By Srimati Kamala
(Also available in printed booklet directly from the Self-Revelation Church)
My Guru, Swami Premananda Giri of India, came to America in 1928 at the behest of his Guru, Swami Yogananda Paramhansa, to perpetuate the specific philosophy which is called Absolute Monism. As ordained spiritual ministers they were members of a religious order, The Ancient Swami Order of India, which has existed from the 8th century to serve the understanding of the beliefs of Absolute Monism—beliefs which had been propounded in texts preexisting the Order itself by several more millenniums. The contributions of the Swamis to spiritual thought in America are inestimable—distinct as according to the heritage and wisdom of the great Gurus (masters of God-Realization) of India, yet sharing the same stream of Light and Wisdom as the saviors and prophets of all times and all lands who have bowed before the altar of Universal Truth. Inspired by their blessings of self-dedication to God, the one Soul of all, “I am an Absolute Monist.”
“I am an Absolute Monist.” As vow, aspiration, and ideal the words are sacredly uttered by my fellow devotees and me as we worship together each Sunday morning in the Self-Revelation Church of Absolute Monism named for their reality and spiritual goal. The words introduce a gathering of truths which have been carefully selected from many sublime scriptures of the world: truths uttered by lovers of God from many times and lands, whose minds were unfettered by ritual or personalized faiths, and who stepped out beyond the confines of their own culture and time. They proclaim that one’s own soul, ever one with God, with nature, and with one’s fellow beings, is all there is to know, to work for, and to love in life. That soul is God, and God is All.
“I am an Absolute Monist.” My religion is God, Truth, or the pursuit of what is ultimately real called by any name, yet ever ineffable. The words Absolute Monism convey more clearly than any others in English do the content and the ideal of my belief, and yet they say nothing about its origin or its foundations, practices or attainments. And so, the questions that arise are natural: What is Absolute Monism? Where did it originate? What specifically are its tenets? Who are Absolute Monists?
What do the words mean? Monism simply means oneness. I believe in the oneness of all. There is one Reality which pervades all, from which all the manifested universe is born, and into which all phenomena of its manifestation are reabsorbed.
All exist as parts of one Existence; all intelligences are expressions of one Consciousness; all beings are kin in one Love. Intelligence-Life-Love is one.
There can be but one Truth which articulates through all knowledge; one Light which projects itself into all lights; one Life which is the force and energy of all beings; and one Love in which all are united harmoniously and balanced.
That which empowers the senses, enlightens and guides the mind, and sustains the body is Cosmic and ultimately One. I believe that this manifested universe is but an infinitesimal part of the whole of existence, and that Existence itself is Pure and Perfect; that is, unconditioned, unchanged, undiminished by its creation. Pure existence is the source, the indwelling immutable life, and the perfection of all. Whatever ultimately exists always and ever is: “The unreal hath no existence; the real can never cease to be.” It is forever Pure and Perfect. Therefore it is Absolute.
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Where did Absolute Monism originate? Absolute Monism is the English terminology for an ancient spiritual heritage of belief whose origin in time or geographic location cannot be pinpointed nor marked by the birth or life of a particular proponent, prophet, or sage. Its philosophy cannot be contained in or delimited by any one scripture. It is the philosophy of the Cosmic Soul.
This universe is the manifestation of infinite Life and Consciousness. Thus, every created being is a partial and valid representative of the same divine reality. This perfect being, evolving through all species—from an amoeba to a Buddha or a Christ—is destined to fulfill its divine potential. The philosophy—the divine science of the soul’s realization of its perfection—is Absolute Monism.
To be accurate then, we can only say that Absolute Monism originated in the divine consciousness of the soul of man. The soul of man—of every human—of identical nature with the God of the Universe, awakens to the realization of its inherent attributes of pure intelligence, immortal life and peace and love. The soul of man, one with the Consciousness-Existence-Bliss
(Sat-Chit- Anandam) of God, realizes itself as Absolute, One.
Although the philosophy has undergone development over time, it is impossible to present Absolute Monism from a historical survey. Its exponents, by their very deeply contemplative nature, have placed more emphasis on the eternal than on what can be marked by time. They have stressed the Reality to be known rather than themselves as its personal agents; and they have illumined humanity with their encouragement and guidance to a subjective experience to be apprehended and proved by each truth seeker rather than doctrines to be conferred, adopted, or conformed to collectively.
