What is Vedanta?

Terminology :

The word "Vedanta" is revealing: "Vedanta" is a combination of two words: "Veda" which means "knowledge" and "anta" which means "the end of" or "the goal of." In this context the goal of knowledge isn't intellectual—the limited knowledge we acquire by reading books. "Knowledge" here means the knowledge of God as well as the knowledge of our own divine nature. Vedanta, then, is the search for Self-knowledge as well as the search for God.

What do we mean when we say God? According to Vedanta, God is infinite existence, infinite consciousness, and infinite bliss. The term for this impersonal, transcendent reality is Brahman, the divine ground of being. Yet Vedanta also maintains that God can be personal as well, assuming human form in every age. Most importantly, God dwells within our own hearts as the divine Self or Atman. The Atman is never born nor will it ever die. Neither stained by our failings nor affected by the fluctuations of the body or mind, the Atman is not subject to our grief or despair or disease or ignorance. Pure, perfect, free from limitations, the Atman, Vedanta declares, is one with Brahman. The greatest temple of God lies within the human heart.

Vedanta further asserts that the goal of human life is to realize and manifest our divinity. Not only is this possible, it is inevitable. Our real nature is divine; God-realization is our birthright. Sooner or later, we will all manifest our divinity—either in this or in future lives—for the greatest truth of our existence is our own divine nature.

The Concept of Maya :

Vedanta declares that our real nature is divine: pure, perfect, eternally free. We do not have to become Brahman, we are Brahman. Our true Self, the Atman, is one with Brahman.

But if our real nature is divine, why then are we so appallingly unaware of it? --> The answer to this question lies in the concept of maya, or ignorance. Maya is the veil that covers our real nature and the real nature of the world around us. Maya is fundamentally inscrutable: we don't know why it exists and we don't know when it began. What we do know is that, like any form of ignorance, maya ceases to exist at the dawn of knowledge, the knowledge of our own divine nature.

Brahman is the real truth of our existence: in Brahman we live, move, and have our being. "All this is indeed Brahman," the Upanishads—the scriptures that form Vedanta philosophy—declare. The changing world that we see around us can be compared to the moving images on a movie screen: without the unchanging screen in the background, there can be no movie. Similarly, it is the unchanging Brahman—the substratum of existence—in the background of this changing world that gives the world its reality.

Yet for us this reality is conditioned, like a warped mirror, by time, space, and causality—the law of cause and effect. Our vision of reality is further obscured by wrong identification: we identify ourselves with the body, mind, and ego rather than the Atman, the divine Self.

This original misperception creates more ignorance and pain in a domino effect: identifying ourselves with the body and mind, we fear disease, old age and death; identifying ourselves with the ego, we suffer from anger, hatred, and a hundred other miseries. Yet none of this affects our real nature, the Atman.

Maya can be compared to clouds which cover the sun: the sun remains in the sky but a dense cloud cover prevents us from seeing it. When the clouds disperse, we become aware that the sun has been there all the time. Our clouds—maya appearing as egotism, selfishness, hatred, greed, lust, anger, ambition—are pushed away when we meditate upon our real nature, when we engage in unselfish action, and when we consistently act and think in ways that manifest our true nature: that is, through truthfulness, purity, contentment, self-restraint, and forbearance. This mental purification drives away the clouds of maya and allows our divine nature to shine forth.

Shankara, the great philosopher-sage of seventh-century India, used the example of the rope and the snake to illustrate the concept of maya. Walking down a darkened road, a man sees a snake; his heart pounds, his pulse quickens. On closer inspection the "snake" turns out to be a piece of coiled rope. Once the delusion breaks, the snake vanishes forever.

Similarly, walking down the darkened road of ignorance, we see ourselves as mortal creatures, and around us, the universe of name and form, the universe conditioned by time, space, and causation. We become aware of our limitations, bondage, and suffering. On "closer inspection" both the mortal creature as well as the universe turn out to be Brahman. Once the delusion breaks, our mortality as well as the universe disappear forever. We see Brahman existing everywhere and in everything.

Karma and Reincarnation :

Human suffering is one of religion's most compelling mysteries: Why do the innocent suffer? Why does God permit evil? Is God helpless to act or does he choose not to? And if He chooses not to act, does that mean he is cruel? Or merely indifferent?
-->Vedanta takes the problem out of God's court and places it firmly in our own. We can blame neither God nor a devil. Nothing happens to us by the whim of some outside agency: we ourselves are responsible for what life brings us; all of us are reaping the results of our own previous actions in this life or in previous lives. To understand this better we first need to understand the law of karma.

The word "karma" comes from the Sanskrit verb kri, to do. Although karma means action, it also means the result of action. Whatever acts we have performed and whatever thoughts we have thought have created an impression, both in our minds and in the universe around us. The universe gives back to us what we have given to it: "As ye sow, so shall ye reap" as Christ said. Good actions and thoughts create good effects, bad ones create bad effects.

Mental Imprints

Whenever we perform any action and whenever we think any thought, an imprint—a kind of subtle groove—is made upon the mind. These imprints or grooves are known as samskaras. Sometimes we are conscious of the imprinting process; just as often we are not. When actions and thoughts are repeated, the grooves become deeper. The combination of "grooves"— samskaras—creates our individual characters and also strongly influences our subsequent thoughts and actions. If we anger easily, for example, we create an angry mind that is predisposed to react with anger rather than with patience or understanding. As water when directed into a narrow canal gains force, so the grooves in the mind create canals of behavior patterns which become extraordinarily difficult to resist or reverse. Changing an ingrained mental habit literally becomes an uphill battle.

