[Advaita-l] Interesting URL

Shyam shyam_md at yahoo.com
Fri May 16 16:04:17 CDT 2008

There is a very interesting, essay on neo-vedanta,
neo-advaita written by Shri James Shwartz.

I am reproducing it here as there seems to have been
considerable confusion, and I daresay angst, over the
significance and use of these words in this forum.
The article can also be found at

I trust it helps shed some light on this subject.

Hari OM
Shri Gurubhyoh namah

Exoterically the word Vedanta refers to the knowledge
contained in the texts that are at the end of each
Veda.  These texts are called Upanishads.  The
fundamental idea of the Upanishads is that reality is
non-dual (advaita) Awareness and that the ultimate
goal of human life is the realization of the non-dual
Self.  The realization of the Self is called moksha or

Vedanta is a Sanskrit compound.  ‘Veda’ means
knowledge and ‘anta’ means end.  So esoterically
Vedanta is the knowledge that ends the quest for
knowledge.  What is it, the Upanishad says, that
‘knowing which, everything is known?’  The realization
that the ‘I’ is whole and complete actionless
Awareness ends the quest for the meaning of life
because it destroys the belief that the self is
limited, inadequate, incomplete and separate, a notion
that is commonly called duality.  Duality is a problem
because it causes people to seek lasting happiness
though the enjoyment of impermanent objects, a quest
that always ends in disappointment and

A long teaching tradition has developed over the last
three thousand years based on Upanishadic ideas.  This
teaching tradition is also known as Vedanta.  But to
convey the precise meaning of Vedanta the word
‘pramANa’ needs to be added.  A pramANa is a means of
knowledge.  All knowledge takes place with the aid of
some means.  Sense objects require sense organs to be
known.  The knowledge of ideas depends on an
intellect.  But since the Self is not an object, the
senses and the mind cannot know it.  But Vedanta can
reveal it by using ideas and logic to remove one’s
ignorance about it, delivering direct Self knowledge. 

As Vedanta evolved over time it became a very
attractive means of knowledge as great sages added
their commentaries and contributions to the
literature.  At some point in its long history enough
apparent doctrinal differences concerning the nature
of reality appeared that Vedanta seemed to be
disintegrating into several ‘schools of thought.’ 
These apparently conflicting views do not compromise
Vedanta as long as it is taken as a means of knowledge
because the purpose of any teaching is to remove Self
ignorance.  And because different minds formulate Self
ignorance differently, an idea that may reveal the
Self to one person may not reveal it to another.  But
many people who are not interested in liberation and
are not qualified for it are nonetheless attracted to
Vedanta for intellectual reasons because it is a very
beautiful and profound body of literature.  In India
these people are known as pundits.  The pundit class
by and large takes Vedanta as a philosophy and views
the emphasis on different doctrines as ‘schools of
thought’ or sects.  But in its original sense advaita
is not an adjective used to modify a particular school
of Vedanta but an adjective indicating the nature of
Awareness, the Self.  

Vedanta is not a philosophy or a school of thought
because it is not the contention of an individual or a
group of individuals.  Philosophies are subject to
negation and correction because they are invariably
speculations, imaginations, beliefs and opinions of an
individual or a small group of individuals
which means
they are always subject to error or irrelevancy
because they do not serve a fundamental human need, in
this case the need be free of limitation.  Where is
existentialism today?  Vedanta has thrived for several
thousand years precisely because it is not a personal

Vedanta is called ‘shruti.’  Shruti literally means
‘heard.’  Its teachings are meant to be ‘heard’ from
someone who has been freed by them and who can
skillfully wield them to help the qualified aspirant
remove his or her ignorance.  But ‘shruti’ has a more
general meaning too.  It means revealed truth that has
passed the test of time and is not the product of the
human intellect.  In other words the essence of
Vedanta, the teachings that remove Self ignorance, do
not change because they effectively do what they are
intended to do.  Nobody is pressing for a new improved
eye, since the eyes do all they need to do.  So in
this sense Vedanta, like the Sanskrit its mantras are
formulated in, is a perfected body of knowledge. 
Nothing needs to be added to it, no timely
modifications are necessary help it adapt to recent
times.  But this has not stopped people from making of
it what they want.  

