Yoga was born in India—we all know that. But most of us know very little about the context in which it was born and even less about why it had a profound influence on the culture of ancient India. This lack of knowledge about Yoga’s origins has created an environment in which this profound and comprehensive discipline has been dismantled and practiced piecemeal.
Many of us see Yoga as a series of exercises for making our bodies strong and flexible. Others regard it as a meditative discipline for enhancing mental well-being. And still others see Yoga as an esoteric means for inducing mystical experiences. But a thoughtful study of the Yogic scriptures and the lives of the ancient masters shows that Yoga philosophy and metaphysics are a direct outcome of the unitary experiences of the sages. Yoga practices were designed by the sages and masters to enable anyone—from any culture or walk of life—to attain this experience of oneness. Because this experience allows no room for duality or a sense of separation, it came to be known as Advaita (non-dualism). Because it is the epitome of human experience, it came to be known as Vedanta (the culmination of knowledge or spiritual experience.) The two terms are often used interchangeably.
The Vedantic ideals embodied in Sanskrit literature so elevate human consciousness that our thoughts, speech, and actions naturally conform to that exalted level. The tradition of Vedanta is so vast and so firmly rooted in a unitary understanding of reality that all other experiences, regardless of how dualistic they appear, find their rightful place in this all-inclusive model of self-discovery.
The civilization of ancient India was imbued with the Vedantic worldview. Down through the centuries, empires and kingdoms rose and fell as emperors, kings, and feudal lords fought among themselves, but India, as a civilization grounded in a non-dualistic worldview, remained essentially unaffected. This effect was especially striking up through the end of the eighth century CE. Throughout this long interval, waves of invaders—Huns, Kushans, and Mongols, along with their faiths, beliefs, and customs—became an integral part of this great land.
This process of integration, assimilation, and absorption continued as long as Vedantic ideals permeated the minds and hearts of the populace. But as the people of India began to forget their non-dualistic orientation, ethnic and religious strife emerged. Not only did Hindus and Muslims clash but different camps within these two great religions came to be at odds. Vaishnavites and Shaivites began quarreling, while Sunnis began treating the Shia minority with scorn. This communal rivalry so weakened India that the British invaders were able to “divide and rule” with relative ease. Today, with awareness of their essential oneness a relic of the past, various religious and ethnic groups are pitted against each other throughout the Indian subcontinent.
Instead of focusing on the underlying reality binding us together, we are choosing to focus on what drives us apart.
This rising tide of violence and unrest has its source in a dualistic understanding of what it means to be human and is by no means confined to India. Religious and political extremism, an addiction to our separate identities, and the urge to prove ourselves right and others wrong—the fruit of a dualistic worldview—is sweeping the globe. Instead of focusing on the underlying reality binding us together, we are choosing to focus on what drives us apart. The consequences of this divisive mind-set can be seen in the religious strife between Christians and Muslims in Bosnia, the Ivory Coast, Cyprus, East Timor, Indonesia, Kosovo, Kurdistan, Macedonia, Nigeria, the Philippines, Russia, Sudan, and Uganda. Wahhabi and Sufi Muslims are killing each other in Somalia; Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka; Buddhists and Muslims in Thailand; Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in India; and Jews and Muslims in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Sectarian strife is also rampant. A dramatic example is the ongoing war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the Middle East, but other outbreaks of ethnic strife are reflected in news reports from around the world. Attacks against immigrants are on the rise in Australia, Britain, Canada, Europe, South Africa, and the United States. Roma people are attacked in Northern Ireland. Ethnic violence is becoming commonplace in the Congo, Kenya, and the Central African Republic. Riots have erupted between Pashtun- and Urdu-speakers in Pakistan; Uighurs and Han Chinese in China; Tibetans and Han Chinese in Tibet; Bengalis, Assamese, and Boro tribesmen in India; and Greeks and Turks in Cyprus, to list only the most widely reported examples.
And all of this at a time when we are facing a daunting array of global problems requiring far-sighted, collaborative solutions: climate change, widespread environmental degradation, overpopulation, the growing disparity between rich and poor, the scarcity of potable water, and the depletion of oil reserves coupled with a dearth of viable alternative energy sources. Thinking we will find political and military solutions to these challenges is a pipe dream. Each of these problems is rooted in a dualistic paradigm. Until politics rests on the non-dualistic wisdom intrinsic to our deepest selves, and the military serves an all-embracing wholeness, these two powerful forces will remain part of the problem, and our collective problems will continue to snowball.
The only solution is to transform our worldview and then invite that transformed worldview to transform us. Instead of peering at the world through the narrow slit of allegiance to our separate identities, we can raise the blinds, expand our field of vision and see everyone and everything as a luminous projection of an all-embracing field of consciousness. The seers of ancient India applied this expanded vision to themselves and used it as a tool of personal transformation. A qualitative change in the wider world came about as those around them saw the benefits of that transformation and embraced a non-dualist worldview. They did this as a personal choice, not because it was a religious edict. The Vedantic worldview enabled them to see and experience the underlying unity that pervades all forms of diversity. They recognized themselves as part of the natural world and the natural world as part of themselves. This is the view of Vedanta, and from its all-inclusive vantage point, our global problems have obvious and elegant solutions.
Each of us has the capacity to know ourselves for what we are: a living expression of the all-embracing unity that is the hallmark of Vedanta and the birthright of humanity.
Each of us has the capacity to know ourselves for what we are: a living expression of the all-embracing unity that is the hallmark of Vedanta and the birthright of humanity. This vibrant non-dualistic wisdom engenders a transformation from inside out. As it dawns in the minds and hearts of more and more people, Vedantic ideals will come to permeate not only spiritual life but the fields of education, commerce, politics, and religion as well. This article, the fruit of a partnership between Yoga International and Advaita Academy, will serve as a guide and a source of inspiration for accomplishing what the sages have accomplished before us: embracing a non-dualistic worldview and using it as a tool of personal and planetary transformation.
This entire universe and all it contains evolves from one primordial, infinite pool of consciousness, known as Brahman. This is the basic premise of Vedanta. Brahman is at once the source and the essence of everything that exists. We and that Absolute Reality are one and the same. We exist in Brahman and Brahman exists in us. Birth and death, loss and gain, honor and insult are short-lived and, in the final analysis, purely illusory.
Birth and death, loss and gain, honor and insult are short-lived and, in the final analysis, purely illusory.
Another name for Brahman is Isha. At a practical level, Vedantic experience tells us that this world is derived from Isha and exists in Isha. All worldly objects and achievements are obtained through Isha, by Isha, and for Isha. In light of this understanding, work hard and enjoy the objects of the world, but do not covet them and do not mistake them for riches. Live a healthy and peaceful life and contribute to the healthy, peaceful living of others.
Vedanta is not concerned with promoting spiritual experience, philosophies, or ideologies, even those that have direct experience as their source. Rather, Vedanta is interested in taking us all the way to the primordial pool of those experiences. Whether gods and goddesses are real, whether heaven and hell are real, and whether the soul and God are one or different are metaphysical details that unveil their reality as we gain maturity in the non-dualistic experience.
The Vedanta column was published in partnership with Advaita Academy, a UK-based nonprofit organization which aims to increase the public’s awareness of Advaita and facilitate access to its traditional teaching. This will be achieved through a website containing the most comprehensive information available on the subject and a digital library of all Advaita-related material in the English language. Advaita Academy will seek associations and mutual ventures with related organizations and will offer assistance to preserve, research, and promote Advaita.