Flying in India is always a frightening proposition. In a land where daily power outages are more predictable than train schedules, and where traffic signals (when they work) hold about as much authority as The Clean Water Act, the thought that aircraft maintenance and air-traffic control could be anything more than sophisticated guesswork is, at the very least, a stretch. But as our chartered eight-seater twin-prop plane began its descent back into the Bangalore Airport that stormy evening last December, despite the trepidation with which we had begun our journey that morning—and the wind and rain buffeting our thin sheet metal hull—somehow the only experience any of us could relate to was bliss.
Only a few hours before, we had been deep in the jungled foothills of southern Karnataka at the beautiful new ashram of the man we know only as Ajja or “grandfather”—the extraordinary sage of Advaita Vedanta whose moving declarations of absolute freedom graced the pages of our Fall/Winter 1998 issue—a man whose rare spontaneity, uncontainable joy and infectious peace of being had left all of us convinced beyond a doubt that we had encountered one whose ego truly was no more.
Our meeting that afternoon—our third in as many years—had been a seamless experience. As always, Ajja had been welcoming, generous, delightful, radiant—and absolutely uncompromising in his insistence that for him, there is no personal existence. As a delicious South Indian lunch soon gave way to dialogue, in a matter of minutes the discussion was hovering on that most important and delicate topic that always seems to come to the fore when we encounter a teacher of the ancient Indian nondual philosophy of Advaita Vedanta: How does Advaita, a teaching that proclaims the absolute unity of all things, deal with the complexity of the human experience?
Like the words of the great twentieth-century sages Ramana Maharshi and Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj—men immortalized in the modern spiritual canon as legends of nondual attainment—Ajja’s emphatic declarations that “there is nobody here,” “the person who sees has gone” and “there is only bliss, there is no one to experience that bliss” were alive with the undeniable presence of that which is forever beyond time and action, name and form. It was clear from his rare purity and simplicity of being that when Ajja said, “There is no ego,” he was simply articulating his own ongoing experience.
But coming from contemporary America—where two-day Advaita-based “enlightenment intensives” have become the latest addition to the health spa weekend workshop circuit, and where the unreality of the ego is being boldly declared by a “newly awakened teacher” in nearly every town large enough to have a Wal-Mart—we felt it was worth asking whether Advaita, at least in its contemporary Western form, might be oversimplifying the enormous challenge of genuine spiritual transformation. So when we began our research for this issue and simultaneously began planning our tour of India, we had left open the possibility that perhaps, somewhere along our journey in the land of mystery, we would stumble upon someone who could bring further insight to our ongoing questions.
Enter Bannanje Govindacharya. A pundit and guru of great renown, Govindacharya is known throughout India as a man for whom the scriptures are second nature. With over fifty books and five hundred published articles to his name, the largely self-taught teacher draws enormous audiences nationwide to his public discourses on Vedanta and many other aspects of Indian religion and philosophy. He had first come to our attention two years before as the legendary pundit who had “discovered” the previously unknown Ajja—a fact all the more interesting in light of his own philosophical allegiances. For although Govindacharya is regarded by many to be one of India’s foremost experts in Advaita philosophy and had the eyes to recognize Ajja, one of the purest expressions of nondual attainment in modern times, he himself is not an advaitin, but a dvaitin or dualist—a proponent of the devotional Tattwavada school of Vedanta which, in contrast to Advaita, does not deny the reality of the manifest world. Curious to find out what this avowed dualist would have to say about the modern incarnation of Advaita that is capturing the imagination of so many Western seekers, we had been hoping to at some point have the opportunity to speak with him. By luck, our chance to do so all but fell in our laps when a few of Govindacharya’s disciples attended a talk by our spiritual teacher, What Is Enlightenment? founder Andrew Cohen. Eager to arrange a dialogue between the two teachers, they invited us to join them at the pundit’s home on the evening of our return from Ajja’s ashram.
As our plane touched down with a lightness and agility that seemed to paint the morning’s fears as merely the play of maya [illusion], our group was abuzz with talk of the coming meeting. What would this classical pundit have to say about Vedanta’s views on the ego? Would he only be a man of knowledge or would he also be a man of experience? Looking forward to what the next leg of our journey would bring, we thanked our pilots for our safe deliverance and climbed aboard a motor-rickshaw, hoping we would fare as well in our journey across town as we had in India’s friendly skies.
ANDREW COHEN: In spiritual traditions where moksha [liberation] is the goal, it is often said that the ego is the one fundamental obstacle on the path. In my own teaching, for example, I speak about the ego as pride or arrogant self-importance, as this very intense, profound need within the individual to see themselves as being separate from the whole. How would you define “ego” from the point of view of Vedanta?
BANNANJE GOVINDACHARYA: In Indian philosophy, “ego” has different shades of meaning. The ego is not only pride or self-importance or arrogance. In the most basic sense, ego means awareness of the self. This is the subtle ego, what’s called ahamkara in Sanskrit. And that is wanted; that is not to be denied, not to be rejected. Awareness of self is a very essential part of practice. First I must know: What am I? In order to have the awareness of God, I must first have the awareness of my own self. This is the required ego. One must have it. It is not to be denied by practice or by any other spiritual pursuit. It is there even in the deep sleep state. Even in moksha you are aware of your own self, with awareness of God simultaneously. So this is one kind of ego.
And then there is the dangerous ego. That ego means self-importance or pride. That is the gross ego. And that is always dangerous in the practice of the spiritual. Krishna says in Bhagavata, “If you’ve acquired a knowledge, wisdom or philosophy, don’t be egotistic.” Don’t think, “I have learned this, I am a scholar because I did this.” No, this should not be there. Even after knowledge, surrender should be there, submission should be there. Then you will be knowledgeable. Otherwise that knowledge is dangerous. If you want to realize God, you must erase this ego, this self-importance or pride.
