But in what concrete way is this Saṁskṛta-Dharma unique even when compared to the other ancient ‘pagan’ religions and traditions? The way the Vedas and Vedic learning were preserved is not only remarkable – it is unprecedented. It is an almost super-human feat of memory by the Brahmanical communities dedicated entirely to this purpose. Anyone who cannot see this is simply blind, to put it modestly and humbly. People in general are not aware what it means to preserve – by heart – lakhs of verses across a time-period of at least 4000 years or more-Āchārya Vidyābhāskar
Āchārya Vidyābhāskar was born to a Swiss Hindu family practising in the Śrīvidyā lineage. At the age of 14, he received initiation and full empowerment in the Kancheepuram-based Śrīvidyā lineage of Śrī-Guhānandanātha from Śrī Kāmakoti Shāstrī Ji, the head priest and hereditary Mirasdar of the Kanchee Kamakshi Amman Temple, and one of the chief disciples of Śrī Chidānandanātha (Subrahmanya Iyer). From the age of 12, he enjoyed a traditional Sanskrit education, studying Pāṇinīyan Sanskrit grammar, Amarakośa, the Gītā, the Upaniṣads, Brahmasūtras, Nyāya (logic), etc. at the traditional monastic institution Śrī Kailās Āshram in Muni-ki-Reti, Rishikesh, North India.
Today Āchārya Vidyābhāskar teaches traditional Sanskrit grammar as well as the Upaniṣads and other scriptural corpi in Switzerland, in addition to serving as the General Secretary and Board Member of the Swiss Federation for Hinduism; he is also one of the inspirations behind the relatively new Sarvamangala Foundation, a project spearheaded by Jaimin Shukla and Milan Amin, and associated with the Datta Sahaja Yoga Mission (DSYM) as well as Omkarananda Ashram.
In this interview with CSP he shares his thoughts on Sanskrit and Srividya Upasana:
India’s Sanātana Dharma cannot be slotted easily into a categorisation as an organised religion. Please could you tell us how you describe it to people?
Sanātana Dharma has two aspects: in the absolute or pāramārthika sense, it is ultimate Reality itself. In the conventional sense, it means perpetual truth and order: the profound law of cause and effect and the highly complex mechanism of puṇya and pāpa. This mechanism can be summarised thus in a relative clear-cut manner:
Doing good to others brings puṇya or merit, it improves life and the chances of happiness now, in the future and after death. Hurting others in any way on the other hand invariably has negative consequences for your body, speech and mind – now in a visible or dṛṣṭa form, but also in a delayed or invisible, adṛṣṭa form that becomes visible only at some point in the future and after death. It causes you to ‘fall’ into lower realms of existence, therefore it is called ‘pātaka’, that which causes you to ‘fall’, ‘pātayati’.
The eternal laws of cause and affect or hetuphala guarantee that all actions and states of body, speech and mind will invariably have a result. Therefore, understanding this law means to take utmost responsibility for oneself. It means that when troubles arise, we no longer complain and blame others but immediately take a deep look at our own mind.
Sanātana Dharma is the expression of absolute Reality as it appears in the conventional or vyavahāra aspect of experiencing the world. Thus, it can be said that through Dharma we indirectly behold the absolute Reality. So how is Dharma defined?
yataḥ abhyudaya-niḥśreyasa-siddhiḥ sa dharmaḥ
“Dharma is that whereby all-round happiness or abhyudaya as well as liberation or niḥśreyasa is accomplished.” (Vaiśeṣika-Sūtra 1.1.2).
This definition is the universal definition of Sanātana Dharma that is accepted by Ādi-Śaṅkarācārya, all scholars of the many Hindu Dharma schools as well as, in fact, all Buddhist and Jain schools of Dharma. The latter fact is less known but can be found, for example, in Prajñākaramati’s commentary on Śāntideva’s Bodhisattva-Caryāvatāra or A Guide to the Conduct of a Bodhisattva. The above definition of Dharma is thus the unshakeable common ground upon which all traditions stand.
When Dharma is safeguarded, Dharma safeguards you. Although this is hard to fathom, in an ultimate sense there is no difference between Parabrahman and Sanātana Dharma. One Mahābhārata verse puts it quite succinctly:
ye ca vedavido viprā ye cādhyātmavido janāḥ
te vadanti mahātmānaṁ kṛṣṇaṁ dharmaṁ sanātanam
“The wise ones who are knowers of the Vedas and those who know the truth of the inner self declare that Kṛṣṇa, the great self, is the Sanātana Dharma.”
– Vanaparva, The Forest-Section, 3.86.22
Thus, it is through Dharma that Absolute Reality is seen conventionally. This has also been expressed by Nāgārjunapāda in his Stotra to Mañju-Śrīkumāra:
na ca rūpeṇa dṛṣṭena dṛṣṭa ity abhidhīyase
dharma-dṛṣṭyā sudṛṣṭo'si dharmatā na ca dṛśyate
“You are not to be described as ‘visible’ through any visible form.
Through the vision of Dharma, you are seen well, yet the Dharmatā – the true state of Dharma – itself is never seen.”
– Niraupamya-Stava, Hymn to the Incomparable One, V. 17
Finally, according to Śākyamuni Buddha,
na hi vaireṇa vairāṇi śāmyantīha kadācana
avaireṇa tu śāmyanti eṣa dharmaḥ sanātanaḥ
“Hostilities never end through hostility —
it is through non-hostility that they are pacified. This is Sanātana Dharma.”
– Dharmapada, The Word on Dharma, 1.5
You were sent as a child to India. Please could you describe your training and life in a gurukula.
My family has been associated with Hinduism since the time of my great-grandmother, who was born in 1895. At the age of twelve, my aunt took me to Rishikesh for the summer holidays. Enthralled by the awe-inspiring nature of Sanskrit – and hearing it spoken as a language of ordinary conversation by my childhood (and currently still best) friend Siddhartha Krishna and his illustrious father, Surya Prakash “Prabhuji” – I decided there and then that, like Siddhartha, I wanted to study at Kailās Āshram. Thus, it was through my own wishes – and in fact against my parents’ wishes and initially even against their Guru’s recommendation (“It is better you finish your ordinary schooling first”) – that I came to live on the banks of Mother Ganga in divine Muni-ki-Reti near Rishikesh.
