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Paths to Liberation: Two Vedanta Traditions by Amber Richman

As the Cambio Community ventures into the theme for December, we explore the concepts of grace, bhakti, and commitment. Amber Richman, Cambio Owner & Co-Founder, shares more about bhakti - the yoga of devotion - in this week's installment of the Yoga Living Project!

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Paths to Liberation: Two Vedanta Traditions by Amber Richman

The spiritual aim of most Vedanta traditions is something called moksha, or liberation, from the  suffering that is a seemingly inherent part of the human condition. These schools hold at their  core an interpretation of the Upanishads, agree in the authority of the Vedas, and believe that understanding them is necessary for obtaining moksha (Long, Indian Philosophy 238-239). The  similarities of these traditions is something that many who are cultural outsiders can unknowingly take for granted. And yet, despite the fact that these traditions use the same terms,  revere the same texts and gods, and hold similar overarching beliefs, what liberation actually is  as well as how it is achieved differs—sometimes greatly, sometimes subtly— by tradition. In fact, Vedanta is a philosophy that, though pluralistic in many respects, is also rife with disagreements and differing views, which can be important for people not of the culture and  traditions to try to understand in order to avoid lumping this vast and intricate tapestry of beliefs into a murky smear of “yoga”, “Indian”, or “eastern” beliefs.  

There are many approaches, but if considered on a spectrum, at one end we could have Dvaita Vedanta, a dualistic system which believes that God and the individual souls are independent  realities. At the other end, the Advaita Vedantins believe that there is no division between god,  individual souls, or anything else for that matter. And, in between these, there is a range of  beliefs which overlap here, diverge there, sometimes in ways that are clear, many times in ways  that are slippery to see or understand. Rather than look at the two ends of the spectrum, it’s more  interesting to me to consider traditions with less clear polarity, to try to get an idea of how  traditions that share so much in common can also see the ultimate goal of liberation so  differently. I will examine the monistic Advaita Vedanta and Vaishnavism, a devotional branch of Vedanta to which many of the non-Advaitic systems are closely related (Long, Indian Philosophy  238). It should be noted that there are indeed Advaitins who are also Vaishnavas; here, I’ll look  at the broad, general categories with the understanding that more complexity and overlap exists  that is beyond the scope of this discussion.  

Before exploring some of the differences, let’s consider just what liberation is. The first step is to  understand karma, reincarnation, and samsara, which are aspects of many Indian belief systems  that lead to the seeking of liberation (Long, “Indian Philosophy” lecture 7). In Eknath  Easwaran’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, karma, or action, is explained as the concept that  “every action leads to a reasonable result—and, consequently, that everything that happens can  be traced to something done in the past” (100). So, the quality of our actions comes back to us: if  we do good, good things (e.g. things that are pleasant, even if temporary) will come back to us  eventually and, likewise, bad actions will bring bad repercussions, which cause immediate  suffering (Long, “Indian Philosophy” lecture 4). Because every action will bring karma, and  there is not enough time in one life to experience all of our karma, we reincarnate through many  lives during which we both experience our karma and create new karma. Thus, we find ourselves  essentially on a hamster wheel going round and round, through lifetime after lifetime (Long,  “Indian Philosophy” lecture 4). Along the way, we discover that all karma, even the seemingly  pleasant or good kind, leads to suffering because of its temporary nature. This wheel of suffering  through many lives is called samsara, and it is samsara from which Indian traditions carve a  path to the ultimate freedom from suffering, moksha. 

Though in all of these traditions, liberation does mean that one becomes free of samsara, what  that liberation actually looks like, the function of how it happens, and how it is experienced,  varies. This also means that, though the traditions use the same vocabulary, their ideas differ, if  only by shades, regarding what shared terms such as atman (the self) and Brahman (the quality less god) mean. And, because the end result is different, the steps to get there are different; thus  traditions have different practices in order to achieve their moksha. So, while they see the  importance of different paths, each tradition places a higher value on one path over the rest. In  the case of Advaita Vedanta and Vaishnavism, we will see how one values the path of  knowledge, jnana, and the other the path of devotion, bhakti, and how these paths are determined  by the different end goal.  

