My teacher Sri Krishnamacharya took considerable pains to teach the Yoga Sutras to his students. He also wanted his students to study and be familiar with other orthodox philosophies like Samkhya, and Vedanta. The several Upanishads, the Gita and Brahma sutra he taught to explain the rather tricky, involved vedanta philosophy, usually following the visishta-advaita approach, though he also was adept in advaita philosophy. He once said in the Brahma Sutra class to the effect  that while Advaita could be intellectually stimulating it is visishta advaita that will be emotionally satisfying.

Ramaswami with Krishnamacharya in 1968

Ramaswami with Krishnamacharya in 1968

Perhaps the most widely read orthodox Indian Philosophy is Vedanta and especially the Advaita school. There are tons of material available on this philosophy and many people interested in vedic thought study this and gradually become lifelong students of Vedanta. Many long time Hata Yoga practitioners have  taken up the study of Yoga as a philosophical system and considerable material is available from both old and contemporary writers in different languages especially English. And some among the the yoga practitioners have taken an interest in studying the vedanta philosophy also especially the advaitic interpretation. In this however, the published material on Advaita Vedanta available is so technical and involved that the difficult subject is made more inaccessible by several portions which are very technical.

Coffee Art by NikonNovice

Subject vs Object

Profound and daring, albeit very ancient, this philosophy stands out among all the vedic philosophies. I thought I could write very briefly on the basic tenets of this thought process.  There are at least two things we need to have an experience, a subject and  an object. When you and I sit at a table over a cup of coffee or a can of beer or a more yogic glass of goat’s or cow’s milk, I am the subject and you are the object and it is the other way from your point of view. We are two different entities and what does advaita say about our relationship? Advaita says that there is only one principle , the observer which is pure consciousness. It implies that there is only one principle or entity that is pure consciousness that can be termed as one having “Existence” (satya). Nothing else qualifies to be termed “It exists“. So the term advaita refers to that one principle that alone exists. Of course it appears to contradict our experience as we converse as you and I.

Brahma's Golden Egg

Brahma's Golden Egg

Many Indian philosophies both vedic and non Vedic, endeavor to explain the absolute beginning (aarambha) of the creation of the universe. The several puranas have the narration of creation as an essential aspect of purana. They explain how God created the Universe. There are other views like those of the Samkhyas and Yogis who say the evolution of the Universe began with the disequilibrium of the gunas in the dimensionless  mulaprakriti. They do not see the need for a God to create the Universe. The vaiseshika philosophy says that the universe came about by the combination of various atoms of earth,  of water, etc. and the atoms or paramanus are the basic building blocks of the Universe. Further all these vedic darsanas are careful to point out that there is also the individual self that is distinct and different from the material universe created.

Because they suggest two different principles– the consciousness and matter– these philosophies came to be called dwaita or dualistic. They also differ from the modern scientific view which says that the universe started by the evolution from a tiny but hugely dense entity called  singularity, but seems to imply that individual consciousness is a product of matter and not an independent entity—contrary to  the vedic philosophies.  Advaita as the name implies indicates that there is only one principle and none else . That principle is pure non changing(sat) consciousness(chit) which they call Brahman.


What came first?

How do they explain the existence of the evolved Universe? Since there is only one principle which itself does not undergo any change with time (avakasa) or place (akasa) the evolved universe is not real but only an illusion and not independent. When we attempt to find out the beginning of the evolution we go back from the present. The classic examples of the chicken and the egg or the seed and the tree are mentioned to indicate the impossibility of finding out the beginning of the evolution. One school of advaitins says that since the chicken-egg phenomenon involves an unending chain of changes the beginning of which can not be determined , so the very exercise of finding out how the universe started (Aaramba vaada) is futile and all views about  how the universe began are  wrong.

Clue by ericakrysl

How was the world created?

In fact, accordingly, the several theories about the beginning of the Universe cancel one another. The impossibility of finding the absolute beginning also could open the possibility that there is no real beginning and that the evolution of the universe itself is not real- the world is not rock solid as we see- and at best it is virtual. They assert that there was no real creation. Gaudapada in his commentary of Mandukya Upanishad states “nobody is ever born”  In this context I remember a movie I saw when I was young (I was hardly sixty at that time). In the mystery movie, the young detective was trying to find out who murdered “Victim X”. After two years of painstaking investigations (and two hours of my painful viewing) the detective is unable to find the killer, only because “Victim X” did not die in the first place. Our detective started with a wrong premise.

