a heaven after death to be eternal. That is, there is no more suffering, including the suffering inherent in life on this earth being born again. The latter is a central focus for Hindus who believe in karma and thus countless rebirths on Earth. Thus, it is a common custom in India, even today to use the expression “xxxx gained Kailāsa (abode of Śiva), xxxx gained Vaikuṇṭha (abode of Viṣṇu)” in obituary notes reflecting this belief, in a way giving the benefit of doubt to the departed one that he or she is in the eternal heaven of the Lord.

Eternal Svarga-stay: reconcile with karma concept?

A person subscribing to the concept of karma may have difficulty in understanding this theological certainty of eternal stay in heaven. This is because sañcitakarma, the total load of ‘consequences of action’ is so vast that it cannot be exhausted in any number of human births. If one’s stay in svarga were eternal what happens then to this total accumulated karmic load, the sañcitakarma?
But no such conceptual contradiction arises in western religions since the belief system is based on the view that the current human birth for the soul is the only one and the karma in this life determines afterlife. But most religions of Indic origin subscribe to the concept of karma and consequent countless births and deaths.
A Hindu devotee does not have a problem with this either! Because the Hindu idea of God is that He/She is beyond the bounds of karma and is full of compassion for the Created. One of the names of God is Karuṇānidhi, repository of compassion. Out of compassion, God absolves the devotee of sañcitakarma, total accumulated karmic load, and at death of the body, the soul is totally free of rebirth and gains eternal stay in Heaven, the abode of his / her favorite God. This freedom from saṁsāra after death is expressed as eternal sojourn in Heaven, being in the Lord’s presence, be it Kailāsa (abode of Śiva), or Vaikuṇṭha (abode of Viṣṇu), or whatever the devotee believes in.
This may raise a valid question “If God were so compassionate, why does he not get rid of all of my karma now, so that I can start having an eternal stay in heaven instead of continuing to live in this limited world of pain and sorrow?” This is more a rhetorical one than real, since no human being who has a ‘normal’ life wants to die now for the promise of eternal heaven! This is illustrated by a story I heard somewhere. A small digression:

There was a dedicated pastor who lived in a small town tending his flock of believers. He went one day to a neighboring town and much to his dismay found a number of his parishioners gambling. He felt gambling was a sin, so the next time at the church he gave a sermon taking pains to explain the effects of sin and how it prevents the soul to enter heaven. At the end he accosted his audience “Those who want to go to heaven, go to the right side of this hall”. All moved to the right except an old man with a cane. The pastor was shocked and asked him “Why, you do not want to go to heaven? Do you want help to move over to the other side of the chapel?” The man replied, “Padre, I thought you asked us about going to heaven now. I do not want to die today to go there!”

Joke apart, this represents the desire for any living being not to die “now”. And, God the Compassionate One does not end the devotee’s life! His/Her reason for not taking the devotee right away to heaven is also based on, and not incompatible with karma theory: this life is the result of fructification of a portion of total accumulated karma, and is called prārabdha-karma. It is more like an arrow that has been taken out of the quiver, attached to the bow, aimed at a target and let go. Once the arrow has left the bow, it cannot be stopped even by the archer. Thus God, the One who is the Lord (in charge of doling out to the soul all karmic load) cannot stop the effect of what has already begun. This seems to be a satisfying explanation to a devotee, if ever he were to venture asking such a question, which is construed as questioning God’s Limitless Powers.
There is another way to look at this issue by going to the very foundation of karma theory. Karma is the subtle result that accrues to the soul, the result of a deliberate action undertaken by the human being (or similar being capable of deliberate action). An action is typically possible only by total identification of the person with his or her mind and body, that is, ego and desire-prompted actions arising in the mind. If one surrenders the ego at the altar of God and performs all actions as an offering to God, then the person can gain the vision that there is nothing but God, dissolving his ego-centered individuality.
Such a true devotion is defined as bhakti by the sage Narada in his Bhaktisūtra:

परमप्रेमस्वरूपा  भक्तिः। सा त्वनन्या।
Paramapremasvarūpā bhaktiḥ, sā tu ananyā.
“Devotion is of the form of limitless Love,  it however does not allow otherness”

Lord Kṛṣna states this in simpler terms in bhakti-yoga chapter in Bhagavadgītā:

मय्येव मन आधत्स्व मयि बुद्धिं निवेशय।
निवसिष्यसि मय्येव अथ ऊर्द्ध्वं न संशयः।।
Mayyeva mana ādhatsva mayi buddhiṁ niveśaya
Nivasiṣyasi mayyeva atha ūrdhvaṁ na samśayaḥ. (12:8)
May you fix your mind in me, may your intellect be directed towards me,
You will indeed reside in me, there is no doubt (about this).