“Absolute Monism” refers to the ancient philosophy called “Advaita Vedanta” according to the spiritual heritage of India. Although the philosophy of Absolute Monism has come to us virtually from time immemorial, it was first recorded during the period when the ancient Aryans entered into what is now the region of the Indian subcontinent from Central Asia, developing there a culture and civilization whose distinctive features culminated in the philosophy first known as Advaita Vedanta. The period is known historically as the Vedic period, and is generally accepted as being between 2500 and 600 B.C.
The Vedas, the literature profoundly distinguishing the period and for which it is named, are perhaps the oldest records of man’s philosophic thinking, and their spiritual depth is exalting and unequaled! They describe man’s wonder at beholding the mysteries of a dynamic creation that is endless and beginningless; the mysteries of human existence whose origin and goal is formless and eternal; and the relationship of all beings in and to the one Supreme Reality.
In fact, “Veda” derives from the Sanskrit word “Vid” from which come our English words such as video, vision and view having to do with seeing, suggesting the most sublime meaning of “Veda”: the direct apprehension, the ultimate identification with Truth.
The Vedas record the most powerful and significant revelation of mankind: “Ekam Sat.”—Truth is One, the indisputably monastic proclamation. Truth is One: Life, animate and inanimate, subjective and objective, material as well as spiritual, is whole, One. The established Reality of the Vedas is thus neither polytheistic nor pantheistic, as per some erroneous misinterpretations, but absolutely monistic and impersonal. That Reality is “Advaita”—which simply means “non-dual.”
Actually the literary Vedas—four large texts—comprise a virtual encyclopedia of knowledge of their times as well as the testimonies to the ultimate meanings of life. So comprehensive are the Vedas in their contents that a popular and witty appreciation of them maintained that if a farmer lost his cow he could find it in the Vedas!
Placed at the end of the four Vedas—as if to indicate a culmination of their wisdom and enlightenment—are the Upanishads (said to be altogether 108 in number), scriptures which are specific in their metaphysical teachings as to the nature of God (Brahman) and the path of subjective illumination to attain the supreme state of Pure God-consciousness. “Upanishad” literally means “seated near to”—perhaps referring to the way the disciples in ancient days received instruction from their spiritual preceptor. It also implies that there is an evolution in man’s perception of reality: that scriptures or teachings can take us near to but cannot give us ultimate realization. Only in the revelation of the Self within, the soul (atman), can one attain to the perfection of the Supreme Self, God (Brahman). Collectively, the four Vedas and their Upanishads are called Vedas. The “essence and fulfillment” (“-anta”) of life is Vedanta, the revelation and wisdom of the Supreme Self.
The Vedas and the Upanishads articulate totally universal religious experiences which are neither foreign nor remote to one who reads with sincere philosophic insight. They describe formal ritual, mental disciplines and attainments, adoration and devotion, and meditation—components and levels of faith and spiritual experiences that are the foundations of all religions.
The spiritual experiences of the four Vedas (named Rig, Atharva, Sama, and Yajur) may also be interpreted at a deeper level as symbolizing the four states of self-consciousness in man. The states are stages of subtle, ascending, enlightened self-awareness: The first is consciousness in the domain of the senses that finds that the entire phenomenal universe is permeated and sustained by the presence of the Divine Self (ritual); the second, consciousness that inhabits the mental realms with the higher creativity and subjectivity of the intellect and faith; the third, consciousness that experiences itself in the harmony and unity of the cosmic life; and the fourth, consciousness that knows no duality, no limitation, i.e., that is Absolute.
By its very meaning, the revelation of Truth, “Veda,” is virtually a living principle and ideal. Thus the texts of Vedas essentially are not regarded as delimited compendiums or the final pronouncements of Truth. Rather, like creation itself, they are looked upon as the continuous offering of Divine Meaning, hence beginningless and endless: Truth is not static. It did not happen once. Truth ever is—progressive, creative, ever self-revealing. Veda, supremely revered as the highest spiritual standard and ideal, is the ever-new revelation of Truth to human consciousness, wherever and whenever it emerges.
No explanation of Absolute Monism would be complete without reference to Shankara, undoubtedly one of the greatest philosophical minds of the world. Shankarachariya (“achariya” means teacher) was the first to use the very words Advaita Vedanta, naming and identifying its characteristics. In the 8th Century he founded the religious Order in India dedicated to perpetuating its teachings. Every ordained minister of that Order since Swami Shankarachariya’s time strives to carry on the heritage of his ideal: Ordained as “Swami,” he or she is dedicated to realizing “Swa” (That One), “ami” (I Am). In a relative sense, all swamis are followers of Swami Shankarachariya.