In terms of the daily routine, I often wonder today how we managed to get up so early, but the climate in India is different; nowadays I barely manage to roll out of bed earlier than 5.30 a.m. but during those days, as children, we used to get up very early in the morning at 4.00 a.m., often taking bath in the sacred river with the first rays of the rising sun. At 5 a.m., Vedic chanting of Kṛṣṇa-Yajurveda would start at Kailās Āshram.
Initially, knowing neither Hindi nor, in fact, English very well, I received private lessons in Laghusiddhānta-Kaumudī, the first Sanskrit grammar text book, from my dear venerable Acharya Sri Swami Medhānanda Puri, a great monk and scholar. Like the monastics at the Ashram, I would wear the geru colour of a Brahmachārī and even had a phase where I marched around Rishikesh in wooden pādukās like the great masters of old. My best friend and supervisor on my desk was a beautiful pañcadhātu mūrti of Śrī Ādi-Śaṅkarācārya (photo of mūrti).
Later, after completing Laghusiddhānta with Sri Swami Medhānanda as well as Amarakośa, I was able to join other classes. One of my permanent main mentors or companions at the Ashram was Siddhartha, who is three years older. Siddhartha is a remarkable personality. At the tender age of only 20, he composed a new and still highly appraised commentary on Pāṇini’s Aṣṭādhyāyī. This is known as the Lalitāvṛtti and has been praised by the most reputed Indian scholars in the field as well as Western scholars such as Prof. George Cordona as being one of the most remarkable modern commentaries on Pāṇini's 3,959 Sūtras. Acharya Siddhartha Krishna is thus one of the great grammarians of our time. Accordingly, it fills me with joy and awe that I had the tremendous honour of studying Siddhānta-Kaumudī together with him during his own formative phase when I was only 13 and he was only 16. I also studied logic and Vedānta-prakaraṇas. Later, the Gītā with Śāṅkarabhāṣya and Ānandagiri-ṭīkā, and then the ten Upaniṣads became our daily bread and butter. Finally, I had the honour of sitting in our Guru HH Sri Swami Vidyānanda Giri’s own class on the Brahmasūtras – although I must admit that at the age of 15 or 16, I really didn’t understand much of it.
What I did understand was Sūtra 2.1.33:
lokavat tu līlā-kaivalyam
“As in the world, [a king who has everything nevertheless enjoys the performance of a good play. Likewise, this magical display of Saṁsāra is] a mere play [for Absolute Reality].”
How is life as a householder Sanskritist practising in your spiritual tradition of Śrīvidyā while living on the periphery of an Ashram in Switzerland? How did your family come to Hinduism?
As I mentioned earlier, my great-grandmother was already associated with Hinduism indirectly through the Theosophical Society (of which J. Krishnamurti was the most prominent member in his youth). Thus, I sometimes joke: “It is not a question of how I got into this – it is a question of how I can get out!”
Like you and your readers, I am simply a Hindu by birth. I grew up not dressing up as dwarves or elves like Swiss children do but dressing up as Śiva or Kanyākumārī. My parents, including my mother’s two sisters are devoted adherents of Sanātana Dharma and Śrīvidyā practitioners; my grandmother was a devoted Śrīvidyā-Upāsikā who would get up at 3.30 a.m. every morning and during the course of her day complete not one but two Pūjās to Lalitā Parābhaṭṭārikā, as well as three arcanā cycles Lalitā-Triśatī every single day of her sādhana life – until her death at the ripe age of 95 with the occurrence of auspicious signs. I really consider her someone who has attained kramamukti in Lalitā Tripurasundarī’s divine realm of Śrīpura in the Kadamba forest upon the Island of Jewels in the Ocean of Nectar or sudhāsindhu – but this is of course a personal subjective view and cannot be proven other than through an inner intuition or prātibhaṁ jñānam arising in meditation.
As head of Saṁskṛtam and Philosophy at the Ashram, how do you convey the length and breadth of Indic wisdom to the people who come to the Ashram. Is it through a curriculum or through the Guru-Śiṣya-Paramparā?
It is a good question. With my senior group of students, we started quite erratically many years ago but they are now quite comfortable with studying texts like Kumārasambhava. So clearly the ‘erratic’ approach somewhat worked. Through many years of ‘evolving’, I have come to believe that Sanskrit should be taught not rigidly but playfully – like any art. When you teach it too rigidly, people become bored and stop attending class.
Moreover, Sanskrit is not, in fact, difficult to learn. This is the first obstacle to be dispelled from people’s minds. And that sometimes takes a while. Like my first Āchārya Swami Medhānanda Ji, whose dry humour I shall never forget, I like to intersperse teaching sessions with a well-meant joke here and there in order to keep people focussed and wakeful. Of course, too much joking is a ‘fine line’ and one has to maintain the seriousness as well. “Don’t be so serious – but take it seriously” is the best motto for Sanskrit, Indic wisdom, and for life.
Fortunately or unfortunately, Covid19 has ‘launched’ some of our teaching activities onto global virtual platforms. We are now able to provide free Sanskrit-related classes online and are, of course, structuring these in a clear-cut manner tailored to the levels of students everywhere – and to the best of our imperfect ability, or yathāśakti.
How did the teachings of your Gurus influence you?
Influence is an understatement. A true Guru not only influences you but completely melts you and then lets you re-arise as a different person altogether. In Śataślokī 1, Śaṅkarācārya says that there is no simile in (the belly of) all the Three Worlds to describe a true Guru who imparts knowledge, “dṛṣṭānto naiva dṛṣṭas tribhuvana-jaṭhare sadguror jñānadātuḥ”. In the same verse, he goes on to say that a Guru is not just a philosopher’s stone that turns others into gold but a philosopher’s stone who turns others into philosopher’s stones. What a poet he was!