If our thoughts are predominantly those of kindness, love, and compassion, our character reflects it, and these very thoughts will be returned to us sooner or later. If we send out thoughts of hatred, anger, or pettiness, those thoughts will also be returned to us.

Our thoughts and actions aren't so much arrows as boomerangs—eventually they find their way back home. The effects of karma may come instantly, later in life, or in another life altogether; what is absolutely certain, however, is that they will appear at some time or other. Until liberation is achieved, we live and we die within the confines of the law of karma, the chain of cause and effect.


What happens at death if we haven't attained liberation?--> When a person dies, the only "death" is that of the physical body. The mind, which contains a person's mental impressions, continues after the body's death. When the person is reborn, the "birth" is of a new physical body accompanied by the old mind with the impressions or "grooves" from previous lives. When the environment becomes conducive, these samskaras again reassert themselves in the new life.

Thankfully, this process doesn't go on eternally. When we attain God-realization or Self-realization, the law of karma is transcended, the Self gives up its identification with the body and mind, and regains its native freedom, perfection and bliss.

An Absurd Universe?

When we take a hard look around us, the world doesn't seem to make much sense. If we go by appearances, it would seem that countless people have escaped the noose of fate: many an evil person has died peacefully in bed. Worse, good and noble people have suffered without apparent cause, their goodness being repaid by hatred and torture. Witness the Holocaust; witness child abuse.

If we look only on the surface, the universe appears absurd at best, malevolent at worst. But that's because we're not looking deeply; we're only viewing this lifetime, seeing neither the lives that precede this one nor the lives that may follow. When we see a calamity or a triumph, we're seeing only one freeze frame of a very, very long movie. We can see neither the beginning nor the end of the movie. What we do know, however, is that everyone, no matter how depraved, will eventually, through the course of many lifetimes and undoubtedly through much suffering, come to realize his or her own divine nature. That is the inevitable happy ending of the movie.


Doesn't the law of karma make Vedanta a cold and fatalistic philosophy? --> Not in the slightest.

Vedanta is both personally empowering and deeply compassionate. First, if we have created—through our own thoughts and actions—the life that we are leading today, we also have the power to create the life that we will live tomorrow. Whether we like it or not, whether we want to take responsibility or not, that's what we are doing every step of the way. Vedanta doesn't allow us to assign blame elsewhere: every thought and action builds our future experience.

Doesn't the law of karma then imply that we can be indifferent to our fellow beings because, after all, they're only getting what they deserve?--> Absolutely not. If a person's karma is such that he or she is suffering, we have an opportunity to alleviate that suffering in whatever way we can: doing so would be good karma. We need not be unduly heroic, but we can always offer a helping hand or at least a kind word. If we choose not to do whatever is in our limited power to alleviate the pain of those around us, we're chalking up bad karma for ourselves.

In fact, we're really hurting ourselves.Oneness is the law of the universe, and that truth is the real root of all acts of love and compassion. The Atman, my true Self, is the same Spirit that dwells in all; there cannot be two Atmans. Consciousness cannot be divided; it's all-pervasive. My Atman and your Atman cannot be different. For that reason Vedanta says: Love your neighbor as yourself because your neighbor is yourself.

Harmony of Religions :

     "Truth is one; sages call it by various names" the Rig Veda, one of Vedanta's most ancient texts, declared thousands of years ago.We are all seeking the truth, Vedanta asserts, and that truth comes in numerous names and forms. Truth—spiritual reality—remains the truth though it appears in different guises and approaches us from various directions. "Whatever path people travel is My path," says the Bhagavad Gita. "No matter where they walk, it leads to Me."

If all religions are true, then what is all the fighting about? -->

Politics, mostly, and the distortions that cultures and limited human minds superimpose upon spiritual reality. What is generally considered "religion" is a mixture of essentials and nonessentials; as Ramakrishna said, all scriptures contain a mixture of sand and sugar. We need to take out the sugar and leave the sand behind: we should extract the essence of religion—whether we call it union with God or Self-realization—and leave the rest behind. Whatever helps us to manifest our divinity we embrace; whatever pulls us away from that ideal, we avoid.

The carnage inflicted upon the world in the name of religion has precious little to do with genuine religion. People fight over doctrine and dogma: we don't see people being murdered over attaining divine union! A "religious war" is really large-scale egotism gone berserk. As Swami Prabhavananda, the founder of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, would smilingly say, "If you put Jesus, Buddha, and Muhammad in the same room together, they will embrace each other. If you put their followers together, they may kill each other!"

Truth is one, but it comes filtered through the limited human mind. That mind lives in a particular culture, has its own experience of the world and lives at a particular point in history. The infinite Reality is thus processed through the limitations of space, time, causation, and is further processed through the confines of human understanding and language. Manifestations of truth—scriptures, sages, and prophets—will necessarily vary from age to age and from culture to culture. Light, when put through a prism, appears in various colors when observed from different angles. But the light always remains the same pure light. The same is true with spiritual truth.This is not to say that all religions are "really pretty much the same." That is an affront to the distinct beauty and individual greatness of each of the world's spiritual traditions. Saying that every religion is equally true and authentic doesn't mean that one can be substituted for the other like generic brands of aspirin.