In approximately the last one hundred years Vedanta
has suffered an apparent change largely as a result of
the teachings of Vivekananda around the turn of the
twentieth century.  Its basic function as a means of
Self knowledge became confused with the doctrines of
Yoga because Vivekananda who had a profound influence
on the West’s understanding of Vedanta (probably
unintentionally) reduced it to ‘jnana’ (knowledge)
yoga, one of the many branches of Yoga.  In fact, Yoga
has traditionally been considered a subset of Vedanta,
its purpose being to aid in the preparation of the
mind to receive the teachings of non-duality.  Before
Yoga sullied the pure teachings of Vedanta
enlightenment was considered to be the removal of
ignorance about the nature of the Self.  But with the
ascendancy of the Yoga teachings enlightenment came to
be considered a ‘permanent experience of the Self’ in
contrast to the mundane experiences of everyday life,
which it obviously can’t be if this is a non-dual
reality as the Upanishads claim.  It can’t be a
permanent experience first, because there is no such
thing as a permanent experience and second, it can’t
be an experience in a non-dual reality because the
subject object distinction necessary for experience is
missing in a non-dual reality.  If this is true then
the quest for a permanent enlightenment experience is
pointless and what is needed, as traditional Vedanta
says, is the knowledge of reality since the craving
for experience, including the experience of the Self,
is mAyA, the consequence of seeing oneself a doer who
is separate from reality. Or to put it another way,
trying to get out of mAyA experientially is not ever
going to happen because mAyA is unreal.  How can one
be ‘in mAyA’ in the first place if mAyA is only an
apparent reality?  The only way out of mAyA is to see
that mAyA, the belief in duality, is only in the mind
and to destroy it with the knowledge of reality.  In
any case, the experiential notion of enlightenment has
been the dominant view for the last one hundred years,
although it goes back to the Yoga sutras of Patanjali.
 This Vedantic evolution has been labeled ‘modern’
Vedanta, an oxymoron if ever there was one. 

By and large the wave of ‘export gurus’ that inundated
the West in the Sixties peddled Modern Vedanta with
considerable success.  Then in the Eighties the
Western spiritual world became reacquainted with
Ramana Maharshi, a sage in the Vedic tradition who had
achieved international recognition around the middle
of the century but who had been all but forgotten
since his death in the Fifties.  Ramana was not a
traditional Vedantic sage but he realized the non-dual
nature of the Self and taught both Vedanta and Yoga. 
Self inquiry, which many Neo-Advaitins believe to be
his invention, is as old as the Vedas itself.  The
rediscovery of Ramana roughly coincided with the rise
of ‘Neo-Advaita.’  Neo-Advaita is basically a
‘satsang’ based ‘movement’ that has very little in
common with either traditional Vedanta or modern
Vedanta or even its inspiration, Ramana
except the
doctrine of non-duality.  Neo-Advaita is so abstracted
from its Vedantic roots that I recently met a person
who had been ‘empowered’ to give satsang who did not
know that the word satsang was a Sanskrit compound
meaning ‘keeping the company of reality.’ It is a
typically American hybrid, although Europe,
particularly Germany, has become its capital.  It
would not be unfair to compare it to a beautiful
period house purchased by a rich yuppie couple who had
it completely gutted and then proudly installed all
the latest modern conveniences.  In the end all that
remains of the original is the lovely advaitic façade.

Perhaps the best way to approach Neo-Advaita is not by
what it teaches as by what it doesn’t, because taken
at face value many of the teachings are quite
reasonable although they owe more to modern than to
traditional Vedanta.  Probably the most obvious
omission is the notion of adhikAra, the qualifications
necessary for enlightenment.  Neo-Advaita is burdened
with an understandably democratic ethos, the idea
being that anyone who walks into a satsang off the
street can gain instant enlightenment.  Traditional
Vedanta completely disagrees with this notion and
insists that a person be discriminating,
dispassionate, calm of mind, and endowed with a
‘burning’ desire for liberation along with other
secondary qualifications like devotion, faith,
perseverance and so on.  In other words it requires a
mature adult with a one-pointed desire to know the
Self.  The reason for this insistence is based on the
fact that enlightenment takes place in the mind. 
Therefore the mind must be capable of grasping and
retaining the knowledge “I am limitless Awareness and
not this body mind.”  The retention and assimilation
of this knowledge will necessarily destroy one’s
tendencies (vAasanA-s) to seek for happiness in the
world, so the qualified aspirant has to have come to
the hard and fast conclusion that nothing in the world
can bring lasting satisfaction before he or she
exposes his or her mind to Vedanta. This is what
Vedanta calls maturity.  

