Sri Adi Shankara is considered to have shaped the Hindu religion for the 1200 years following his disappearance from the world at age 32 in the early part of the ninth century. Having brought forth the advaita philosophy in its fully systematized and polished form, he is considered one of the greatest Jnana Yoga teachers. Swami Yoganandaji was the first person to be initiated by Swami Satchidananda into the Holy Order of Sannyas. Later, Swami Yoganandaji devoted his life to the study and dissemination of the teachings of Sri Shankara.
Integral Yoga Magazine: How did you meet Gurudev Swami Satchidananda, and could you share some memories of your early discipleship?
Swami Yogananda: I began my spiritual quest around the age of 14 when I discovered the practice of Hatha Yoga, while I was living in Paris. Three or four years later, I heard about Gurudev from a friend of mine who had met him at the Ramakrishna Vedanta Center near Paris in 1966, during Gurudev’s very first visit to Paris. I met Gurudev the year after, and I immediately felt he was of a divine nature. He gave mantra diksha [initiation] to me in 1969. A few months later, I went to India and stayed with a sannyasi (monk) in Rishikesh. From there, I wrote to Gurudev that I wished to utter the vow of complete renunciation, as I deeply felt there was no other way to attain peace. In due time, Sri Gurudev graced me with sannyasa diksha in 1971, at his Ashram in Kandy, Sri Lanka. I was 22. I spent one full month with Gurudev during my stay at his Tapovanam in Kandy. On that occasion, he saw that I was already trained in Yoga asanas, pranayama, shat kriyas and so on, and he asked me to teach the same at his ashram for a few months. I learned from him how to chant Sanskrit slokas and kirtans. After I returned to France, I was blessed to spent time with Gurudev whenever he visited Paris.
IYM: What inspired your interest in the teachings of Sri Adi Shankara?
SY: In Belgium, one or two years later, I met Sadananda Sarasvati, a sannyasi from Kerala. He asked me whether I would translate his talks in Paris. Gradually he taught me Sanskrit and introduced me to Vedanta through the teachings of Sri Shankara. What drew me to Vedanta was the quest for the absolute Truth, and that became of primary interest to me as I discovered more and more the greatness of Vedantic scriptures like the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. Sri Shankaracharya is the greatest representative of the Vedanta tradition. I drew two important things from this renowned sage: the way he made the most difficult teachings easy to understand and the way he analyzed every word and sentence in a given Sanskrit passage. This is also how I deepened my study of Sanskrit grammar and Vedanta philosophy. Shankara rendered the difficult Upanishadic teachings easy with his peerless commentaries which refute wrong interpretations, solve all apparent contradictions and give most convincing conclusions. Also, Shankara had the unique ability to give the essence of these lofty teachings in short, versified works of his own which are most inspiring.
IYM: What is the essence of the Upanishads according to Sri Adi Shankara?
SY: The essence of all Upanishads has been put beautifully by Shankara in a famous half verse of 16 syllables as follows: Brahma satyam jagan mithyaa, jeevo brahmaiva naaparah, which means “Brahman or the Absolute is real. The world is a myth. The individual is Brahman alone, not different.” Such is the Vedanta Dindima or striking message of the Upanishads, whose powerful and meaningful drum beating awakens sleepy ears to knowledge of Truth.
IYM: According to Sri Shankara, the world is relatively real (Vyavaharika Satta), while Brahman is absolutely real (Paramarthika Satta). Please elaborate.
SY: The world may be a relative truth, but its substratum called Brahman is the absolute Truth, like the rope is for the illusory snake. There is no duality whatsoever between an illusory snake and the rope. So also, there is no duality between the relative world and Brahman, for the world is a mere superimposition on Brahman. It comes and goes, appears and disappears, so to say, but Brahman is unchanging. The absolute Truth is ever the same. It is One only and non-dual (Ekam-evaadviteeyam).
IYM: If someone wanted to study Advaita Vedanta, where would one begin?
SY: To begin, one may study Shankara’s short works like Atmabodha. To get a thorough understanding of Vedanta, however, one should study the threefold basis known as Prasthana-traya, consisting in the Upanishads, Brahma Sutras and Gita, along with Shankara’s commentaries. Reading the Bhagavad Gita with Shankara’s commentary is a good way to begin the study of Vedanta. Actually, the main Vedantic practices are listening to (shravanam), reflection on (mananam) and deep meditation (nididhyasanam) on the great sayings of the Upanishads. As a way of preparation, the Bhagavad Gita propounds 20 means of knowledge such as humility, non-ostentation and so on, in the 13th chapter (verses 7-11).
IYM: Is there a specific path or sadhana prescribed by Sri Adi Shankara?