Every Religion Has a Gift

Every religion has a specific gift to offer humankind; every religion brings with it a unique viewpoint which enriches the world. Christianity stresses love and sacrifice; Judaism, the value of spiritual wisdom and tradition. Islam emphasizes universal brotherhood and equality while Buddhism advocates compassion and mindfulness. The Native American tradition teaches reverence for the earth and the natural world surrounding us. Vedanta or the Hindu tradition stresses the oneness of existence and the need for direct mystical experience.The world's spiritual traditions are like different pieces in a giant jigsaw puzzle: each piece is different and each piece is essential to complete the whole picture. Each piece is to be honored and respected while holding firm to our own particular piece of the puzzle. We can deepen our own spirituality and learn about our own tradition by studying other faiths. Just as importantly, by studying our own tradition well, we are better able to appreciate the truth in other traditions.

Deepening in Our Path

Just as we honor the various world religions and respect their adherents, we must grow and deepen in our own particular spiritual path--whatever it may be. We shouldn't dabble in a little bit of Buddhism and a little bit of Islam and a little bit of Christianity and then try a new combo plate the following week. Spiritual practice is not a smorgasbord. If we throw five varieties of desserts into a food processor, we'll just get one unpalatable mess.While Vedanta emphasizes the harmony of religions, it also stresses the necessity of diving deep into the spiritual tradition of our choice, sticking with it, and working hard. To paraphrase Ramakrishna, If you want to dig a well, you have to choose your location and keep digging until you reach water. It doesn't do any good to dig a bunch of shallow holes.While a shallow spiritual life is probably better than no spiritual life at all, it nevertheless doesn't take us where we want to go: to freedom, to God-realization. Once we choose which spiritual path we wish to follow, we should doggedly pursue it until we reach the goal. The point is, we can do this while not only valuing other traditions, but also learning from them.

Different Paths to the Same Goal

Vedanta says that all religions contain within themselves the same essential truths, although the packaging is different. And that is good. Every human being on the planet is unique. Not one of us really practices the same religion. Every person's mind is different and every person needs his or her own unique path to reach the top of the mountain. Some paths are narrow, some are broad. Some are winding and difficult and some are safe and dull. Eventually we'll all get to the top of the mountain; we don't have to worry about our neighbors getting lost along the way. They'll do just fine. We all need different approaches to fit our different natures.Despite external variations in the world religions, the internals are more alike than not. Every religion teaches similar moral and ethical virtues; all religions teach the importance of spiritual striving and the necessity of honoring our fellow human beings as part of that striving."As different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea," says an ancient Sanskrit prayer, "so, O Lord, the different paths which people take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.

Avatar: God in Human Form :

Swami Shivananda, one of Ramakrishna's disciples, said: "If God does not come down as a human being, how will human beings love him? That is why He comes to human beings as a human being. People can love Him as a father, mother, brother, friend—they can take any of these attitudes. And He comes to each in whatever form that person loves."Throughout the ages, spiritual renewal has come to humanity through God manifesting in human form. The Sanskrit word "avatar" literally means "descent of God." Most of the world's religions have been given impetus and direction by these spiritual giants—the incarnations, prophets, and messengers of God. Jesus and Buddha, Rama and Krishna, Moses and Muhammad, Chaitanya and Ramakrishna—all have been torchbearers in the world of spirituality, pouring new energy into religions that were sliding into hypocrisy and self-indulgence.

The Bhagavad Gita declared thousands of years ago:

When goodness grows weak,
When evil increases,
I make myself a body.
In every age I come back
To deliver the holy,
To destroy the sin of the sinner,
To establish righteousness.

One of the great distinctions between Western and Eastern thought is that the West tends to think in terms of linear time—the world and human history having a definitive beginning, middle, and end. On this horizontal time line, God has specific, historical interventions. In contrast, the East thinks in terms of great cycles: ascension and descension, creation and destruction, growth and decay; these cycles are seen as continually repeating waves in an eternal cosmic process. Civilizations, religions, and individuals are all part of this ongoing cycle. The appearance of the avatar is essential to this eternal movement of spiritual decline followed by regeneration.According to Vedanta, spiritual truth is eternal and universal: no particular religion or sect can have a monopoly on it. The truth that Christ discovered is the same truth that was revealed to the sages of the Upanishads; it is the same truth that Krishna and Buddha taught as well. Gautama said that there were many Buddhas before him, and in the years to come there will be many more manifestations of God on earth.Is there a purpose in all this? Yes. First, every avatar has a specific message to impart to humanity: Muhammad taught equality and the brotherhood of humanity; Christ revealed the primacy of God's love over the letter of the Law; Buddha rejected priestcraft and taught people to be lamps unto themselves; Krishna taught mental equanimity and detached action; Ramakrishna taught the ideal of the harmony of religions. Each incarnation has a message particular to the age in which he appears.The second reason why the avatar incarnates is to reestablish the one eternal religion—spiritual truth. While every avatar has specific teachings, all incarnations come to pour spiritual fire into a world sinking into religious mediocrity. No matter where the avatar appears on earth, the entire world is uplifted and regenerated by his advent.Does this mean that, according to Vedanta, God can be realized only through his personal aspect? No. Does this mean that Vedanta says that we must think of God as a person? No.What Vedanta says is that God can and does manifest through human form, and that, for most people, it is easier to meditate upon and love a God with form rather than a nebulous idea of infinite being, consciousness, and bliss. This, however, is a matter of temperament. Many people achieve spiritual growth through meditation upon the avatar; they are followers of the path of bhakti yoga. Yet for others this is entirely the wrong approach: those who are more intellectual than emotional may well achieve greater spiritual awareness through jnyana yoga.