The following masters have been my greatest inspirations (in no hierarchical order):
- In Advaita-Vedānta and Sanskrit grammar: Sri Swami Vidyananda Giri and Acharya Siddhartha Krishna;
- In Śrīvidyā and Āgama traditions: Needless to say, my great-grandmother’s and grandmother’s inspiration and family guru Paramahamsa Sri Swami Omkarananda Saraswati, one of the chief disciples of Sri Swami Sivananda Saraswati of Rishikesh; then my Dīkṣā-Gurus Sri Kamakoti Shastri Ji of Kancheepuram and Sri Swami Darshanananda of Balanananda Ashram, as well as the mysterious Lal Baba (“the Red-Clothed Baba”);
- In traditional Vipassana, I have had the incredible fortune of sitting at the feet of Ajahn Tong Sri-Brahma-Mangala, who was a liberated Arhat and meditator with full accomplishment of Samādhi (I personally witnessed this many times); he recently entered Parinirvāṇa at the age of 96; he was the abbot of Wat Chom Tong, a picturesque monastery near Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand;
- In traditional Atiyoga, I have the honour of learning from a great Tibetan Bhikṣuṇī-Yoginī known in Sanskrit as Āryamātā, who is considered an emanation of the Goddess Tārā; she lives at a secluded monastery in the Land of Snow; and from her illustrious unexcelled brother, the abbot of her monastery;
- Other great inspirations include Sri Swami Veda Bharati, a polymathic personality and supreme master of all nondual traditions, including Advaita, Kashmiri Shaivism, Atiyoga and Mahāmudrā, who passed away in 2016; Sri Swami Hansananda of Rishikesh, a great master of all-round accomplishment (saṁsiddhi) of both Advaita and Yoga, who passed away only a few weeks ago.
Each of these unique masters has left not only a mark but indeed a permanent transformative imprint and seal on the heart, helping to remove the stains of ignorance, negative emotions and selfishness, and assisting – like one would assist a child – to ascend the ladder of wisdom to the palace of unconditional compassion for each and all.
You present a series on one word of Sanskrit a month. How does knowing the meaning of a Sanskrit word help in understanding the body of knowledge itself?
The ‘Sanskrit Word of the Month’ is not always monthly, unfortunately, because we are not very tech-savvy. We are veritably roaming in the jungle of ignorance when it comes to technology and the possibilities it could offer. I have only recently figured out how to use Zoom properly.
Sanskrit is a language of utmost refinement – after all, the very word saṁskṛta means ‘well-refined’ and is thus related to saṁskṛti, culture. Let me give you an example. English has only one word for ‘water’. What is it? Water. In Sanskrit, on the other hand, the word ‘jala’ does not just mean ‘water’ – knowers of Pāṇiniyan Sanskrit grammar will agree that it actually means ‘water in its potential capacity to have a solid (‘jaḍa’) state’, i.e. water in its potential capacity to freeze’. Similarly, the word ‘salila’ does not just mean ‘water’ – it means ‘water in its ever-fluid, ever-moving nature’. Thus, the 27 different meanings of ‘water’ given in the Amarakośa are not mere synonyms but in fact express different qualities or aspects of water.
Likewise, the Sanskrit word ‘saṁgatam’ does not just mean literally ‘coming together’ (sam+√gam+kta) as one might assume – rather, it is a technical term that means ‘speech that is uttered in a way that goes directly to the heart’ (hṛdayaṁgamam). Can you intuit the depth of Sanskrit a little based on these two examples?
Accordingly, Sanskrit has more subtle nuances than most languages. Other languages which, in my opinion, have such subtle features, include: German, Ancient Latin and Ancient Greek – I have also heard that Russian has such nuances, too – and as you know, these are directly or indirectly related to Sanskrit.
To know the full meaning of a word in its entire range or spectrum of possible meanings is equivalent to knowing the full reality designated by that word. This is why the Brahma-Bindu-Upaniṣad, one of the 108 minor Upaniṣads, says in verse 17.2:
śabda-brahmaṇi niṣṇātaḥ paraṃ brahmādhigacchati
“One who is well-versed in the Reality of Words shall realise the Absolute Reality.”
– Brahma-Bindu-Upaniṣad, The Secret Teaching on the Bindu of Reality, 17.2
The ‘Reality of Words’ here can refer to the Veda, Sanskrit as a language as well as the entire range of words available to human consciousness in general. This ancient Vedic prayer evokes the interwoven connection between speech and mind:
Oṁ vāṅ me manasi pratiṣṭhitā
mano me vāci pratiṣṭhitam
“Om – May my speech be established in my mind,
May my mind be established in my speech.”
– Aitareya Upaniṣad Śāntimantra, Ṛgveda
Similarly, we must understand the (three or) four manifestations of speech described in the scriptures to be related to the degree that Consciousness comes to expression:
- Vaikharī – enunciated speech: ordinary human speech through sounds
3. Madhyamā – internal speech, the internal 'speech-awareness' in the heart or mind
2. Paśyantī – the 'intuitive' or 'direct-visionary' speech, used by a sage or yogī
1. and 0: Parā – the utmost form of speech, which is Pure Awareness itself; this corresponds to the absolute root-bīja state of the Energy of Consciousness or Citi-śakti in her purest form.
These are alluded to already in the Ṛgveda (1.164), are elaborated upon by Bhartṛhari as well as in the minor Upaniṣads, and of course are then explained in great detail in the Āgamas and their commentaries.
Truly understanding the meaning of words opens up the entire horizon of conscious awareness. This is because the ‘designated’ and the ‘designator’ (the word designating it), even though not identical, are in fact closely interwoven. Thus, Nāgārjunapāda says:
saṃjñārthayor ananyatve mukhaṁ dahyeta vahninā
anyatve'dhigamābhāvas tvayokto bhūta-vādinā
“If a designation and its object were non-different from each other, i.e. identical, the mouth would be burnt by uttering the word ‘fire’.
