What is enlightenment,
An interview with Dr. Vijai Shankar MD.PhD.
by Simeon Alev
"Making God Laugh"
In this, our fourth and final interview exploring the mysterious Singular Absolute world of Advaita Vedanta, or teachings of absolute nondualism, we are pleased to present an electrifying, ultimately challenging and thoroughly provocative interview with the truly outrageous Dr. Vijai Shankar. Who is Dr. Shankar? Well, true to his teaching of Advaita, he refused to speak about his past (he even made sure to tell his publicist that whatever details we didmanage to squeeze out of her, he wanted it to be absolutely clear that they had not come from him!). Why? Because, as Dr. Shankar unselfconsciously and boldly declares, he does not exist!Neither do any of us, for that matter.
Advaita simply tells us that the only reality, the one truth of existence, is that there is only one Self Absolute—beyond name, beyond form, beyond concept—the realization of which will utterly and finally release any man or woman from the nightmare of embodied temporal existence. It is Dr. Shankar's unwavering adherence to his realization of his absolute nature that makes him such a remarkable example of this uncompromising teaching. As a matter of fact, it is due to his thoroughlyuncompromising adherence to the nondual perspective of Advaita philosophy that one could even say he is a fundamentalist! And it is precisely because of his absolute unwillingness to admit even the slightest trace of reality to anythingother than that nondual Absolute that we were interested in having an encounter with him—our own SELF?—for this issue of WIE: "What isenlightenment? Does anybody know what they're talking about?"
You see, the most interesting and provocative question for usin relationship to this whole question of nondualityis precisely this: What is nonduality in relationship to enlightenment, exactly?Does it, as classical interpretations of Advaita would tell us, completely excludetemporal existence? Or does it, as some more modern interpretations would tell us, includethis world of time and space? Is that which is Absolute exclusiveorinclusive—orboth?Dr. Shankar's unrelenting insistence on the unreality of temporal existence automatically presents some pretty challenging questions about the very nature, meaning and purpose of embodied existence, and of the enlightened perspective itself. If, as Dr. Shankar so passionately declares,we do not exist,a Pandora's box of undeniably relevant questions automatically appear. For example, what is the rightrelationship to embodied existence if, in fact, it does not exist? What is the wrongrelationship to embodied existence if, in fact, it does not exist? And finally, what is norelationship to embodied existence? After all—how can you have a relationship with something that doesn't exist?
It seems to us that Advaita's insistence on the unreality of the world presents an impossible paradox—an impossible paradox because the very reality of embodied existence always presents very real questions that the perspective of "unreality" in and of itself can never answer.
We've all been inspired by the Doctor's powerful and unwavering passion in his unequivocal insistence on the unreality of anything other than THAT. For example, he boldly declared that this interview was futile, asserting that the plain white paper that it would be printed on—free from words, concepts and opinions—would be of more value to the sincere seeker than the interview itself. And yet, at the same time, we couldn't reconcile the perplexing incongruity of his insistenceafter the interview was over that he be able to review all of our copy! Dare we ask the inevitable question: Who wants to know? And there was the remarkably challenging ordeal of negotiating with his at times overzealous "Director of Information," who was horrified to discover that we don't print contact information at the end of our interviews, and therefore asked in annoyed tones,"Well, what's in it for us?"Seeing as, once again, neither Dr. Shankar nor his representatives, nor ourselves for that matter, actuallyexist, what difference could it possibly make whether we printed their contact information or not? And in any case, we had reiterated to her that we always diligently forward inquiries that we receive about our contributors.
It is because of these and other similar, always intriguing and ultimately unavoidable questions about the absolute nature of enlightenment and its relationship to embodied existence that we are pleased to present this provocative interview with the remarkable Dr. Vijai Shankar. There is no doubt that he's for real, but the question is: Does what he's saying make sense?And for that matter, is Advaita a viable teaching?Which means: Does it answer the ultimate question but still leave too many other questions unanswered? Or does finding the answer to the ultimate question instantly remove all other questions once and for all and forever? You decide.
By the way, even though it's irrelevant information as far as he'sconcerned, we thought that youmight be interested to know that Dr. Shankar works as a research scientist, and lives and teaches in a garage apartment-cum-ashramcalled Kaivalya Shivalaya ("Abode of the Absolute"), in Galveston, Texas.
