One of the most common critiques of Vedanta heard from sincere seekers is the idea that studying a text or scripture is insufﬁcient to cause spiritual growth. To back this notion, people will smartly use traditional sources in support of their view.
“This Atman cannot be attained by the study of the Vedas, or by intelligence, or by much hearing of sacred books.....” kathopanishad 2.23
Many seem to think this verse negates any kind of approach to liberation which involves studying the traditional texts. It is not quite so simple, but it does tell those of us who are committed to shruti something very important. It tells us that merely studying a sacred text is insufﬁcient to gain spiritual growth and reach our potential. So this creates an interesting question. If studying the scripture alone doesn't work, for what purpose do we even need them?
An experienced Vedantin understands well that when a text is given by the teacher to the student, it is not to learn the words themselves, it is for what the words have to say about you. What exactly does the text reveal about you that you don't know and can't know conventionally? What does it reveal about your world? What does it reveal about your own experience? The text in this way is like a perfect mirror for yourself.
As the teacher handles the words of upanishads with great care, a picture begins to emerge about the nature of what you are and what causes you to suffer. Though the truth of yourself is quite simple, maybe the simplest thing that can be imagined, ignorance itself is quite complex. Thus the whole metholodogy of vedanta is brought in. The word upanishad itself reveals its own methodology. (from the introduction of Shankara's Kathopanishad bhashya.
Upa- means that which is not remote, that which is always near- This means atma.
Ni -means Nischayena-Deﬁniteness, that which is well ascertained. Or a guarantee of effectiveness of the material to work for those who are qualiﬁed.
Root Verb -'Sad' has three meanings from dhatupada:
1) viśaraṇa- Destroying Ignorance
2) gati or gamanam-Going to knowledge
3) avasādanam-Wearing out Samsara
For the most part, what vedanta does is remove false assocations which when present do not allow us to see what we are-Upa, that nonremote self which is you. It does this through various teaching models such as panca kosha prakriya given originally in taitryopanishad. This model shows us 5 types of experience that we falsely associate with 'I' and one by one negates the idea that they are the self. This negation is largely based on the temporary nature of each class of experience. For example, anandamaya is the confusion that I am identified with the one who experiences temporary joy. We do this when we see a loved one, laugh or enjoy an object. Simply stated, we are not that experiencer of joy any more than we are the temporary experiencer of sorrow. We are not that which comes and goes.
The mistake people make with applying these teachings is that they learn the model as intellectual knowledge and fail to apply the teaching to their experience of temporality at each level. As a result, they take the model to be a description of reality instead of an effort to remove those false associations with 'I.' We are worse off than when we started because now we think somehow we have all these koshas. Disaster! This is what the kathopanishad is warning us about in telling us not to take this knowledge as mere book learning. It is not there to create other realities for you. It is there to remove your association with suffering which comes from associating 'I' with temporary experiences.
This is what the Kathopanishad is warning us about in telling us not to take this knowledge as mere book learning. It is not there to create other realities for you. It is there to remove your association with suffering which comes from associating 'I' with temporary experiences.
If this teaching has been understood and applied to experience after much more work like this, the sense of 'I' has some breathing room. There is space to understand the true self as that which is never changing and non-negatable and that which is the nature of every thought and experience. We can call that gaining knowledge or gamanam in this context. There are many teachings given to get to this point of course.
If one receives this knowledge in a real teaching situation (and not a one time book or article like this), it can be applied in daily contemplation to your experiences over a prolonged period of time to remove ignorance-viśaraṇa. It guides your inquiry through its repeated exposure. Over time, this method can reduce your sense of suffering. This is the sign it is working. Essentially, removing all suffering and sense of limitation associated with 'I' is the ultimate fruit of self knowledge. That is moksha.
My teachers have said that liberation from this suffering is not a one time event. It is an observable process which proves itself by reducing suffering ﬁrst a little, then a lot, then completely. This conﬁrmable process is the wearing out of samsara or avasādanam. I can tell you personally, it works to this extent. But, it does require a lot of persistence, effort, and ultimately understanding. What I like about this approach is the fact that it proves itself over time. It also gives
some immediate pragmatic results that can be enjoyed. Like windshield wipers on a car, the knowledge given by guru will remove the rainwater of ignorance received in each experience and allow you to see the vision of yourself clearly. These metaphorical wipers require more effort in the beginning and become more spontaneously active over time.
There is one other warning given in the tradition that should be brought out here as to why vedanta doesn't work sometimes. In fact, this was referenced in the 'Ni' deﬁnition. The Ni piece is saying that if you are qualiﬁed, this exposure to guru's handling of shruti will work. The very next verse in Kathopanishad states:
He who has not ﬁrst turned away from adharma, who is not tranquil and subdued and whose mind is not at peace, cannot attain Atman. It is realized only through the Knowledge of Reality' Kathopanisad 2-24
Devotion in fact is so important that there is never a time you are not a devotee.
If this is not the case, the knowledge will not work.
Many modern non-dualist thinkers believe that this self-knowledge can be given and retained without really developing the mind in meditation or devotion. Devotion in fact is so important that there is never a time you are not a devotee. If this is not the case, the knowledge will not work. The mind will deﬁnitely not be able to retain this knowledge unless it is well trained in these practices. The guru plants the seed of knowledge and the student must protect the soil of the mind through devotion and constant relationship to all experience as ishvara.
Perhaps nothing is more important however than the student's relationship with the teacher/guru. It can not be emphasized enough that the student needs a teacher. A book will not do. Can you get self knowledge without having a teacher? It is like asking can you learn to play a Mozart piano Concerto without a teacher. Maybe, who knows, if you were a pianist in a former life even playing the piece through once could do it. I have seen it with very small children who could play better than most adults. If you are not a prodigy however, and I would just say that is virtually all of us, a teacher should be there because this requires a lot of effort and a lot of understanding. And why go it alone? This knowledge is freely given. Ultimately, there is no difference between the guru and the student
“Though appearing different from himself, the light of the guru leads the student to one-ness with himself, through reasoning based on vedanta, endowed with dispassion and discernment.” - Bodhasara of Narahari