Universalism and Nonduality

by Babaji Bob Kindler

UNIVERSALISM IS A PRINCIPLE whose time has come. It has received auspicious mention in the scriptures where the Rishis of ancient India stated, “Truth is one, sages call it by different names.” It has received homage from illumined beings whereas in contemporary times Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa lovingly declared, “I have gathered the many flowers of different religions and placed them as a garland before the image of the Divine Mother of the Universe.” It has been lauded by the true devotees of the Lord in all religious traditions who are hard put to understand the necessity of warring factions in the realm of religion and philosophy. Subsequently, it has also been rendered as mere lip-service by those who are of good intent but lacking the tools of spiritual practice and those who live by surface affirmation devoid of any profound commitment to the actual ideal. Therefore, it is often on the minds of sages, priests, pundits, scholars, philosophers, altruists and others.

To understand the principle of Universalism it is useful to contrast it to terms like eclecticism, which Webster’s dictionary defines as “drawing elements from various doctrines, methods and styles,” or ecumenism which means a worldwide view that attempts at unifying a body of churches all tending towards unity and cooperation among the various Christian faiths. This latter, in order to be truly universal in scope, would have to accept the validity of other faiths as pathways to Ultimate Reality, a Reality called Allah, Brahman, Yahweh, our Father who art in Heaven and other beautiful names in the different religious traditions of the world. Since this would entail the confirmation of other religions as viable ways to God, including belief in their scriptures, saviors, prophets and methods, the stumbling blocks to its implementation are considerable. An interfaith ecumenism, then, as propounded by the Dalai Lama and others, would have to be established and implemented. But anterior to efforts of this nature, Universality is already an abiding truth, an eternal principle which the illumined ones whole-heartedly accept and which is called in Sanskrit, Sahaja-tantra siddhanta — right conclusion based upon natural synthesis.

Siddhantavakhyashravana — Enlightened Conclusion

To explain this further, there are three possible ways to study and comprehend the darshanas or various philosophic systems. The first is called prati-tantra siddhanta — to see each path, religion, or philosophy as separate and independent of the others, each possessing its own inner characteristics, doctrines, internally consistent values and inner development. The philosophers who follow this way are competing for superiority, trying to prove their system right and the others wrong. Sri Krishna refers to this as tamasic jnana, inferior knowledge, in the Bhagavad Gita.

The second way is based upon samadhana, the way of reconciliation and resolution of conflict. It is the way of the savant who seeks not just categorical knowledge but the root and essence of knowledge behind all logic. Such a being studies each system but refuses to be bound by any one, rather comprehending their intrinsic connection and thus getting a complete overview — sarva-tantra siddhanta. In the Gita this way is called rajasic jnana — intermediate knowledge. Finally, and as mentioned above, there is the way of the illumined being of unitive vision and inspiration who sees all the systems effortlessly and naturally understands what they contain and teach by way of synthesis (samanvaya). This, the Gita calls pure, refined wisdom — sattvic jnana. This latter way, the way exhibited by the Avataras, is in keeping with the truest Universalism.

Beyond Eclecticism

By the term universal, then, is not meant eclecticism, for though that is a beginning it falls far short of conferring the depth and profundity of Universality which is based upon essential oneness. Examining the word universality, it is seen that the entire cosmos is included in its scope by reference to the actual physical universe. Here, nothing is excluded. Examining further, we find there the root word, unity, the state of being one. The ancient Rishis of India perceived this totality of all parts in deep meditation while in samadhi, called it Atman, and spoke of Its experience using the word Advaita — nondualism. The gate to Advaitic experience through realization of the Atman was thus opened unto them. To quote them:

sa ya eso anima, aitat atmyamidam sarvam
tat satyam, sa atma, tat tvam asi, svetaketo…

“Everything in the universe
has this subtle Reality for its Self.
That is true, indivisible.
That is Atman, and thou art That…”

Such a clear declaration about the nature of the universe and its inherent cohesiveness shows that Universality goes deeper than surface inclusiveness predicated upon general consensus and emphasizes a subtle substratum that is all-pervasive and homogenous by nature. It is this “Self,” the one infusing everything, that provides the basis for all existence and gives validity to all approaches. It is, as Sri Krishna has said in the Bhagavad Gita, the thread which holds together the necklace of jewels. Without It, the theme for the universe would have for its tenor outright chaos rather than underlying harmony. Without It, life would be meaningless, religion jaded, philosophy dry. This description sounds all too familiar in this day and age.