Our courageous and independently-thinking editor, Simeon Alev, took the plunge with Dr. Shankar by phone at the end of June.
WIE: This issue of What Is Enlightenment? is about Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta. We've talked to several people about Advaita, but there are still many questions that we don't yet have answers to, which is why we wanted to speak with you.
DR. VIJAI SHANKAR: How would you know what is the right answer?
WIE: It's not that people have given us the wrong answers; it's just that there are certain questions that different people answer in different ways.
VS: Every way is the right way, as it stands from where it is seen.
Let us hear something authentic from your side. If you want to write about Advaita, you should know what you're looking for. Do you know what Advaita is?
WIE: Won't you please tell us?
VS:You don't know what you're looking for, then!
WIE: Well, I'm not asking only for myself. I'm asking on behalf of thousands of readers.
VS: Please don't get me wrong. What I'm trying t convey to you is that if you don't know very clearly in your mind—or your so-called mind—the exact meaning of the word "advaita,"what the word stands for, how would you know whether the answer you are receiving pertains to the word you are asking about? Your issue, you say, is about Buddhism and Advaita, but do you know what Buddhism is?And do you know what advaita stands for, what advaitameans? Are you familiarwith Advaita? You are going to ask me questions about it today. If that is the case, then you should know what advaitameans; otherwise, this interview is void.
WIE: All right. As I understand it, the teaching of Advaita Vedanta is the teaching of nondualism, the teaching that—
VS: But why is it called "nondualism?" God is one,isn't it? If God is one,which I'm particularly sure the majority will agree to without any argument, then why don't the Sanskrit sages call it "ekant,"which means one, instead of advaita?Why is the word "advaita"being used? Has anybody pondered over that? Advaitameans not two.Once you have pondered that, then you have no need to know anything else. Once you know what advaitameans, you have transcended! You have gone beyond the mind! Why did the sages not say "one?" Why did they say "not two?" You see, my dear friend, I don't mean to put you off balance. I'm rather trying to put you back on the right path.
VS: But it should have some effecton you! What is the point of your collecting information, information, information and printing magazines when it does not have any effect on your life? You'll die and go, my son, like the rest of us. The body will disappear. So what is the point of stuffing your mind with knowledge? What effect does it have on you?You should have transcended by now! That should be your goal in life! The only purpose of life is to know who you are. If you think that accumulating all this knowledge is going to get you enlightenment, forget it!
But to come back to the point, the word "advaita"is used to indicate not two!And the reason why is because the mind functions in a very linear way, from point A to points B, C, D, E, F and so on in a straight line—are you with me so far? Therefore, the moment you say "one," it means that there are two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight and so on and so forth. The moment you say "one," it means the possibility exists of two.Onehas got meaning only with relation to the other numbers; otherwise it has none.And the moment you say "one," twohas already penetrated into it. Thatis why they don't say "ekant."They say "NOT TWO!" And NOT TWO means what? That the many has disappeared. But this is only indicated by a process of negation. Now—do you know the meaning of "Vedanta"?
WIE: As I understand it, Vedanta is the concluding portion of the ancient Hindu scriptures known as the Vedas—
VS: There, again, is the fallacy. That is what is the problem with all of us—you only believe what has been told to you. What is written has been interpreted in one's own way, without contemplating exactly what the word means.And therefore, whatever the master said was never understood, not even by those who heard him. These people were not really hearing him, not really listening to him. They were merely interpreting him. No one has heard the masters, full stop—nobody. Nobody has listened to the masters, and neither are you listening to me now. Do you know that?
WIE: That I'm not listening to you?
VS: Exactly. You are not listening to me, my friend. It may appear to you that you are, but you're not. All of us have been going on and on thinking we are listening. No way. Do you know what listening is? I'm sure you don't know. People never listen. You only see through your own screen of concepts. I don't mean to scare you, but you may leave this conversation knowing less than you did before. Therefore, you should always be aware as to whom you are approaching before you even venture to speak. This interview will probably end up chipping your ego to bits, and if so, it will profit you much better. You will be much more the winner than the loser. You have been losing all the time so far. But your karma is such that the time has come for you to have an effecton yourself. You should effectively realize who you are. Then everything is worthwhile.
