The Vedanta tradition has a long, glorious history. The Vedas serve as the foundation for the ritual life of India. Their associated Upanisads comprise the philosophical substratum for all later schools of Indian thought. Vedic seers or rsis composed hymns and taught them to their children and grand- children. The oral transmission of the Vedas and Upanisads texts has ensured their integrity through more than two millennia. This method of recitation and memorization continues, unbroken, into present times. However, until the publication of this book, we have not had a clear sense of the depth of commitment and the complex nature of this very specialized form of training. This book conveys the rigors of such training as practiced today.
Throughout India, Vedic schools continue to receive young Brahmin boys for training to preserve these ancient texts. For a period of several years, the boys reside with their teachers and learn to recite the Vedas and the Upanisads, and it is with this foundation that a smaller number study Sankaracarya's commentaries on the Upanisads and the Brahma Siaras. This very specific philosophical perspective allows the advertisement of a coherent world view that has come to characterize what is popularly known as Advaita Vedanta, the non-dual school of Hinduism.
For more than a year, Joel Dubois lived at Sringeri Math in the state of Karnataka, south India. He also visited Bangalore, Mattur, and other sites, living alongside young Brahmins in training. In this remarkable book, he captures the sounds, sights, and tastes of India's Brahmin schools and centers of study, conveying a sense of what he calls the "hidden lives" of young people who later emerge to carry on the tradition of Advaita Vedanta. In elegant, descriptive language, Dubois evokes the mood and energy of the daily life followed by these young men as they prepare for highly specialized careers. For them, the Upanisads and the works of Sankaracarya come alive every day, culminating in a celebration of the great insight that "you yourself are already the paramatman, the supreme self of all beings, the ineffable, the transcendent reality known as brahman, the goal which everyone is seeking" (see chapter 1, p. 6). With great exuberance, Dubois invites the reader to participate, to enter into the world of Vedanta, to partake in the joy of an embodied philosophy and way of life committed to the elevation of consciousness.
Of particular significance in this study are the often-neglected first book of the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, the teachings of Yajnavalkya later in that same text, and the in sights of the Taittiriya Upanisad. Dubois demonstrates how the wisdom of Sankara draws deeply from these materials and continues to shape the lives of young Brahmins. A combination of ethnography and text study, this book sheds new light on the living tradition of Sankaracarya's Advaita Vedanta, revealing its vital presence within India today.
Why Another Book About Vedanta?
The term vedanta ("the limit of veda") most literally refers to upanisads. These are works found towards the limit, or end, of the collection of hymns, ritual formulas, proclamations and stories known as "veda," which Hindu brahmanas (Brahmins) chant and memorize up to the present day. The term "vedanta" also implies that such sources describe the limit, the highest goal, to which all of veda points; thus by extension the same term designates a philosophy that many would argue stretches back nearly three millennium to the time of the earliest upanisads. The signature claim of this philosophy is that brahman, the one expansive reality that mysteriously encompasses and connects all things, is the true self of every living being. Many regard the eighth-century teacher Sankara Bhagavatpada as the single most important upholder and systematizer of advaita or "non-dual" vedanta, this philosophy's dominant branch.'
A search of the on line WorldCat database yields a list of nearly three thousand works in libraries worldwide dealing with advaita vedanta, slightly over a third of them in English, and an equal number addressing vedanta more broadly. Why then another book on this same topic?
