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Journey to Non-Duality: An Interview with Acharya Sadananda

At a time when many consider Science and Spirituality as being opposed to each other, we have a few rare people among us who have successfully pursued both, simultaneously. One such rare person is Acharya Dr Kuntimaddi Sadananada.

Acharya Sadananda is a Materials Scientist by profession who worked at United States Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) as Head of Deformation and Fracture and retired in 2005. He has published extensively in Scientific Archival Journals and received many awards and recognition. He was also a visiting professor at Indian Institute of Technology Madras at Chennai, India.

On the spiritual front, Acharya is a disciple of Swami Chinmayanandaji and was a founding trustee of the Chinmaya Mission’s Washington Regional Center as well as the Siva Vishnu Temple in Lanham, Maryland, USA. He began teaching Vedanta in 1988 and became a formal Acharya or spiritual teacher of Chinmaya Mission in 1997. He is also among the prominent Advaita teachers associated with Advaita Academy and webcasts his Vedanta lectures through the platform.

In his latest book ‘Journey Beyond: A Non-Dual Approach’, Acharya compiles his discussions and writings on Advaita Vedanta that he had written over the years. On behalf of Indic Today, I interviewed Acharya Sada ji on his book and life journey.

1. Namaste Sada ji. Many Congratulations on your latest book. Can you please tell us more about the book, how it was conceptualized, what are the themes covered, and to what kind of audience does the book intends to address.

Sadaji: Nithinji – PraNAms. Thank you very much. This book is a collection of my online discussions on Advaita groups covering nearly ten years up to 2004. Someone has collected them from various groups and sent them to me. They were in the chronological order. I reorganized them based on the subject. My wife came up with the current title since the central theme is transcendental, in contrast to the scientific papers that I write. Shree Aravinda Rao summarizes the essential content of the book. He says, “The book presents a panoramic picture of seekers from different cultural, social and intellectual backgrounds. There are perplexing questions posed by students of other religious backgrounds. There are answers to different levels of students. The book will be of great use not only to the students of Vedanta but also to the teachers of Vedanta. It shows how a modern teacher of Vedanta would encounter a variety of questions from persons from a variety of disciplines and how the teacher should be adequately knowledgeable to handle them”. I concur with him.

2. I understand that the book is available in three volumes and as the name itself indicates, it is an outcome of your journey, your personal studies and interaction with others over many years regarding Advaita Vedanta. Can you please share more about your journey into Advaita, your experiences from interaction with others, and how they have impacted upon your life?

Sadaji: It is a journey beyond time, space, or object-wise limitations that the very word Advaita indicates. It is non-duality in spite of the apparent duality. I was looking for the absolute truth that transcends all dualities. Coming from the science background I recognized that the subject, I, cannot be objectified, and yet I have a problem of realization of my true self without objectification. This very inquiry involves the mind which itself is objectifiable. I was at crossroads, nowhere to go. It was at that time, I happened to attend Swami Chinmayandaji’t talks at the American University. The logic of the spirituality that he presented, captured my heart and that was beginning of my journey beyond. Few of Advaita-friends that I met, some personally and some online, got together and started the internet discussion group. During the discussions, I had encountered many types of seekers. These discussions forced me to study and think before I respond to the questions posed. I encountered many knowledgable people on the list from whom I learned a lot, particularly scholars like Shreeman S.N Sastri, Prof.V. Krishnamurthy, Shree Subramanian, Dr Aravinda Rao, etc. My thinking also evolved during the years, as one can feel from these discussions.

3. In your dedication of the book, you note that you come from Vishishtadvaita Sampradaya and your father was a staunch follower of Vishishtadvaita. In one of the chapters, you also mention that you have studied Vishishtadvaita philosophy under Sreeman S.M.S. Chari. So, how did your introduction to Advaita Vedanta happen? How did your parents, especially your father, respond to this?