Spiritual Practice — The Definitive Measure

The missing element that transforms a mere eclectic perspective into a realization of advaitic proportions is sadhana — spiritual practice. Those who only claim to be universal in their views stop short of this. They only profess, and this verbal assertion carries with it at best only an intellectual understanding attended by an open-minded intention. Perhaps the analogy used by Swami Vivekananda describes true Universality appropriately and also sheds light on the limitations of fundamentalism and eclecticism. There is a vast body of water on a flat plateau. Though wide, it is shallow. This represents conventional religion and even eclecticism with its basic and sound premise that all religions are true. That body of water then undergoes change and flows into a canyon where its waters become narrow and powerful, rushing forward towards some unseen goal. This stage symbolizes the spiritual discipline phase based upon discrimination which seizes and utilizes one religious approach for its means in order to find the answers to its deep philosophical questions and to establish spiritual consummation. This confined stream is called fundamentalism when it is in its narrowest form, but is known as Ishta-nishta — one-pointed devotion to a single ideal — in its truest and freer form. Finally, the rushing river pours forth out of the canyon of focused religious practice and fills an expansive valley with its boundless and filtered Essence. Now the waters are not only wide and pure, they are also deep. This phase, or end of all phases, represents true Universality which is based upon direct spiritual experience rather than on a wide view limited to shallow expression that is devoid of the litmus paper test of self-effort and practice. It is seen, then, that spiritual practice is the definitive transformer of human awareness, allowing it the unbounded scope necessary for infinite expression and consummate communion.

To render this point in other terms, beyond mere affirmation is resolute confirmation, and it is this that the Advaitist, who has become universal in view and realization, arrives at through self-effort. This is not an effort that hopes to achieve something through transformation alone, but a deep penetration into the heart of Reality that begins with the premise that the Self within is pure and perfect and beyond all processes of transformation. This confirmation also destroys the danger of assuming that the body/mind mechanism is the Reality, for both exist in the realm of change and undergo various alterations. Finally, this advaitic knowledge does not allow for premature assumptions of perfection before intense discipline has been undertaken, therefore escaping the false premise that many so-called nondualists labor under — the oft heard and premature cry of “you are already perfect and need to do nothing.” This may be true at the ultimate level, but so long as one’s life does not reflect inner perfection there is still far to go before enlightenment dawns on the mind. I remember one newsletter by an organization claiming to understand Advaita whose graphic appearing on the early pages was a champagne bottle sitting in an ice stand holder that had an Om sign etched on the front. Underneath was the phrase, “Happy New Year.” This kind of “perfection,” where all one need do is celebrate life’s pleasures, does not represent spiritual illumination and does nothing to help the suffering masses. It also makes a mockery out of the lofty principles of religion and philosophy and utterly misrepresents authentic Advaita. The adherents of such an approach are weak and deluded.

Roots and Experience of Advaita

How do Advaita, nondualism, and Universality, the broad and deep scope which is all-inclusive, equate? To find that out with a certainty it is necessary to understand Advaita in all its facets. Advaita as a philosophy has two main sources as I see it; one, the illumined Rishis of the Upanishadic era and, two, the Self-realized Adishankaracharya and his two main influences, Gaudapada and Nagarjuna. Among the ancient Rishis, nondualism was the core of their view, no doubt, but many were the various outlooks and approaches which were gracefully integrated into their vision of indivisible unity. Theirs was an age of true Universalism like no other in recorded history. In the time of Shankara, however, the need was to neutralize the effects of nihilism and prove the truth of fullness (purna) over voidness (shunya); Self (Atman) in the ultimate sense, over the not-self (anatman) in its limited definition. Pure Existence (Sat) will always win the day over nonexistence (asat), for there is no denying the “I” or sense of Being pervading all things. Swami Nityasvarupananda, one of my two monastic teachers, writes: “The highest teachings of every culture converge on one point — that the life of mankind finds fulfillment in the knowledge of his own spiritual nature. The real nature of mankind is Consciousness itself. It is eternal, existence itself.” As my revered mantri guru, Swami Aseshananda, said in this regard, “One can discriminate away and deny everything, but one cannot deny the existence of the denier.”

