In a unique series of talks and answers to questions H.H. Shantanand Saraswati explains the transformative practice of Bhakti, the emotional realisation of Unity in the midst of life.
New 2012 Edition with a 22 page appendix of additional material.
ISBN 978-0-9561442-6-3 (Paperback, 153 pages)
Click here for Kindle edition, available from the Amazon Kindle Store.
Although other books published by the Study Society have been based mainly on the Record of a series of question and answer audiences between Shantanand Saraswati and Dr Francis Roles during the period 1961-1993, this book generally has different sources of material. The Orange Book is based on talks that Shantanand gave to members of his Sankara Ashram in Allahabad during 1970-73, recorded as notes and translated into English by R.L.Dixit, an Allahabad devotee of Shantanand, and this forms the majority of the book. Added are some talks that Shantanand gave at various Kumbh Mela gatherings during 1972-73, again recorded as notes and the transcripts translated. S.M. Jaiswal and Narayan Swarup Agrawal have also performed some of the translations. Occasionally the material is derived from the exchange of letters between Dr Roles and the Ashram, which happen in the lacuna between actual visits. There are also extracts of four audiences with Shantanand in 1972. An appendix, added to the 2013 edition, contains question and answer material between Francis Roles and Shantanand in the period 1970-79, with a few questions by senior members of the Society up to 1991.
The plethora of sources, the differing audiences, the fact that the material is often based on notes and not tape recordings, the different translators involved... all evoke the question whether it is always the authentic voice of Shantanand that is speaking? In answer, it can be said the note takers and translators have the reputation of being scholarly, accomplished and accurate, their memories prodigious, and being devotees hopefully they would be meticulous not to superimpose their own understanding on that of Shantanand. So... is this Shantanand's true voice? As far as one can judge, it is. Without the helpfulness of Sri Dixit this material would have been irretrievably lost to Shantanand's Western followers. A sobering thought.
Despite its eclectic composition, Francis Roles regarded this book as a type of textbook for putting into practice the principles leading to Self Realization. Self Realization is for Roles the realization of Unity. No doubt, having examined all the alternative texts and methods for Self Realization, advocated by other advaitins past and present, Roles conceded that the unique variations on Advaita Vedanta philosophy taught by Shantanand, and the method of Self Realization he advocated, differed from all the other traditional and contemporary sources. Roles considered Shantanand's teaching to be authentic because it was able to demonstrate the real meaning of the texts of the great teachers of Advaita from the past, who often wrote in an enigmatic way, and whose statements are consequently extremely difficult to understand with full certainty. The depth of Shantanand's insight, the quality of his intellect and the purity of his emotions, as well as being gracefully able to transform traditional Advaitic teaching into practical work towards Realization, undoubtedly confirm Shantanand as one of the finest teachers of Advaita of the 20th century. When asked one day whether he enjoyed the questions that were put to him by disciples, Shantanand surprisingly replied that he enjoyed the answers more. The inference being that he listened to his answers as though they were not his own, but came through him from a transcendentally deep source, perhaps prana, perhaps even from the level of Brahman. Therefore Shantanand can quite accurately be regarded as a highly direct, transparently open, and unprecedented transmitter of divine knowledge from East to West, at the purest level of quality. An act of love from Brahman to Western civilization.
In a discourse to his Ashram, Shantanand outlined the classic Advaita principle that only the Absolute has real existence. From the point of view of real existence there is no world. It is unreal like a mirage, but one we cannot dispel by any physical means. It is due to certain conditions of light, and it goes away only when those conditions have gone. Similarly it is due to certain conditions of ignorance and it goes away only when that ignorance is gone. Shantanand appears to prefer to use the word Param-Atman for the Absolute rather than the more familiar Brahman, or Parabrahman. It is helpful to realize that all three words have subtle differences of meaning, indicating different levels related to the Absolute, although ultimately they are One. The elusive principle of the Param-Atman is described by Shantanand as the sum total of all the Atman of all individual living beings, past, present and to come. Although the Atman, due to its association with the buddhi (intellect), may seem to be under world bondage, the Param-Atman is beyond all such things. The Param-Atman lives in the antahkarana of each person for the purpose of guidance. From time to time we get a guiding voice when we are in difficulties. To those who maintain a special relationship with the Param-Atman, the Param-Atman sometimes reveals himself in a special form in the external world. Like other advaitins, Shantanand regards the jiva (an individual nature) as part of the Param-Atman, and the only problem is that the jiva, having come into the world for the sake of discovering joy, has instead fallen into the trap of ignorance by forgetting reality, that only the Pram-Atman is real, and the world is unreal.