Sadaji: My father has written many books on Vishishtadvaita, and he was even offered the Parakalamatadipati position, which he declined. Shreeman S.M.S Chari Mama stayed with me when he came to the US, and at my request, he taught me Shree Bashya of Brahmasutra. I was particularly interested in learning Shree Ramanuja’s objections against Advaita in his mahapurvapaksha. I have discussed these aspects in one of the volumes, presenting Shree Ramanuja’s seven untenables' against avidya of Advaita and my responses to the objections. Study of Shree Ramanuja’s criticism helps us to understand Advaita Vedanta better.
About my father’s reaction to my spiritual pursuit, he felt that I was going backwards. Whenever I was with him, he used to flood me with many books of Vishishtadvata for me to study. Later he gave up since I started teaching Advaita. In his own mind, he was happy that I am following a spiritual path that was suitable for my samskara.

4. Sada ji, on the one hand, you are a Material Scientist who had worked at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and on the other hand, you are a traditional Acharya of Advaita Vedanta trained under Swami Chinmayananda. Today, many people find that contradictory and unbelievable. They often see Science and Religion as two opposites- the former being upheld as truth, the latter relegated to a status of faith. What is your take on this? Do you believe Science and Religion, in your case Science and Hindu religion & philosophy, are at the opposite poles? How have you reconciled this apparently, irreconcilable positions in your life as both a scientist and an Acharya?

Sadaji: Training in Science actually, helped me to appreciate the Logic of Vedanta better. I learned later that Veda also means science derived from the word, vid = to know. Hence Vedanta becomes the ultimate science since it includes not only the objective world but also the subject, I, the perceiver of the world. In objective sciences, the more one learns, the more ignorant one becomes since one discovers that there is a lot more to learn. One becomes a super-specialist in a narrower and narrower field. On the other hand, a Vedantic student dares to ask his teacher, ‘Sir, Please teach me, knowing which I will know everything, ‘kasminno Bhagavo vijnaante sarva idam vijnaanam bhavati’’. In fact, I am just completing another text tentatively entitled, ‘The Absolute Truth: A Scientist Perspective’. Actually, the study of Vedanta also helped me in my scientific pursuit too. It helped me to focus on the problem at hand and to try to understand and analyze it correctly, without being concerned about the name, fame or acceptability. In the process, I won many best paper awards in Material Science. Just for the record, Acharya was the title given later by Swami Tejomayandaji, as it helps to spread the Vedantic knowledge much easier.

5. Another trend we see today is that of ‘Spiritual but not Religious’. What is your opinion on this? How practical or even sensible is the position when analysed from a Vedantic perspective?

Sadaji: Yes. Unfortunately, the "religion" word is being misused particularly by the followers of Abrahamic religions that advocate belief systems. We have in Geeta, Yoga-Shastras and Brahma Vidya. One corresponds to these methods to purify the mind which is the essence of any religion, and the other is Science of the Absolute, Vedanta. The word Hinduism is coined later by the others. As you know, it is actually, called Sanatana Dharma. Dharma is that which supports one’s pursuit to discover the absolute truth, which is called moksha. While Upanishads discuss the essence of the absolute, Bhagavat Geeta provides these methods such as yoga to realize the truth pointed by the Upanishads. "Spiritual" is one who follows the Yoga Shastra to help realize the Brahma Vidya.

Coming back to practicality, since the other religious proponents do not care for the absolute truth but only insists on conversion, and advocate the destruction of our traditions, etc, Hindus have to be careful to protect our culture, tradition, and teaching. As Swami Chinmayandaji puts it, we cannot be doormats for others to step on us and destroy our traditional values. Hence one has to follow aggressive goodness than passive goodness until others learn to respect the truth.

6. Tell us about your Guru, Swami Chinmayananda, how you were introduced to him, and your experiences studying under him. Do share some personal anecdotes.