Again, in a different chapter he says

यत्करोषि यदश्नासि यज्जुहोषि ददासि यत्।
यत्तपस्यसि कौन्तेय तत्कुरुष्व मदर्पणम्।।
Yat karoṣi yadaśnāsi, yajjuhoṣi dadāsi yat
Yattapasyasi Kaunteya tat kuruṣva madarpaṇam. (9-27)
Whatever you do, enjoy, offer as a sacrifice, or give
Whatever austerities you perform, Kaunteya! May you do it as an offering to Me! (9-17)

Svarga only as temporary sojourn – The Contrarian Vedic View and gaining Mokṣa

In contrast to this Bhakti-view, both Sāṅkhya and the Vedānta (the last section of Vedas) take a different view of heaven – that it cannot be eternal, that any heaven gained by action for a limited time while alive must result only in a limited duration of stay in Heaven, and the soul will get back to this earth endowed with a physical body. This more logical view appeals to me. These systems say that the only place where one can gain total freedom, that is mokṣa, is on this earth where the soul is reincarnated as the indweller in a human body. An elaboration of this contrarian thought of svarga as a return trip to the Earth, the reason for the sense of bondage and the way to gain mokṣa constitute topics of my next few posts.

I thank my dear friend and gurubhai, Richard Goeller for his helpful comments and edits.


I would like to share with you all my deep sense of gratitude to my Vedānta teacher, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, who passed last week in his āśrama in Rishikesh.  A personal tribute penned by one of his students, Professor Anantanand Rambachan was published recently in Swarajya magazine in India. I liked it very much and thought I would share with you.

Being a scientist by training and a skeptic by nature, I decided to play it safe! I was afraid the teaching by a ‘traditional teacher’ might not appeal to me, and  I knew nothing of Swami Dayananda, the resident ācārya (teacher). So, armed with a 120-day return ticket and an assurance from my beloved boss that I could come back any time to the same research position, I quit my job in the US, left for India, got my parents’ blessing, and landed in Sandeepany Sadhanalaya in Powai, Bombay.

When I arrived, Swami Dayananda was teaching an afternoon class, so I quietly entered and sat in the back. He was saying, “Yadyat kṛtakam, tattannaśyam kṛtakatvāt ghaṭavat (whatever is created is subject to destruction, like a created pot),” a logical syllogism to explain how this created physical body is subject to destruction/death. The tightness of logic and his uncompromising analysis grabbed my attention right away. I felt I had come to right place and to the right teacher. Not many days after that I told him about the never-to-be-used part of my return ticket! He made it public in a satsanga and we all had a hearty laugh! The rest, as they, is history.

He was a teacher par excellence and full of dayā, compassion, a person true to his sannyāsin name Dayānanda, one of the meanings of this word is “Bliss of Compassion.” One incident during the course that really stuck in my heart demonstrated how he lived the teaching, that is, he walked the walk, not just talk the talk.

There were a few devotees who were dissatisfied with us, his students. They felt that we lacked the ideal discipline that they felt we should have had! Swamiji was a bit hurt by this gossip. So, that evening he came to the class (all the devotees also were also attending the class) and talked about the core of the vedānta-śāstra —  that a person who understood the teaching is rooted in abhaya, is unafraid (abhayam pratistām vindate – Taittirīyopaniṣad).. He said, “With this understanding of fearlessness described in the Śruti, how can I force a discipline that you all will abide by due to fear? I give you all the armamentarium necessary for you to understand and abide by the śāstra, so that you can fully own up the teaching.” Needless to say, for us, his students, the first emotion that wells up toward him is love, then only respect.

Another incident worth mention: I was in my thirties, idealistic, harsh and judgmental–hopefully in my seventies I am a bit better! In one of our many conversations I asked him why he had this motley crowd of 65 students of different ages, with different goals and agendas, and what he planned to accomplish for his efforts. His reply was disarming but reflected a keen understanding of his visionary role as a Vedānta teacher. He said “Remember Śaṅkara? For all his life of dedicated spread of Vedānta, he had only four students who continued the vedāntic teaching tradition. If I start with 65 and teach a few such courses, I am sure there will be many more than his four to carry on the teaching tradition all over the world for a long time.”