I have been trying like crazy for 72 years to understand how the world was created, poring over orthodox and contemporary dissertations on the origin of the Universe and now some Advaitin says that I can not find it because the world was never really created.  Advaita also asserts that a non-changing pure consciousness can not produce a ‘real’ material world nor can a non-conscious prakriti, paramanus or singularity  produce non-changing consciousness which is the nature of our true self. So in our dualistic world the advaitin’s view is that only the consciousness is real while the persistent world is unreal. In this context one may consider the statement of Einstein, “Reality is merely an illusion albeit is a persistent one.” Reality here  refers to the universe which we experience as real. And advaita rubbishes the general perception that the Universe was really created (sat karya), a universal, taken- for-granted view.

virtual reality

The advaitins give several examples to explain the ‘virtuality’ of the observed universe. They compare it to the space that we see in a mirror; though the space that we see in the mirror may be considered to be within the two dimensional mirror surface, it appears to be outside (beyond and behind) of it. The other example is that of the dream experience. In the dream, the space, the objects and the other beings and even our own dream self can be considered to be taking place within the dreamer’s head but they all appear to be real and outside, during the dream state . The third example they give is that of the work of a magician who is able to create an illusion of space and objects.

At a higher level is the world created by Siddha yogis. There is a story of sage Viswamitra creating an illusory heaven to accommodate one of his disciples, King Trisanku. And the Lord who created this virtual ‘universe of illusion’ is the most consummate magician of all.  The Brahman, the only one existing—the advaita— is pictured as even smaller than an atom (anoraneeyan) but is immensely dense consciousness (prajnana ghana). Within it, due to the inexplicable Maya the beginning-less universe appears, only appears, to evolve and exist and persist. Further even though the universe is within the Brahman, it appears to be outside it. And that is the grand illusion.


Krishna showing the universe within His mouth to Mother Yasodha

There is an interesting episode about Lord Krishna as a toddler. Krishan was a purna ‘avatar’ or complete incarnation of Para Brahman or the supreme being. He was raised by his foster parents Yasodha and Nandan in Gokulam. One day he was playing and his mother saw him taking some dirt from the floor and putting it in his mouth. Concerned the mother lifted him and asked him if he put dirt into his mouth. Without opening his mouth the child  shook his head. The mother now more concerned asked him to open his mouth. The child opened the mouth wide and lo and behold! Yasodha saw the entire Universe in his mouth. She had a bird’s eye view, rather an  eagle’s eye view (or a google view) of the Universe including her holding the open mouthed divine child in her arms. She realized that the child was para brahman (the supreme being). The entire universe was within Him even as He appeared as a child,  within the vast universe, like all of us. The Lord says in the Bhagavadgita  “Everything is in Me but I am not in everything”  I, as I know myself, wrapped in this maya (maya=that which really is not: the trickster), even though I am within the supreme consciousness, the individual I, as part of the Universe  appear to be outside of it, engulfing It, the Brahman. And consequently the supreme consciousness, Brahman, appears to be within this physical me as the Atman or the individual Self  ,in my heart cave (dahara). Now, though I am in It , It (Brahman) appears to be within me as my Self or Atman.

Garbhodakasayi Visnu as the presiding deity, in reclining form on Sesanaga, and Brahma on a lotus, attached to his navel.

Garbhodakasayi Visnu as the presiding deity, in reclining form on Sesanaga, and Brahma on a lotus, attached to his navel.

The Upanishads tell us the means of finding It, within each one of us. The pancha maya model is one such vidya or practice by which each one can find the self within oneself, within the five kosas. It is an exercise by which one knows the only real principle that exists, the Brahman, the pure consciousness as one‘s self or Atman. The Self that resides in my heart lotus (dahara) and the Self that you, sitting across the coffee table , find in your heart lotus are one and the same, the same  Brahman. That is advaita.

Advaita does not mean all the varied objects like you and I are one and the same, but the Self within us are one and the same, even as they appear to be distinct and different, shrouded by illusion.  There is a considerable amount of source material available on this advaita philosophy. The ten major Upanishads are the main source followed by the Brahma Sutra and the Bhagavat Gita. In the Upanishads the Vedanta philosophy is presented succinctly through anecdotes, dissertations and dialogues between parent and offspring, teacher and pupil, spouse and spouse, God and devotee, saint and sinner and friend and friend.

The advaitic interpretation is chiefly presented by Sri Sankara through detailed commentaries on these major Upanishads, Bhagavat Gita and also the Brahma Sutras. Sankara and some of his pupils have also written several easily accessible texts on advaita called prakrana granthas, like Atma bodha, Vivekachudamani and others. Many of his works with some translations are available online. The Upanishads themselves explain the philosophy in detail from several viewpoints answering multitude of questions that may arise in the followers’ mind. Several vidyas or dissertations help to have a clear understanding of this old, unusual philosophy. They also contain some very pithy statements which are used as mantras or memory aids and are tellingly direct. Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahman), Pragnyanam Brahma ( Absolute consciousness in Brahman), tat tvam asi (You are That, the Brahman) ayam atma brahma (this individual Self is Brahman) are the most famous.


