For the last several months, the high point of most of my Sundays has been ‘Gita class’ – the one-hour class I go to and learn the Bhagavad Gita.
One thing for which I consider myself very lucky is that all through my life, I have had at any point at least one wonderful teacher, with whom I am able to communicate effortlessly, and who makes his subject come alive for me. I had a progression of excellent teachers in school and college; in my first job, my boss took me under his wing and taught me all that I know about building engineering products; when I started up, I had a couple of mentors who taught me business. And one of the happiest things happening in my life right now is the Bhagavad Gita lessons that I go to on Sundays, taught by Swami Paramarthananda. Swami Paramarthananda achieved a mastery of the Hindu scriptures in the formal way – he studied a rigorous post-graduate course in Vedanta, and then took sanyasa with Swami Dayananda Saraswati as his guru. He’s incredibly down-to-earth, intelligent, erudite and witty, and is possibly one of the best communicators that I have ever seen.
I began going for the Gita classes from the beginning of 2012. Swami Paramarthananda teaches the Gita rather slowly; he explains each verse in detail, and in a 1-hour session, typically covers 3 or 4 stanzas; it would take about 7 years of Sundays to finish one entire cycle of the text. (He’s been teaching since 1978, and there are several cycles that are available as CDs or MP3s.) On Saturdays, he also teaches the Upanishads in a similar 1-hour format; I attended a couple of these, but these were a bit too advanced for me.
The thing I love about his lectures is that it how systematically it covers Hinduism (and particularly Advaita Vedanta) – almost as one would learn a Science. All my experiences to Hinduism so far have been somewhat haphazard. As a child, one learns the Mythology, and stories from the Epics, and one is filled with questions about various dubious actions of kings and Gods. Typically in the pre-teens, one commits to memory a few prayers that one’s family likes (such as the Vishnu Sahasranamam and the Hanuman Chalisa) which one then chants in temples and on special occasions requiring some divine intervention. If you happen to have a higher-than-average interest in religion, you also learn a few Vedic mantras (like the Rudram and various Suktas) and this makes you feel ‘learned’. Twice-born Hindus of a religious bent also memorize and perform various rituals, including the daily Brahminical ‘Sandhyavandanam’.
Given that the vast majority of devout Hindus learn about their religion this way, it is not surprising that to most of us, Hinduism appears as a hopelessly disjointed and desultory faith, with a number of strands of teachings, morals, ethics, myths and philosophy that are often contradictory, sometimes opaque, and seemingly ritualistic.
I have now learnt that is not the case. At least, this has not been the case since the year 810 (approximately), which was when Adi Sankara began the process of consolidation of Advaita philosophy, the result of which is a highly structured and systematic philosophical underpinning of the entire religion. Using the Bhagavad Gita as a kind of ‘summary’ of the Advaita philosophy, Adi Sankara also wrote commentaries on all of the major Upanishads and on several general texts that are important to the Hindus, uniting them into one consistent whole.
This is what Swami Paramarthananda’s lectures have opened my eyes to. I can now perceive that Hindu philosophy is as structured as, say, medicine, engineering or law. It has a set of basic precepts which are decidedly non-dogmatic, in that they require one to assume only the most general of axioms about the human condition. Specifically, Vedanta does not even demand the acceptance of an anthropomorphic God – one of the biggest cognitive biases to overcome in accepting any religion. Vedanta is an easy philosophy to believe in, because of this ‘gradual building-up’ approach of the sacred texts that relies on learning and understanding more than mere belief. And over a 6-10 year period, it is quite possible to read all of the major textbooks and commentaries, read the scriptures in their originals, and become a ‘master’ of Hindu thought.
And if you are a spiritually talented person, this mastery will have the additional side-effect of making you a ‘jnani’ – an enlightened person. In what better way could an intense course of study end? – given a choice between a Ph.D. and eternal enlightenment after 10 years of study, I at least know which one I would pick :-).