Rabindranath Tagore said that when thoughts are translated to words, something is lost. As I write this blog post, I realize how true his statement is! I invite you, many of whom are students or Swamiji, to send me your personal experience as comments to this blog so I can post them on this site.

Yasya deve parābhaktiryathā deve tathā gurau.
Tasyaite kathithāhyarthāḥ prakāśante mahātmanaḥ.
Who has the highest love of God, and same love for the teacher,
To that great soul the Truth (of Vedānta) shines.”
Śivamānasollāsa by Sureśvarācārya

While working on mokṣa and karma for the karma-series blog posts, I happened to come across a podcast containing a thoughtful analysis of the concept of karma by Sharon Salzberg, a Buddhist teacher. I find her responses in the interview on this topic really capture the idea of Karma and of its relevance – specifically, that it is meant to be applied to oneself and is not to be used to pass judgement upon others! I also like her analogy to epigenetics, that karma is not fate but only predispositions. I recommend listening to this podcast. This podcast is in the religion section of an e-Paper.
The subtitle for the podcast is –
If you are talking about someone else’s karma you are doing it wrong.


In the blog post Karma and Dharma Karma and dharma, I wrote that human birth is due to prārabdhakarma, a fraction of sañcitakarma, the soul’s total karmic load and that Karma is not Fate. Prārabdhakarma is a mixture of both puṇyakarma and pāpakarma. While puṇyakarma, the result of righteous actions from previous births, gives rise to pleasurable experiences in one’s life, pāpakarma, the result of unrighteous actions yields unpleasant or uncomfortable life experiences.
It is natural for all living beings including humans to avoid uncomfortable situations. The uniqueness of the human being is that he / she can exercise free will, however limited it may be, to overcome many of them . But in everyone’s life there will be situations that defy remedy by available methods. Under those conditions, one who believes in Karma and Īśvara, God, seeks to remedy the situation by resorting to religious actions called prāyaścittakarma, expiatory action, centered on God. In this blog post we elaborate on this aspect of action, called remedial action..

Reducing the Effect of Pāpakarma in this Life – the Role of Prayer

When one encounters hardships in life, it can be explained as a way for the soul to experience pāpakarma. Indians call it ‘bad karma’. These hardships can take the form of the loss of a loved one, a serious illness that can be physical or mental, loss of one’s livelihood, a natural calamity and so on. Human efforts to deal with them, from the karma angle are attempts to reduce this karmic effect.
In life, more often than not one cannot be successful in overcoming obstacles despite one’s best efforts. Instead of giving up, saying ‘it is my fate’ or ‘it is my bad karma’ or, worse still, blaming others or the world, a religious person can resort to prayer instead. Note that prayer is in addition to and not in place of the best human efforts. This action, called an expiatory act in religious literature, necessarily brings in the Hindu concept of God.
Prayer is common among all religions of the world. Western religions do not subscribe to karma, action and karmaphala, the consequence of one’s actions, that accrue to the soul, or to its rebirth. The expiatory rites, also called acts of atonement are primarily for ‘sins’ committed in this life. Note however, prayers and pilgrimages to holy shrines seeking cure from physical or mental diseases are not uncommon in those religions. These acts also come under the umbrella of prāyaścittakarma from the perspective of Hindu thought.
The major differences in Hinduism compared to Western religions are (1) the understanding of the role of prayer within the karma framework and (2) the multi-layered concept of the nature of God and His / Her role in helping people to reduce the effects of pāpakarma, as well as getting rid of all karma for the one interested in mokṣa, liberation.
In this blog post my focus is on the role of prayer to reduce if not annul the effect of one’s pāpakarma.