Anyway, your idea about Vedanta also is based on what has been told to you. But the Vedas are purely prayers to God—nothing other than that, only the glorification of God in many forms, colors and symbolic gestures. And those are all purely pointers to the ultimate One, who is you.And what "Vedanta" means is, "endof the Vedas." "Anta"means "the end," okay? And the end of Vedas came about through the Upanishads. "Upanishad" does not mean a continuationof the Vedas—no, it's along a different scale completely: the Vedas tell you to renounce,and the Upanishads tell you to rejoice.Therefore, there can never be a continuation. Anyway, what else do you want to know?
"Want to know"—this is strange!I'm really surprised the way people want to know and know and know. And for how long—until you die? Stop trying to collect all this dust and dirt in your mind. What is the need? Haven't people learned about the Vedas and Advaita all this generation? How long are they going to read about it? How long are you going to print your magazine? You will die and go! Everybody will die and go! What purpose does it serve? Oh, well . . . probably it puts food on the table.
WIE: Well, at least those who read this will hear your suggestion that they should stop trying to understand and so on.
VS: I only wish—but again, they'll not be reading, they'll not be listening. Do you think they are listening? They are not. They're purely approaching the words with their own understanding, and therefore they'll only end up strengthening the understanding they already have if, according to their concepts, they think what they have heard is right. So they may think that they have listened, but they haven't listened—they've only strengthened their own conditioning. Do you understand what I'm saying?
WIE: I think so.
VS: You think so! I hopeso. But your understanding is based purely on your own desires and fears, your own escapism, your own attitudestoward life.The word "attitude" means something that is fragmented, a division that is purely of the mind. But Lifeis not an attitude, and you cannot fragment life to fit into an attitude, because it is beyondthe mind. So if you understand according to your concepts, according to your attitudes, you're cut off from life—follow me? Therefore, if you only contemplate on certain words, on what the rishis [sages]meant by them, then that is okay. Contemplate on "advaita,"contemplate on "Vedanta": "Whyhave they used the word 'advaita?'What is the meaning?"I am speaking about contemplation, not thinking. There is a difference between thinking and contemplation. What do you think the difference is? What is the difference between thinking—
WIE: The thing is—Dr. Vijai?
WIE: I would love to have a long dialogue with you and tell you all of my ideas—
WIE: But for the purposes of this interview, you see, our time is rather limited—
VS:Oh, we're in time and space—thatis our problem!
WIE: Yes. Precisely.
VS: It's not going to be easy for you, my son. You've not come to speak to a mind. You're trying your best to speak to the Beyond. Can the mind speak to the Beyond?
WIE:Well, let's find out.
VS:No, you can't. So far you haven't been able to. You are talking in terms of time and space and there's nothing left.
WIE:So, Dr. Vijai, this is my next question for the Beyond—
VS:Oh, go on, then! There are no answers there, my son.
WIE:My question is: In the teaching of Advaita, we often hear it said that the world is an illusion. And what I would like to learn from you is what this means.
VS:Okay. You see, the problem with us is that we think there's a world outside us and that we're living in that world. But it is not the case. You are not in the world; the world is in you.Haven't you realized—even though when you open your eyes in the morning the world appears,and when you go to sleep at night it disappears—that when you are asleep you are still existing? And that it is the same person who exists in sleep who also exists in the waking state? Therefore, if during the night the world seems to disappear, and if who you really are continues to exist when the world no longer seems to, it can only mean that you, the person you imagine yourself to be in the morning, are an illusion!
Or like this. If you look in the mirror, you see only one face, correct? You do not have the impression that you are seeing two faces, one in the mirror and one outside the mirror. You're entirely engrossed in your reflection, which you take to be yourself, and in that moment you're disassociated from your own true face, which you cannot see. But if you have a bloodstain on your face due to shaving, and if the blood appears on your reflection, you do not touch the reflection, you touch your face, correct? Similarly, the Atman[Self] reflects the entire world through the mirror of knowledge. The problem is that the "I" comes in between and touches the reflection of the real, and you get caught up with it. It is just as if you were trying to wipe the bloodstain off of the reflection in the mirror. Will you be able to do it?