Bhramara Mudra

Further there are other equally powerful statements like Brahma satyam, Jagan mitya (Brahman is real/ existence, the Universe is myth— mythya— illusion). Jiva brahmaiva na aparah (The individual Self is definitely Brahman and none other).  What is the benefit of this kind of inquiry, especially to the majority of us who muddle  through life rising with the tide and rolling with the punches? The advaitins say that knowing the truth about ourselves and the Universe is essential and they aver that this is the truth. Truth should be known whether it is sweet, bitter or insipid.

Once we know the truth about ourselves and the universe around us our interaction with the outside world  could drastically change. The Yogis say that the external world ,predominantly, is a constant source of threefold sorrow (duhkha). So say the Samkhyas. But the advaitin goes a step further and says that to a discerning mind the external world is not only a source of duhkha (barring individual variations, look at the enormity of the threefold collective duhkha in the world–self created, caused by other beings and by nature’s fury) but is itself an illusion.

How much importance do I give to the dream experience during dream time and then when I wake up? One tends to shrug off the dream experience as ‘just a dream’ on waking up. Likewise when my mind after study, contemplation and determination finds that the world after all is virtual like a dream, I may not take my transient worldly life with so much anxiety, expectation and remorse as I seem to be doing all my life. An enormous amount of psychological burden that I unnecessarily carry may be taken off my mind then, and make me peaceful, hopefully. Furthermore, the thought or realization that I am the non-changing majestic reality, the one and only eternal Brahman, is just cool!!

Advaita Pranayama:  While slowly inhaling meditate that the  virtual external world is being withdrawn into the source, the Brahman in one’s heart. Next during the breath holding (antah Kambhatka) meditate on the fact that the Universe is within the Brahman and has no independent real existence. Then while doing the exhalation meditate that the illusionary universe is being renounced. And in Bahya  Kambhaka the meditation is on the pure Brahman that alone exists as advaita— based  on Sankara’s work and Tejobindu Upanishad

A Sanskrit prayer : Death without distress Life without dependence Grant me, Oh! compassionate Lord Sambhu (Siva) In Thee are established  all.

Article reprinted with permission from Srivatsa Ramaswami’s Newsletter

Srivatsa Ramaswami

Srivatsa Ramaswami is the longest-standing student of Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya outside of his immediate family. Ramaswami studied under Krishnamacharya for 33 years, from 1955 until 1988 shortly before Krishnamacharya’s passing. An accomplished author, teacher and master of chanting, Ramaswami has published several books, including The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga (2005) which attempts to convey the full extent of Krishnamacharya’s asana teachings. Ramaswami explains in the introduction to his book that many of the famous modern schools of yoga teach only a subset of Krishnamacharya’s body of knowledge. Ramaswami offers Teacher Training Programs at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and other places around the World.

Books by Srivatsa Ramaswami

Yoga Beneath the Surface (with David Hurwitz, June 2006, Marlowe)
The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga (2005, Marlowe)
Yoga for the Three Stages of Life (2000, Inner Traditions)
Basic Tenets of Patanjala Yoga (1982)

Srivatsa Ramaswami Teacher Training


Ramaswami with students at LMU

This Spring, Srivatsa Ramaswami will teach his annual  200-Hour Vinyasa Krama Yoga Teacher Training organized by Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California (LMU Campus) is scheduled to start on June 6th 2011 and run for 6 weeks. You may look at the course description in the following link Registration is open and here is the link to be used to register for 200-Hour Vinyasa Krama Yoga  Teacher Training For more details please write to  Johanna.Fontanilla  Yoga Coordinator at 310-338-2358  This program is registered with Yoga Alliance as a 200 Hr Teacher Training Program.

Swan Image by Mario in arte Akeu






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  1. Kat Stimac says

    Wow, Thank you Amy for posting. Of course I’m going to have to read this 6 more times, but this is exactly why Hindi/Yogic philosophy has hit me between the eyes and pulls me to indulge and cover myself in its primortial goo. It is exactly what I’ve been looking for for a very, very long time from when I first started to find a “religion”. “Religion” has become a dirty word for me so I cringe to even put it into this comment; but if anything, serves as a opposite to what Yogic philosophy ISN’T.

    It’s amazing how he quotes Einstein and shows again how brilliant Einstein was and his influence in the great philosophic and world discourse.

    This intellectual path also stimulates my brain cells. I can feel my brian working to understand the ideas. Last time I felt that happening what in college. That’s how you know you’re exercising and creating new neural pathways (no alheimers here). My reading list is steadily growing. I just need that device they used in the Matrix, so I can plug it into the back of my neck and start downloading Immediately!! But that might be cheating — I know, its the journey.

    So how do I drop out of everything so I can take his teacher training 6 days a week, 8 hours a day….. Argh – answer me that Universe!!

  2. says

    Isn’t Ramaswami a treasure? Thank you for posting this Amy, just getting around to reading it post LMU TT, now I can assimilate this moment where he referred to the mirror in the room!

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