Different Types of Karma in the Tradition

Since prāyaścittakarma is discussed here, it is appropriate at this point to briefly discuss other types of karma recognized in the Hindu tradition. Though this analysis is not directly related to the topic, for the sake of completeness of analysis, these must be included. They are: kāmya-karma, niṣkāmya-karma, vihita-karma and niṣiddha-karma. Since any type of karma by definition will add to the soul’s karmic load, we will briefly discuss all types of actions and their results.
Kāmya-karma, Desire-prompted Action:  Any action undertaken by a human being is prompted by desire. The basic desire common to all living beings is to continue to live; but human beings have an additional layer of desires beyond this. And it is in pursuit of fulfillment of these that dharma and adharma and consequent accrual of puṇya and pāpa come in. In general, desire-prompted action will add to the karmic load differently based on whether or not the action is undertaken in accordance with dharma. The intensity of one’s desire often drives one toward overriding the need to follow dharma, and this in turn results in adding to the load of pāpa. Scrupulously following the dictates of dharma will however add to the load of puṇya. Either way one ends up adding to the total karmic load on the soul, perpetuating the cycle of life and death, otherwise called samsāra.
Niṣkāmya-karma, Action Not Centered on One’s Selfish Desires:  In contrast to self-centered desire-prompted actions, one can perform many a selfless act in life. This can arise due to a sense of empathy, compassion or a desire to follow a dharmic practice like charity as a scriptural injunction. If the underlying saṅkalpa, clear conviction or intention, is that one wants out of this puṅya-pāpa cycle (in other words, if one is clear that one’s basic desire is for mokṣa, freedom), tradition says such actions are non-binding. That is, there will be no addition to the karmic load, but there will still be results in this life itself, such as developing clarity of mind, a mind that is less and less buffeted by impulsive urges to act. An extension of this attitude toward any action is the well known karma-yoga concept described in the Bhagavadgīta.
Vihita-karma, Action Enjoined by the Tradition:  The life of a Hindu is governed by scriptural injunctions that mandate certain actions. These enjoined actions can be nitya-karma, daily actions (e.g. scriptural study, daily prayers) and naimittika-karma, actions for certain occasions (e.g. rituals at birth of a child, initiation to Vedic study, marriage, end-of-life rituals).
Niṣiddha-karma, Actions Prohibited by the Tradition: Prohibited actions are those that are not dharmic – they can be ordinary unethical actions (stealing, lying) with a religious overload or purely scripturally prohibited actions.
Prāyaścittakarma, Remedial Action to Mitigate Unfavorable Effects of Pāpakarma: This remedial action is prayer. The necessary ingredient for prayer is acceptance of a Being above all that we know in this phenomenal world. This Being is otherwise denoted by the common, though loaded word God.
The common issue one faces regarding prayer as prāyaścittakarma, is that it does not seem to work always – there are at least as many who pray but their wish to overcome a difficulty is not fulfilled, as those who can attest to the fact that prayer indeed was effective. To understand the role of prayer, one has to discuss the Hindu concept of God and how it dovetails with karma framework.

The Multi-layered Hindu Concept of God

My prefered Sanskrit word equivalent to God is Īśvara. It is derived from the verb Īś meaning to rule, to lord over. The more apt English term would thus be The Lord, a phrase common in Christianity. There is no easy way to characterize God. I think the following Sanskrit verse succinctly states about God.
“Oh Effulgent One! I know not the Truth of You, how, what or where You are.
Oh Great Lord, whatever, whoever or wherever You are, my salutations!” l

In Hinduism the idea of God covers a large spectrum.

