Watering down Advaita:
(Westerners Corrupt Hindu Terminology!)

This page had its origin in the first author's complaint about 
my and general Western use of the term Advaita. It lived for 
a couple of years as part of the Brickbats page but as the 
material grew, it has come to merit a page of its own. 

The problems have arisen because Advaita is a useful 
term without a precise counterpart in English, so it 
has been adopted by many without regard to the
niceties of Indian usage. Strictly speaking, the 
word by itself essentially means "not two," or 
more subtly, "one without a second," but in 
Indian tradition it is more than just a word.
It is an inseparable part of a whole system
 of thought and practice, "Advaita Vedanta."

Thus the term neo-advaita has arisen, to distinguish 
it from the traditional form. More about this below.

Outside contributions:
1. Sanjay's original criticism, from an Indian traditionalist pov.
2. Freyja's comment on a particular shortcoming of the neo-form.
3. Durga's observations on some differences between neo- and traditional.
4. Excerpt from a review of Dennis Waite's book on the subject.

1. Advaita is a technical term which cannot be used for anything and everything. It is more of a scholarly pursuit and has practically nothing to do with mysticism. All you have to do is to look up for the reference in any undergraduate text of indian philosophy and you will realize that the way this word has been used on your site, is grossly misleading. I understand that people thirsting for spiritual experience will scoff at this "philosophy professor" approach but believe me this is the principal tenet of advaita line. In 'advaita' you can get enlightenment only through study of Upanishads and other vedic scriptures. All other religious practices including meditations etc. are considered at best a preparation of mind to understand the message of upanishads and at worst superfluous. And though in advaitic tradition ramana is considered an enlightened master, two explanations are offered --

1) He learnt the teachings of upanishads while his stint in arunachalam.

2) He learnt upanishads in his previous birth.

You see there is absolutely no way of bypassing the study of upanishads for getting enlightened as per advaitic tradition. And this is not a casual study I am talking about. This is hardcore rigorous study comparable to any graduate curriculum starting from learning of Sanskrit grammar. In fact many advaita teachers claim that unless you know sanskrit, you cannot be enlightened!!! Sounds dogmatic? Yes.. but this is the way actual advaita is. I do not have any issues with the philosophy of either ramesh or papaji - in fact ramesh's philosophy was taught in 3rd century india by saint bhagwan makkhaligosal. I only want to bring to your notice the abuse of word 'advaita', by neo-converts to indian traditions who are not aware of the way it is used by the vast hindu population and has been used ever since millennia.

– Sanjay Kumar Srivastava

I will continue to put all the rated non-dual types together at RatingsA (and unrated at RatingsN) but Sanjay has made a useful distinction between traditional Advaita and the western instant coffee version. (OTOH, one can talk about abuse of a term, but linguistic struggles against a popular usage are usually futile, for instance my sometime tilt against the use of "it's" as a personal possessive pronoun, an egregious grammatical error which appears to be inevitable.)

Thus, SGRS will continue to use the term as an umbrella to reflect popular usage, while acknowledging the differences in the forms in which it comes.


2. A nice observation about a tendency of the neo-form from the Guru Ratings Forum:

I'm all for the practical applications 
of advaita teachings to 'one's' life, and this is what 
is has become for me. My main 'thing' is 
when it appears it is 
being used as a substitute, an escape, and things 
like "I am Awareness Itself" being taken on 
as new identities. Subtle materialism. 
The paradox has not been 
seen through, as can happen with the neo-advaita. 
Some strains of neo-advaita are 
really dissociative self-referential loops, and 
not effective at all, imo. 


– Freyja


3. Also from the Guru Ratings Forum, from someone who has been around the block with both the neo and trad approaches:

The main difference I see is that the neo 
teachings seem to lack any sort of methodology. 
Traditional teachings do not hold that just being 
awake to one's true nature is enough of a prerequisite 
to teach. One also needs to know how to teach, and for 
that one needs to be trained.

So whether a teacher is actually awake or not isn't really
the question. Perhaps [X] is awake. When I saw her
a few months ago, and listened to what she had to say, it
appeared to me that what she was saying was correct.

It was also very clear to me that she had no 
methodology, and no way to help her students also 
wake up and recognize their true nature, except by 
very hit and miss efforts, which as far as I could 
tell mostly missed. When she got a hit, it just 
seemed to me that all the person got was a nice mental
experience. And then everyone got congratulated.

