Neo-Vedanta and Modern Distortions

In the modern marketplace of ersatz New Age spirituality perhaps no other area of Eastern teachings have been homogenized and infected with the virus of modernity as have the subtle teachings of the gnostic Indian sage Ramana Maharshi. It is a common occurrence to see Ramana’s esoteric teachings taken vastly and dramatically out of context with such statements as “The Self is the Guru” or “the universe is contained in the Heart” parroted by Yoga instructors or “spiritual teachers” such as Eckhart Tolle. No mention is made of the literal and complete misapprehension of the terms “Self” and “Heart” or how these terms are glossed with a naïve infantile representation most often used at the level of an elementary school children’s story. No mention is made of the vast background of Vedic / Yogic historical perspective in which Ramana situated his pithy esoteric wisdom.

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It was common knowledge that Ramana Maharshi deeply appreciated and recommended the study of the texts Advaita Bodha Deepika (“Lamp of Non-Dual Knowledge”), Kaivalya Navaneeta (“Cream of Liberation”), and Tripura Rahasya (“The Secret of the Supreme Goddess”). These gnostic texts are virtual distillations of the esoteric transmissions of Advaita Vedanta and reveal a complex spiritual infrastructure upon which the words of Ramana hang until ripened by the transformational heat of gnostic conception and meditation.

Yet these important texts are virtually ignored by the majority of the modern readers of Ramana’s work removing the complex historical, philosophical and spiritual perspective of the intellectual milieu in which the work of Ramana percolated. Books such as “The Power of Now” and “The Four Agreements” are often touted by Neo-Vedantic groups as important sources of knowledge and such groups often use Ramana’s esoteric teachings to support modern ideas of pop psychology. The meme replaces the spiritual text.

When one examines the insouciant use of the terms “Self” and “Heart” by the Neo-Vedanta groups, Yoga teachers, and New Age spiritual camps one sees a literal attempt to redefine words on one hand and a subtle type of American Orientalism on the other. This redefining of Vedantic terms to suit the emotional needs of the western mind is a troubling trend rarely examined or discussed. The Vedantic term “Self” is often equated to the personality complex of an individual in the western definition however this is diametrically opposed to the Eastern context of this term. The Self in Vedantic expression is beyond terrestrial name and form, equated with the Atman, a cosmic susurration beyond conceptions of birth and death. Although not possible to define in linguistic expression, the Vedantic Self can be described via the negative, by clearly revealing what it is not; and to the remolding of an ancient word into a modern egoic emotionalistic personality complex, the answer remains “neti neti’ indeed. Ramana describes the state of the “Self” as follows:

Abandoning the sensory objects, remaining in one’s own nature in the form of a flame of knowledge is said to be the natural state of the Self.

In the Cave of the Hridaya, the sole Brahman as an ever-persisting ‘I’ shines direct in the form of the Self. Into the Heart enter thyself, with mind in search or in deeper plunge. Or by restraint of life-movement be firmly poised in the Self.

It becomes quite apparent upon reading these pithy esoteric statements that what Vedanta is referring to as the “Self” is alien conception to the average western mind unfamiliar with the vast complex history of Vedic thought. Even the passing mention of the mysterious shimmering “I” in the aforementioned quote bears no resemblance to the conception of the Egoic “I” concept. These two statements of Ramana reveal a subtle complexity in radical opposition to the modern homogenous view of Neo-Vedanta and its childlike view of Ramana’s disguisedly simple statements. The Self of Vedantic thought is beyond the dross of terrestrial memory and personality hence when the average westerner says such statements as “my self is my guru”, one has to wonder if they have any completion at all of the vast implications of such deceptively simple Vedantic teachings.

The Vedantic term “heart” used in the work of Ramana resembles in no way, shape or form the modern pop culture idea of emotional joy or pain. The Vedantic Heart or Hridaya is not the visceral lump of flesh and blood in the chest cavity and it is not the anahata chakra which the western yoga teachers claim to be “opened” by a backbend in a yoga exercise class or weekend kirtan session. According to the Ramana Maharshi:

That from which all activities of the embodied beings emerge, is mentioned as the heart. The description of its form is conceptual. It is said that the I-activity is the root of all activities. From where the I-activity emerges, that in short is the Heart.