But if they were totally different from each other and there was no connection at all between them, there would be no comprehension of meaning. As the teacher of beings, this is what you (Buddha) have taught.”
- Śrī-Lokātīta-Stava, Hymn to the Glorious One who has Transcended the World, by Nāgārjuna, Verse 7
How did your interest in Sanskrit begin? What is the role of Sanskrit for you in the study of the languages of the world and human thought?
Like any Hindu boy growing up, I heard people speak about the Language of the Gods with great reverence and admiration. My family’s Guruji emphasised that my parents should inspire me to chant many Mantras and Stotras like Mahālakṣmī-Aṣṭakam, Liṅgāṣṭakam, Nārāyaṇa-Sūktam and so on by heart at the age of 5 or 6. I continue this tradition with my own sons.
Sanskrit is the ‘mother of all languages’ not only in a historical sense but also in the weight it carries. The Vedas are the oldest scriptures of a living, breathing spiritual and religious tradition that continue to exist and be practised. What does this really mean? Please understand that Hinduism is very much like the religion or spirituality of the ancient ‘pagan’ Sumerians or Egyptians – the only difference is that Hinduism still exists. It continues to be practised in innumerable shapes, forms and styles in the 21st century. All other cultures have either completely evaporated or been replaced with quite different religious or non-religious cultures and models of thinking. Hinduism along with its younger sisters, Buddhism and Jainism, are the final stronghold, so to speak. Thus, Hinduism or Sanātana Dharma is really a unique case entirely.
But in what concrete way is this Saṁskṛta-Dharma unique even when compared to the other ancient ‘pagan’ religions and traditions? The way the Vedas and Vedic learning were preserved is not only remarkable – it is unprecedented. It is an almost super-human feat of memory by the Brahmanical communities dedicated entirely to this purpose. Anyone who cannot see this is simply blind, to put it modestly and humbly. People in general are not aware what it means to preserve – by heart – lakhs of verses across a time-period of at least 4000 years or more. In the words of one of the great Western Sanskritists of our time:
“The Vedas are [like] a tape recording of what was first composed and recited some 3000 years ago [or earlier].” (Prof. Michael Witzel, Harvard University, 1995).
Thus, the living tradition of Hinduism where ancient texts like the Ṛgveda and the Upaniṣads are not only still being studied but continue to be the source of a living, breathing spirituality and inner religious life is quite unique in the world. And thus, what greater honour can there be than to play a small role in helping to preserve the stream of the Dharma of the Ṛṣis?
While the words themselves have remained the same, have the meanings of words changed in the modern context. For instance, did Yoga mean something else in the past than it does today?
Yes, for sure. But merely because something changes does not mean it loses its value – as long as we are aware of and sensitive to the changes that have taken place, all is fine.
Let me give you an example. Do you know the linguistic origin of the English word ‘love’? It is, in fact, directly related to the Sanskrit word ‘lobha’, which is derived from the dhātu or root-sound ‘lubh’: ‘to strongly desire’. The English word ‘love’ today has lots of positive connotations and meanings – what more persuasive statement is there than “I love you”? On the other hand, the Sanskrit word ‘lobha’ today means ‘greed, excessively desiring’. How is it possible that the same root – lubh – produced such opposite meanings in a span of just a few thousand years?
The explanation is quite simple. If we are ready look a little deeper, we see that ‘love’ and ‘strong desire’ and ‘greed’ are in fact deeply related. It actually makes a lot of sense that they come from the same root ‘lubh’. There is another Sanskrit word that contains almost the entire spectrum of their meanings: rāga, ‘strong desire, attachment’ and the entire spectrum of emotions that come with it; its opposite being dveṣa: ‘hatred or strong dislike’, and the entire spectrum of emotions that comes with that.
Thus, all we need to do in this case is to look a little deeper into the actual meanings of ‘love’ and ‘lobha’, and to contemplate what the words really designate. Finally, we must wisely adjust our understanding and vocabulary to the language of the modern world in a spirit of utmost compassion, humility and friendliness or suhṛdbhāva.
We can then easily, for example, explain how ‘love’ – when it comes with extreme attachment – is in fact a form of ‘strong desire’, something very ‘obsessive’ like lobha or greed. Such love is not at all auspicious from a Hindu or Buddhist contemplative perspective. Only a love that is not selfish and obsessive but which is in fact selfless and rooted in compassion is true love. In Sanskrit such love – in the positive sense – is then not called ‘love’ or ‘lobha’ but Maitrī, ‘the state of utmost friendship and all-embracing kindness’.
When we look deeper, we find that the scriptures in fact ask us not to develop ‘lobha’ but to cultivate unconditional Maitrī and Karuṇā for all beings. Let us have a look at the teachings of the Āgamas:
sarvabhūteṣu maitrī ca śiva-dharmasya lakṣaṇam
“Maitrī for all beings is definition of the Śiva’s Dharma.”
atyalpam api kāruṇyād dattaṃ bhavati cākṣayam
tasmāt tu sarva-bhūtebhyaḥ karuṇā-dānam uttamam
“Even something very tiny given with compassion produces an inexhaustible merit, puṇya. Thus, compassion for all beings is the supreme gift.”
ātmavat sarvabhūtānāṃ yo hitāya śivāya ca
sarvathā vartate nityam ahiṃseyam udāhṛtā
“Ahiṁsā means: To forever and ever remain for the auspicious benefit of all beings, [considering them] as one’s very own self.”
atha māṁ sarvabhūteṣu bhūtātmānaṁ kṛtālayam
arhayed dānamānābhyāṃ maitryābhinnena cakṣuṣā
“Hence with an eye undifferentiated through Maitrī,
one should honour Me (Viṣṇu) with respect and generosity,
Me who has taken residence as the self of beings in all beings.”
– Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 3.29.27
Thus, to merely study the meanings of Sanskrit words like Maitrī and Karuṇā in-depth already contains the entire flood of wisdom required for walking the path to realisation and liberation.