Sadaji: If I start discussing my Guru, Swami Chinmayanandaji, it will be endless. After my exposure to JK’s writings, I was very much against any Swami. I was like Trishanku, neither here nor there, since I discarded the traditional approaches at the same time could not succeed in realizing that pathless land. I became more of an agnostic and started to concentrate more on Material Science. It was at that time, Swami Chinmyanandaji came to Washington DC and was giving lectures at the American University. It so happened, my wife saw the announcement in an Indian Vegetarian restaurant when we went there for an early dinner. She insisted that we should attend the talks which were close by and since Swamiji is a very good speaker. Reluctantly I agreed to attend the talk to please her. In the very first talk, I was impressed by the logic of spiritually, and my rational mind could not dismiss. Next day, to the surprise of my wife, I was ready to attend the Swamiji’s talks on Kenopanishd. In those ten days, I was sitting far behind, and trying to absorb everything he said, yet did not want to meet him personally. After the talks, I wrote him a long letter asking several questions on Vedanta and at the same time criticizing the whole purpose when India is suffering due to lack of basic education and medical facilities. I did not really expect a response from him. To my surprise, I got a letter from him asking me to come to Pittsburgh to meet him. We went yto Pittsburgh and met him.

His first statement was, “ So, you want to help, India!” Then he said, ‘OK, we will help, but you be in charge. We will see how we can raise funds for that. Meanwhile, I want you to learn Vedanta since you have a lot of questions’. He asked me to register for the online course and also start a study group in Washington DC. He formed later a Seva Inc, a philanthropic organization to fund projects in India and made me a Secretary and Treasurer for that. Most of the Gurudhakshana funds were getting channelled to many programs in India under Seva, Inc. In the process, I came to know first hand how Chinmaya Mission operates. I was in correspondence with him all the time, in relation to, Seva Inc. I could see his compassion and care for the people in need. I had a first-hand experience of how a mahatma lives. He was immaculately strict at the same time very kind. I organized his Jnana yagnas and spiritual camps. Every penny that was raised had to be documented with one copy for him, one copy to Central Chinmaya Mission and one copy for the records. He used to check his copy, sign and date it before sending it back. The very fact that he was going to see it, was enough to ensure that every account is clear and correct. That was his discipline. In between, I used to ask a lot of Vedanta questions. He used to answer every question meticulously and until I understood. That forms the basis for my training to answer the questions that were raised in the Advaita discussion groups. There are many other ways he helped my family. For example, I was reluctant to send my daughter, Keerthana, alone to India to learn dance (she was only 6 years old at that time), and my wife insisted that the girl should be sent to India to learn from an authentic teacher in India, but she was not ready to leave me here alone. She complained to Gurudev as we were driving him to Norfolk, VA for his talks. He agreed with her and said that the girl should go to India, and she will go and stay with his mother, learn dance, and also attend the school there. The very night he gave a cable to India to Mrs Leela Nambiar (we call as Amma), that Keerthana is coming and receive her at the airport and make all the arrangements. To make a long story short, Keerthana went and stayed with Nambiar amma in Madras and learned both Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi and also attended Chinmaya Vidyalaya school. Until she was 12th grade she was going regularly every year in summer. Swamiji also used to take her with him to different places in India. She is now an Associate professor at the famous John’s Hopkins Medical School and is also a dance teacher at the Dance Academy that is being run by my wife.
I can go on but will stop here.

7. In one of the chapters that contain your discussion with a Dvaitin, you make interesting comments about Karma, Bhakti, and Jnana. To paraphrase, you note that Bhakti with Karma, makes it Karma Yoga; and Bhakti with Jnana (or the enquiring mind) makes it Jnana Yoga. Can you please elaborate on this and shed light on the mutual relationship between the three for the spiritual progress of an individual?

Sadaji: The whole Vedanta discussion is packed in this question. In the third chapter, Krishna says there only two paths: karma yoga and jnana yoga in the sloka, ‘lokesmin dvividhaa nishTaa..’ Krishna does not state Bhakti yoga as separate yoga since it is an essential ingredient for both karma yoga and jnana yoga.

Karma becomes yoga only when Iswara arpita buddhi and prasaada buddhi are there. That involves offering the action as a prayer to the Lord and accepting the results of the action as His prasaad. Bhakti becomes an essential ingredient for Iswara arpita buddi and prasaada buddhi. In the 9th Ch. Krishna says again, ‘patram pushpam, phalam..’ offer anything to Me with devotion – a leaf, a flower or a fruit, but with full devotion. In the next sloka he says – offer whatever you do or eat, with full devotion and I will accept it, ‘yat karoshi yat ashnaasi…’
I have written a series of articles on Karma yoga, it may be there in the Scientist’s perspective book.