This study is one of only a handful that considers in detail the practices of teachers and students associated with the vedanta tradition throughout its history, which are largely hidden from view in most books about vedanta. There is much of value in research focusing on the conceptual dimension of Sankara's teaching." yet such works leave out the embodied dimension of vedanta. Without a clear sense of what real people do each day as they reflect on vedanta teachings, many readers find it difficult to discern the relevance of those teachings. Indeed, some foreign scholars focusing on the seemingly more colorful, rival traditions of Hindu Tantra imply that vedanta is too boring to merit further attention.' Prior to understanding vedanta's embodied context, I myself compared reading studies and summaries of vedanta to being airlifted to the peak of a majestic mountain in an opaque box; being told to enjoy the view from inside that box; and then brought down again without ever gaining a full view of either the summit or that which leads to it. This strange variant on the mountain climbing analogy often associated with spiritual questing highlights what is missing in primarily conceptual approaches to vedanta, both in India and abroad. Such approaches assume but do not explicitly describe the embodied practices that accompany conceptual engagement in the vedanta quest.
The following brief survey identifies the broader currents of scholarship from which my own work flows. Early on in my graduate studies, I was inspired by Mircea Eliade's references to anthropocosmic thinking in the world religions, especially Indian yoga traditions, which sees macrocosmic reality intertwined with the microcosm of embodied human experience." This characterization led me to question the dominant academic approaches to vedanta, which see it narrowly depicting the human microcosm as illu- sory and the macrocosm of brahman as a homogenous unity; in contrast, this book describes the rich interweaving of the human and the transcendent in vedanta practice. I was also encouraged by the work of anthropologists and religious studies scholars highlighting the way sacred word is used in the context of lived practice.! such scholarship showcases effective models for integrating ethnography and investigation of historical sources, many aspects of which I have adopted." When I originally planned the field research that informs my reconstruction of Sankara's teaching in this book, which I carried out primarily in 1998-99, I found that two scholars had initiated the ethnographic study of Sankara's contemporary followers. The late William Cenkner (1983) interviewed heads of the centers of teaching and worship (ma/has-pronounced "mutt") affiliated with Sankara's lineage; Cenkner's study compares what he found with descriptions of the teacher-student (gurusisya) relationship by Sankara, his predecessors, and his later followers. Subsequently Yoshitsugu Sawai (1992) focused on the role of faith (sraddha) in Sankara's tradition, interviewing lay brahmanas and renouncers affiliated with the south Indian center at Srngeri; Sawai's book analyzes these findings in light of one influential account of Sailkara's life. It was Cenkner who advised me to study at one of the two southern centers associated with Sankara; Sawai's accounts pointed me to Srngeri and provided valuable background information.
Concurrently, several primarily textual studies drawing attention to Sankara's dynamic teaching method encouraged me to examine Sankara's works with an eye to inferring the lived practice of those whom he taught. Anantanand Rambachan (1991) corrects misunderstandings about the role of veda as the primary source of revelatory insight in Sankara's teaching, and in the process clarifies the way that concrete attention to language guides the attention of those addressed by that teaching. Sengaku Mayeda (1992) independently corroborates many of Rambachan's conclusions in the introduction to his translation of Sankara's Upadesa Sahasri. Based on a thorough examination of the Brahma Sutra Bhasya and its commentaries, Clooney (1993) notes the paradox that Sankara's vedanta points to "an evident, universally available truth which commands assent"-i.e., the truth of brahman's transcendence, which cannot be captured in words-"but it is available only under certain pedagogically prescribed circumstances"-that is, a clearly defined process of rigorous textual study (119). More broadly, the work of Patrick Olivelle, Stephanie Jamison, and William Mahony helped me locate Sankara within the broader context of brahmana tradition and provided clear models for textual detective work.
Finally, during the nearly ten year revision period that led from my dissertation to this book, I have found several other writers independently confirming my own conclusion that the particulars of brahmana ritual and pedagogical method are essential to the vedanta quest as understood by Sankara, Roger Marcaurelle's meticulous study of the concept of renunciation in Sankara's works (2000) emphasizes the extent to which brahmana ritual and contemplative practices are central to Sankara's worldview." Of equal importance, building on Clooney's observations about vedanta's prescribed pedogogy, Jacqueline Suthren Hirst (1996 & 2005) systematically surveys the way that Sankara's commentaries, which she emphasizes simulate the role of the vedanta teacher, echo and extend the upanisads' own vivid use of stories, analogies, and contemplative techniques. A central aim of Suthren Hirst's work is to "stress the pedagogical value of the world" for Sankara, in contrast to the common assumption among exponents of vedanta that the world of multiplicity, being merely an obstacle to knowing brahman, is of little importance to him (2005, 89-90).9 Recent thematic studies by other authors indirectly provide further support for this new characterization of Sankara's work.'