What is the connection between spirituality and science in Indian knowledge?
The connection is tremendously deep. Let us remember that the word ‘Veda’ actually means ‘knowledge’, and so does the word ‘science’. The word ‘science’ is derived from Latin ‘scientia’, from ‘scire’, ‘to know’. Similarly, the word ‘vidyā’ is usually translated as ‘knowledge’ but could easily be translated as ‘a science’. The pursuit of true knowledge (not ‘false’ or ‘asat’ knowledge) has always been the bread and butter of Hindu thinkers, philosophers and scientists, and is reflected in their achievements over the course of history. Let me share only two quotes. The first is a quote by Carl Sagan, founder of the NASA’s SETI project and one of the 20th century’s most important popularisers of science:
“The Hindu religion is the only one of the world’s great faiths dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. It is the only religion in which the time scales correspond to those of modern scientific cosmology.”
The second is a quote by Erwin Schrödinger, one of the co-fathers of Quantum Mechanics and one of the leading scientists of the 20th century:
“This life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of this entire existence, but in a certain sense the whole; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one single glance. This, as we know, is what the Brahmins express in that sacred, mystic formula which is yet really so simple and so clear; tat tvam asi, this is you. Or, again, in such words as “I am in the east and the west, I am above and below, I am this entire world.” Schrödinger, Erwin, ‘Meine Weltansicht’ (My View of the World), 1961
It is to highlight these precious and timeless connections that we established a Facebook page www.facebook.com/sciencehinduism many years ago, but unfortunately we do not make so many posts anymore (but should take it up again).
What is the role of the Gītā in today's world according to you?
This may come as a surprise. I hope you are not offended in any way by my humble views and will consider them carefully before rebuffing them. My view is in fact that the Gītā should never be read without a teacher, a properly trained scholar who will explain it with a commentary. I can substantiate this view by pointing, for example, to the last chapter of the Gītā – 18.67 – where Śrī-Kṛṣṇa says the following:
idaṁ te nātapaskāya nābhaktāya kadācana
na cāśuśrūṣave vācyaṁ na ca māṁ yo'bhyasūyati
“This should never be revealed to anyone who is not a tapasvī (a spiritual practitioner), who is not devoted, who does not want to learn, and who is disrespectful towards me.”
Moreover, the Gītā uses terms like ‘paramaṁ guhyam’, ‘top secret’, ‘guhyatamaṁ śāstram’, ‘totally secret scripture’, regarding its own teachings (e.g. BG 18.68, 15.20, also consider 11.1).
I do not personally think it was wise that in the early 19th century – possibly in response to the Eurocentric notion that “Hinduism needs a single book like the Bible” – the Gītā was promoted as Hinduism’s only or main ‘Sacred Book’. This was never the intention of the Gītā, nor of its commentators, nor has there ever been a single ‘main book’ in Hinduism other than the Vedas (and Upaniṣads) as a ‘whole’: But this is quite a huge ‘whole’, isn’t it?
Moreover, if we look at the Āgama view – which is just as valid as the Vedic-Brahmanical – the Vedas are only one among many revelations that came from Śiva’s five heads: According to Abhinavagupta, at least seven independent systems of revelation burst forth from Śiva and they are all equally valid paths to liberation: Veda, Śaiva, Vāma, Dakṣiṇa, Kaula, Matta, and Trika. Similarly, according to the Āgama text known as the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa, the Buddhist-Tāntric form of Brahmā known as Mañju-Śrīkumāra is the original revealer of all Vedic mantras as well as both the Āgamic mantras of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. All of them are equally valid paths.
If we use our intuition as the guide, what is more likely to be true: the Āgama view that all these revelations are valid revelations and paths, or the narrow Brahmanical view that only the Vedic corpus is a true revelation, and the rest is just ‘created by humans’?
Do you see the validity of this question? Isn’t that which is supremely universal more likely to be true than that which is narrow and claims that only its own revelation is true? I feel that if we use such intuition as our guide, we will hit the mark of truth: All these texts, not only the Vedic texts, are true revelations that were revealed to the Siddhas over thousands of years. The Vedas are just one stream of revelation. The Tantras are another and quite different stream. I am well aware that this is a hard one to swallow for many people of a purely Brahmanical background.
But with some openness of heart and mind, please consider: Not a word is mentioned about Lalitā Tripurasundarī in the actual Vedic corpus. Does it make any sense at all to claim that the Āgama texts which reveal her sacred mantras, practices and sādhanas are not revelations, but that only the Vedas are? To me such a thought process makes no sense at all.
Moreover, no Hindu today is really practising any sādhanas related to Vedic Aśvinīkumāras or Mitra or Varuṇa. What Hindus are actually practising is almost always simply from the Āgamas, even most mantras and pūjāvidhis used by priests who consider themselves Vedic or Smārta. Only very few priests exist – among the Nambudiris in Kerala – who actually know how to perform the original Vedic rituals like Agnicayana. But this is not a problem at all. It is simply reality. Most Hindus are practising only Āgama-based Hinduism. The simple ācamana formula “Oṁ keśavāya namaḥ…” is from the Pañcarātra Āgamas, not from the Vedas. Therefore, isn’t it logical and meaningful to assume – like the Āgamas say – that the Āgamas are just as valid a revelation from one of the heads of Śiva (or Mañju-Śrīkumāra for that matter, if we take a Buddhist view) as the Vedas were? Otherwise we are, in a way, undermining current Hindu Dharma by suggesting its practices are not revelation-based.
Last but not least, if open-hearted, realistic and scholarly Brahmins are ready to concede that the Āgamas are equally valid revelations – what stops us from conceding that the Buddhist and Jain Āgamas are not revelations? They were also revealed only in the Devabhūmi of Āryāvarta. How can we therefore deny the sanctity of their Tantras and Āgamas, all of which are claimed to be valid revelations? Over millennia they have equally produce real results, real nondual masters, real realised beings like Nāgārjuna, a great nondualist who had a vision of the Goddess Tārā in the Khadiravana forest near Tirupati and became enlightened. Do you see this trail of thought? How can we just deny Nāgārjuna’s accomplishments as a master and the paramparā he founded? If we are truly open, we will not take Kumārila Bhaṭṭa's narrow-minded (frankly extremely selfish) stance that only his own tradition is a valid revelation too seriously. We will be utterly universal.