WIE:No, of course not.
VS:But that's what man is trying to do. You get me?
WIE:Yes, what you're saying is very clear.
VS:Ah, very happy for you! You should go away a richer person after this interview; then I'll be happy. I won't be bothered even if you do not print anythingin your magazine, which is only black ink on white paper. If anybody can read only the white page of your magazine, then I'll be happy. Not the black print, which will be only a reflection of their "I." So that is what is called an illusion, and the world is purelyan illusion. You must understand that you reflect your own world, you see your own world. But this is simply the problem that occurs when we are not interested in our other states of existence, when we are concerned only with our waking state, and not with our deep sleep state and our dream state. We exist in all three of these states, but we are only concerned with one. Such is the misery of man. But the moment one witnesses all three states of existence, then he will understand that the world is nothing but a pure illusion.
WIE:It's the opinion of some scholars we've spoken to that because Advaita subscribes to this notion of the world being an illusion, it has what they refer to as an "inherent bias against the world," with the result that ultimate realization in Advaita is often equated with escapefrom this world. So, if possible, I'd like to have a better understanding of how the realization you've just described would express itself in a human being's relationshipto the world of time and space.
VS:Good. The first point is that there areno human beings. One has got to clearly understand that. You are a spiritual being having a human experience.Don't consider yourself to be a human being wantingspiritual experience. That's also an illusion.
Now, these people talk about "escape from the world," but what's the point? Haven't they understood that the world is an illusion? So what? If it's an illusion, then what is there to renounce? How can you renounce an illusion? Stupidity! Absolute nonsense! Illusion? What's the problem? This illusion is there for you to rejoice in.Haven't you understood me clearly so far? Imagine yourself or anybody trying to escape—where is he going to go? Even if he goes to a cave, he'll have thousands and thousands of thoughts rushing into his mind. He'll neverescape.
Listen. If you go to a museum, you may see a huge painting there depicting, let's say, an old woman, a tattered old lady in rags and absolutely skin and bones with hardly a morsel of food on her plate, and a skinny-looking baby lying beside her, and a large dying dog. There may be a few cattle also starving by the side, the trees are dried up, the land is dry and everything appears so, so sickening there. But a man will stand in front of that picture and say, "What a masterpiece!" Doesn't he say that?
WIE:Yes, I suppose so.
VS:And there may also be a bleeding man with a broken leg, and still this fellow says, "What a masterpiece!" He will never say, "Oh! I feel so sorry for this lady, let me go get some pizza and feed her. This man is bleeding, let me take him to the hospital. This dog is dying, let me take it to the ASPCA or the ABCDE or whatever." No—he says, "It's a masterpiece!" Similarly, God has painted this entire panoramic, continuously changing picture that is never constant but is continuously going on and on. He has never finished his masterpiece, but all the time he's within everybody enjoying and rejoicing in it because it's purely a painting. It is the fact that you want to get yourself involvedin this painting and take it to be realthat is the problem which causes so much misery for one and all. Do you understand?
WIE:Well, yes, I understand what you're saying—
VS:Good for you. So there is nothing to be renounced and nothing to be done. Just be yourself and find out who you are. That is the end of every problem in life. You know, there are no problems in life—the only problem is thinking.Life is not a problem; life is a mystery.Life is a song. Life is a dance. Through this mystery livesthis song, livesthis dance. Enjoythe cosmic dance of Shiva! That is Advaita for you! The moment you become the song, the moment you become the dance, the moment you become the fluidity in water, the hardness in the rock, the fragrance of the flower, the moment you become the blossomingof the flower, you are Advaita. Do you get me? But suppose you see a beautiful flower, and feeling a sudden sense of beauty inside yourself you say, "What a beautiful flower!" What has happened there? Can you tell me?
