2) MODERN Advaita
Swami Vivekananda, in the end of 19th Century, was a key figure in a second revival of Hinduism, and in spreading its philosophies and practice to the West. He was a strong proponent of Advaita Vedanta, and that was “the principal reason for the enthusiastic reception of yoga, transcendental meditation and other forms of Indian spiritual self-improvement in the West.”
Ramana attained full Enlightenment at the age of 16, after doing Self-Enquiry (atma vichara) only once. For the rest of his life, he lived and taught in Tiruvannamalai, in South India.
The teachings, realization, and worldview that came from his Enlightenment are in accordance with those of Advaita Vedanta, even though he did not have a master in this tradition. The practice he advised, however, was different than that of traditional Advaita.
The Self is already realized; it is the only reality, already here and now. The only thing that needs to be done is to dissolve the illusion of being an individual, a separate “I”, along with all the mental conditionings (vasanas) that support the existence of this ego. This, Ramana says, is directly achieved either by:
- Self-enquiry — seeking the source or the true nature of our individual I, until it gets dissolved in the Heart, or pure awareness (path of knowledge, jnana)
- Self-surrender — surrendering this “I” to God or the Guru, with the feeling of completely giving it up (path of devotion, bhakti)
So, instead of meditating on our identity with Brahman, or mentally rejecting identification with phenomena, the Maharshi advises us to dissolve the ego by seeking its Source, or by surrendering it.
Sri Ramana says that only a mind that is extremely mature, sattvic, introverted, and calm is able to fully dissolve in the Heart, resulting in Liberation; before this, it will simply be drawn here and there by its own tendencies. As the sage says, “Self-enquiry begins when you cling to your Self and are already off the mental movement, the thought waves.”
Even though the Self is the only reality, there is a clear instruction that spiritual practice is essential. He continuously emphasized that only a “ripe mind” will be able to easily find Liberation. For all other seekers, a long period of “drying up” through purposeful spiritual practice was needed.
The Maharshi also made clear that actions have their consequences, and one must not feel that “anything goes”, because “everything is unreal”. Despite being hard-core non-dualist, he also accepted the role of dualistic devotion to God, and gave recommended this path to many aspirants who had this inclination.
Another difference is that the Maharshi never advised anyone to become monastics. He taught that true renunciation is mental rather than material/physical, and advised people to follow the life natural to their condition, but without the concept that there is an individual “I” that performs the actions and reaps their consequences.
We can say that Swami Vivekananda and Ramana Maharshi “secularized” and “modernized” Advaita Vedanta, making it practical for seekers from different walks of life.
Just as a piece of coal takes long to be ignited, a piece of charcoal takes a short time, and a mass of gunpowder is instantaneously ignited, so it is with grades of men coming in contact with Mahatmas.
— Ramana Maharshi
Ramana was a pragmatist, and put no emphasis in an intellectual understanding of spirituality. This did not prevent him, however, from recommending the study of several traditional Advaita texts, including: Yoga Vasishta, Ashtavakra Gita, Avadhuta Gita, Ribhu Gita, Advaita Bodha Deepika, Ellam Ondre.
Another iconic 20th century Advaita master was Nisargadatta Maharaj (1897~1981).
To a great extent, his teachings were very similar to those of Sri Ramana Maharshi, and the main spiritual practice that was advised by him was to hold on to the inner feeling of “I Am”, and to reject identification with body, mind, and everything that is perceived.