The Meaning of Yoga :

While in recent years the word "yoga" has been heard more in gyms than in religious discourse, "yoga" in its original sense has little to do with exercise. "Yoga" comes from the Sanskrit verb yuj, to yoke or unite. The goal of yoga is to unite oneself with God; the practice of yoga is the path we take to accomplish this. Spiritual aspirants can be broadly classified into four psychological types: the predominantly emotional, the predominantly intellectual, the physically active, the meditative. There are four primary yogas designated to "fit" each psychological type. We should state from the beginning that these categories are not airtight compartments. Indeed, it would be psychologically disastrous for anyone to be completely emotional, completely intellectual, completely active or completely meditative. Each yoga blends into the next; each yoga balances and strengthens the others.

Bhakti Yoga: The Path of Love :

For those more emotional than intellectual, bhakti yoga is recommended. Bhakti yoga is the path of devotion, the method of attaining God through love and the loving recollection of God. Most religions emphasize this spiritual path because it is the most natural. As with other yogas, the goal of the bhakta, the devotee of God, is to attain God-realization—oneness with the Divine. The bhakta attains this through the force of love, that most powerful and irresistible of emotions. Love is accessible to everyone: we all love someone or something, frequently with great intensity. Love makes us forget ourselves, our whole attention being devoted to the object of our adoration. The ego loosens its grip as we think of our beloved's welfare more than our own. Love gives us concentration: even against our will, we constantly remember the object of our love. In an easy and totally painless way, love creates the preconditions necessary for a fruitful spiritual life.Vedanta therefore says, Don't squander the power of love. Use this powerful force for God-realization. We must remember that when we love another we are really responding—though unconsciously—to the divinity within him or her. As we read in the Upanishads, "It is not for the sake of the husband that the husband is dear, but for the sake of the Self. It is not for the sake of the wife that the wife is dear, but for the sake of the Self." Our love for others becomes unselfish and motiveless when we are able to encounter divinity in them.Unfortunately, we usually misplace our love. We project our vision of what's true, perfect, and beautiful and superimpose it upon whomever or whatever we love. It is God alone, however, who is True, Perfect, and Beautiful. Vedanta therefore says: Put the emphasis back where it belongs—on the divine Self within each person that we encounter. That is the real object of our love.Rather than obsessing on a limited human being, we should think of God with a longing heart. Many spiritual teachers have recommended adopting a particular devotional attitude towards God: thinking of God as our Master or Father or Mother or Friend or Child or Beloved. The determining factor here is, Which attitude feels the most natural to me and which attitude brings me closest to God?Jesus looked upon God as his Father in Heaven. Ramakrishna worshipped God as Mother. Many great saints have attained perfection through worshipping God as the baby Jesus or the baby Krishna. Many have attained perfection through worshipping Christ as the bridegroom or Krishna as the beloved. Others have attained perfection through worshipping God as their master or friend.The point to remember is that God is our own, the nearest of the nearest and dearest of the dearest. The more our minds are absorbed in thoughts of Him—or Her as the case may be—the closer we shall be to attaining the goal of human life, God-realization.Many people are drawn to worshipping God through love and devotion. Yet other spiritual aspirants are more motivated by reason than by love; for them, bhakti yoga is barking up the wrong spiritual tree. Those who are endowed with a powerful and discriminating intellect may be better suited for the path of jnana yoga, striving for perfection through the power of reason.

Jnana Yoga: The Path of Knowledge :

Jnana yoga is the yoga of knowledge—not knowledge in the intellectual sense—but the knowledge of Brahman and Atman and the realization of their unity. Where the devotee of God follows the promptings of the heart, the jnani uses the powers of the mind to discriminate between the real and the unreal, the permanent and the transitory.Jnanis, followers of nondualistic or advaita Vedanta, can also be called monists for they affirm the sole reality of Brahman. Of course, all followers of Vedanta are monists: all Vedantins affirm the sole reality of Brahman. The distinction here is in spiritual practice: while all Vedantins are philosophically monistic, in practice those who are devotees of God prefer to think of God as distinct from themselves in order to enjoy the sweetness of a relationship. Jnanis, by contrast, know that all duality is ignorance. There is no need to look outside ourselves for divinity: we ourselves already are divine.What is it that prevents us from knowing our real nature and the nature of the world around us? The veil of maya. Jnana yoga is the process of directly rending that veil, tearing it through a two-pronged approach.