SY: According to the Shwetashwatara Upanishad (III, 8), Self-knowledge is the only way to get rid of ignorance and to attain liberation (tam-eva viditvaatimrityum-eti, naanyah panthaa vidyate’yanaaya). For this sake, Shankara advocates a fourfold sadhana: sharp discrimination (viveka), burning dispassion (vairagya), the sixfold wealth (shat-sampatti, namely, mind control, sense control, withdrawal, endurance, faith and meditation) and aspiration for liberation (mumukshutva). These four sadhanas from different passages of the Upanishads such as the Mundaka, Brihadaranyaka and other Upanishads have been brought together and explained by Shankara.
Actually, viveka is the result of purity of mind acquired through the practice of Karma Yoga, or selfless action. When the mind is free from expectation or “mineness,” one can see the distinction between the real and the unreal, the eternal and the transient. And when this is seen, there arises dispassion or vairagya for this world and the next. Then automatically the mind, as well as the senses, is under control. One becomes indrawn and enduring, which means one will have full faith in the words of the teacher and the scriptures and be constantly meditating upon the teachings of Vedanta.
IYM: Does Sri Shankara give specific instructions for how to develop the “sixfold wealth?”
SY: It all begins with Karma Yoga, which is the decisive factor in spiritual life. So once this first step is made, all other steps come one after the other, and one is led gradually to the final step from which there is no return to the bondage of ignorance. Karma Yoga instills a higher spirit in what is normally a cause of bondage, by prescribing that one offer the results of all actions to God without expectation. One cannot go directly from bondage to liberation, because bondage is the result of mineness and I-ness in actions. So, before renouncing all actions, one has to give up attachment to results and be free from passion (raga) and aversion (dvesha). When the mind is free from these feelings and is thus purified, one acquires all virtues such as the sixfold wealth, thereby becoming fit to follow the Vedantic path itself.
IYM: Is the fourfold sadhana something done as a formal practice or is it practiced also during the day more informally? How can we cultivate greater awareness of the Self?
SY: Both the formal and informal approaches are necessary, for practice without theory is impossible, and theory without practice is of not much use. A formal session means sitting at the feet of the teacher to hear the truth again and to deepen one’s understanding by asking questions or by studying his teachings with co-disciples. Daily practice is a constant reminder that the world is transient and that Brahman, alone, is ever lasting. This is the way of cultivating awareness of the Self.
IYM: It seems that all the great jnanis were bhaktas (devotees), including Adi Shankara. His poems are considered to be some of the greatest devotional poetry ever written. What is the relationship between jnana and bhakti?
SY: According to the Bhagavad Gita (III, 3), Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga constitute the two main paths, and they are referred to as bhakti or devotion throughout the Gita. This is because Karma Yoga is impossible without devotion to God, and Jnana Yoga or knowledge of God is the culmination of that devotion. So, even though Shankara spoke mainly of the highest knowledge, it was quite easy and natural for him to address devotional hymns to God that inspire seekers of moksha (liberation), thereby leading them to knowledge gradually.
Actually, bhakti is part of the main paths known as Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga. With reference to Karma Yoga, bhakti is the performance of daily duties in a spirit of surrender to God for the sake of purity of mind, without expecting any reward here or hereafter. Then with reference to Jnana Yoga, bhakti is deep inquiry into the nature of God and, when the non-dual nature of Brahman is attained as one’s own true Self, it is called para bhakti, or supreme devotion. This is the relationship between bhakti and both Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga. Therefore, both the karma yogi and the jnani are considered as bhaktas, although the jnani is said to excel on account of having attained oneness or non-duality (see Bhagavad Gita VII, 17-18). Don’t position them hierarchically.
IYM: What is most important in order to attain knowledge of the Self?
SY: Though study, hearing and understanding play a very important role in this attainment, the Mundaka Upanishad (III, ii, 3) says that seeking for the Self to the exclusion of everything else is of utmost importance, as it is only to such a seeker that the Self reveals itself. Therefore, until sleep and until the very end of life, one should spend all one’s time thinking of Vedanta, without giving room to maya (illusion).
Sri Swami Yogananda is the founder of Kaivalya Ashrama in France. He lectures throughout Europe on advaita philosophy and Sri Shankara. Sri Swamiji is fluent in Sanskrit and creates devotional poetry and compositions in Sanskrit verse. He contributed commentary and scriptural references for the names listed in the Dictionary of Sanskrit Names (Integral Yoga Publications). His many works in praise of Swami Satchidananda have been reprinted in Integral Yoga Magazine and published as booklets. The Hymn of 108 Holy Names of Sri Swami Satchidananda, composed by him, is chanted at Satchidananda Ashram during Guru Puja.