25 of 31 Questions for Reflection. Today’s question is inspired by reading Dṛg Dṛsya Viveka: An Inquiry Into the Seer and the Seen alongside listening to a discussion called “Vedanta for the 21st Century” hosted by Harvard Divinity School on March 11, 2020.
What questions arise when I focus on “renunciation” as an object of Vedanta meditation?
Three Hindu monastics visited Harvard Divinity School on March 11, 2020 and discussed the tradition of the Upanisads and Vedanta and its relevance to today. Yesterday’s blog post attempted to synthesize what the three monastics said. Now, here, I summarize what professor of religions at St. Olaf’s College in Minnesota, Anantanand Rambachan, said in response to hearing the three monastics deliver their talks.
Professor Rambachan discussed the humility he sees in the Upanisads, that it is a tradition that contains clear expressions of humility; yet, how is it that often Vedantins can tend toward elitism and arrogance? Of course, he was sure to mention that kind of arrogance was not expressed by these three monastics on this panel, and I agree that the three monastics displayed genuine humility with friendly erudition that I found comforting.
In my experience, I have witnessed how this arrogance the professor criticized plays out in a yoga community. In less careful hands, traditions that are influenced by Vedanta can make a teacher too pedantic, render the teacher too powerful. I have seen too many teachers in my yoga community always scolding their students and being abusive. We are witnessing the #MeToo in yoga reveal the problems of the guru/shishya dynamic. This happened to such a horrific extent in the Kundalini Yoga as Taught by Yogi Bhajan community. In the era of the 1970s when people were searching for strong teachers and clear guidance, yogi bhajan took advantage of vulnerabilities, enjoyed too much power, and abused his followers. Consequently, my own generation of genuine seekers has suffered tremendously. We were duped by a yoga program that is rife with this kind of systemic, internal arrogance that the tradition can suffer from if the teachers are not careful. I am fascinated to see how these three monastics were so eloquent and were able to avoid projecting that arrogance that I have seen in the yoga community. Is this because of the renunciation aspect of their path? Is this because they have studied Sanskrit more deeply?
Humility needs its expression. What do expressions of humility look like when they are most genuine and can offer the groundwork for real conversation and dialogue to take place? Is it possible for the yoga communities to embrace critical thinking, erudition, and dialogue?
I never assumed that my yoga practice put me on any kind of pedestal. So maybe it was due to this strain of arrogance that feels subtly ingrained in the tradition that I learned from that turns off some folks. For instance, my husband never liked for me to suggest any kind of yogic breathing or meditation techniques that might help mitigate some of the stress he experiences as a shareholder litigator. I was not making meditation suggestions because I felt myself better than him. I was merely trying to share what I was learning. How had my desire to share turned into such a struggle, like some kind of clash of superiority complexes? If this is the way family and friends perceived my behavior, I humbly beg forgiveness. A superiority complex was never intended, but I see so clearly the ways yoga practitioners get caught up in superiority complexes and spiritual egos. Professor Rambachan’s suggestions and questions open up a dialogue.
Professor Rambachan asks, “How do we articulate, from within the Vedanta traditions, a theology of humility for interreligious learning? What would be the core arguments of that theology? What is the Vedanta tradition’s theological need for other traditions? If a tradition claims it is full and final and true, does it have a need? How do we ground that need in the sacred texts that we study? How do we seek to enlarge conversation partners in our contemporary setting?”
This enlarging of the conversations, I suppose, is what these blog posts have set out to do and be. I am not a scholar, nor am I much of a social influencer. I am a curious student. I am a mother. I love to put words together. I work as a writer. I taught classes in a community center and a yoga studio for a few years, and people who came to my classes felt good afterward.
In spirit, I guess I identify more with the poetess, Lal Ded, than with the acharya, Shankara. I practiced yoga teachings the ways they were delivered at what Indology Professor Edwin Bryant refers to as “the high streets,” the mainstream yoga studios, though the style I taught (KYATBYB) was not mainstream. Going forward, I wish to witness interesting conversations that feel impossible, conversations I can have on the page. For example, I would love to see Kiprop Kumutai speak with Professor Rambachan. I’d love for Lal Ded to be in conversation with Padraig O Tuama. I’d love to see Shankaracharya in conversation with Elif Shafak. So this kind of awkward conversations is what I am about. What if we throwing a whole variety of personalities and life experiences into the ring and see how they would talk to each other? Often it is a pretty awkward conversation. Be that as it may, let’s hold space for awkward conversation.
Professor Rambachan wonders, “How do we make Vedanta available to people who are in diverse relationships, who are not renunciates?” Is Vedanta only available to those who wish to renounce the world? Or is it available to those who engage head on with the world? Because the problem today are not just about ignorance, but also confronting the problem of socio-economic inequality. We have racism, sexism, casteism. After his talk, I found myself still curious about his “constellation of questions.” He says Vedanta needs to enlarge its understanding of “what is suffering?” Oh wow, I want to enroll in his course! I’ll have to read his books. Traditionally, Vedanta sees suffering as an inward condition associated with ignorance. We need an expansive understanding of both suffering and liberation. He says we have to push questions about what is the relationship between peace and justice? “What is the relationship between an inward state of joy and the injustice in the world?” What a good question! I am in love with this question! Thank you, professor. “The tradition has not asked all the questions that could be asked of these texts.” There is a lot to be mined here, still, but we need the stimulus. The metaphysics of oneness has not challenged the social hierarchies. How is it that we spiritualize oneness so you disconnect it from social realities?
Renunciation means many things. I have renounced fruitful outcomes of my actions. I have renounced wealth. I have renounced the need for affirmation from others. Meanwhile, I have not renounced a need to write. I have not renounced a need to feel that my writing has an audience. I have not renounced a need to feel heard and a need for respect. I do not wish to renounce the world, nor do I even want the disengaged or dispassionate. Instead of renunciation, want to call it spacious engagement or expanded engagement. A monastic way of life deeply attracts me because it seems to hold a promise that I will be left alone to read and write and meditate all day long. But I would only want to enter this way of being in the world if I know that is has a positive impact on humanity.
“How can I act in this world such that our singular identity with one another is not skewed or hidden?”
Meditating on renunciation, a Jnana yogi might ask, “How shall the teachings of Vedanta dialogue with all wisdom traditions, engage social movements, science, academia, and everyday householders? Can Vedanta support enriched conversation between a mother and her teenage daughters in Southern California today?”