An Unreal Universe

The first part of the approach is negative, the process of neti, neti—not this, not this. Whatever is unreal—that is, impermanent, imperfect, subject to change—is rejected. The second part is positive: whatever is understood to be perfect, eternal, unchanging—is accepted as real in the highest sense.Are we saying that the universe that we apprehend is unreal? Yes and no. In the absolute sense, it is unreal. The universe and our perception of it have only a conditional reality, not an ultimate one. To go back to our earlier reference to the rope and the snake: the rope, i.e., Brahman, is perceived to be the snake, i.e., the universe as we perceive it. While we are seeing the snake as a snake, it has a conditional reality. Our hearts palpitate as we react to our perception. When we see the "snake" for what it is, we laugh at our delusion.Similarly, whatever we take in through our senses, our minds, our intellects, is inherently restricted by the very nature of our bodies and minds. Brahman is infinite; it cannot be restricted. Therefore this universe of change—of space, time, and causation—cannot be the infinite, all-pervading Brahman. Our minds are circumscribed by every possible condition; whatever the mind and intellect apprehend cannot be the infinite fullness of Brahman. Brahman must be beyond what the normal mind can comprehend; as the Upanishads declare, Brahman is "beyond the reach of speech and mind."Yet what we perceive can be no other than Brahman. Brahman is infinite, all-pervading, and eternal. There cannot be two infinites; what we see at all times can only be Brahman; any limitation is only our own misperception. Jnanis forcefully remove this misperception through the negative process of discrimination between the real and the unreal and through the positive approach of Self-affirmation.


In Self-affirmation we continually affirm what is real about ourselves: we are not limited to a small physical body; we are not limited by our individual minds. We are Spirit. We were never born; we will never die. We are pure, perfect, eternal and free. That is the greatest truth of our being.The philosophy behind Self-affirmation is simple: as you think, so you become. We have programmed ourselves for thousands of lifetimes to think of ourselves as limited, puny, weak, and helpless. What a horrible, dreadful lie this is and how incredibly self-destructive! It is the worst poison we can ingest. If we think of ourselves as weak, we shall act accordingly. If we think of ourselves as helpless sinners, we will, without a doubt, act accordingly. If we think of ourselves as Spirit—pure, perfect, free—we will also act accordingly. As we have drummed the wrong thoughts into our minds again and again to create the wrong impressions, so we must reverse the process by drumming into our brains the right thoughts—thoughts of purity, thoughts of strength, thoughts of truth. As the Ashtavakra Samhita, a classic Advaita text, declares: "I am spotless, tranquil, pure consciousness, and beyond nature. All this time I have been duped by illusion."Jnana yoga uses our considerable mental powers to end the duping process, to know that we are even now—and have always been—free, perfect, infinite, and immortal. Realizing that, we will also recognize in others the same divinity, the same purity and perfection. No longer confined to the painful limitations of "I" and "mine," we will see the one Brahman everywhere and in everything.

Karma Yoga: The Path of Work :

Karma yoga is the yoga of action or work; specifically, karma yoga is the path of dedicated work: renouncing the results of our actions as a spiritual offering rather than hoarding the results for ourselves. As we mentioned earlier, karma is both action and the result of action. What we experience today is the result of our karma—both good and bad—created by our previous actions. This chain of cause and effect that we ourselves have created can be snapped by karma yoga: fighting fire with fire, we use the sword of karma yoga to stop the chain reaction of cause and effect. By disengaging the ego from the work process, by offering the results up to a higher power—whether a personal God or to the Self within—we stop the whole snowballing process.Whether we realize it or not, all of us perform actions all the time since even sitting and thinking is action. Since action is inevitable, an integral part of being alive, we need to reorient it into a path to God-realization. As we read in the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism's most sacred scriptures:

Whatever your action,
Food or worship;
Whatever the gift
That you give to another;
Whatever you vow
To the work of the spirit. . .
Lay these also
As offerings before Me.

All of us tend to work with expectations in mind: we work hard in our jobs to get respect and appreciation from our colleagues and promotions from the boss. We clean our yards and make them lovely with the hope that our neighbors will be appreciative if not downright envious. We work hard in school to get good grades, anticipating that this will bring us a fine future. We cook a splendid meal with the expectation that it will be received with plaudits and praise. We dress nicely in anticipation of someone's appreciation. So much of our lives is run simply in expectation of future results that we do it automatically, unconsciously.This, however, is a perilous pattern. From a spiritual viewpoint, all these expectations and anticipations are Trojan horses that will bring us misery either sooner or later. Misery is inevitable because our expectations and desires are unending and unappeasable. We will live from disappointment to disappointment because our motivation is to gratify and enlarge the ego; instead of breaking the bonds of karma, we are forging fresh chains. No matter whether we are devotional, intellectual or meditative by temperament, karma yoga can easily be practiced in tandem with the other spiritual paths. Even those who lead a predominantly meditative life benefit from karma yoga, for thoughts can produce bonds just as effectively as physical actions.Just as devotees offer flowers and incense in their loving worship of God, so can actions and thoughts be offered as divine worship. Knowing that the Lord exists in the hearts of all creatures, devotees can and should worship God by serving all beings as his living manifestations. To paraphrase Jesus Christ: What we do for the least of our brothers and sisters, we do for the Lord himself. "A yogi," says the Bhagavad Gita, "sees Me in all things, and all things within Me." The highest of all yogis, the Gita continues, is one "who burns with the bliss and suffers the sorrow of every creature" within his or her own heart.Jnanis take a different but equally effective tack. They know that although the body or the mind performs action, in reality they do no work at all. In the midst of intense activity, they rest in the deep stillness of the Atman. Maintaining the attitude of a witness, jnanis continually remember that they are not the body, not the mind. They know the Atman is not subject to fatigue or anxiety or excitement; pure, perfect and free, the Atman has no struggle to engage in, no goal to attain.The point of all the yogas is to spiritualize our entire life instead of compartmentalizing our days into "secular" and "spiritual" zones. Karma yoga is particularly effective at this since it won't allow us to use activity as an escape. By insisting that life itself can be holy, karma yoga gives us the tools of everyday life to cut our way to freedom. To quote again the Bhagavad Gita regarding karma yoga: Thus you will free yourself from both the good and the evil effects of your actions. Offer up everything to Me. If your heart is united with Me, you will be set free from karma even in this life, and come to Me at the last.