  • The totally dualistic view of God the Creator, different from the creation and the souls that are incarnated in different physical bodies. This God-World-Me separation is taken as the basis for worship and prayer. Many believe that the role of the human being is to worship God and that by the Grace of God the human being will be saved. After death the person resides in Heaven with God. This is what one commonly observes in Hindu practices of temple worship as well as worship at an altar in people’s homes. This is not too different from western religions.
  • God is described with multifarious anthropomorphic forms including with non-human head(s), multiple arms and legs. One typically encounters these as idols in temples and as described in very many purāṇa-s, mythologies. The central theme is that God takes these forms to protect the innocent and punish cruel demonic ones who are against dharma.
  • There are many purāṇas (mythologies),  based on this concept of World-God dualism with the anthropomorphic representation of God and Goddess. There are about 18 purāna-s in which many other Gods and their exploits are described. They provide a rich source of stories that enthrall both the young as well as not so young even today. An Indian publishing house has taken up the task of making a scholarly translation of these works in English for the benefit of most of us who do not know Sanskrit.2 There are also many such works in many regional languages.
  • Not unlike God in Western religions there is also the Hindu idea that God is One. With reference to the three features one observes in this phenomenal world – creation, sustenance and dissolution – the one God is represented as Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva respectively,  often referred to as the Hindu Trinity, like the Christian Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  • Intelligence and Power: Creation presupposes knowledge and power. Power of knowledge (śakti) is represented as the Goddess Sarasvatī, consort of Brahmā. Sustenance needs the power of wealth, and this is Goddess Laksmī, Viṣṇu’s wife. And, destruction needs power, represented by Durgā, Śiva’s spouse. In actual practice, to an ardent devotee of any Goddess or God, his/her God represents all three aspects of creation, sustenance and destruction as well as knowledge and power rolled into one, which the devotee worships. This favorite God, called iṣṭadevatā in Sanskrit need not be the Gods described above. It can be Ganeśa, Kārtikeya, Rāma, Kṛṣṇa and others. The common expression used in the West is ‘the Hindu pantheon’. But for an informed Hindu, this popular expression only shows lack of an in-depth understanding of the Hindu idea of God.
  • The physical forms of the God/ Goddess represented and worshipped separately in temples in India do not mean that they are separate. That they are inseparable is seen in the icon of Ardhanārīsvara with the right side as the male form and  the left as the female form. Poet Kālidāsa expresses this inseparability by the simile of the inseparability of a word and its meaning in his invocatory verse in Raghuvamśa3
  • The Yoga system of Patañjali, on the other hand treats Īśvara, God as a special puruṣa, soul who, unlike other souls is not conditioned by karma. 4  God, souls and prakṛti, Nature are independent realities.
  • No God is postulated in the karma-kāṇḍa, the ritual section of the Vedas, to grant the wishes of ritualists. The view is that the very acts themselves yield the desired result due to the power inherent in rituals, called apūrva. There is thus no need to postulate the presence of an independent single conscious entity to bestow the result of Vedic rituals. Note that the Vedas are not ‘Godless’, in the sense of being atheistic! A number of devatā-s, deities/Gods are mentioned, including the Hindu Trinity and their consorts. There are several hymns dedicated to them. The only difference is there is no single overarching God. The Hindu view is that the Vedas are Divine, more akin to western Holy scriptures. The word Veda in Sanskrit means knowledge, and a Hindu considers the book as a source of knowledge.
  • In contrast to the karma-kāṇḍa, the jñāna-kāṇḍa, knowledge section of the same Vedas, also known as the Upaniṣads, or Vedānta (end portion of the vedas) has a totally different vision of God and world. This section of the Vedas has a non-dualistic vision. Sometimes one sees a similar vision in mystical literature in the West. The non-duality underlying the perceived Creator-Created duality is the pāramārthikasattā, Absolute Reality. This Reality, called Brahman,  Conscious Limitless Being,  is the substratum of all the observed world-man, man-God and God-world duality. From the standpoint of the perceived phenomenal world, the duality of souls, world and God is not imaginary or illusory but real, thus validating the role of prayer and karma. This reality of duality is called vyāvahārika-sattā, relative reality. As a student of science, this makes me think of the reality of atoms being discrete entities from the standpoint of chemistry, though in the reality of modern physics, there are no discrete Daltonian atoms; the reality is mostly just empty space with very little ‘matter’, and this too present in a way difficult to define categorically. But within the level of chemistry the acceptance of discrete atoms does not impinge on or interfere with any of the laws of chemistry.

Despite the diverse movements of idol worship, pantheism, polytheism, panentheism, henotheism and so on, in practice any informed Hindu understands that the physical representation is just a form symbol to focus the mind on the One-Beyond-Many conceptualization. When the conditions are right and the mind has enough focus, one transitions from this worship through physical form to the mental repetition of sounds called mantra-s which are specific to the God of one’s choice. The idea here is to provide a basis of worship suited to a diversity of situations and people, rather than to force fit one way to all with a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude.

The Role of God in prayer to mitigate the effect of karma

My Vedanta teacher used to illustrate the role of Īśvara 5 by comparing it to the application of Nature’s laws; if one trips and falls breaking a leg, one does not blame Nature. Nor does one say that Nature blesses us by our success in launching a rocket beyond the gravitational pull. Similarly, neither can human beings attribute their misfortunes to God’s capriciousness, or the receipt of prayed-for results to God’s favoritism.
In contrast to our notion of Nature, which we consider to be inert and insentient, Īśvara, God is considered to be a Sentient Being according to all religious theologies. Three words attributed to God are Omnipotence, Omniscience and Omnipresence. The equivalent Sanskrit words used in Hindu thought are sarvaśaktimān, sarvajñaḥ and sarvāntaryāmī, respectively. From the karma viewpoint, however, Īśvara  has two roles – as karmādhyakṣa, or overlord of all karma, and also karmaphaladātā, the giver of the fruits of one’s karma. Īśvara’s role is to follow the laws of karma.
If one experiences a series of misfortunes or gains an unexpected fortune in life, the Lord’s role has been just that of the giver of the results of that person’s puṇya or pāpa karma, the fraction of the total karmic load or prārabdha-karma that has been given through this human body for the soul to experience. This idea frees God from the notion of being uncompassionate or capricious or beneficent or vengeful.
Prayer is a volitional act or karma by a human being with a specific saṅkalpa, an intent to seek relief from a difficult situation in life. Since every karma has to have a result, God, as karmaphaladāta, giver of fruit of karma, bestows upon the devotee the result commensurate to the action of prayer.