Why did I go into this detailed analysis? It is valuable to understand something quite essential: The Bhagavad-Gītā – almost like the later Tantras and other Āgamas – is really an esoteric text that considers itself ‘top-secret’ and ‘prone to misunderstanding’ if it is not explained properly.
What are ways the Gītā can be misunderstood? For example, it can seriously be misunderstood as a call for ordinary people to “go and fight” for the sake of Dharma, i.e. to create wars or physical and intellectual conflicts in order to ‘protect’ their personal version of Dharma. This is not just a theory or concern but has become a very concrete interpretation of the Gītā common today. I hear it time and again, and every time I hear it my own hairs stand on end: roma-harṣaś ca jāyate, to put it somewhat humorously.
To create any kind of conflict – inner or outer – is simply not the intention or teaching of the Gītā. The Gītā is a Yogaśāstra. If you left out the 1st and 18th chapters – and only read chapters 2.39 onwards up to the 17th chapter – you would never have the idea that this is a book about some ancient war. You would think this is a book about Yoga, meditation, quiet contemplation, consciousness, love, compassion and devotion. Isn’t it? It is only the first and last chapters that embed the teachings of the Gītā into a conflict situation.
So why does the Gītā do this? I believe it does so in order to give you “a worst-case scenario”: Arjuna as the example of an actual Kṣatriya prince responsible for the security and sustainable protection of his country.
Nowhere does the Gītā suggest that its later readers – meaning you – should “also behave like Arjuna”. The Gītā asks readers to be absolutely rooted in Maitrī (kindness) and Karuṇā (compassion) for the benefit of all beings (sarvabhūta-hita) without exception, to be totally above any sense of enmity towards anyone, even the worst enemies (samaḥ śatrau ca mitre ca, 12.18), never to let even a whiff of an emotion like anger get the better of you or guide you in your actions and reactions (krodhād bhavati saṁmohaḥ, 2.63, 3.37, 16.4).
The Gītā, in fact, says that anyone who has krodha or anger in their heart, is already an asura, a demon. Someone who has an asura nature, according to the Gītā, will not fare well after death. Please therefore consider: Do you have krodha in your heart? Please consider well. And if you see you have krodha, then work on dissolving it instantly. Do not cultivate it for any being whatsoever, not for friends and not for enemies. For enemies, cultivate intelligent compassion and of course, effective pre-emptive protection measures if need be – but certainly not krodha. Anyone who has actually read and studied the Gītā knows this inside-out.
The Gītā asks its readers to practise the highest depths of yogic concentration or samādhi (BG 2.41, 2.53) and to cultivate sthita-prajñā (BG 2.39-72), stable wisdom. This means absolutely stable insight, an inner state of utmost clarity beyond the binary categories of friendship and hostility, “me versus you”, “mine versus yours”, “friends versus enemies”.
Thus, to misunderstand the Gītā to mean that “ordinary people should fight in the name of Dharma” is a total misunderstanding and distortion. For ordinary people, the teaching of the Gītā would be: “Meditate, restrain your mind, practise Maitrī and Karuṇā for all beings, and be totally above any sense of enmity or hatred towards anyone. Use highest intelligence when interacting with people who are hostile. Also think for their ultimate benefit. Consider always: In which way can conflicts be resolved through utmost compassion and intelligence? Never antagonise others and become the source of more problems and more hostility. Engaging in any kind of anger or hurting others in any way, even the most subtle way, is a real offense and you will not fare well in this life and in the afterlife if you do so.”
Please do not misunderstand the above to mean that rulers shouldn’t take measures to protect Dharma. That is an entirely different matter. I am simply pointing out that to interpret the Gītā as a call to any kind of violence – even intellectual violence – or as a call for ordinary readers to “rise up and protect Dharma through violent measures of any kind” is an utmost misunderstanding. To promote such an understanding only causes the genuine yogic tradition to erode. And when there are no actual yogīs left, the Gītā will be utterly meaningless. We need actual examples of living yogīs in order for people to understand the Gītā’s teachings. This is expressed in the verse: ‘yad yad ācarati śreṣṭhas…’ (BG 3.21).
Having studied and endeavoured to practise the timeless teachings of this precious text for 23 years in the traditional manner, I am deeply concerned by the way this sacred scripture is now interpreted and presented in TV shows, by public speakers, on the road by salespeople, devotees, people who barely know Sanskrit, etc. What is the solution? It is quite simple. My suggestion would be to simply advise potential readers to return to studying the Gītā through the lens of the great Āchāryas such as Śaṅkarācārya, Abhinavagupta and Rāmānujācārya, and to stop misusing and misinterpreting this sacred scripture in any other way. It is really a highly inauspicious offense and anyone doing it even unintentionally is in the end just harming the actual yogic tradition and thus Hinduism itself.
What teachings of Śaṅkarācārya are most dear to you?
There is a wonderful teaching in his commentary on his Paramaguru Śrī-Gauḍapādācārya’s mysterious instruction in Māṇḍūkya-Kārikā 4.90:
heya-jñeya-āpya-pākyāni vijñeyāni agrayāṇataḥ
“From the Agrayāṇa one should understand whatever should be avoided (heya), whatever should be realised (jñeya), whatever should be adopted (āpya), and whatever should be ripened/refined (pākya).”