This book takes the next step in the trajectory suggested by the above-mentioned research: observing more closely the ritual practice and pedagogical method of ordinary brahmana teachers and students, and then using the details of that ritual and pedagogy to highlight the practice context of Sailkara's teaching brought to light by Marcaurelle and Suthren Hirst. I expand on key examples from two upanisad commentaries that have been recognized by these and other recent scholars as more than marginal appendages to Sankara's more systematic works, as they were typically viewed in the past. Ethnographic observation allows me to identify clearly the settings and people whose dynamic teaching and learning process is reflected in Sankara's writings, but whose colorful features remain largely hidden from view even in recent analytical descriptions of that process.
Readers will naturally enter the book at different points. Those primarily interested in Indian culture and Hindu traditions may feel most drawn to study the overviews of chapters 1,2,5, and 8. Those with sociological inter- ests may instead be drawn to the vignettes of chapters 1, 3, 6, and 9, which deal with brahmana study settings rarely described for English-speaking audiences outside of India. Specialists in vedanta and Sanskrta (Sanskrit), finally, may be inclined to turn first to the in-depth analyses of Sankara's commentaries in chapters 4, 7, and 10. My hope, however, is that all will consider at least briefly the interweaving of these different perspectives on vedanta and thereby perceive dimensions or "lives" of the tradition that have previously been hidden from their view.
Many have offered encouragement and advice to help bring this book to its completion. The work would of course have been impossible without my mother Monique; my late father Andre, who passed away shortly after the final manuscript was submitted for production, and to whom it is dedicated; as well as my stepmother Marie-Claude, whose interest and moral support have been invaluable. Long before I had any idea I would grow up to be a religious studies scholar, my grandparents Margueritte and Theodore nurtured in me an undying sense of enthusiasm, optimism, and curiosity, with a little help from other grandparents' genes, many Belgian aunts and uncles, and the records of our culture hero Jacque Brel, Among the many who deepened this curiosity, I remember especially two teachers of the theatrical arts, David Downs and the late Michael Lewis; John Grimes, whose interactive talks awakened in me a fascination with vedanta; and my mother's life partner, Heinz Arnheiter, genetic researcher and chef extraordinaire. More remotely, the scholars of seminal works listed earlier, most of whom I have not met, inspired me with their meticulous attention to details and penetrating analyses of veda and vedanta.
I am especially concerned to acknowledge the many good-natured citizens of Srngeri and other parts of Karnataka who welcomed and assisted me during 1998-99, though I cannot mention them all by name. At Srngeri, I owe special debts to Aryamba and Rames, in whose store I learned much of my Kannada; atesa and his family, who showed heroic restraint in not adding the standard dose of chile peppers to the many meals they cooked for me; my Sarnskrta tutors and the teachers and the students of the town's brahrnana school; His Holiness Bharati Tirtha and his able administrator Gauri Sankara, who gave both formal blessings and practical assistance; and Prasant Srngeri for many of the enlivening photographs included in this book. I am also especially grateful to all those at Bengalur, Mattur and other sites who offered food, lodging, advice, and the chance simply to observe their way of life to a non-brahmana visitor, despite his outsider status. Thanks, finally, to the brahrnacarinl Padmavati, Atrnanandendra Sarasvati and all the sannyasins and vedanta teachers who repeatedly reminded me of my goal: to understand the impact of Sankara's vedanta teaching on real people.