Do students of some of these teachers actually wake up?
I don't know. I don't see these kinds of people anymore.
Perhaps they do. Perhaps these people, who are 'apparently'
waking up, are so ripe and ready for that, all they need
is to hear a few words, and boom, that's it. But I wonder 
about that. Look at all the ones who have supposedly 
awakened, and then had to come up for a new explanation, 
(which does not negate their awakedness), but somehow 
accounts for their subsequent apparent lack of it.

It seems to me that many people attending these 
types of satsangs are not really interested in 
waking up, (or don't understand what that means). 
They are more interested in acquiring friends, 
being part of a community of like minded people, 
and gaining a nice mental experience, which they 
then interpret as a 'glimpse' of the Self. This 
keeps them coming back for more friendship, community 
building etc, and more `glimpses' which they hope will 
somehow get extended into one continuous whole. 

This doesn't work, obviously, as it involves 'experience 
maintanance.' And then in desperation they
may turn to something like Kalki.

So traditional teachings and teachers, who 
are well-trained, apply an ancient, time tested,
methodology, which IMO works. They also are very
careful not to mix levels of absolute and relative 
orders of reality. Or let's say, they separate them 
out before putting them back together properly. This 
seems to be something which neo teachers are incapable 
of doing, either because they themselves are confused, 
or because they don't know how to do it.

Neo-attendees often like to jump around from 
one teacher to another, comparing notes about the 
teachers and their teachings with other attendees. 
"This one says this. This one says that."
Then they try to put all of this stuff together 
to make sense, and what they usually come up with 
IMO makes no sense at all, or even if it does
make some sort of sense, it is incorrect. 

Of course everyone is free to do this, but I 
don't think one can really jump around trying 
to pick up a piece from one, then a piece 
from another, discarding the bits one doesn't 
like, and expect anything other than confusion 
to result. 

And as for neo teachers saying, "You are already
that awareness, that is all you need to know,"
of what use is saying that when
the words, 'you, awareness, are, already and that,'
are not properly explained or understood? Each of 
those words needs to be explained 
correctly for their meaning to become clear. 
And again, in my experience, even good neo teachers 
don't know how to explain these words clearly, 
logically, or employ any sort of methodology by 
which the meanings of the words do become clear.

So, I think that many satsang attendees often 
go from one `hot' teacher to the next new `hot' 
teacher, in the vain and mistaken hope that 
`enlightenment' will somehow magically descend 
upon them, or they will absorb it through osmosis,
or that they will got so zapped that 
somehow it becomes permanent. Perhaps this works
for some. It sure didn't work for me.


– Durga


4. I have reduced the following book review considerably. It too appeared in the Guru Ratings Forum. The complete review is there and also on the site of the book's author, Dennis Waite.

Reviewing the Tasteless

The Book Of One, The Spiritual Path of Advaita by Dennis Waite, Published by O Books, 46 West Street, Alresford, Hants, SO24 9AU, UK, 288 pages, paper back, £9.99 or $17.95.

There can be no doubt that Dennis Waite's 'The Book Of One' is a worthy introduction to the Ancient Teaching of Advaita. He has studied the Subject for over fifteen years and has a working knowledge of Sanskrit. The book is definitely to be recommended for those who need a succinct overview to the whole Teaching in one medium size volume. It is easy to read and surveys the philosophy competently in an even handed way and can well be regarded as a sound and valuable introduction to the whole field.

Part of the book raises an interesting and perplexing question of what exactly is happening to the hallowed and revered Teaching of Advaita in the Western World?

Many firm devotees of Sri Ramana Maharshi now rightly term this western phenomenon as 'Neo-Advaita'. The term is carefully selected because 'neo' means 'a new or revived form'. And this new form is not the Classical Advaita which we understand to have been taught by both of the Great Self Realised Sages, Adi Shankara and Ramana Maharshi. It can even be termed 'pseudo' because, by presenting the teaching in a highly attenuated form, it might be described as purporting to be Advaita, but not in effect actually being so, in the fullest sense of the word. In this watering down of the essential truths in a palatable style made acceptable and attractive to the contemporary western mind, their teaching is misleading .

Let us examine this thesis in more detail. There are a great many so-called Advaita or Non-Dual Teachers both in Europe, America and Australasia. Dennis Waite lists numerous organisations, Internet sites, and modern books, many of which fall under this category. New teachers calling themselves 'Awakened' appear frequently. One or another. They are often long standing ex-students of the late Rajneesh, or people who visited Lucknow with H.W.L. Poonja.