Advaita, Universalism and Maya

Understanding Advaita and Universality together is transformative yet does not annul the world, life and living beings. Even as philosophy, Advaita according to Shankara allows room for creation, the universe and objects on the empirical level, only denying their reality as forms on the transcendent. This is different than a philosophy that labels all illusory and explains phenomena as appearances due to Maya. This also does an injustice to the Tantric principle of Maya which is, as Vivekananda pointed out, God’s own power to project, sustain and dissolve the universe in space and time. Even time, space and causation, being concepts, get projected by this power. When the Rishis of the Upanishadic age declared “Sarvam Brahmam Upanishadam” — that all existence is Brahman according to revealed scripture — they did so with the power of spiritual practice resulting in realization behind them. They also knew that all that was not real did not truly exist and so was not Brahman. Maya exists even after the universe is dissolved in pralaya. Being Brahman’s power, it exists in Brahman, which is ever one and eternal.

The Fall of Narrowness

Universality now has a champion! The advent of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa in the 1800’s now signals the tolling of the death bell for separatist and fundamentalist factions in religion and elitism and divisiveness in philosophy. At one time, air/space navigators thought that the sound barrier could not be broken. All it took was one pilot to do the “impossible”and the laws of limitation suddenly changed In the realm of religion, Sri Ramakrishna has broken the barrier of ignorance and proven through practice that each religion has for its foundation the same nondual essence. Such realization, the news of which will gradually leak out to fill the ears of thousands of aspiring souls who tire of the dogmas of religion and the platitudes of the priesthood, will systematically and completely dismantle the carefully and deceptively wrought house of cards upon which spiritual provincialism and narrow fundamentalism rests and bring the devotees from every religious tradition together in mutual admiration of the one God abiding within them. This will be a long-awaited day in the history of the world and its beneficial implications will be far-reaching.

When philosophical narrowness and religious bigotry are thus dethroned and Universalism becomes king, this does not mean that all will follow one religion as some idealists are wont to think. It is the essence of Ultimate Reality that is one, but its expressions are many and this is so as to suit the various temperaments of the many aspiring souls sporting in relativity.

This is where Universalism and Advaita, nondualism, meet and synthesize. While Universalism provides for limitless spiritual growth in the many different areas of religious pursuit, Advaita unifies all the fields, allowing this inner progress to fructify in the healthy atmosphere of harmony based in unity. Further, with the direct experience of nonduality as the watchword or sentinel, the wayward tendencies of the mind which lean towards diversification stripped of divine remembrance of the Self within will be rendered helpless and the goal of human existence will be gained swiftly and easily.

Avasthas — Stages of Growth

True Universalism helps all, regardless of station, attainment, or lack thereof. This is because there is no real contradiction in the play of knowledge and ignorance. As Ramanuja says, “darkness cannot lay upon light.” The reconciliation of the different views of philosophy is an ever-accomplished fact, its actualization on the physical plane being a feat accomplished by Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa who then explained it ingeniously using the idea of avasthas — stages of comprehension. The Great Master revealed that what a seeker understands by way of dualism, qualified nondualism, monism, idealism, even materialism, is correct at any given time in direct correlation to the level of his or her stage of growth and evolution. This provisional view of Truth makes it possible and acceptable for the seeker to proceed step to step according to one’s present capacity of insight and understanding. This approach then dissolves the various problems of restriction and stagnation which stand in the way of beneficial growth while simultaneously refuting the one-size-fits-all doctrine that is so crippling to beneficial spiritual advancement.