WIE:Well, on one hand, it seems like a nice thing. You're appreciating something—
VS:And that is your problem! The moment you utter a word, things have stopped and you have dipped into your past. Literally, we are leading a dead life made up only of images from the past and nothing of the life in front of us as it's blossoming in its glory. We miss it. We're always in the past. We are shaking hands with a dead corpse in every minute. We think we are living life, but we are not. The beauty in the flower is God,you see? God is not a person; God is a presence.God is the godliness that is present only in this moment NOW—not in the past, not in the future. The moment you are in the mind, it isn't Advaita. But the moment you're in the moment-to-moment, thatis Advaita.
WIE:Some teachers of Advaita say that one who has realized the Self has gone beyond mundane distinctions such as good and evil or right and wrong, and that such an individual is in fact accountable to no one. One such teacher has gone so far as to say that such an individual is not accountable even to God. What is your view on this?
VS:All wrong concepts again! One cannot be a "teacher of Advaita." The moment a teacher comes, it means there's a student. That's not at all Advaita, number one. The moment he says he's a teacher, run away from him. Do you understand what I'm saying?
WIE:About the teacher, yes.
VS:And what was the next point you mentioned?
WIE:That a Self-realized individual—
VS:"A Self-realized individual." If he's Self-realized, can he still remain an individual?Totally, completely misplaced! Advaita means: to stop using the same old words, not knowing what they mean. "The Self-realized individual"—that is wrong. Okay, it doesn't matter. For the sake of the interview, all right. Now what does he say?
WIE:That they're not accountable to anyone—that they've gone beyond distinctions such as good and evil, right and wrong, and are accountable not even to God.
VS:Exactly. There's nothing called "good" and "bad." That's all purely your mental concepts. It's only because you think you're a human being and God is elsewhere that you think you should be accountable to God. You think God is a magistrate? You think God is a Peeping Tom? You think God is a dictator waiting to punish you? And you say "God is everywhere." If God is everywhere, who are you,then? It is because you think you are a human being wanting spiritual experiences that you get caught in the concepts of good and bad and evil and up and down and sideways and backwards and inside and outside. But nothing like that exists even if you are notrealized. If you think you've got to be accountable to God, who are you,then? You are separatefrom God? That means God is not everywhere. Forget it! Never saythe statement, "God is everywhere." The moment you say "God is everywhere," you do not exist. Of courseyou do not exist. God is everywhere. You've forgotten your true nature, and because you've forgotten your true nature, you say you've got to be accountable to God. But the moment you know God, you're not there, so who are you going to account to?
Now, a Self-realized one who has transcended the mind is not accountable. Why? Because he is God. How can God be accountable to himself? There's nothing called sin, there's nothing called greed—how can these things exist in a painting? One fellow goes to a museum and says, "This painting is notgood. That painting is verygood." Whereas you think he is wrong: thisone is good, that one is bad. Which is it? It's your own concept, your own attitude, your own mental color. Okay, good for you. Now drop all those and go beyond your mind. Then you'll knowGod. Then you'll knowwhat "Self-realization" means.
Do youknow what "Self-realization" means? You've gotWhat Is Enlightenment?So what isenlightenment? You don't even know what it is when you're printing it. Fantastic! Wonderful! It's like the blind leading the blind. "Everybody walk, walk, walk; come to the precipice, have a good fall." It's like that. "Enlightened" means to realize that there's nothing called ignorance. Okay? Chew on that.This one word, if you chew on it, you will stop making any interviews with anybody. You will become that. You will transcend the mind. Do you know there's nothing called ignorance? Do you know what ignorance is? Okay, forget it. I don't want your interview to go flop. I don't want you to lose your job.
WIE:Is having this understanding that there is nothing called ignorance really the same as being fully Self-realized—or is there more to it?
VS:You see, it's like this. You have forgotten your true nature, okay? And you only have to remember your true nature—that's all there is to be done. But the way to do that is not by trying to rememberit all the time, because that is, again, just another mental thought. No, you can only know your true nature by negating all that you thinkyou are, and the moment you negate everything that you thinkyou are, or that you've been told you are, then you'll end up with who you really are. And the moment you end up knowing who you are you will come into a state where you will never say a word.
VS:The moment you have negated everything completely, you will come into a state where you will never speak about it, never say that you are realized, or this, that or the other thing. If a bulb is lighted, does it talk about darkness? When the sun shines, does it know its own brilliance? When the flower blossoms, does it know its own fragrance? Can the tongue know its own taste? Can an eye see itself? Can a knife pierce itself? Can a thief running away from the police convert himself into a policeman and catch himself? It's like that. Got it? That is a wonderful point. Now I'm enjoying this.