This may come somewhat as a shock to most Vedāntins who have never looked at this verse closely: In this verse, Gauḍapādācārya is suggesting to his readers that they should study Mahāyāna Buddhism. Mahāyāna is simply called ‘Agrayāṇa’ by Buddhist authors. He says that it is in fact from Mahāyāna Buddhism that we must learn:
1) which type of behaviour should be avoided (heya)
2) the paramārthatattva that should be realised (jñeya)
3) the sādhanas that should be adopted (āpya)
4) the inner negative states that should be matured, and refined (pākya)
Top scholars like Sri Swami Veda Bharati have pointed to this verse to show that here Gauḍapāda is actually praising Mahāyāna Buddhism and suggesting that Vedāntins should study it and implement its teachings. Thus, it is rather strange that in later Vedānta some subtle antagonism towards specific Buddhist schools emerged. Of course, the very specific Buddhist schools refuted in some Vedāntic commentaries are often simply the same specific schools that were refuted in the Mādhyamika-Buddhist commentaries – but not Buddhism as a whole. In any case, in light of this verse by Gauḍapāda, the later allegation that Vedāntis are ‘pracchanna-bauddhas’ (‘hidden Buddhists’) makes a lot of sense. But isn’t this then actually a compliment?
To readers who cannot believe that the above translation and interpretation of Gauḍapādācārya’s instruction is correct, if I may suggest: Anyone with good Sanskrit skills can read the śloka directly and can then compare the terminology used in Mahāyāna works like those of Śāntarakṣita, where the term Agrayāṇa is a normal and very common term for Mahāyāna. It is a real eye-opener. Also lastly, if you still have doubts, you may wish to consider Pāṇini’s grammar rule pūrvapadātsaṃjñāyāmagaḥ 8.4.3, according to which ‘Agrayāṇa’ with ‘ṇatva’ is clearly a Saṁjñā or technical term (for the tradition also known as Mahāyāna, as is evidenced by the terms which Mahāyāna authors have used for their own tradition).
But now interestingly, in his commentary on this passage, Śaṅkarācārya goes a step further. On the question of which sādhanas should be adopted and which inner negative states must be dissolved in order to realise Absolute Reality, he simply says these timeless words:
“As sādhanas, it is enough to cultivate
1) wisdom (pāṇḍitya)
2) to abide in a child-like state (bālya), and
3) to cultivate silence (mauna).
These are the negative inner states or doṣas to be dissolved, which are called kaṣāya or ‘contamination’ (a common Buddhist term used in the Yogadarśana and other Buddhist texts as synonymous with the more commonly known term ‘kleśas’):
1) attachment, desire
2) aversion, dislike
3) confusion (selfishness, ahaṁmati in the Amarakośa),
5) pride, and
These are to be matured, i.e. dissolved, through various different methods (upāyas).”
Thus, Śaṅkarācārya succinctly and beautifully asks us to develop wisdom, to always remain innerly fresh, open and pure like a child and to rest in inner silence – while vividly working on dissolving our inner attachments, aversions, selfishness, greed, pride and envy. It is one of the best possible instructions anyone has ever given in the history of nondual teachings.
How do the Yoga and Tāntric traditions of Śrīvidyā-Upāsanā differ from Tibetan Tāntric practices today. Kānchī was the seat of both in the past, wasn’t it?
It is interesting and sweet that you have asked for the ‘differences’ rather than asking for the ‘commonalities’. This is a common phenomenon in our time. Please don’t mind me saying it. These days, people always want to look for differences rather than commonalities.
My personal historical intuition, as I have already indicated, is that this trend began with Kumārila Bhaṭṭa. Before him, all the Dharma traditions were one. After him, Buddhists and Jains were called ‘nāstikas’ by Brahmins, whereas for them the Brahmins became the ‘nāstikas’. This is not commonly known. In Buddhist and Jain texts of that period, we are in fact the nāstikas.
My proposal is to totally come away from the divisions Kumārila Bhaṭṭa and others (also Buddhist and Jain authors) caused during that time. Kumārila was not an enlightened being. He was a ritualist. Rituals are important but they do not liberate. Therefore, nothing he wrote really matters. Let us therefore forget all that and move back to the pre-Kumārila ‘unified Dharma traditions of India’. Divisions are never in the spirit of Advaita and oneness. Thus, we should stop falling prey to the personal convictions of this mere ritualist and the divisive notions they brought about in the 7th and 8th centuries.
Is there any way to substantiate a “unified Dharma traditions of India” perspective? Was there are a time when the various Dharma traditions were really considered a “united stream of different traditions”? My answer is definitely a resounding ‘Yes’. If we look at the Amarakośa as a “snapshot of ancient Indian history”, what we find is a remarkably unitary culture of Dharma in which Brahmanical traditions, Buddhism and Jainism are all one – they are part and parcel of the wider culture of Dharma, and all the schools respected and learnt from one other. From the time of Aśoka up to the Gupta kings, all rulers supported all the traditions and no one during that era considered any tradition to be ‘nāstika’. Nālandā-vihāra (the state of ‘Bihar’ is named after it), Vikramaśīla etc. were monastic institutions run by Buddhist monks but offered teachings and employed lecturers and professors from all the traditions, teaching all the scriptures, including the Vedas, etc.
Thus, it was really only after the late 7th century – mainly due to the ritualist Kumārila’s personal convictions and antagonisms – that this changed and the different sects began squabbling and quarrelling with each other in order to gain the favour of the kings.
Why I am describing all this in such detail? Because I do not see the Tibetan Tāntric traditions to be in any way significantly different or inferior to the Śrīvidyā tradition or other Hindu Tāntric traditions. In fact, it is by studying its Vajramahāyāna Āgamas that my understanding of Śrīvidyā has been tremendously benefited. Do you see? Let me give you one example. In the Lalitā-Sahasranāma, Tripurasundarī is described as ‘eka-vīrādi-saṁsevyā’, ‘She who is served by Ekavīrā and so on’. As long as I was exposed only to Śrīvidyā-Āgamas, I was never able to understand or explain who Ekavīrā ‘and so on’ are. Do you know why? Because the Śrīvidyā-Āgamas simply do not mention them. But when I studied the Vajramahāyāna Āgamas it became very clear that ‘Ekavīrā and so on’ is actually the name of a group of Devīs. Thus, we now know that these Devīs are the attendants of Tripurasundarī. Do you see how important it is to study other traditions? We can only benefit.