The second path Krishna defined as jnana yoga is discussed in several chapters starting from the Second chapter as part of Sthitaprajna, and later in the 4th, 7th, 9th, 12th, 13th, 14th. In the 4th Ch. Krishna discusses in the sloka brahmaarpanam brahma haviH.. etc. Arpanam is a ladle and which is used to pour ghee into the fire of homam or yagna. The sloka says the ladle is Brahman, meaning it is infinite. How can the finite ladle be infinite Brahman? Since Krishna is making such a declarative statement, it requires deeper thinking. Shree Ramanuja interprets this as – upaasnaayaam samaanadhikaraNam that is for, the purpose of prayer; ladle is visualized as Brahman. Shree Shankara interprets this as part of jnana yoga consistent with the rest of the chapter. It involves the application of bhaaga tyaaga laksana, that is discarding contradictory qualifications and equating only the essence. The essence of Brahman is pure existence-consciousness-bliss. Since ladle exists, existence forms the essence of the ladle without which it cannot exist. The contradictory qualifications are ladle as a finite form while Brahman is infinite. Applying bhaaga-tyaaga lakshaNa, the essence of the ladle, i.e. existence is equated to the essence of Brahman, which is again pure existence. The same lakshana is used to explain the tat tvam asi. Since other than names and forms, the pure existence cannot be seen. To recognize the existence as the essence of not only ladle but all objects in the world, one requires a jnana-ksakhu or wisdom-eye. Hence Krishna says later in that chapter, shraddavan labhate jnaanam, only the one who has full faith in the scriptural statement can gain the knowledge. To develop that capacity is jnana-yoga. Here Bhakti expresses as sharddhaa. Krishna also declares that there is nothing equal comparison to Jnaana yoga -nahi jnaanena sadrusam pavitam iha vidyate. He also declares later that of all the four bhaktas, Jnaani is the supreme bhakta.

8. In another place, you note “upaasana is a means to go beyond upaasana” in the context of meditating on Brahman with a form vs. meditation on the formless. Can you shed more light on this for our readers and how Upaasana is helpful for a spiritual seeker?

Sadaji: Upasana involves conceptualizing all-pervading Iswara in a form that one can appreciate and do the puja. Several symbolic forms are described as Gods in the scriptures to help a seeker who needs to do upaasana. If a required form is not there we can also make a temporary form using some turmeric powder, and invite the particular God that we want to do puja to come into that form. ‘asmin bimbe mahaa ganapatim aavaahayaami or mahaa vishnum aavaahayaami’. Once the Lord is invited to come into that particular form, it is treated as the representative form of the Lord, and all the puja is done following the traditional ritualistic procedure. The external puja is followed by appropriate japa taking the name of the Lord. The puja helps the mind to concentrate on the higher nature of the Lord. Ramana Maharshi says in upadesha saara ‘ puujanam japa chitanm kramaat’ – puja at the physical level, japa, mentally chanting the name of the Lord and finally contemplation of the mind on the nature of the Lord, in that order. Thus upaasana helps the mind to concentrate on something higher.

In Kenopanishad, the teacher uplifts the student’s mind to go beyond the upaasana. He says; ‘yan manasaa na manute, yonahur manomatam, tat eva brahma tvam viddhi nedam yadidam upaasate’ – that which mind cannot think off, but that because of which the mind, has the capacity, to think that alone is Brahman and not this that you worship here’. The upanishad wants the seeker who has purified his mind sufficiently to drop all the external forms used for upaasana and shift his attention to that because of which the mind functions. Thus upaasana helps the mind initially to concentrate on the higher withdrawing the mind from all other external pursuits. Once the mind is sufficiently purified to that mind, the upanishad asks the mind to drop all forms but contemplate on that because of which the mind itself functions. Swamiji was taking this Upanishad when I met him the first time, and these slokas captured my mind to see the beauty of our scriptures which takes the mind beyond all forms. I could appreciate JK’s teachings as well and could see clearly, the need of our scriptures that are ruthlessly honest in pointing out the truth that the all-pervading Lord is not what you worship in some particular form here. Upaasana is only a helping tool to go beyond upaasana.