Raja Yoga: The Path of Meditation :

Raja yoga, is the royal path of meditation. As a king maintains control over his kingdom, so can we maintain control over our own "kingdom"—the vast territory of the mind. In raja yoga we use our mental powers to realize the Atman through the process of psychological control.The basic premise of raja yoga is that our perception of the divine Self is obscured by the disturbances of the mind. If the mind can be made still and pure, the Self will automatically, instantaneously, shine forth. Says the Bhagavad Gita:

When, through the practice of yoga,
the mind ceases its restless movements,
and becomes still,
the aspirant realizes the Atman.

If we can imagine a lake that is whipped by waves, fouled by pollution, muddied by tourists and made turbulent by speedboats, we'll get a fair assessment of the mind's usual state.Should anyone doubt this assertion, let the intrepid soul try to sit quietly for a few minutes and meditate upon the Atman. What happens? A thousand different thoughts fly at us, all leading the mind outward. The fly buzzing around suddenly becomes very important. So does the thought of dinner. We now remember where we left the keys. The argument we had yesterday becomes even more vivid and powerful; so does the perfect retort that we've cleverly composed during our "meditation." The minute we stop thinking one thought, another jumps in with equal force. Were it not so dismaying, it would be funny.Most of the time we remain unaware of the mind's erratic movements because we are habituated to giving our minds free reign: we've never seriously attempted to observe, let alone train the mind. Like parents whose indiscipline has created children that everyone dreads, our lack of mental discipline has created the turbulent, ill-behaved minds that have given us endless difficulty. Without psychological discipline, the mind becomes the mental equivalent of the house ape. And all of us, sadly enough, have suffered mental agony because of it.

Mastering the Mind

While we may have grown accustomed to living with an uncontrolled mind, we should never assume that it's an acceptable, if not inevitable, state of affairs. Vedanta says that we can master the mind and, through repeated practice, we can make the mind our servant rather than being its victim. The mind, when trained, is our truest friend; when left untrained and reckless, it's an enemy that won't leave the premises.Now, instead of the polluted lake we previously envisioned, think of a beautiful, clear lake. No waves, no pollution, no tourists, no speedboats. It's clear as glass: calm, quiet, tranquil. Looking down through the pure water, you can clearly see the bottom of the lake. The bottom of the lake, metaphorically speaking, is the Atman residing deep within our hearts. When the mind is pure and calm, the Self is no longer hidden from view. And, Vedanta says, that mind can be yours.

How? To again quote the Bhagavad Gita:

Patiently, little by little, spiritual aspirants must free themselves from all mental distractions, with the aid of the intelligent will.They must fix their minds upon the Atman, and never think of anything else.No matter where the restless and unquiet mind wanders, it must be drawn back and made to submit to the Atman alone.The mind is cleansed and made tranquil through the repeated practice of meditation and through the practice of moral virtues.Popular wisdom aside, there is no way to practice meditation without practicing moral virtues in tandem. To try to do otherwise is as effective as sailing the ocean with a leaky boat.For such a Herculean task as realizing the Atman, all areas of the mind must be fully engaged. We cannot compartmentalize our life and assume that we can have both a "secular" area (in which we can live as we please) and a "spiritual" area. Just as we can't cross the ocean in a leaky boat, so we can't cross the ocean with two legs in two different boats. We must fully integrate all aspects of life and direct our energies towards the one great goal.This doesn't mean that in order to realize God a person must totally renounce the world and live in a cave, monastery or convent. What it does mean is that all aspects of our life must be spiritualized so that they can be directed towards attaining the goal of God-realization.Because raja yoga is the path of meditation, it is—when practiced exclusively—generally followed by those who lead contemplative lives. Most of us will never fall into that category. Raja yoga is, however, an essential component of all other spiritual paths since meditation is involved in the loving recollection of God, mental discrimination, and is an essential balance to selfless action.


As for directions on how to meditate and what to meditate upon, such issues must be taken up directly with a qualified spiritual teacher. Meditation is an intensely personal matter; only a genuine spiritual teacher can accurately gauge the student's personal tendencies and direct the student's mind accordingly.Further, spirituality is caught, not taught. A genuine spiritual teacher ignites the flame of spirituality in the student by the power of his or her own attainment: the student's candle is lit by the teacher's flame. Our candles cannot be lit by books any more than they can be lit by unqualified teachers who speak religion without living it. True spirituality is transmitted: only pure, unselfish teachers who have achieved some level of spiritual awakening can enliven our own dormant flame.That said, some basic guidelines can be given: any concept of God—whether formless or with form—that appeals to us is helpful and good. We can think of God as being present either outside of ourselves or inside. Ramakrishna, however, recommended meditating upon God within, saying "the heart is a splendid place for meditation." Repetition of any name of God that appeals to us is good, so is repeating the holy syllable "Om." It's helpful to have a regular time for meditation in order to create a habit; it's also helpful to have a regular place for meditation that is quiet, clean, and tranquil.