If you really want a ‘difference’, I would say it is this: In the Tibetan Tāntric approach, Deities are not considered ‘real’ in the sense of paramārthically real. They are only considered ‘upāya’ or ‘method/approach’ to completely purify the mind-stream of all the 84,000 negative emotions or kleśas as well as primordial avidyā, ignorance (which is defined as aham-grāha, egoic obsession).
What does this mean concretely? The Tibetan Tāntric form of Tripurasundarī is known as Kurukullā – as you know, Kurukullā is also mentioned in the Lalitā-Sahasranāma. In the Tibetan systems, to visualise Kurukullā and repeat her mantra does not, however, mean to actually connect with a substantial Goddess that ‘truly exists’ separately from our own true nature. Rather, the Kurukullākalpa Āgama states that visualising Kurukullā means to connect with the innermost blissful manifestation of our own deepest Awareness in order to completely dissolve and transform desire and attachment (rati, rāga) into perpetual bliss. Thus, in the Tibetan Tāntric system, Kurukullā is not just a ‘Goddess’ but rather a compassionate expression or energetic manifestation of Absolute Awareness in order to transform desire into bliss and boundless nondual (advaya) realisation.
I would say that this kind of understanding is a little different from the modern understanding of Śrīvidyā, where perhaps Tripurasundarī is really seen as a ‘real’ Deity ‘really’ dwelling in the Palace of the Śrīcakra in the forest of Kadamba flowers upon the Ocean of Jewels in the Ocean of Nectar within our own heart (hṛdi). But then, may I ask: Is it really so different if you look at it closely?
How has an immersion of Indic wisdom transformed your life?
Indic wisdom is the veritable jñānaugha or flood of knowledge – by truly immersing oneself in it, there is only one possible outcome: A complete transformation of body, speech and mind into absolute realisation. Thus, I can say with clarity and confidence that I hope, in some humble form and measure, this will be the outcome of my immersion, and hopefully it will be the outcome for innumerable others, too.
Please could you describe the role of the Ashram in sustaining Indian thought?
The Ashram was envisioned as a ‘laboratory of truth’ to find the best possible ways to integrate all paths, traditions, religious ideas and scientific insights into the search for Truth. Today, the Ashram has helped to inspire ‘younger generation spin-offs’ like Sarvamangala Foundation in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in order to benefit as many beings as possible through nondual awareness meditation and succinct compassion meditation techniques from the traditions; other examples of Ashram ‘spin-offs’ include the Science & Hindu Dharma Facebook initiative; another project is the newly envisioned ‘Sanskrit Academy’, which is kindly being developed by some of my Sanskrit students, where we will be offering online free courses in Sanskrit and Śāstras. Together with my friend Aditya Gurtu, we are already offering some online classes through Sarvamangala Foundation, an initiative launched by Milan Amin and Jaimin Shukla, the son of Datta Sahaja Yoga Mission founder Chandrakant Ji Shukla, who is a disciple of HH Punitachari Ji of Girnar, Gujarat.
Whatever we do is done in a spirit of ‘who knows what the result will be’, since clinging to the results is never a good idea in the first place. As the body ages, as the knees begin to ache and the fingers no longer bend as smoothly in the morning, what becomes ever clearer is: every conscious moment is precious. My ever-growing conviction is thus: May we use all our time for the benefit of others by cultivating boundless Mahākaruṇā. May we practise Śrīvidyā to the depth of our capacity by meditating well. May we attain the irreversible realisation of the true nature of reality, the true nature of our very own heart – Awareness as vast as the sky, Compassion as deep as the ocean.
In conclusion, all we can hope is for the Vedic Ārṣaparamparā, the Tāntric Paramparā of Divyaughas, Siddhaughas and Mānavaughas, as well as the Ārya-Paramparā of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to continue to flourish for the benefit of all beings as long as space remains and as long as deluded beings suffer in the illusory display of Saṁsāra. In the immortal words of the enlightened nondual Indian master Śāntideva:
ākāśasya sthitir yāvad yāvac ca jagataḥ sthitiḥ
tāvan mama sthitir bhūyāj jagad-duḥkhāni nighnataḥ
yat kiñcij jagato duḥkhaṁ tat sarvaṁ mayi pacyatām
bodhisattva-śubhaiḥ sarvair jagat-sukhitam astu ca
“For as long as space remains and the world lasts,
may I exist in order to dispel the misery of the world.
Whatever misery there is in the world, may it all ripen upon me.
May the world find bliss through the merits
of all Those Whose Hearts are Set Upon Enlightenment, Bodhi.”
– Śāntideva, A Guide to the Conduct of a Bodhisattva, Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra 10.55-56
Ity oṁ śam
(Bio of Āchārya Vidyābhāskar: After completing traditional Sanskrit studies in his youth, he studied Comparative Religion at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, graduating with an M.A. He continued his doctoral studies in Cultural Studies and Psychology. Today, he teaches Sanskrit and awareness-based meditation in Switzerland. He has co-authored several books with Acharya Siddhartha Krishna of Rishikesh, including a fresh translation of the Yogasūtras of Patañjali with the essence of the commentary attributed to Vyāsa (in a signature edition with stunning illustrations by a South Indian artist), and illustrated summaries of the Rāmāyaṇa and the Guru-Gītā. He is presently working on two new projects: A publication on the Sūktas relating to the Aśvin Twins in the Ṛgveda, as well as a new translation of the Buddha’s Dharmapada in a signature edition with beautiful illustrations.
Personally, he practises and teaches nondual meditation (mainly) in the tradition of Śrīvidyā and is currently studying the works of the living Atiyoga lineage of the ancient Oḍyānapīṭha to the Northwest of Kashmir, which now survives mainly in Tibet. One of his major passions is the bridging of the latest science with spirituality, thus he runs the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/sciencehinduism)