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What really is Vedanta? Is it relevant today? || Acharya Prashant, in conversation (2022)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
11 min
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Questioner (Q): I would like to ask you about what you focus on when it comes to Vedantic philosophy. Vedant, while being so firm as a school of thought, in terms of being based in Upanishads, Bhagwad Gita, Brahma sutras; while having such distinct schools as well.

It has throughout its timeline of thousands of years gone through many people adapting it in different ways, meaning approaching it and implementing it in different ways, whether be the saints, whether be the bhakts, whether be the yogis, whether be the Acharyas themselves having completely different approaches to what Brahman is, to even the day of 18th, 19th, 20th-century revolutionaries and scholars and philosophers who approached it in their own life.

And in one respect that is honourable that the Vedantic philosophy while so firm is also so flexible. And my question to you is that in today's life, in today's time how should one approach Vedant, how should one implement it? How should one practice it?

Acharya Prashant (AP): See, what is Vedant first of all? Vedant is not really a philosophy in the sense we typically use the word ‘philosophy’, especially for western thought. Vedant is not really a philosophy. Vedant is an enquiry, the enquiry is about one's own nature; the nature of the mind—'What do I want? Why do I never get fulfilled? What is it about me that always seeks activity and something else in the next exciting thing? Who am I to keep wanting like this and where did I come from?’ That's the most fundamental Vedantic enquiry. Who am I?

And one thing Vedant is very certain about whosoever I am, I am really not contented with that. Something about me is amiss and that's why the enquiry. Otherwise, there is no need to enquire. If everything is alright, then why bother to enquire. So, something is missing somewhere and it's possible nothing is missing anywhere, ‘I am unable to grasp the perfection of things,’ even that's possible.

But whatever be the case, one thing is certain I am not alright with the way I am, I am not joyful with myself. Now, this ‘myself’ is a fluctuating entity; you're not the same person when you're, let's say, in the studio as when you're on the road. It's a common everyday experience. The way we look at ourselves, the thing within us that calls out 'I' keeps changing, or identities keep fluctuating, influences make us change our very centre.

Now, that’s the reason why Vedant will be looked at from many different angles by the various knowers—sages, rishis, pandits, saints. Because, even if the destination is the same, the current location is definitely different for every person. You may realize that the welfare of the ‘I’ lies in its liberation from itself. But liberation from what? The current situation of the ‘I’ is unique for every individual, for every situation, for every place, for every community, for every age and that's why the thing has been presented in so many different ways.

Another related reason why the words of the sages, etc. sounds sometimes at odds with each other is because the ‘I,’ the ego, has a great tendency and capability to co-opt with whatever has been told to it. So, you tell the ego that the truth is this way and you listen to it, else you will suffer. The ego will take those words and digest them in such a way that they rather fatten the ego itself.

Instead of guiding the ego, instead of liberating the ego, the words of the sages can be used by the ego to reinforce itself. And that's why the words that were uttered for the sake of salvation, education, liberation become cannon fodder and the ego is using them as ammunition to blast the teacher itself.

So then, the next teacher has to step in, and the next teacher then has to elucidate in a different way, sometimes in a drastically different way. Now, that has not been done to prove the previous teacher wrong, that is being done now to checkmate the ego at its own game. But the game continues, the game is eternal.

The words of the next teacher, too, are in a time distorted, manipulated, assimilated, co-opted and then the next one has to come. Just as the ego is always at work, the series, the tradition of teachers, too, has to be continuously at work. You cannot have one teacher whose words are eternal because no word can be eternal. Words will need reinterpretation according to the time, the situation, the people, everything.

Vedant is just one thing, Vedant is not too many things. But Vedant definitely has to be looked at in context for it to be useful, and that’s why the words of the different knowers were all very useful at their own times in their situations and might be useful even today. It depends on how much can you relate to the persons the teachers are speaking to.

For example, when I teach the Bhagavad Gita I say that the Gita is only as useful to you as is the depth of your identification with Arjun. If you are Arjun then Krishna is talking to you. But if you cannot see that you, indeed, are Arjun, how will the Gita benefit you? You have to see that you are embattled just like Arjun.