Ethics and Morality :

Vedanta ethics and moral virtues are rooted in the ideal of realizing and manifesting our own innate divinity. Simply put, whatever brings us closer to that goal is ethical and moral; whatever prevents us from attaining it, is not.Like a diamond buried in mud, the Atman shines within us, yet its presence remains obscured, its shining purity masked by countless layers of ignorance: wrong identification, incorrect knowledge, misguided perceptions. It is important to emphasize that we are not trying to become something other than what we already are. We are not trying to become pure; we are pure. We are not trying to become perfect; we are perfect already. That is our real nature. Acting in accordance with our real nature—acting nobly, truthfully, kindly—tears away the veil of ignorance that hides the truth of reality. Whatever distorts this reality is a perversion of the truth.The whole of Vedanta ethics, then, is based upon a simple line of reasoning: Does this action or thought bring me closer to realizing the truth, or does it take me further away?

Morality and the Ego

What is it that prevents us from realizing the truth? Simply put, the ego: the sense of "I" and "mine." As the great spiritual teacher Ramakrishna said, "The feeling of 'I' and 'mine' has covered the Reality so we don't see the truth." He further said, "When the ego dies, all troubles cease."What does the ego have to do with ethics and morality? Absolutely everything. All moral codes are based upon the ideal of unselfishness: placing others before ourselves, forcing the ego to play second fiddle. Following selfish desires is always a detriment to our spiritual life. Whether the action or thought is great or small, any selfishness will make the veil of ignorance thicker and darker. Conversely, any act of unselfishness, however great or small, will have the opposite effect.It is for this reason that doing good to others is a universal ethical and moral code, found in all religions and societies. Why is this so universal? Because it reflects the truth that we instinctively intuit: the oneness of life.Love, sympathy, and empathy are the affirmation of this truth; they are a reflexive response because they mirror the reality of the universe. When we feel love and sympathy we are verifying—albeit unconsciously—the oneness that already exists. When we feel hatred, anger, and jealousy we separate ourselves from others and deny our real nature which is infinite and free from limitations.What is the root of the problem here? Our wrong identification: thinking of ourselves as minds and bodies rather than infinite Spirit. As Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna's great disciple, said: "As soon as I think that I am a little body, I want to preserve it, to protect it, to keep it nice, at the expense of other bodies; then you and I become separate. As soon as this idea of separation comes, it opens the door to all mischief and leads to all misery."

The Point of Moral Virtues

All the moral virtues taught by Vedanta serve to remind us of our real nature, and no spiritual progress can be made without following them. Any attempt to do so would be like trying to build a house without a foundation. Before we even begin to think about how to realize the ultimate truth, we first need to build the groundwork of a real life, one based on real values.Spiritual life is not a haphazard affair: it is the most serious task that we shall ever face. And it is absolutely impossible to do so without living an ethical, moral life. It simply does not work.If Vedanta lays such stress on an ethical life, what, then, are the virtues we emphasize? Patanjali, one of the ancient sages of India and the father of its psychology, formulated standards of moral conduct which have been followed for thousands of years.These precepts function as spiritual tools, tools that can be used to create spiritually beneficial habits. These tools aren't goals that can be instantly achieved—they are ideals to strive for, patterns to emulate. Still, it's good to remember that when we do use these tools, we grow in strength and move closer to our ideal.Patanjali divided the moral precepts into two categories, yama and niyama, each category consisting of five precepts.

Moral Principles:

Yama : consists of nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, chastity or celibacy, and the nonreceiving of gifts. Niyama consists of cleanliness, contentment, austerity, study, and self-surrender to God.

Nonviolence: While many of these disciplines seem self-evident, some of them need further explanation. Serious spiritual aspirants, Swami Vivekananda said, "must not think of injuring anyone, by thought, word, or deed. Mercy shall not be for human beings alone, but shall go beyond, and embrace the whole world."

Truthfulness not only means speaking truthfully but also adhering to the truth in thought, word, and deed. Ramakrishna said that "making the heart and lips one" was the spiritual discipline of our age.

Nonstealing also means noncovetousness: it means not desiring things that belong to others and not appropriating what belongs to others. Even using someone else's words or ideas and presenting them as our own without acknowledging their source is a kind of stealing.

Chastity or celibacy is stressed for two reasons:

  • First, serious spiritual seekers need to conserve the energy generally directed to sex and to redirect it to Self-realization.

  • Second, physical or mental sexual activity reinforces our idea of ourselves as bodies and not as Spirit.

If we want to progress in spiritual life, we need to regard other people as human beings—as manifestations of God—and not as male and female bodies.We should add here that Vedanta is meant for all people—not simply those with monastic inclinations. Vedanta acknowledges that sexual desire is, at its core, longing for union with God. While strict celibacy is stressed for monastics, Vedanta advocates sexual responsibility and self-control for nonmonastics. For nonmonastics, chastity means fidelity to one's spouse. Further, when approached in the right spirit, marriage is a sacred spiritual path. One's spouse is also one's spiritual partner and should be looked upon as a manifestation of divinity.

Nonreceiving of gifts: The ethical virtues listed above may seem fairly reasonable, but what's the problem with accepting gifts? We can see from this guideline how carefully the ancient Hindu sages watched the workings of the mind. Accepting gifts from others makes us feel obligated: we can become manipulated through them and lose our independence. Sometimes gifts are really bribes in disguise: if we feel even vaguely indebted to the giver, our minds become tainted. Sometimes the effect is obvious, sometimes it is subtle; but it is there nonetheless. For this reason we should accept no gift unless it is given with no motive except pure love. Otherwise we'll be like puppets who jump whenever the invisible strings are pulled.