WIE:If you don't speak about it, though, then how do you help others to realize what you have realized?
VS:What have I realized? I don't know. It's a stupendous joke. Oh, wonderful life, thank you for making me laugh! I don't know what people come here for. I don't teach them anything, no way! I never teach them anything. Who is there to teach? What is there to be taught? There's nothing to be taught, my friend. What are you going to teach about an illusion? My goodness, this is such silly nonsense. I don't know why people carry on this way. I got a lovely seven-page fax yesterday from a very fine gentleman who came to sit near this body for some time. "To sit in Vijai's presence is a unique experience"—that's what he says, anyway. "He makes no demands upon his audience whatsoever and because of this the natural response to him is one of complete openness, a state surprising to discover for many people. With Vijai, in this arena of oneness, duality evaporates, giving way to gradual communion. His is a sort of bottom-line approach to spirituality; regardless of the questions addressed to him, he will bring the questioner back to this one, true blissful state, which they feel happy about." So you see, it just happens. I don't do anything. At all.
WIE:And what is it that happens?
VS:I don't know. They say they feel happy. Everybody goes to the cinema to get mentally excited, don't they? So people probably come here to feel happy. Why do youwant to be happy? Can you tell me that? It's because happiness is your true nature. But the place where you're looking for it is wrong. It's not out there, it's withinyou. So probably they look within themselves when they come here. But I don't know what happens. They ask me a few mundane questions like the ones you're asking, and I just set their bearings right, that's all.
WIE:Thank you. One last question?
VS:Is there anything called the last one? If you say it is the last one, then you should never ask any more questions in your life. Okay, go ahead!
WIE:Are there any actions that we could say with certainty a realized person would not commit? A violent act, for example, such as killing, or an act of dishonesty, or an act that caused harm to another human being?
VS:Listen. Is there an act of dishonesty? Is there really a killing? Is there really a crime? Think about it. Ponder about it before you even make such a statement. How would the mind ever know the one who has transcended the mind? How couldit? It is purely an extension of the finite into the infinite. So the one thing that can be said of him is that he will be unpredictable. You cannot predict him because he is suspended in the now.
WIE:Do you consider it a possibility, then, that such an individual, being unpredictable in this way, actually could commit an act that—
VS:For youit is an act. For him it isn't. That's where you make a mistake. There are no acts outside there, my friend. It only appears to you so. You are attached to it. You thinkit is happening there. You thinkhim to be doing it. Let's not bother about it. It's all just happening. Everything is as it is. It is only this painting, and it will go on. You will thinksomething is happening outside—a wicked act, a sinful act, a violent act, but that is yourproblem. The Bhagavad Gita says: "What is happening is happening for the good. What hashappened is also good. What will happen is also good. You are not the doer. The Lord is the doer. He's watching it all." This is the way of life. Life is a mystery; live it, don't interpret it. The moment you interpret it, you've gone off the track. There is just God manifesting everywhere, my goodness sake! He is just enjoying himself. I'll tell you what: Do you want to make God laugh?
WIE:Sure. I feel like that's what we've been doing for the past hour anyway.
VS:Do you know what? If you tell Him your plans, you'll make God laugh. Tell him your plans, and God will have a mighty good laugh.
Let's not think, then. Let's be in the here and now. That is sufficient. That is just sufficient. You are a spiritual being having a human experience. Stop it now, my son. Stop it, and everything will be fine for you. I would love to see you in a different state, in your realstate, when I meet you next. That'd be nice. There's no thing someday you're going to become. If you're going to become something then that'll be the end—death. Everybody will become who they are. What's the problem in it? I don't see any problem. Listen—one thing. Did you enjoy yourself?
WIE:Yes. Very much so.
VS:That's very important. I'll tell you what: Throw the entire interview in the dustbin! What is more important than to enjoy yourself? Thinkon that enjoyment. Face that enjoyment. Bein that enjoyment. That will do you more good.
Dr. Vijai S. Shankar
© Copyright V. S. Shankar 1998