To my knowledge no Neo-Advaita satsang teacher
espouses this view.  The reason is obvious: he or she
would have virtually no disciples.  And although
Neo-Advaita attracts people of all ages it basically
appeals to middle-class people who are looking for an
alternative spiritual lifestyle, one that offers a
sense of ‘community.’  The word ‘sa~Nga’ means a
company of like-minded souls.  Far from  relying on
the Self to supply one’s needs from within most
satsangis believe that enlightenment will help them
gain the worldly things that have so far eluded them,
particularly love.  And it is clear from the behavior
of most of the teachers of Neo-Advaita who have ‘got
it’ that their Self knowledge has in no way diminished
their lust for fame, wealth, power and pleasure. 

Traditional Vedanta does not reject any person who is
sincerely trying to solve the existential riddle.  So,
if a person has a strong desire for liberation he or
she might wish to develop the qualifications.  The
lifestyle that prepares the mind is called ‘sAdhana,’
the ‘means of attainment’ in Vedic culture.  Yoga is a
traditional Vedantic sAdhana because its disciplines
prepare the mind for enlightenment.  Even modern
Vedanta, with its emphasis on Karma, Bhakti, j~nAna
and rAja Yoga, is sAdhana based.  Yogas are by
definition sAdhanas made for doers.  Sadhana is
evolutionary because the mind is a very conservative
instrument and much extroverted by the pressure of the
vAsanA-s.  So progress is incremental.  It is not
uncommon that many years are required to produce a
clear, quiet balanced mind
depending on the nature of
the vAsanA load. 

Neo-Advaita does not endorse sAdhana.  Again, the
reason is obvious.  Most who are attracted to
Neo-Advaita are children of the modern age looking for
instant gratification.  Hard work is out of the
question.  The idea promoted by the teachers of
Neo-Advaita is that at any moment you can ‘wake up’
and ‘get it.’  All you have to do is ‘surrender’ and
pay attention.  If you don’t get it today you can come
to the next satang and maybe you will hit the jackpot
tomorrow.  A second argument against sAdhana is that
it strengthens one’s sense of doership.  It is true
that, lacking the right understanding, a sense of
spiritual doership can replace one’s sense of worldly
doership when one takes to spiritual life.  But this
idea is promoted in the Neo-Advaita scene to make it
easier to attract followers, not for a legitimate
spiritual reason.  

It would be impossible to underestimate the importance
of Karma Yoga in the Vedic tradition.  In fact the
Bhagavad Gita, which has the status of an Upanishad as
a scripture on liberation, devotes perhaps twenty
percent of its verses to the practice.  Karma Yoga is
an attitude that one takes with respect to one’s
actions and the results of one’s actions.  It is based
on the understanding that a person has every right to
act in this world with the idea of getting a certain
result but that the result is not under the control of
the doer of the action.  The result is a consequence
of the appropriateness and timeliness of the action
and the nature of the field in which the action
happens.  In religious terms it is up to the ‘grace of
God.’  Or, in New Age terms, ‘the universe.’  Because
the results of one’s actions are not up to the doer,
whatever result, positive or negative, comes should be
gladly accepted as a ‘gift’ from God.  Because it is
the identification of the doer with the action and its
result that produces binding vAsanA-s, the Karma Yoga
attitude reduces the vAsanA load and eventually causes
the attention to turn inward and meditate on the Self.
 A mind that has operated with the Karma Yoga
understanding for a long time becomes peaceful, pure,
and rock solid.  It takes pleasure in itself and is
indifferent to the temporary joys that come from the
senses and their objects.  A mind prepared by Karma
Yoga is ideally suited to receive and assimilate the
teachings of Vedanta. 

