Those who practice the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have developed the habit of reading their books either alone or during study circles. They claim that this activity is a meditation in itself which naturally awakens the wisdom needed to respond to the multifarious challenges of life. The Mother herself recommended that disciples read Sri Aurobindo’s books with a blank mind without discussing or explaining the writings to each other. Does this work?
Yes, it does. In fact, there is a classical analogue to this method called Sravana, Manana, Nidhidhyasana which is followed by the Vedantins and is mentioned in the Brihadaraynaka Upanishad (2.4.5). In this verse, Yajnavalkya tells Maitreyi: “The Self should be seen, heard, reflected on and contemplated upon. By seeing, listening, reflecting, and contemplating, all is known”.
ātmā vā are dṛṣtavyaḥ śrotravyo mantavyo nididhyāsitavyo maitreyi
ātmano vā are darśanena śravaṇena matyā vijñānenedaṃ sarvaṃ viditam
Sravana means listening to the Upanishads, Manana is reflection on the content, and Nidhidhyasana refers to the contemplative state which is induced by the verse. The Adi Shankaracharya (8th century C.E.) was an enthusiastic proponent of this method. He believed that the true Self which is clouded by inchoate karmic formations (vrittis) can be revealed just by listening to the revelations (Sruti) given by the ancient sages.
In a “spiritual market” saturated with schools offering to teach Pranayama, Hatha yoga, Chakra healing, Reiki and all sorts of assorted techniques, there is at least one school today which still teaches this ancient textual method of Sravana Manana, Nidhidhyasana. This school is the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam founded by Swami Dayananda Saraswati (not to be confused with Dayananda Saraswati of the Arya Samaj). They have two gurukulams (centers for study) in India in Rishikesh and Coimbatore and one in the USA in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania.
Neil Dalal (currently Asst. Prof. at Univ. of Alberta) visited the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam and published a research paper on their practice “Contemplative Practice and Textual Agency in Advaita Vedānta” recently in the journal Method and Theory in the Study of Religion . This article draws on his academic research to describe in layman terms the method of Sravana, Manana and Nidhidhyasana as practiced in the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam.
Classes at the Gurukulam are free and taught in English by the resident monks. The classes revolve around the Upanishads and the commentaries that Shankara wrote on these texts. It is believed that that these passages contain “the hidden knowledge of non-duality as well as specific verbal teaching methods that have the capacity to reveal the existence of Brahman”.
The primary teaching method is a form of indirect implication (jahadajahallakṣana or bhagatyagalaksạṇa). Upanishadic verses such as “tat tvam asi” (you are that, Chandogya Upanishad 7.8.7), “aham brahmasmi” (I am Brahman, Brihadaranyaka 1.4.10) are taken up for study by the teacher. According to classical Advaita, words have literal denotative meanings (mukhyartha or vacyartha) as well as implied connotative meanings (lakṣyartha). The teacher dilates on the verse to draw attention to the secondary implied meaning, using grammatical oppositions which puzzle the student’s mind, thereby stimulating them to negate their individuality and awaken themselves to the actual nature of the pervasive non-dual reality.
In contrast with other contemporary yoga schools where contemplation is emphasized and textual study is seen as secondary, in Arsha Vidya, textual study and contemplation go together. According to Swami Dayanananda, the reading of the sacred texts during the lectures automatically induces Nidhidhyasana. The words act as a mirror to discern one’s true self because the process dissolves subject-object dualities leading to a non-dual awareness. The Swami states:
It is my responsibility to make Vedanta work as a pramaṇa (source of knowledge) to wield it and handle it as a pramaṇa. You see the words do the magic. This doesn’t require your will or effort. The nose will pick up smell whether you want it to or not. You have no responsibility. You need to let go and suspend your will. Your will should not interfere. The teacher has the responsibility, but letting go on the part of the student seems to be much more difficult.
In his paper, Dalal also reports on the experiences of some who underwent this training:
…a couple of sannyasins (renunciates) reported their own struggle to adopt an orientation of surrendering to the texts in their contemplation. They recognized that their minds created resistance, a screen of their own ideas and concepts that acted as a filter and obstructed Advaita teachings. When they were young students, they required considerable effort in contemplation to extract the meaning from the sentences. The words did not penetrate deeply and doubts or confusion would pop up. Yet, as they continued to study and gained clarity, their experience of contemplation changed significantly. Their minds became increasingly passive, and they recognized that in reality the words were doing all the work. This transition from mental effort to relaxing and allowing the words to become active was a major turning point in their contemplative practice. They reported that the great difficulty in allowing the words to become effective was having the courage to let go of their obstacles and resistance to the words.
Some sannyāsins reported that repeating the sentence meaning is only the starting point. As their contemplation gains maturity, the words act like a mirror to see one’s self. They let go of any attempt to objectify self-knowledge or to use will power and effort, and recognize that there is no separation between self, brahman, and the meaning of the mahāvākya 
This description above mirrors the process experienced by those who read the books of Sri Aurobindo. Initially, one feels some friction while reading but once the mind falls in harmony with Sri Aurobindo’s consciousness, the reading becomes fluid and the words themselves are found to induce a state of deep contemplation.
Why is it that the works of sages embody such a Mantric quality that induces contemplation? The reason, according to Abhinavagupta(an Indian sage and polymath from 10th century C.E), lies in the nature of the Guru’s concentrated thought. This passage is a translation from his work entitled Tantraloka (16, 250 f.):
“When articulated thought becomes identified with concentrated speech (samjalpa, the expressive power of the mantra uttered on the occasion), it obtains the character of reflection (vimarsa, the characteristic function of the cosmic Sakti), and this reflection has Mantra as its self, pure and characterized by freedom from the defiled status; eternal and built up in identity with the eternally liberal Siva; by its connection with this [reflection] even the teacher’s articulated thought obtains the Siva-nature” .
It is this singular union of illumined thought and expression that produces the works of revelation that live on for centuries, and enable us to practice methods such as Sravana, Manana and Nidhidhyasana.
Here is a response by the Mother on the topic of explaining Sri Aurobindo’s writings:
11 November 1947
Disciple: Yesterday, You said that in our Synthesis of Yoga class it is useless and even stupid to comment on Sri Aurobindo’s writings. Sweet Mother, I have been committing this stupidity in my classes for years. May I beg you to allow me to stop giving them?
Mother: Many lazy-minded people are very happy to be given explanations about Sri Aurobindo’s books, because they have the feeling that they understand better. That is why I have not interfered. Indeed, it is better for people to hear readings and take interest in them than to have no contact at all with Sri Aurobindo’s writings.
So you should continue with the class; but in making comments, you must understand that they cannot avoid being inadequate, and that the original text far surpasses anything you can say about it.
With my blessings.
(Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 17, p 344)
For more on this aspect, see the remarks collected under Why read Sri Aurobindo’s books?
- Neil Dalal. Contemplative Practice and Textual Agency in Advaita Vedānta. Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, vol. 21 issue 1 March 1, 2009. pp. 15-27 (online)
- Teun Goudriaan and Sanjukta Gupta. Hindu tantric and Sakta literature. Wiesbaden [Germany] : O. Harrassowitz, 1981, p 164 (amazon)
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