Why Prayer is Not Answered All the Time

We all know that our prayers are not answered all the time. The result of prayer appears to be random. The explanation based on the karma framework is as follows:  prayer is a karma that is pitted against the unknown force of pāpa karma. And the Lord as the giver of the result of an action has no partiality to the devotee which could lead Him / Her to override the karmic force if the counter effort of prayer is not strong enough. This does not mean the Lord is either unkind or capricious. Since a priori we do not and cannot know the power of karma, religious traditions always recommend prayer as a means of seeking Divine help to get over difficulties not amenable to other efforts.

Praying for Others

A related issue is how to explain the role of prayer on others’ behalf within a karma framework. This selfless act of prayer is common across all religions. In the Hindu tradition, it is common to offer a daily prayer for the good of all beings in the world before one goes to bed. The karma concept extends to all beings. Thus when a priest or a well-wisher performs an act of prayer for the wellbeing of a person, this interacts with that person’s karmic load. In my own life, when a member of my family was gravely ill, our relatives in different parts of India offered special prayers for her recovery, and the effect was nothing short of miraculous. I have to add here that the person was given the best medical attention possible, and prayer may have added the unquantifiable plus that made the difference. When our family was going through this period of intense and directed prayer activity, I was reminded of some lines  I memorized while I was in school, from Morte D’ Arthur by Tennyson, a 19th century English poet.

“More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.”

I also remember a favorite verse of my father from Śivānandalaharī  by the 8th century Advaita exponent Śaṅkarācārya with the following statement in the last line – ‘Oh! What devotion cannot accomplish”.6


Prārabdhakarma, the fraction of the total karmic load that results in a human birth for a jīva, the soul, is a mixture of puṇya and pāpa karmas, the latter giving rise to painful or unpleasant life experiences for the human. Despite the best efforts by the person, if such experiences do not get better and if he or she has a belief system, there is a way to resort to remedial action, called prāyaścittakarma and this is a kind of prayer to Īśvara, the Lord.
There can be a complete or partial remedy of the situation as a result of this remedial action centered on God. His/Her role in the result is simply one of karmaphaladātā, giver of the result of one’s action and not as a special favor to the devotee praised. But if the remedial action is not adequate when pitted against the pāpa karma force, the effect can be less than total removal of the obstacle, or in some instances the prayer may have no impact at all. This too, based on the karma framework does not mean that God does not care since He / She is also the giver of the result of all actions, including the pāpa karma. The karma concept thus explains how prayer works sometimes but not always. It also helps one to own up to one’s karma, whether done in this lifetime or in previous lives. A natural consequence of this is not to excuse oneself and blame others for misfortunes. Nor does it allow a person to gloat about great successes in life, since this too is the result of puṇya-karma in addition to exercising best efforts for success.

1 Tava tattvam na jānāmi kīdṛśosi mahādeva
Yādṛśosi maheśvara, tādṛśāya namo namaḥ.

2 Mahapuranas  ISBN(Hardbound):  8120802896, 978812080289, Translated into English 100 Vols. by J.L Shastri, G.P. Bhatt  Motilal Banarsidass

3 Vāgarthāviva smpṛktau vāgarthapratipattaye Jagatafpitarau vande Pārvatīparameśvarau.

4 Kleśkarmavipākāairaparāmṣṭapuruṣaviśeṣa Īśvaraḥ. (yogasūtra 1:24)

5For those with a smattering of Sanskrit knowledge – note that the masculine gender form used here does not mean that God is a male! As Jewish mystic tradition mentions, it is impossible to attribute sex to that One from whom creation came about. It is just that gender is formal in Sanskrit, more akin to German and French than to English.

6 “…..Bhaktiḥ kim na karoti …….”  (Saundaryalaharī, Verse 63)

I thank my dear friend, one of my gurubhais, Richard Goeller for his insightful comments and technical editing.