What Shankarachariya has propounded has become respected as Indian philosophy’s highest peak and typical outlook, although it is essentially non-sectarian and not linked only to India’s culture. The greatest modern leaders of India have identified with the ancient Advaita Vedanta as espoused by Shankara: Radhakrishnan, the second President of India and great scholar-historian; Swami Vivekenanda who first introduced the science and metaphysics of Yoga to the west at the World Conference of Religions in 1893; Jawaharlal Nehru who found in Advaita Vedanta a way to unify all peoples’ religious experiences. Mahatma Gandhi said directly, “I believe in advaita, in the essential unity of man and for that matter, of all that lives.” Rabindranath Tagore, India’s first Nobel laureate, writing about Anandam as “the harmony, the bliss of the Infinite One,” was also an Advaita Vedantist.
How or why did Shankara come to elucidate Advaita Vedanta? Shankara’s times, like our own, suffered from spiritual and social discord and lacked religious leadership. After Buddha’s “noble silence” concerning the nature of God in the 6th Century, B.C. various sects jealously rivaled for supremacy, forgetting the Vedic teaching affirmed by Buddha’s enlightenment that God is One. Like Christ and Buddha before him, Shankara came to revitalize and to fulfill—not to destroy—tradition. He came to reawaken and to unite human hearts and minds to something higher and impersonal, not to reject or to contradict existing beliefs. His words from the Moha-Mudgar (“The Bludgeon that Strikes Delusion Dead”) are the quintessential expression of Advaita (non-dual) Vedanta:
“There is but one Reality that permeates thee and me and all beings. Rise above the consciousness of separation and realize thyself in all and all in thee.”
–From the “Moha-Mudgar”
Translated by Swami Premananda
What Shankara propounded was not new, of course. His realization and teachings, pure and simple, flowed from the heart of the Vedas:
Knowledge is God. (“Prajna Brahman”)
The Self is God. (“Ayam Atman Brahman”)
That Thou Art. (“Tat Twam Asi”)
I am Brahman. (“Aham Brahman”)
His powerful intellect reawakened within his fellowmen the universal purpose, potential and value of human life. His fourfold standard for one who desires to realize God is high-minded, profound and precise. He gets right to the heart of spirituality with no side-shows or frills: Discriminate between eternal and ephemeral values. Renounce the desire to live in sense-identified self-consciousness. Cultivate the means of self-unfoldment (Yoga). Desire self-liberation (Moksha).
A precocious child who began teaching at the young age of twelve, Shankarachariya contributed to philosophic literature rich commentaries on the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita, and other works. His intellect was universally respected in his own short lifetime of thirty-two years. Yet from the wisdom of his own devoted heart he reminded us of the importance of the supremacy of love above all else in our spiritual life.
Many stories attributed to Shankarachariya’s life illustrate with loving poignancy and wit the profundity of his teachings. One such famous story that I have cherished is of Shankarachariya and an “Untouchable.”
Shankarachariya had gone to the sacred river Ganges for a ritual bath, a time for self-purifying thoughts and prayers, for oblation and homage to the one stream of consciousness and life, the current that carries the soul to its union with the Absolute. Imbued and inspired with feelings of profound peace and devotion, he emerged from the waters and began to walk along the path of the river bank towards the Viswanath Temple.
Suddenly a Chandala, a person socially deemed as an outcast or Untouchable, appeared before him blocking his path. Annoyed and distracted from his holy mood by the presence of one he considered impure, Shankara rudely commanded, “Move!”
“Whom are you addressing, O holy man?” came the gentle Chandala’s voice, “Are you speaking to my body? If you think this body is different from yours, how is it so? Both our bodies have come from the same primordial matter. Then are you addressing my soul? Is not the atman the same—one, indivisible, eternal?
“Is it not the same sun that reflects in the Ganges and also in a roadside puddle? Is there any difference in the atman reflecting through a Brahmin or a Chandala?
“‘Move,’ you say … The soul being one, how can it go away? Where, O holy man, shall this soul go where your soul is not?”
Shankarachariya was stunned and humbly reawakened with the revelation of God. He saw before himself a God-realized being. Reverently Shankarachariya bowed before the Chandala. On the spot he composed a beautiful hymn, an ever-favorite of the Indian people, immortalizing the unforgettable experience. All religions today could heed its message: “One who has gained self-knowledge is my Guru, whether Brahmin or Untouchable. God, the Soul, is the Guru of all.”
