In September 2005 I accompanied a group of jyotish students to Rishikesh, India. We stayed at the Dayananda ashram for a week and a half, attending nine days of classes with our teacher, Hart deFouw, on the subject of the nakshatras.
While there, we were privileged to also receive a morning discourse on the subject of Vedanta given by the ashram’s resident scholar, Swami Brahmavidyananda. This is a rough transcript of Day 1:
22 September 2005
The centrepiece of Vedanta is the individual – basically, an issue of answering the question, “Who am I?”
Humans are blessed with the faculties of both language and cognition, which allows one to be self-conscious and also to express that self-cognition.
Mynah birds (coal-grey body with yellow beak and legs) are very chatty birds that talk among themselves, but also have the cognition of recognizing their kind, of seeking food, of building nests. But they don’t have thoughts about themselves.
On the other hand, people as a result of their self-cognition end up having all sorts of thoughts and opinions about themselves – positive and negative and sometimes complex.
Imagine if cattle had these same complexes – looking in the mirror and deciding its horns were too straight or curved, or its color was all wrong. What to do? Go to a salon to get some body work done? Or each day push the straight horn against a wall to curve it a little bit over time? Imagine the cow’s unhappiness.
Imagine if we could take a poll of everyone in the room with respect to the basic question, Are you happy with yourself and the basic elements of your life? Chances are, people will answer with the equivalent of the Indian head wobble. Comme ci, comme ca.
We do the best we can do, but we often don’t get it right. We go too far, or we don’t go far enough. We say too much, too little, the wrong thing at the wrong time.
We know where we are unhappy and generally aware of our shortcomings but we don’t like others to point it out because it makes us even more uncomfortable with ourselves.
First we feel our own guilt for the things done or not done. We get into saying, “I should have…”, but if someone points out our failing, we feel guilt all over again for allowing our faults to be so visible that others can observe them.
Sometimes it’s difficult when someone says, hey, you’re looking good. Yet we say to ourselves, oh no, don’t ask me how it’s going, because only I know what a mess I am inside. We are all too well aware of our own self-limitations.
Even twins do not have the ability to read the other’s mind.
People generally have a certain level of self-awareness via the conscious mind. And although we know it exists, we’re not capable of knowing anything about the unconscious mind. And as the body ages, memory fails – we forget facts, can’t put a name to a face.
Although we have so much baggage in terms of self-awareness of limitations, we always retain the possibility of letting go of those ideas of self-limitation. It’s not that our limitations disappear, it’s just that we can let go and stop torturing ourselves with the ever-present cognition of them.
In sleep (and in meditation) we are capable of dropping the notions of self-limitation and thus become happy with ourselves.
Everyone knows what it’s like to be happy – to be free from wanting, lacking, feeling incomplete. And in those brief moments when we are free, we become acceptable to ourselves.
No matter what our circumstances, irrespective of time and place, we would like to be free of wanting what we do not have or wanting to be what we are not.
The first question is, Do I want to be happy? The second question is, Do I know how to be happy? Answers: yes and no. If we knew how to be happy, we would not have become unhappy. If the means to be happy are not available, then the expectation to be happy is not legitimate.
How to discover who I am and how to be happy with that irrespective of time and place is the subject of Vedanta.
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