Most Modern Vedanta teachers teach a perverted
self-serving version of Karma Yoga that has no basis
in the Vedanta scriptures.  According to them Karma
Yoga is ‘selfless service.’  It is under the guise of
this doctrine that ashrams, religions and spiritual
movements of all sorts exploit the labor of
unsuspecting seekers to build their satsangs and
institutions.  On the wall of the kitchen of a large
ashram of one of the Eighties richest and most famous
export gurus was a sign reading.  “One hour of washing
dishes burns up one lifetime of karma.”  

Karma Yoga is not taught in the Neo-Advaita world
because its teachers define enlightenment in terms of
an experience of the Self that comes ‘by Grace’ or as
a result of ‘transmission’ from a guru, experiences
that do not require a prepared mind.  And it is also
not taught because it requires patience and diligence,
qualities not in evidence in people seeking instant
enlightenment.  Karma Yoga requires continuous
monitoring of one’s motivations and reactions to
events and the willingness to change one’s attitude
when observation reveals it to be vAsanA producing. 
It requires great awareness and diligence because the
vAsanA-s continually divert one’s attention away from
Self observation.  And, as is the case with any
spiritual practices, change is incremental and

The Neo-Advaita movement owes a considerable debt of
gratitude to the teachings of Bhagawan Rajneesh who
rechristened himself as Osho when his bad karma became
unbearable.  Rajneesh perverted the tantric concept
that the essence of every experience is Awareness. 
Tantra is a very broad concept that applies to every
conceivable kind of experience and insists that its
practitioners enjoy the same qualifications as those
practicing Vedanta sAdhana.  But Rajneesh focused his
attention on the sexual aspect, not that much focusing
was required, and opened wide the gates of tantra to
tens of thousands of immature disaffected Western
hedonists with his brilliant concept ‘Zorba the
Buddha.’  Zorba the Greek was the literary creation of
a Greek writer Nikos Kazantzaksis.  Zorba was not a
bad guy but was he emotional!  He was the original
party animal: lusty and enthusiastic in his pursuit of
pleasure.  As is well known the Buddha was a holy
ascetic.  By wedding the two ideas he provided a
clever ‘spiritual’ justification for the unrestrained
pursuit of pleasure in the name of spiritual growth. 
Wags not unfairly called his sAdhana the ‘fuck your
way to God’ path.  I was once told in all seriousness
by a devotee that Osho ‘’gave us permission to do what
society forbids us to do.”  When he died thousands of
his disciples gravitated to a relatively unknown guru,
HWL Poonja aka Papaji, who was considerably more Vedic
in his orientation and taught enlightenment as an
experience of non-duality.  A number of them ‘woke up’
and began what is now called Neo-Advaita.  It seems
the only practice encouraged by Neo-Advaita teachers
is satsang and ‘the celebration of life’ which
dovetails with the mindless hippie philosophy that so
many Neo-Advaitins adhere to: if it feels good, do it.

In contrast, traditional Vedanta and modern Vedanta
are firmly rooted in the primary spiritual idea of the
Vedic age: yaj~na.  A yaj~na is a sacrifice.  The
members of a community bring offerings, a small
portion of which are symbolically offered into the
sacrificial fire. The remainder of the yaj~na is
distributed to the less fortunate members of the
community.  Sacrifice plays a central role in Vedanta
sAdhana, the idea being that as far as the ego and its
desires are concerned you cannot have your cake and
eat it too.  The vAsanA-s that extrovert the mind need
to be sacrificed for the sake of a quiet mind, one
capable of meditating on the Self, reflecting on the
non-dual teachings and assimilating the knowledge.  