In a second legendary story, Shankarachariya, while visiting the holy ancient city of Benares, encountered a Pandit dryly reciting a grammatical rule. His mind had lost its way in the dogmas and trappings of religion, in rituals and in formalities. The words came out almost mechanically, without life or thought.
Shankarachariya rebuked the Pandit, saying “Oh man, don’t waste precious time on grammar, on rules and definitions of God, but take the name of God into your heart; absorb your mind in the reality and love of God.”
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Is Absolute Monism a religion? No, Absolute Monism is not a religion. Rather it is the ideal of spiritual experience and as such it is the fulfillment of all religions. Everyone will attain to the ideal and realization of Absolute Monism ultimately because self-unfoldment and self-realization in the search for Truth is universal to us all.
In Truth alone mankind is one. Religions are not one. Religions are the various interpretations of the Truth. Therefore we do not become Absolute Monists merely by conversion or by religious affiliation or affirmation, but according to the very destiny of our soul in its origin and perfection of Oneness.
We grow and progress spiritually in our wisdom of Truth. Seeking the revelation of Its own light of perfection, the soul gradually unfolds its divine attributes of Truth—of love, mastery, and peace. Realization of the Truth of the Self is the source and fulfillment of happiness and peace, wisdom and power in life.
The focus of Absolute Monism is not that of comparative religion. Its teachings are not eclectic, gathered little bits of knowledge from various religions combined into a melting pot of vague commonalities of faiths. Its traditional values and perspectives of life include the specific concepts aforementioned identifying God, man and nature as the One Soul, the One Reality. An Absolute Monist, therefore, does not reject, criticize or separate the religious experiences of another. He accepts all with understanding, but he maintains the standard of ultimate Truth and individual responsibility to discriminate and become wise in the light of the perfection of all. All religious paths lead ultimately to the realization of God. All souls are my fellow pilgrims on the path to God.
“I am an Absolute Monist” by my very nature, by virtue of the light of my soul which reveals life to me in its Perfection. The more I seek the Truth of my soul, the more it illumines me; the more I realize it, the more precious is its value to me. As I discover the light of God within me, I find it in all life around me. The Truth of God, like a precious gem to me, increases in value and luminosity the more facets of it I behold.
The great teachers and gurus (masters of God-realization) of all religions who have realized their soul’s oneness with God have unequivocally taught Absolute Monism. Jesus, for example, was an Absolute Monist. By that I do not mean that he promoted a particular following or a personal dogma, but that he taught the destiny and reality of the oneness of the soul of man and the perfection of God: “I and my Father are one.” He taught Advaita (non-dual) Vedanta (self-realization) as the ultimate Truth. He taught the perfection of soul and the attainment of the realization of that perfection in human life: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as thy Father in heaven is perfect.”
Although Indian philosophy specifically names it as such, the wisdom of Advaita Vedanta is certainly not confined to India’s spiritual heritage or scriptures. It is found in all scriptures of self-enlightenment, such as the Avesta, the Old and New Testaments of the “Bible”, and the “Qu’ran.” They are all Vedas, revelations of the Impersonal Truth, by ideal and revelation. Moreover, the ideal of Vedanta is certainly not limited to the written words, for it is as broad as life itself! Is not Creation itself a Veda, the “word” of God manifesting its Truth everywhere? The discoveries of science, the inspirations of art, the beauties of music—all are the testimonies of Vedanta, fulfillments in the revelation of living Truth.
Einstein, identifying the “cosmic mystical experience” as the goal of science, recognized that the Ultimate knowledge will take us inevitably to oneness, to Absolute Monism:
“The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”
This perspective, although it was not called Vedanta or Absolute Monism was also certainly shared by the great American transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who described it beautifully as his outlook on the Universal Soul:
“There is one soul.
It is related to the world.
Art is its action thereon.
Science finds its methods.
Literature is its record.
Religion is the emotion of reverence that it inspires.
Ethics is the soul illustrated in human life.
Society is the finding of this soul by individuals in each other. Trades are the learning of the soul in nature by labor.
Politics is the activity of the soul illustrated in power.
Manners are silent and mediate expressions of soul.”
The ideal of the One Soul is realized in the service of love, in all seeking of mind for what is high and sublime and true, in the pursuit of beauty, in the sharing of joy and compassion, in the exaltations of renunciation—in every way that the soul unfolds and manifests itself. Absolute Monism is the divine way of the life of the cosmic soul everywhere—one and Self-revealing.
Aum Shanti Shanti Shanti Hari Aum Shanti
May Absolute Peace Pervade the Whole Universe