This description maps out a cardio-topography which is nearly impossible to navigate without the compass of the vast historical and spiritual context upholding the Vedantic tradition. The modern cartoonish adage of “follow the heart” informs the minds of the Neo-Vedanta adherents resulting in their childish representation of Ramana’s “Hridaya Vidya” or science of the heart as a quasi “new age” fantasy. Why spend one’s life studying the deeper systems of Vedanta when one can just “be one’s own guru”? Such modern fantasies are all too easy fodder for the masses seeking a quick fix of junk food spirituality which demands little and promises all.

This virus of modernity can also be seen to attempt to infiltrate the most esoteric of Ramana’s practices: Atma-Vichara or “Self-Inquiry”. This is the distilled esoteric gnosis of Ramana which few can truly grasp much less practice, yet today this is touted as an excuse to abandon all study and sadhana and is equated to some type of armchair psychological therapy, but of course one without a guide to constructively criticize. Atma-Vichara is a deeply complex and subtle practice which takes years upon years to cultivate and refine to even reach a beginner’s level. However the Neo-Vedanta and modern Yoga subculture in their delusional misunderstanding of basic definitions portrays “self-inquiry” as a type of personal emotional introspection and includes journaling and cognitive counseling sessions as modern methods of this practice. Nothing could be further from the truth. The practice of Atma-Vichara is extremely dangerous to the virus of modernity which seeks to commodify and homogenize anything it can infect. The greater one’s algebra of need, the more dangerous the practice of Atma-Vichara will be to the psychological status quo.

The modern archonic egoic mindset will do anything to dismantle and even redefine a threatening traditional system like Vedanta as practices such as Atma-Vichara seek to literally uproot the ego and break its strangle-hold on the spontaneous expression of the Soul radiations of the Self. And the virus of modernity seeks to infiltrate traditions surreptitiously using the shell of authentic teachings to hide a malicious machination of homogenization and commodification. This is the exact situation of the modern Neo-Vedanta and western Yoga subculture literally redefining and repackaging ancient primordial systems in an attempt to make them accessible and harmless to all.

This attempt to insidiously transform and repackage ancient Eastern systems is a primary characteristics of the modern American Orientalism discussed by such important scholars as Durgadas Lingam and Rajiv Malhotra. Frithjof Schuon eloquently expresses key aspects of the Zeitgeist of the insatiable appetite of the virus of modernity:

A monstrous expenditure of mental ability is incurred in setting out opinions that have no relation to intelligence; people who are not well endowed intellectually by nature learn how to play at thinking and cannot even get on without some such imposture, while people who are well endowed are in danger of losing their power of thinking by falling in with the trend. What looks like an ascent is really a descent; ignorance and lack of intelligence are at ease in a wholly superficial refinement, and the result is a climate in which wisdom takes on the appearance of naivety, of uncouthness and of reverie…In our days everyone wants to appear intelligent…but since intelligence cannot be extracted from the void, subterfuges are resorted to, of which one of the most prevalent is debunking, which enables an impression of intelligence to be conveyed at small cost, for all one need do is assert that the normal reaction to a particular phenomenon is ‘prejudiced’ and that it is high time it was cleared of the ‘legends’ that surround it; if the ocean could be made to be a pond or the Himalayas a hill, it would be done….

Perhaps one can argue the average person embracing the childlike presentation of Ramana’s teachings and encouraging the homogenization of any Eastern traditional system for that matter, is an innocent bystander of the dim lit modern age. I would argue the opposite. Rather than a light hearted innocent search for truth, the modern commodification process is in my opinion a deeply concerted effort, at times albeit unconscious, to desacralize and homogenize esoteric teachings. The traditional and complex teachings of Vedanta and many other Eastern systems is a glaring threat to the modern age of the democratization of knowledge and manifest destiny of “scientific progress.” Therefore the message is diluted and packed in a sugar-coated veneer to make it palatable to the bland tastes of the average person. If the average person is unable to digest or conceptualize an esoteric concept, then the concept must be questioned. Soon the actual deeper concepts are destroyed or redefined and packaged in an ego friendly bread and circus. The words of Rene Guenon reflected such concerns in 1946, one wonders what he would express today:

It is currently the fashion so to speak among those with limited horizons to construe all Eastern doctrines as ‘mystical’, including those that lack even a semblance of the outward aspects that could justify such an attribution; naturally, the origin of this false interpretation is to be traced to certain orientalists, whose conclusions indeed may not have derived originally from any clearly defined ulterior motive but rather from their incomprehension and their habitual and more or less unconscious bias of relating everything to Western points of view. Others, however, have subsequently seized upon this false assimilation and, seeing how they could exploit it for their own ends, have done their utmost to propagate this idea outside the special and limited world of the orientalists and their clientele; and this is more serious, not only because the confusion in question becomes more widespread in this way but also because it is not difficult to discern here unmistakable signs of an attempt at ‘annexation’, against which we must be on our guard.

This danger of homogenization also results in the growing rise of myopic fundamentalism which infiltrates many modern representations of Eastern gnosis. For the time being, the work of Ramana Maharshi has not suffered from this infection however the growing trend of fundamentalism disguised as “sanatana dharma” is of great concern today. Eastern systems of primordial gnosis have always existed in chaotic harmony with a shocking variety of hues, tones, and expressions. The insidious influence of Abrahmic, Christocentric monotheism infiltrates many streams of Eastern gnosis today and is easy sold to a public with little to no education in the historical and philosophical background of eclectic Eastern systems.

The modern hive-mind craves a homogenous one-size-fits-all presentation, and new age saviours and dime-store “gurus” are all too ready to satisfy this craving for spiritual junk food. The work of modern scholar Durgadas Rodney Lingham is vitally important for examining and exposing this troubling aspect of modern homogenization and should be examined any all concerned about this insidious expression of the virus of modernity.

Perhaps the most fundamental concern of this exploration of the homogenization and commodification of Eastern gnosis is the dangerous ignorance of the spectrums of exoteric and esoteric expression. The modern mind often seeks to market the exoteric as the most important expression simply due to its democratic appeal. However Eastern systems clearly valued the esoteric expression as the pearl to be sought and fashioned the exoteric expression as a protective device to prevent the abuse and misuse of the esoteric; today we all too well see the need for this protection yet even well intentioned practitioners fight vociferously for a politically correct homogenous/ democratic representation of gnosis. It remains to be seen what will be left of the seeds of gnosis as the modern spirit ruthlessly seeks to possess any and all expressions of Eastern wisdom. Perhaps small patches of fertile soil can preserve and nurture the delicate seeds of esoteric wisdom providing protection from the virus modernity. The words of Ramana Maharshi echo to us from the eternal past providing a clue to the pathway to viral immunity: “The highest form of grace is Mauna (silence). It is also the highest spiritual instruction. “

craig-williamsCraig Williams is the author of Tantric Physics Vol I: Cave of the Numinous. He has been a practitioner of Yoga, Ayurveda, Tantra, Jyotish and Vedanta for more than 25 years and has undergraduate degrees in Religious Studies, Philosophy and English Literature and a Master’s Degree in Oriental Medicine. He is also an ordained gnostic Bishop and an adept of Esoteric Voudon.

Craig lives in Austin, Texas where he operates a busy private medical practice specializing in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Acupuncture and Ayurveda (www.AyurvedaAustin.com). He is a licensed Acupuncturist and a Professional member of the American Herbalist Guild and the National Ayurvedic Medical Association.

2 Replies to “Neo-Vedanta and Modern Distortions”

  1. Keshav Fulbrook says: Reply

    Replace word ‘gnostic’ with Hindu, or Sanatana Dharmika. The reason no one understands the depth of Hindu Dharma is because no one describes Hindu things as “Hindu.” Buddhist concepts are given credit to Buddhism. Because of this, Buddhist Dharma enjoys a very popular image in the West. The same is not true of Hindu Dharma, the predecessor of Buddhist Dharma. All that is needed is education.

  2. Great article Craig. Hope you can work with Rajiv Malhotra.

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