9. You have dedicated a few chapters to critiquing what can be called as ‘Neo-Vedanta’ or ‘Neo-Advaita’, especially, with respect to their teaching methodology, which you have described as ‘improper’. Can you please elaborate on who are these Neo-Vedantins/Neo-Advaitins, how they are different from ‘traditional Advaita’ and why their teaching approaches are problematic?

Sadaji: Most of the Neo-Vedantins read some books or posts on the websites of J. Krishnamurthy, Ramana Maharshi, or Nisargadatta Maharaj or their followers and think that is the direct path. They even quote Ramana Maharshi’s out of context statement that one need not study the scriptures, without realizing that Bhagavan has selected 100 slokas from Geeta for study. Most of these Neo-Advaitins believe that we do not need to study scriptures and they are only intellectual stuff. It is just a waste of time or only conditions the mind. What we need to is to meditate on ‘Who am I?’. As Shree Dr Aravida Rao puts it, “ the neo-Advaitins who generally read celebrity books like “You Are That”, or “Who Am I” and assume to have become instantly enlightened.”

However, that itself is not a problem. I consider that as a part of their evolution. The problem comes only if they propagate that to others and insists that one should not study the scriptures, as they only confuse the readers. Added to this, we have various Acharyas interpreting the same scriptures differently. We have even books with the title ‘ Bhagavat Geeta as it is’.

The discussion of the Neo-Advaita in the book came about when the proponents of these started posting their views in the Advaitin list. As a Chief Moderator of the list at that time, I had to respond to their posts. Scriptures are very clear that one has to approach a teacher and study, and reflect on the teaching until there are no more doubts, and then contemplate on the truth expounded by the scriptures.

Problem with Neo-Advaitins comes only when they start teaching their (mis)understanding to others. They also run several meditation camps with that theme. The Only way to encounter these is to propagate the correct knowledge via all the available modern resources, such as internet groups, facebook lists, etc.

10. One final question. You said that after exposure to JK’s writings, you became very much against any Swami. In one of the chapters also, you mention that at one point in time you were lost in the wilderness because of the influence of JK’s writings until you met your teacher which opened your eyes. Can you elaborate a bit about this part of your journey? What made you attracted towards JK’s teachings and why did you later feel lost? Did JK’s teachings or your experiences from those times have left any impact on your teachings?

Sadaji: When I was a pre-university student (PUC- It corresponds to 12th grade) I stayed with my uncle who at that time was a staunch member of Theosophical society. He had many books of JK, and I started reading them first out of curiosity. The logic that our minds are conditioned by tradition, culture, and upbringing appealed to my mind. I felt that I have unconditional my mind. JK rightly points out that one cannot approach any teacher, including JK, to follow any methods to un-condition since those methods only recondition the mind.

I was at lost. The only method he suggests is to observe your own mind and its conditioning without interacting, and the very observation itself will un-condition the mind. This is called in Vedanta, ‘Witnessing the Mind’. I started doing that. The question that bothered me at that time was ‘Who is the observer of the mind to un-condition the mind?’. I could not find any answer in JK books. I asked my uncle and his friends who were discussing very enthusiastically about JK’s writings. They answered by just repeating the statement, ‘you observe your mind.’ I started doing that and struggled a lot trying to observe my mind. Every time I tried, I got lost since I was running along with my mind travelling all over the world, while still sitting in the seat of meditation. I got vexed and felt that it is not possible to un-condition the mind, just threw away the JK books, and decided to concentrate more on my science. It is at that time I got exposed to Advaita teaching, and I recognized immediately that it is the mind that has to observe itself and to do that it requires a lot of dispassion or vairagya. All yogas are intended to accomplish that. The mind has to become pure or agitation-less for a port of the mind to stand apart and observe the rest mind. Both subject-object thoughts arise in mind only. Hence for jnana yoga, karma yoga becomes a necessary tool in purifying the mind. Hence Krishna says Arjuna has to do karma yoga. Later when Krishna advises Uddhava who has already purified his mind by serving the Lord, that he has to do jnana yoga. This is discussed as part of Uddhava Geeta in Bhagavatam.

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