Advaita Vedanta’s view of moksha is given away in its very name—dvaita means “duality” and  the “a" at the beginning negates it. This is a school based on pure non-duality—Advaitins believe  there is no separation in ultimate reality. Advaita’s main exponent is Adi Shankara, an 8th  century philosopher, who consolidated the system and helped spread it, and who “affirms the  non-duality of Brahman and the world,” (Long, Indian Philosophy 237). Shankara believed that  jnana is the ultimate path to moksha, which has everything to do with the soteriological  cosmology of Advaita Vedanta. In his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, he argues that though  Krishna might say that bhakti, the path of devotion, is the best path, he actually means it is the  best path for Arjuna and everyone who hasn’t yet reached the level where they can practice jnana  (Lindsey lecture 3)—that Krishna’s advice is situational. Because the quest for jnana is so  challenging and all-consuming, Shankara maintained that liberation “could only be attained by the ascetic mendicant (sannyasin)” (Basham 110) rather than by the likes of Arjuna, who was of  the warrior caste. Therefore, from the perspective of Advaita Vedanta and Shankara, bhakti is  really a stepping stone to jnana which can be used to purify oneself in order to be ready for  liberation, but will only get one so far (Long, “Indian Philosophy” lecture 7).  

What is this jnana that Advaitins seek? In short, it is what is sometimes called self realization— the knowledge of who the atman is and who it is not. In this tradition, the true self is not the  body, the thoughts, the feelings, the personality, or even the soul of the individual. For, as  Easwaran’s translation of the the Upanishads says, “Everything confuses those who regard things  as separate from the Self. Brahmins, kshatriyas, creatures, the universe, the gods, everything:  these are the Self,” (101). In atman realization and the moksha which attends it, the liberated  being sees through this maya (illusion) of who they thought they were—maya in the Advaitin  sense is not real nor unreal, but is certainly impermanent and of “relative reality” (Long, “Indian  Philosophy” lecture 7). This world and all that is changing does indeed exist; however, the  illusion is that we confuse the temporal, ever-changing world of distinctions and our identities in  it for that which is the true self, Brahman, the featureless, unchanging, eternal and “Ultimate  reality” (Feuerstein 388). When one acquires this correct knowledge in a truly embodied manner,  not merely conceptually, one is no longer affected by the suffering caused by misidentifying with relative reality; the dualistic tendencies dissolve and the complete understanding of oneself as  Brahman occurs. With samsara, an inherent feature of duality, being overcome, one is liberated;  moksha is achieved—even for the living being. In fact, Advaitins believe that moksha is a state to  attain while alive and those who do so and continue to live and teach are known as as jivanmuktis (one who is liberated while living). Similarly to how one doesn’t need to “destroy the clay pot to  know it’s clay” (Dalal, lecture 7), though the direct recognition of tat tvam asi (I am that/ Brahman) occurs in moksha, and though duality is overcome, the world can and does continue  (Dalal, lecture 7); thus the jivanmukti continues to live in and experience this relative reality with  recognition of oneself and all else as ultimate reality.  

In Brahman, everything truly is one. There is no differentiation at all—even the personal forms  of god collapse into the all-pervading consciousness of Brahman (Bryant, “Bhakti Yoga” lecture  3). This is why the path of bhakti is a step below that of jnana. For Advaitins, bhakti is  fundamentally a less advanced path because the gods to which bhaktas are devoted are really just  maya-formed faces of what Dr. Graham Schweig referred to as “the cosmic soup” that is  Brahman (various lectures). Still, bhakti is highly respected and commonly practiced in Advaita  Vedanta as it can help one to stop identifying with the ego by directing all thoughts and actions to  God (Long, “Indian Philosophy” lecture 7). However, those who are ready, shed bhakti (as  devotion to a particular deity) and devote themselves instead to the path of knowledge.  

While Vaishnavism is not at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from Advaita Vedanta as  pure Dvaita, or dualistic, traditions could be considered to be, it still does not buy into pure non duality and finds an interesting way to have both dualism and non-dualism, Vishishtadvaita,  literally Advaita with uniqueness, or qualified non-dualism (Bryant, “Bhakti Yoga” lecture 3).  How can this be? First, when considering moksha from a Vaishnava, or in this case, what is  sometimes called a Krishnavaite, perspective, it is necessary to understand that Vaishnavas are bhaktas, or devotees, of Krishna, whom they believe is the primary god, also called Bhagavan  (Bryant, “Bhakti Yoga” lecture 1). As such, they work to develop pure love and devotion in their  hearts for this personal god and seek to have a relationship with him. For them, total surrender,  or bhakti, is the means to attain liberation and all other means, including jnana, are  supplemental. Byrant described this as, “Do your study but then surrender your mind to  God,” (Bryant, “Bhakti Yoga” lecture 3).  