Obviously styles, personalities, emphases, delineations, and content vary considerably. But there are enough common threads to identify this tendency as 'Neo-Advaita'. First of all the teaching is mainly presented by question and answer at meetings called 'Satsangs'. The teacher invites questions, and then answers them in his own particular way. There is no overview of the basic Advaita principles. So those who attend are left with no full understanding of the complete bases on which the Teaching stands. One is dependent on what is said there and then, after many visits, which have to be paid for, one may appreciate what the self-appointed teacher is attempting to 'put over'. The books they have published are in the main just edited transcripts of these 'satsangs', and are also incomplete.

There is no doubt that many of these men and women are in most cases good looking, talented, gifted communicators. They often have a certain charisma and an intelligent quick wittedness. They can handle concepts from an intellectual standpoint with dexterity and are often entertaining in an idiosyncratic way. Many seekers develop a psychological dependency on one favourite teacher, others move from one to another hoping to pick up some truth which will help them in their quest. But these satsangs tend to be fragmented, so many teachers and meetings need to be visited and this can lead to confusion. There is generally a lack of experiential understanding of the Real Self and its Power as deep silence, unconditional love etc. When the vasanas are strong and rajassic, even such rare glimpses may not happen at all.

Stated briefly, what has happened is that an advanced teaching pointer, normally given to the Sadhak by a fully Self Realised Guru, Jivan Mukta or Jnani has been taken over as the preliminary step and is now given 'piecemeal' to any new adept. The suggestion that no further effort is necessary is only stated when the Sadhak has reached the point where effort is no longer possible. The mark of the true Guru is that peace, Love and Silence are palpably felt in his presence. What Neo Advaita gives in fact boils down to the seductive formula that “there is nothing you can do or need to do, all you have to know is that there is no one there”. That the mind is a bundle of thoughts and that there is no entity called 'me' is ancient Upanishadic teaching, and not a new revelation as some purport. Paradoxically, and for a reason difficult to explain, all of the leading International Neo-Advaita teachers have themselves engaged in spiritual practices of one kind or another, sometimes over a long period, yet they deny this necessity to their pupils.

The suggestion by the Neo-Advaitins that effort builds up the Ego giving it a sense of pride in its ability to meditate, etc. is only true in number of eccentric cases. In fact the effort of developing one pointedness leading to Self Enquiry in order to discover the source of the 'phantom me', the root of all thoughts and feelings , actually undermines this recalcitrant 'egotistical ghost'. Effort can give some modicum of necessary mind control, and one pointed attention. By sidelining Self Enquiry and treating it as an idea rather than a practice along with Devotion and the support practices for Self Enquiry, the student is left in a comfortable conceptual mental zone where it is stated cosily that 'there is nothing to do and nowhere to go'. One can park in this space forever, coming once a month and paying for another satsang, hoping Grace will descend.

It is like trying to win a major lottery prize, without ever having bought the ticket, instead of turning deeply and persistently inward and enquiring into the source of the 'phantom me'. 

However, Neo-Advaita, no matter how faulty and incomplete, has a distinct advantage. It can serve as an introduction to the true Advaita Teaching. Flawed as Neo-Advaita may be, it undermines 'the phantom ego' intellectually at least, after several 'satsangs'. At its best it is a partial surrender, but without full devotional content and therefore cannot lead to total surrender when the mental occlusion is absorbed in the Heart. One can only accept that the Neo-Advaitin movement with its proliferating teachers and burgeoning web sites is here to stay, although some have prophesied that the tide is beginning to turn and that many are now beginning to earnestly enquire into Ramana's Teaching. Nevertheless, Neo-Advaita is a necessary part of 'what is' and as an aspect of the divine plan has its place as a preliminary introduction. It is therefore a valid, if imperfect stepping stone, for those who are ready and mature enough to walk on to true Advaita, instead of just reclining half way up the Mount Arunachala.

Allow Sri Bhagavan to have the last word on this question: "There must be human effort to discard them [vasanas]....how could God be expected to be favourable towards you without your striving for it'" [Letters pg 151].

We must be grateful to Dennis Waite and his excellent book, with its appendix, for sharply bringing this whole question to our attention.

– Alan Jacobs


Dennis Waite's homepage is
http://www.advaita.org.uk and the site contains much useful information, including a more thorough discussion on the merits of and differences between neo- and traditional advaita.

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