Traditional Vedanta deals with the vAsanA-s by
insisting that the seeker practice Vedika Dharma. 
Vedika Dharmas are the rules of conduct set out in the
karmic portion of the Vedas that govern all aspect of
human behavior.  Following Vedika Dharma is considered
a sacred duty.  Indian society today is closely tied
to its Vedic roots and is a duty orientated society. 
Modern Vedanta adheres to Vedika Dharma and the Yogic
idea of vAsanA exhaustion through the practice of
samadhi, surrender to God, and other practices.  When
a person takes a duty-oriented approach to life the
vAsanA-s produced are non-binding and therefore are
not an impediment to Self realization.  When a person
practices karma yoga and surrender to God the binding
vAsanA-s are neutralized.  But when neither of these
ideas are operating and there are no teachings
concerning the relationship between the pursuit of
‘kamya karmas,’ desire-prompted activities, and the
production of binding vAsanA-s is it any wonder that
whatever non-dual experiences are acquired in satsang
quickly vanish with the appearance of the next binding
vAsanA?  This is why the Neo-Advaita world is little
more than thousands of people, including the teachers,
who have had scores of non-dual experiences but who at
the end of the day are still prisoners of their

Ramana Maharshi, who had a profound experience of the
Self at the tender age of seventeen, understood the
wisdom of sAdhana in so far as he sat in meditation on
the Self in caves for twenty years after he was
‘awakened.’  Had he been a Neo-Advaitin he would have
immediately advertised satsang and begun instantly
enlightening devotees.  But he had the wisdom to
understand that his epiphany was not the end of it. 
Had it been he could have returned home, eaten his
mother’s iddlies and played cricket like any normal
seventeen year old Tamil.  But in line with the
traditional teachings of Shankara he ‘practiced
knowledge’ until such time as all the vAsanA-s were
reduced to ashes in the fire of Self knowledge

Another essential component of any valid spiritual
path Vedic or otherwise is bhakti, devotion to God or
the Self.  Ramana, the shining icon of many
Neo-Advaitins, gave devotion to God equal status with
Self inquiry as a spiritual path because devotion to
God functions in the same way as Karma Yoga; it
exhausts vAsanA-s by breaking down the concept of
doership.  “Not my will, but thine.”  It also teaches
that God, not the ego, is the dispenser of the fruits
of one’s actions.  But Neo-Advaita sees devotion to
God as ‘duality’ and has nothing to do with it.  This
shunning of the devotional aspect of life is based on
ignorance of the value of devotion as one of the
primary requirements for Self realization.  In fact
‘dvaita’ works just as well as ‘advaita’ in preparing
the mind for Self realization because the Self
functions through one’s chosen symbol to bring the
necessary qualities into full flower.  

Some schools of Neo-Advaita subscribe to the notion
that enlightenment can be transmitted in some subtle
experiential way via the physical proximity of a
master.  Traditional Advaita disagrees with this view
for the reason that ignorance is deeply entrenched in
the aspirant’s thinking and that it is only by deep
reflection on the teachings that the ultimate
assimilation of the knowledge is achieved.  This
assimilation is often called ‘full’ or ‘complete’
enlightenment.  The ‘transmission’ fantasy fits nicely
into the Neo-Advaitic conception of easy enlightenment
as it does away with the need for serious sAdhana. 
One need do nothing more that sit in the presence of a
master and presto-chango!...one wakes up for good.  If
this were true, however, the tens of thousands who sit
at the feet of enlightened masters everywhere would be

Another half-baked idea that has gained currency in
the Neo-Advaita world is the notion of ‘awakening.’ 
While sleep and waking are reasonable metaphors to
describe the states of Self ignorance and Self
knowledge, Neo-Advaita assigns to them an experiential
meaning that it not justified.  Just as anything that
lives, dies, anything that wakes, sleeps.  The Self
never sleep or awakens.  This ‘waking up’ and ‘going
back to sleep’
all of which takes place in the waking
state incidentally
is a consequence of the play of the
gunas in the mind.  When the mind is sattvic, the
reflection of the Self in it causes the individual to
wake up to the Self, but when rajas or tamas reappear,
as they inevitably do, the mind is clouded over and
the experience of the reflection of the Self in the
mind is lost i.e. the mind ‘sleeps.’  Until the
rajasic and tamasic vAsanA-s are purified one is
condemned to a frustrating cycle of spiritual waking
and sleeping.  