This is why Krishna must take a human, relatable form; this path of love requires two entities to  enter into relationship (Bryant, “Bhakti Yoga” lecture 3)—the devotee’s atman, or soul (Bryant,  Bhakti Yoga 541), and Bhagavan. It is through the stories of Krishna, especially those told in the  Bhagavata Purana, that devotees learn to love him (Bryant, “Bhakti Yoga” lecture 4). Vaisnavas reject purely non-dual versions of liberation where the atman, or “transcendental Self” in this  sense (Feuerstein 387), merges completely with Brahman, because, according to Bryant, it would  “keep them from hearing the stories of Bhagavan” (Bryant, “Bhakti Yoga” lecture 3). Because  their path is based on relationship which requires two entities and, thus, a certain level of  differentiation, they also reject the Advaitin idea that in the final liberation, the personal aspects  of god dissolve into “all pervasive consciousness”(Bryant, “Bhakti Yoga” lecture 3). They see  Krishna, or God, “…as prior to Brahman” (Basham 91) and seek a freedom from samsara spent  in Goloka (or Vaikuntha), the eternal, divine realm of Krishna (Long, “Indian Philosophy”  Lecture 7), where they spend eternity in a loving relationship with him. This, to them, is the  ultimate liberation and is a liberation a step above the moksha of pure non-dualism. 

For Vaishnavas, this connection with their Bhagavan is the ultimate liberation and anything else  is lesser, thus the way moksha actually occurs is also different from the Advaitin version in  which correct knowledge dissolves duality. In this path of bhakti, practitioners direct all thoughts  toward Krishna, they read about him, they gather with people who also love him, they talk about  him, and so on (Bryant, Bhakti Yoga 81). Because these are things that anyone can do, this path  is not for ascetics, but for householders and, in fact, offers a “shortcut to an advanced spiritual  state that might be obtained by other methods only through great striving, penance, and  pain” (Basham 92). A Vaishnava, such as the 11th-12th century philosopher, Ramanuja, would  argue that Krishna advocating for the use of bhakti over other paths is not advice tailored for  Arjuna—that bhakti is the best path for everyone because it is the only one that will lead to a  loving merging with Bhagavan (Lindsey lecture 3).  

Through their practices, these bhaktas develop a perfect love for Krishna in which their own ego  is subsumed and Krishna can’t help but to love them as well. When liberation from suffering is  attained, it is not because a realization of true knowledge untangles one from the illusion of  duality. Instead, when one attains perfect bhakti, the burden of karma is simply removed by the  grace of Krishna (Basham 92). Therefore, a Vaishnava will put time into jnana, but only so far as  it can be done in a way that supports their practices of bhakti, because to do anything else would  be to miss the point and the end goal.  

In conclusion, though Advaita Vedanta and Vaishnavism both share a broad outline of similar  concepts, the way they color this outline in is quite different. Their conceptions of moksha, god, and the individual lead practitioners down paths that, though appearing similar from the outside,  are practiced with different perspectives. In the west, likely because of the early prominence and  influence of Advaitins like Swami Vivekananda (Long, “Indian Philosophy” lecture 1), when  asked about liberation, many tend to have a non-dualistic version in mind and will say liberation  (or enlightenment) is “becoming one”—something I have heard time and time again while  teaching yoga teacher trainings. We certainly could do better, be more respectful, with a little bit  of learning, of questioning about our assumptions in this regard. And, that being said, Dr. Jeffery  Long points out that as westerners learn about the differences between Indian philosophies, we  sometimes fall into the trap of overstating the differences (“Indian Philosophy” lecture 1 & 7).  As cultural outsiders, there seems to be a fine line between not lumping all Indian traditions into  one category and putting too great of an emphasis on the differences. It is one that, as a yoga  teacher, studio owner, and also as someone whose personal beliefs and practices stem from the  traditions of Vedanta, I am ever keen to learn more about in an effort to practice respect and  reverence for the traditions. 


Works Cited  

Basham, A.L.. The Origins & Development of Classical Hinduism. Oxford, Oxford University   Press, 1991.  

Bryan, Edwin F.. “Bhakti Yoga”. Embodied Philosophy. Lectures 1-9.  

Bryan, Edwin F.. Bhakti Yoga: Tales and Teachings from the Bhagavata Purana. New York,   North Point Press, 2017.  

Dalal, Neil. “Nonduality: Discovering Wholeness Through Advaita Vedanta”. Embodied   Philosophy. Lectures 1-4.  

Easwaran, Eknath. The Bhagavad Gita: A Classic of Indian Spirituality. Canada, Nilgiri Press,   1985.  

Easwaran, Eknath. The Upanishads. Canada, Nilgiri Press, 1987.  

Feuerstein, Georg. The Deeper Dimension of Yoga. Boston, Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2003.  Lindsey, Robert. “The Bhagavad Gita”. Embodied Philoshopy. Lectures 1-8.  Long, Jeffery D.. Indian Philosophy: An Introduction (draft), IB Tauris, 2017.  Long, Jeffery D.. “Indian Philosophy: Paths & Worldviews”. Embodied Philosophy. Lectures   1-8.  

Schweig, Graham. “Hidden Teachings of the Yoga Sutra.” Embodied Philosophy. Lectures 1-8. 

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