It is easy to overlook the emphasis that Shantanand puts on the world being an illusion. Many Western Schools of Advaita fail to teach their students this principle. In the book, Shantanand makes a memorable quotation: “The world is a great show, which God is staging around you in the shape of the universe. But it is a mere show. Your birth is a show, your death is a show. Actually there is neither birth nor death. Know that and you would be happy.” In this statement, which has become central to Advaitic philosophy since the appearance of the concept in Gaudapada's Karika, Shantanand is perfectly in harmony with traditional Advaita, whatever his critics and detractors may try to assert.
Shantanand asserts that there is something special or outstanding in each of us, and that is the attribute in which one chiefly excels. The method is to do what each of us is meant for in a spirit of service to God. This is the correct worship and the correct Bhakti. By this method even the lowest can reach the greatest heights. Taking up other people's duties, because they appeal to you better, results in you losing your way, and ruining yourself. Some critics may allege that in this doctrine Shantanand is merely upholding caste? Advaita usually asserts that the Self does nothing and, being a mere witness, it has neither desire nor power to perform action. Everything just happens, including whether one's nature takes up its own special duties or those of other people. Because one can do nothing there is no possibility of changing anything, including the preference for other people's duties. There must be doubt whether the one who loses his way and ruins himself is actually the genuine self? Shantanand here appears to be advocating appropriate behaviour in the Vyavaharika (the superimposed illusion) rather than in the Paramarthika (the truth). And, of course, that is valid if the one potentially opens access to the other.
Francis Roles demonstrably had a nature that was attracted to devotion, and asked Shantanand for help in developing love or devotion to the Param-Atman. Shantanand responded by giving emphasis to the teaching of Bhakti, and he uses the word God frequently in his discourses and replies to Roles questions. This may not be to every reader's natural inclination. Shantanand states that Bhakti is the transfer of attachment to the Param-Atman and, under the influence of Bhakti, everything undergoes a transformation. Poverty becomes riches etc. Whatever the Creator has given to the world, he has given up to the world. He no longer asserts ownership over it. We should also cultivate the habit of using and enjoying it as His gift and not our own property.
Some of Shantanand's most memorable teaching in the book occurs in his description of the difference between ordinary birth and divine birth, which is due to association. He also draws a distinction between pain and suffering. The body is like a big town, the habitation of many, a whole world of living creatures inside, which are constantly being kept in a state of dynamic equilibrium which maintains the body. Any disturbance in the equilibrium causes disease. Similarly, when the balance in creation is upset, then the forces of the Param-Atman come into play to restore it.
The extracts from four audiences with Shantanand in 1972 are of high quality and deal with subjects such as the sense of separate identity, the illusion of being an independent doer, free will, the universe resembling a film being shown on a cinema screen, the manifestation of Prakriti as the threefold gunas and their influences, the three ways of approaching the Absolute: though work, through the emotions, and through the intellect. None of the ways are better or worse than the others.
A few of the audiences in the book are with senior members of the Sankara Ashram. One set of questions is presented to someone named Dandi Swami, whose answers are particularly startling since the Dandi states that everything is predestined, and already recorded on the reel (ie similar to a cinema film reel), everything is being directed by God himself, but because of the ego we will not admit it. You cannot change anything. You can only change your attitude.
Further chapters of the book touch on the subjects of: the structure of a mantra; the seven successive stages, like the steps of a ladder, to reaching the Param-Atman, where there is freedom from all thoughts about one's own self and its consequential benefits; the concept of ahamkara; satsanga; the power residing in the antahkarana.
The appendix contains interesting discourses by Shantanand on bhakti, the gunas, cosmic and individual laws, faith, desires, consistency, sacrifice and surrender, and meditation.
In summary, The Orange Book is a significant addition to the Study Society's series on the discourses of Shantanand Saraswati, Shankaracharya of Jyotir Math, revealing insights into the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta not easily accessed elsewhere. It contains examples of a Shankaracharya teaching members of his Ashram, which is not normally open to public gaze. It is full of elucidations and explanations of difficult aspects of Advaita philosophy, either through direct discourses or through poignant stories. It is a perfect balance of knowledge, which may appeal to the more intellectual student of Advaita; of devotion and love of God, which will appeal to those whose emotional centre is finely developed; and is of practical help for those whose active centre compels them to begin work on themselves in earnest. Francis Roles believed the book is worth reading many times, its ideas to be lived, and an attempt made to continually try to find a way to practice what it says. True.
J W | Neath, Wales | August 2013