In the Twentieth Century psychology came of age in the
West.  It has left the confines of the therapist’s
office and entered popular culture.  Much of the
energy in Neo-Advaita satangs is devoted to pop
Neo-Advaita psychology which is nothing more than an
attempt to apply advaitic concepts to the ego and its
dysfunctional patterns.  Vedanta sAdhana assumes a
healthy ego.  The qualifications for enlightenment
that are presented in Shankara’s Vivekachoodamani
might be profitably thought of as the qualities of a
mature healthy ego.  Traditional Vedanta begins where
the ego leaves off by revealing the nature of the
impersonal Self though its teachings.  One need not
kill or destroy the ego, as many Neo-Advaita teachers
claim, but one should embrace through understanding a
greater or ‘universal’ Self.  This Self is not in
opposition to the ego but provides the Awareness that
allows the ego to function.

Finally, the reason Vedanta has survived as a viable
means of knowledge is not due to its doctrines alone
but to the application of a sophisticated method of
teaching.  Many realize their non-dual nature but are
incapable of teaching non-duality because they lack a
viable method.  The Neo-Advaita statements to ‘Be the
space for the thoughts’ or ‘Be what you are” are not
skillful teachings because a non-dual teaching of
identity is being delivered in experiential language. 
Such teachings give the impression that something can
be done to achieve Awareness and that Self realization
can come about through an act of will.  In traditional
Advaita not only should the teacher have realized his
or her identity as the Self in such a way that he or
she never re-identifies with the ego (the belief that
the ‘I’ is limited) but he or she should be able to
wield the means of knowledge skillfully.  

Although Neo-Advaita is essentially words lip service
is often paid to the notion that ‘silence’ is the only
legitimate means of enlightenment.  While
understanding the nature of the Self in ‘silence’
apparently finishes the sAdhana of a tiny fraction of
qualified seekers, silence is not superior to the
skillful use of words in bringing about enlightenment.
 This is so because silence is in harmony, not in
conflict, with Self ignorance
as it is with
everything.  One can sit in silence without
instruction for lifetimes and never realize that one
is the silence, meaning limitless Awareness. 
Knowledge, however, which is the result of Vedanta
pramANa, destroys Self ignorance like light destroys
darkness.  Additionally no experience, including the
experience of silence, can change one’s thinking
patterns.  An experience of non-duality may
temporarily suspend thought or increase one’s resolve
to see oneself as limitless Awareness but the notion
that the ‘I’ is limited, inadequate, incomplete and
separate is hard wired.  It is only by diligent
practice of the knowledge ‘I am limitless awareness
and not this body mind’ that the mind’s understanding
of reality gets in line with the nature of the Self.  

Why are binding vAsanA-s such a major problem for
anyone seeking enlightenment?  Because they disturb
the mind to such a degree that one’s contact with the
Self as it reflects in the mind is broken.  It is
meditation on the reflection of the Self in the mind
that allows the intellect to investigate the Self and
gain the knowledge ‘I am the Self’ that breaks down
the subject-object distinction and ends one’s sense of
duality.  I was informed recently by a friend who has
considerable knowledge of the Neo-Advaita satsang
world that we have now entered into the ‘Post-Neo
Advaita’ period.  Not surprisingly Neo-Advaita has not
lived up to its promise as a quick and easy means of
liberation and people are now looking for the next
most incredible path to enlightenment.  And you will
be happy to know that it seems their prayers have been
answered by the appearance of the “Kalki Avatar’ who,
for the modest fee of $5,500 and twenty one days of
your time will lay his divine hands on your cranium
and rewire your nervous system, read brain, so that
you become fully enlightened.  Evidently his promise
is thinning the ranks of the Neo-Advaitins who, in
typically Western fashion, are always looking for the
most efficient shortcut to limitless bliss.

Does Neo-Advaita have any redeeming virtues?  In
non-dual reality everything somehow eventually serves
to reveal the Self.  Just as kindergarten is a
prerequisite for grade school, people seeking
enlightenment need to start somewhere and Neo-Advaita,
imperfect as it is as a vehicle for spiritual practice
or Self realization, provides entry-level access to
the idea of non-duality.  Finally, because Neo-Advaita
is more sanga ( a congregation) than sat (the Self) it
serves to satisfy to some degree the emotional needs
of those who pursue it.  Because it does serve a need
it will probably continue in some form or other for
the foreseeable future but will probably remain as a
lifestyle fad unless it investigates its roots and
discovers the wisdom of the Vedas. 


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