Moral Principles:

Niyama consists of cleanliness, contentment, austerity, study, and self-surrender to God.

Cleanliness means not only physical cleanliness but also mental and moral cleanliness. When our minds are jealous, suspicious, rancorous or just plain mean, our minds are "dirty." We can take all the baths in the world but we still are failing in cleanliness if our minds are polluted. Cheerfulness is an essential component of mental cleanliness.

Contentment is tied to mental cleanliness because a dissatisfied mind is a turbulent, unhappy mind. We should be content with our present condition, and move forward. Contentment doesn't mean laziness: it doesn't mean that we should be satisfied with our current state of spiritual progress. We should have divine discontent but at the same time be satisfied with the externals that we are presented with.The word "austerity" generally makes people shudder. They shouldn't though, because we all practice austerities all the time, we simply don't use the word. No great endeavor can succeed without austerity: a student must study hard in order to get good grades, a parent must sometimes give up sleep in order to care for a sick child. Our jobs demand hard work and long hours.Spiritual austerity is much sweeter than all these put together, for the goal to be attained is the highest. Austerity in Vedanta means disciplining the body and mind in order to put them at our disposal for the realization of God. It also means keeping an even keel in the tempests of life. Life generally presents us with what Vedanta calls "the pairs of opposites": praise and blame, health and sickness, prosperity and penury, joy and misery. We cannot get one without eventually getting the other; they are two sides of the same coin. Keeping our mental poise in the midst of all of these is true austerity: neither being elated by praise nor depressed by criticism, neither being haughty in prosperity nor dejected in poverty. Evenness of mind under all conditions is genuine austerity, for the ego is given no opportunity to come into play.

Study—which comprises not only the study of sacred literature but also the repetition of a mantra or name of God—is vital for spiritual aspirants. Firm regularity in practice is also included in the discipline of study.While routine might seem counterproductive to spiritual development, it is, in fact, crucial. The force of a regular habit of spiritual study insures that—like it or not, tired or not, interested or not—we will doggedly pursue our highest ideals. The nature of the mind is fickle: sometimes it's in a good mood, sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's energetic, sometimes it's lazy. We can't allow our spiritual life to become subject to the mind's whims. A regular habit of study creates a favorable mental atmosphere: at the appointed time the mind will naturally become quiet since it has been trained by repeated habit to react that way.

Our Choice

As we can see, the guidelines for spiritual aspirants are serious and demanding. We should remember, however, that no one is imposing these disciplines upon us. We are choosing to follow them and we are doing so because we desire our own freedom. No one is cracking a whip over us; no God is writing our failures in a ledger. Even failing in the attempt to follow these disciplines has benefit because at least we are trying to develop spiritual strength; trying and failing is infinitely better than not trying at all. Every failure is a steppingstone on the path to spiritual perfection.

Rituals: Vespers :

The vesper service is known as arati, the Sanskrit word for light. It is a quiet time, a time for reflection and meditation at the close of the day. During the ritual, five items, representing the subtle elements that form the universe, are offered back to the Lord. The ritual symbolizes the multiplicity of the world being dissolved into oneness. It is an act of surrender to God, an act of the soul’s return to its Source.After a brief meditation, the worshiper begins the arati by lighting wicks in a special holder. These wicks are made of cotton dipped in melted ghee (clarified butter).

The lights symbolize the light of Brahman (the Godhead). They also symbolize fire, one of the five elements that comprise the universe.The worshiper pours consecrated water three times over the handle of the arati holder as salutations are offered to the fire that is Brahman. Pouring the water three times is believed to aid the worshiper’s commitment to the act, thereby enhancing the effect. The worshiper rings the bell continuously with the left hand, symbolizing the mystic sound OM, which eternally reverberates throughout the universe. With the right hand, the worshiper waves the light clockwise before the pictures of Ramakrishna, Jesus and Buddha, thus offering fire back to the Lord. The worshiper then kneels down and passes the right hand over the light and then over the head. By doing this, the worshiper is purified by the light of Brahman and takes the darshan (blessings) of the Lord. This act also signifies the desire for illumination, or for realization of the soul's oneness with God. The worshiper then pours water over the hand as an act of purification before the next, and each subsequent, offering is begun.

The second offering is water, which is contained in a conch shell. Water is another element comprising the universe. The conch is waved in a circular motion before the holy pictures, and is then poured into an offering bowl.

The third offering is a cloth, which symbolizes the element space. Cloth covers the body as space envelops all creation.

The fourth offering is a flower, symbolizing the element earth.The last of the offerings is the chamara (a fan made of yak tail), which symbolizes the element air as it is gracefully waved before the holy pictures.

Three songs accompany the vesper service: Khandana Bhaba Bandhana, a Bengali song to Sri Ramakrishna written by Swami Vivekananda; Om Hrim Hritam, a Sanskrit hymn to Sri Ramakrishna written by Swami Vivekananda; and Sarva Mangala Mangalye, a Sanskrit hymn to the Divine Mother. The singing is often acccompanied by a harmonium (an Indian hand-held organ), a tampura (an Indian string instrument), tabla (Indian drums) and cymbals. Vespers begins at the close of the day, near the time of sunset.