Sorting through the mass of words I wrote in attempting to capture the insights gained from this research has tested the patience of many, especially those who read the self-absorbed meanderings of the original dissertation. My "little" brother Laurent, now several years my senior in the academic world, offered invaluable advice at all stages of the project. Among my dissertation advisers, John Carman, whose own work balances sensitivity to both historical context and individual adherents' perspectives, provided for me a living example of ideals articulated by Dutch phenomenologists Gerardus van der Leeuw and William Brede Kristensen. I learned much from his willingness to let the messiness of detailed investigation remain untamed for a while, trusting that some systematic interpretative framework would in its own time emerge." Stephanie Jamison and Francis Clooney not only read numerous drafts but also precisely identified the substantial flaws of the original work, urging me to curb the tendency to overwriting to which I am so prone; their words continued to guide my revision efforts long after they offered them. William Fisher kindly offered his perspective as an anthropologist. Far off campus, meanwhile, my spiritual counselor Robert Alter and several family members moved me by studying the laborious detail of the finished dissertation. During the years of revising the work, numerous colleagues at meetings of the American Oriental Society responded to papers featuring material from the book, and several generously read drafts of my chapters. My department colleagues at the California State University, Sacramento, offered frequent encouragement, and helped to improve my writing through our collaboration on a world religions text. I also twice received assistance from the Research and Creative Activities Award program, which likewise depends on the review of academic colleagues. Last but not least, the anonymous readers of the finished manuscript offered precise critiques and suggestions; Nancy Ellegate, production manager Diane Ganeles and their dedicated staff at SUNY Press, as well as several of my own student assistants, exhibited exemplary patience with deferred deadlines and special requests on my part; and finally Celeste Newbrough provided the thoughtful and finely detailed index.
Finally and most personally, my wife Beth has for more than twenty years expressed unwavering faith in my work despite the many challenges I have faced, despite having no idea what she was signing up for when she agreed to marry an aspiring scholar. She has also repeatedly reminded me to make our family's needs a top priority, no matter how important the book sometimes seemed; without this guiding voice I would long ago have lost touch with my heart. My son Theodore entered the world as the dissertation was near completion, just as my daughter Zoe arrived as I was beginning the final phase of revision. Their presence certainly extended the writing process, but having them in my life kept me perpetually entertained and saved me from being at my computer for too many hours at a time. Additionally, many of the insights expressed in these pages came to me while rocking them sweetly in my arms at the end of days of writing; and in the final stages of revision, Theodore helped with proofreading! Lastly, while I do not consider myself a follower of Sankara and am certainly no brahmana, working on this book has filled me with a deep sense of respect and gratitude for the ancient lineage of sages who have passed on the insights of the upanisads. I extend this thanks especially to the contemporary teachers whose example awakened in me, in my late teens, the desire to explore the mysterious expanse of the mind and heart by establishing a daily practice of contemplative sitting. I am pleased to count this book as one of the acts of outward service inspired by such inward exploration.
Pronunciation of Sanskrit Words
The Hidden Lives of Sailkara's Vedanta Teaching
Attending to Brahman:
Upasana Practice Past and Present
Learning Brahman: The Daily Life of the Brahmacarin
Envisioning Veda: First-Person Declarations
in Sankara's Upanisad Commentaries
Conditioning the Mind for Brahman:
Samskrta Training Past and Present
Perfecting the Life of Brahman:
The Training of the Samskrta Pandita
Perfecting the Vedic Imagination: Imagery and
Rhetoric in Sankara's Upanisad Commentaries
Thinking Deeply About Brahman:
The Two Mimamsas, the Lost Art of Yajna, and the
Hidden Structure of Brahman
Giving Up the Inconstant Brahman:
Contemporary Samnyasins and Aspiring Renouncers
Discerning the Paradox of Veda: Ritual Activity
and Insight in Sankara's Upanisad Commentaries
Conclusion: Brahman as Center and Periphery
Appendix: Diagrams of Key Concepts
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