VEDANTA AND THE WESTERN QUEST FOR MEANING

PREPARING FOR A FESTIVAL: A man in Bangladesh volunteers at a temple preparing long garlands of marigolds for a festival.

I don’t believe in coincidences. When a series of connected ideas strings along, I look for meaning and direction. I believe in cause and effect, in one step leads to the next, in the door appears when the person is ready to walk through it. So, it is no surprise to me that I lived a childhood of secularity only to seek religious observance as a young adult and spent a decade in rigid religion only to emerge to the flower-smelling of Eastern philosophy. One thing leads to the next. For years, I sat in agitated rumination about money, work and life in general, never finding a path toward clarity and calm. I tried–believe me I tried! Mainly, I encountered traditions that teach of a God outside of each person–separate from the world and from the individual.

So, when a yoga client said to me one day, after a particularly grueling meeting with agitated businessmen, “This won’t bother you anymore after you study Vedanta,” I understandably thought he was crazy. Cultish. Proselytizing.

I was dragged into the study of Vedanta out of obligation to a client but there I found solace, guidance and inspiration. The ancient Eastern philosophy opened my eyes with its universal wisdom and profoundly simple inspiration. “Vedanta, the religion and philosophy of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita in ancient India, teaches that the essence of each person is divine, and that the purpose of life is to unfold and realize this divinity, to make it manifest in every movement of life,” according to the Vedanta West organization. “All religions are accepted as paths to this realization.”

All religions are accepted… That concept alone was earth-shattering for me to discover. And then: God resides in each and every one of us… This was different than any other path I had explored!

Statistics about Westerners studying Eastern philosophy are hard to come by, but it’s clear that many Westerners are turning to Eastern traditions for spiritual values that elude them in our fast-paced, material-focused way of life. Some people embrace Eastern paths completely while others take certain modes of study, rituals or beliefs as support for their Western faith. Walk into a Target store and you’ll find neighbors buying yoga gear. Year after year, pollsters find a significant minority of Americans affirming tenets of Eastern religions. A recent Pew study found more than 1 in 5 Americans who call themselves Christians also say they believe in reincarnation. In growing numbers, Americans feel free to mingle traditions. For me, that’s merging my own Jewish tradition with study and practice of Vedanta.

The essential difference between Vedanta, or Eastern philosophy, and the Judeo-Christian model is a core shift from outward focus on enlightenment to inward. Vedanta preaches that Divinity lies within, that each person contains God and must remove the obstacles (our anxieties, physical desires, emotions) to find the Godhead. In Vedanta, God is not separate from the world. Here are just some of the teachings that inspired me at a Vedanta-inspired retreat:

  • Do what you can do. By doing what you can do, you will be able to do more.Don’t focus on what you’re not doing.
  • Adopt an attitude of “Après vous …” (a hospitable, “After you …”)
  • If you don’t love everything, you can’t love anything.
  • Love is universal identification, not unilateral preference.
  • Assess every person’s true nature and do not expect them to behave in a way that is not congruent with their nature. (Boy, that one would’ve been immensely helpful when I was married!)

You can see how I was opening up to concepts I never encountered in my experiences with Judaism or Christianity. And there was more. My retreat included a focus on what we eat: The planners promoted veganism so as not to harm other creatures. Not becoming a soapbox activist, mind you–just rethinking every decision to ensure that the imprint we make on this earth is one that promotes peace. No, I haven’t bought into everything hook-line-and-sinker. I still eat meat–but less of it.

VEDANTA WISDOM ON ELIMINATING
LIFE’S EXPLOSIVE DRAMAS

A big lesson for me is steering clear of drama, the biggest addiction in our country. In a stressful day, our emotions can explode. No other religious study brought this challenge so clearly to light for me. Through my Vedanta teachers, I began to consider my responsibility in my own happiness–or unhappiness. Was I needlessly dwelling on the past or future–like debt still to be repaid or a relationship gone wrong? Now, I am working on being right here, right now, in the living present, and doing my life’s work for the sake of doing the work–not for its eventual fruit.

Each morning, after I read a few pages of Vedanta and jot down notes on how I’ve taken it in, I look at the work I have to do and contact each client with gratitude for the work they send my way. When I have a difficult client, I have compassion for what he must be experiencing. I don’t allow myself to be a door mat, but I don’t run from discomfort, either.

Vedanta is one of Hinduism’s six main systems of thought, described as a scientific approach to religion and truth. Its main message is that one must learn for oneself, ingest the lessons and, if they prove true, live them. Vedantic teachers abound, mostly hailing from India, and there are many texts to choose from. I’ve been studying Swami Parthasarathy’s books (“Fall of the Human Intellect” and “The Eternities”), but there are many others.

BASIC PRINCIPLES OF VEDANTA

As I am learning them, these are the basic principles …

  1. Nothing exists except the Divine Being, or Brahman, which is at the core of every individual.
  2. The very nature of the Soul is Divine: the Cosmic Self becomes the individual Self.
  3. The goal of the individual, then, is to realize and manifest the divinity, which is his/her true nature. And to become Self-Realized.
  4. The universality of religious truth: there are many ways to realize God.

A long string of Westerners have found wisdom in Vedanta, including J.D. Salinger, Carl Jung and Thomas Merton. Historians Arnold Toynbee and Will and Ariel Durant and sociologist Pitrim Sorokin also helped to bring Vedanta into American popular discourse.

Most Vedanta scholars originate in the East because American society is not a conducive landscape for nurturing the growth of such a philosophy. Our emphasis on accumulation of wealth, on competition and on a mostly separatist lifestyle directly contradicts what Vedanta teaches. But, with a sky-high divorce rate, an obesity epidemic and other catastrophic trends, it is clear to many that our culture can be toxic. One of my teachers says, “An animal in the wild will never be overweight. Only in captivity.” Dare I say, we are animals in captivity.

It took me until the age of almost-39 to find a path that made sense to me and which provided solace from the dizzying franticness I had been enduring. Since embracing Vedanta and beginning my study, my business has boomed, my parenting has improved and my personal sense of equilibrium has grown.

Please, look for occasional articles I plan to write about these emerging issues. I’ll report on books, share interviews and explore related topics. Join me. And please, weigh in on where you find inspiration, what muddles you and why.

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Comments

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    • Ethel,
      You are right to question. In fact, one of the main principles in Vedanta is QUESTION…and if it works for you, then adopt it. I love that – it is so different than many religions and philosophies, where it’s all about blind acceptance and guilt rather than thoughtful embracing.
      Lynne

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Trackbacks

  1. [...] Care to read more? Here is Lynne’s overview of Vedanta, published in July 2010. http://askinyourface.com/?p=5406 [...]

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