AC: Shankara said that the ego is the only obstacle to moksha and it’s what the sadhaka [spiritual practitioner] must make every effort to liberate themselves from. Would you say that he was referring to this sense of self-importance or pride?
BG: Yes. This tamasic or gross ego. When you say, “I’m superior to all, I am great, I am learned, I am special.” This should not be there. If one wants to reach moksha, this is to be avoided in any type of sadhana [spiritual practice].
AC: Wouldn’t you say, though, that for all except the fully liberated one, there’s some gross ego functioning, still active?
BG: Yes. On a certain level, it is there. Of course, to some degree, these forces can be overcome through learning. But the dangerous thing is that by learning, one may also develop ego.
AC: It usually happens, right?
AC: Because there’s pride in knowledge, pride in knowing. And this can be difficult to eradicate.
BG: Yes, that is correct.
AC: Also, it’s possible that one could have powerful spiritual experiences, a powerful awakening, deep realization, and even be proud of that.
BG: There are so many levels of realization. And sometimes what appears to be realization is actually a totally false realization. There can be realization that exists entirely in the mental world; it is only a mental experience. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says, “You perceive the world through the glass of your belief. You don’t see it how it is.” So if your belief is wrong in the very beginning, the foundation is wrong. You can build a big castle of realization, but the entire castle will collapse.
AC: In the West at this time, there’s literally an explosion of interest in Advaita philosophy, mainly due to the influence of Ramana Maharshi, Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, H.W.L. Poonja and Ramesh Balsekar. And there are also now a number of Western teachers propagating the advaita or nondual teachings. In Advaita, what is emphasized is the unreality of the world—the unreality of manifest existence. And in that, what’s being stressed by many teachers is also the unreality of the ego. Therefore, it is said that the sadhaka need not make any effort to struggle against the negative ego in their pursuit of inner freedom because the very object that they’re trying to free themselves from—the ego—is merely an illusion. The teaching goes: Simply realize that the ego never existed and then live happily in the knowledge of one’s own inherent freedom.
Now my view on this is that it’s only the rarest of rare realized persons who could get away with saying such a thing—that the ego is an illusion—and that therefore one need not make any effort to liberate oneself from its corrupting influence. Indeed, only the rarest of rare individuals, someone like Ramana Maharshi or Ajja, could say something that absolute, that outrageous, and it actually be true. Why? Because those rarest of rare beings are already finished—their ego has been utterly destroyed, burnt in the fire of spiritual experience until there was nothing left. But to encourage a seeker who is very, very far away from that kind of extraordinary attainment to presume that their ego is an illusion appears to be a dubious form of instruction. In fact, it could be dangerous in some cases because it opens the door for self-deception and/or self-indulgence. The seeker could easily, under the guise of enlightened understanding, abandon all effort to censor or control impure motivations or tendencies that actually do exist within them. In other words, “Well, the ego doesn’t exist; everything is unreal, so nothing really matters anyway.”
BG: Just to deny ego is of no consequence at all. If somebody merely says that they have no ego, that is ego—that is the greatest ego. “I don’t have ego so I need not reject it” is a foolish statement. Somebody who says, “I don’t have ego,” is at the same time expressing his ego. This is against our experience. It’s just escapism through philosophy. These people say the ego is false and not existent and that therefore they don’t have to reject it. But what is existent then? Does that mean everything is nonexistent? Then why practice? Practice is nonexistent! If the whole thing is false, if it doesn’t exist, and if only the real essence exists, then why practice? A realized person can say that they don’t have ego because it is a self-assessment; it is not self-assertion. They can say it. But not all people can say it. It is not a common, general statement.
You see, the problem is that in Advaita there is no acknowledgment of individuality. Advaita says that all is only one Atman [Self]. But Advaita is just a certain sect in India; it’s not the whole of Indian philosophy. In fact, Shankara, who lived in the seventh century, was the only major Indian philosopher who preached Advaita. Later philosophers—Ramanuja, Bhaskara, Nimbarka, Madhva—everybody condemns Shankara. Nobody accepts him. But nowadays, Advaita has become a fashion.
AC: In Advaita philosophy, the world of appearances, or the world of manifestation, is rejected.
BG: In Advaita, the world doesn’t exist. It did not exist, does not exist and will not exist. It is only illusory—it seems to be real, but it doesn’t exist. And in Advaita, because they believe the world is nonexistent, they don’t give any importance to it. And then, in fact, they cannot give importance to sadhana either. It is not necessary because essentially you are Atman. But the world is real. We live in this world and we face the problems of this world. Sorrow is there, pain is there, bliss is also there—everything is there. Everything is real. So, there is meaning to life. Otherwise, there is no meaning. And if there is no meaning to life, there is no meaning to liberation—because you are already liberated. This bondage is a false notion, that’s all. There is nothing. There is no meaning to liberation. There is no meaning to practice. But if it is real, you have to swim this ocean and reach the other shore.
So, what is moksha? According to Shankara there is no individual moksha. Everything becomes one, that’s all. But Madhva says practice is individual, realization is individual and even moksha is also individual. The perfection of yourself is your moksha. Perfection of myself is my moksha. We are like seeds. If you sow a seed, it becomes a tree and is full. So the fullness of the growth of that tree is the perfection of that seed. So the perfect growth—the perfection of your own personality—is moksha. It is not for you to become like someone else, and not for you to become one with all. You must become your own self.