You have to see that you are stuck in attachment and dilemma just like Arjun. And when you see that then Krishna becomes radiant and brilliant for you, then Krishna is definitely a teacher to you, then Krishna is like a personal coach. Otherwise, you're just witnessing something being said by one person to another person without you having any real relationship with either of the two and that won’t help. So, pick up words that were uttered to somebody in your situation and then you will benefit.

Q Right. Now, you pinpointing that really important aspect of Bharat itself in its ages, in its years and its millennia, how different devotees or seers saw Vedant or saw the truth may be in their own light because of their own lens, whether that would be the Bhakts of Maharashtra, where their own circumstances, their own situations in the world at their time.

The Indian diaspora at their time was very superstitious or blind faith-based and they saw the needs of their time and approached it differently, or maybe Shankaracharya saw the needs of his time and he approached it differently, compared to a Ramanujacharya.

So, with that in mind, what do you think are the needs of today’s time?

AP You have put it so nicely. The principles of medicine remain the same but for each patient, there is a different and unique prescription. So, that's how it is. The fundamentals remain the same. We cannot say that one doctor is quarrelling with the other because one prescription is different from the other.

Now, you're asking how I see the need of this time. You see, what do the various saints anyway do in their respective ages? They demolish the popular notions of their time. They slay the gods of their time and the ego is very fond of raising new and false gods. By gods what I mean is something that you venerate; something that you bow down to; something that you're in so much in awe of. So, today, those Gods have to be slain.

The ideals of the age have to be demolished. Now, the Gods of the age. Who are they? Money is the god, knowledge is the God, consumption is a huge God. Happiness is the biggest ideal. ‘I just want to lead the good life’ and what does the ‘good life’ mean? ‘I must consume a lot.’

So, Vedant in today’s time amounts to negating the notions, the ideals that we venerate today and that's why Vedant is always a struggle. It does not really have any affirmative message to convey. It is a philosophy in negativa. If you can call it a philosophy that is.

Because the enquiry is always about 'Is this real?' You point at something and then say, 'Is this real?' You point at yourself and ask 'Is this real?' And the answer inevitably is ‘No’. So, the entire enquiry is about negation. If you look at something and you're taking it seriously, you're falling for it, you're getting too fond of it, the thing has become the truth for you, just look at the thing and ask, 'Is this real? Is this the truth? — I want to enquire, I want to know.' And if your enquiry is genuine, then the answer will be 'No'.

So, Vedant is definitely about negating whatever time, at a particular point in history, throws at you. In the 18th century, Vedant negated what people in the 18th century thought or in 8th century, Vedant was used to negate what people at that time thought of as truth. In the current century, whatsoever is taken as very important will be negated by Vedant.

And that's what Vedant does, and that's why certain people are always irritated with it. 'Where is the positive message?' They say. There is no positive message because there is no need of any positive message. Vedant says, 'You don't need any positivity, reality in itself is joyful. You just uncover it and uncovering is a process in negation. You do not need anything additional, you do not need something to be added to your life.

Life in itself is beautiful, provided you get rid of all the nonsense you have covered it up with.' That's what Vedant does. Vedant is a cleaning mechanism. You bring anything to Vedant and Vedant says, 'Let's go into it; let’s enquire; let's investigate.' Vedant is the big question mark. And that's the reason why probably it could never become the leading thing of the day at any time in history.

It's the mother of all Indian philosophies; all thought, in fact, it's the mother of much of what is beautiful in the west as well. But it could never, by itself, gain popularity among the masses, though derivatives from Vedant became very popular such as the songs of the Bhakti saints became extremely popular. But Vedant, the thing in itself, remained kind of marginalized. Because the ego does not like it.

You bring anything to it and Vedant says, 'Oh! I'll be attracted to it later, first of all, I want to know what it is. I’ll consume it later or I'll reject it later, first of all, I want to know what the thing is about.' Now, this kind of enquiry is an obstacle to immediate gratification and the ego is very fond of gratifying itself. Think of the situations in life when an opportunity to gratify yourself is there and in that situation, in that moment if somebody comes and says, 'Let’s enquire first thing'.

Something very delicious is right on your plate and just as you're about to take it in, somebody says, 'Why not, first of all, enquire about the number of calories per gram and the nutritional values and the other things about it.' How pleasant would you feel? There is a certain annoyance and that's the reason why Vedant is only for those who love the Truth more than sensual gratification.

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