Swami Swarupananda Saraswati left his body on September 11th 2022. He was the Shankarācārya of Dwarka and Jyothirmath. The following text, originally published in Aditi I, is based on two interviews conducted in December 2016 with him. Some excerpts are included in the documentary Guru & Disciple. The questions were asked in Hindi by her disciple Manjula Rao. The interview was translated by J.D.
Sanātana Dharma and Advaita Vedānta
Manjula Rao : Can you define for us the concept of sanātana dharma and explain its origin?
Swami Swarupananda Saraswati: The word sanātana comes from sanā or sadākāla meaning that which exists ‘at all times’. We call sanātana that which exists from beginningless time and will last forever. Sanātana dharma is the perennial path leading to the ultimate good. This is the definition of the sanātanadharma revealed to the individual souls by the Supreme Self itself through the Scriptures.
MR : What is the main principle of Advaita Vedānta?
Swami Swarupananda Saraswati: Nescience is the real cause at the root of suffering for the embodied soul. Nescience cannot be destroyed by action, only knowledge can destroy it. I see a snake on my way. I see it because of ignorance. Only the knowledge of the rope [which has been mistaken for a snake] will put an end to the false cognition of the snake. Likewise, the knowledge of the Supreme Self is the only means to destroy nescience. For that reason, we regard knowledge as the ultimate cause of liberation for human beings.
MR : How do you explain that, so many foreigners are attracted to Sanātana Dharma and Advaita Vedānta? If they receive an initiation, can they hope to reach liberation?
Swami Swarupananda Saraswati: The mere fact of being a living being makes you eligible for liberation. Nobody can be excluded from the quest for liberation since anybody can achieve knowledge. There is no distinction to make between individuals at this level. However, distinctions must be introduced when it comes to the choice of means [for liberation]: what are the means that a particular individual should use and those he should not use. But once again there is no restriction in terms of eligibility. Anybody can achieve liberation.
The relationship between master and disciple
MR : why is the relationship between master and disciple so important in Advaita Vedānta?
Swami Swarupananda Saraswati: The guru should explain the meaning of the Upaniṣad-s to the disciple. The Upaniṣad-s are the eyes through which the knowledge of Brahman is achieved, and the guru is the sun. You can see things once they are illuminated by the light of the sun. Likewise, the guru makes you experience correctly the meaning of the Veda.
MR : What are the qualities of a genuine disciple?
Swami Swarupananda Saraswati: The disciple is the one who is eager to know, who longs for knowledge. Having accomplished one of the three [other] goals of human existence [artha, kāma, dharma], he can now dedicate himself to the pursuit of knowledge [and liberation]. Some people are fond of controversies. They cannot be disciples because they would waste their time arguing for the sake of arguing. They would be full of doubts and never satisfied. “May I achieve that knowledge which frees from all sufferings and grants Supreme Bliss.” A person, with this kind of aspiration, should be regarded as a true disciple.
The worship of the deities
MR : What are benefits of worshipping deities?
Swami Swarupananda Saraswati: It is because of the desires that abide in his heart that man worships the deities. He approaches the deities to fulfill those desires. For instance, if you long for money you approach a wealthy man, for strength a strong man, for virtue a virtuous man. But if your desires are limitless, then you turn to the Lord who will grant you everything.
MR : What is the difference between Vedānta and Tantra?
Swami Swarupananda Saraswati: Vedānta simply means reflection (or enquiry). Tantra is in agreement with the final view of Vedānta but teaches the method for worshipping the divine in order to reach the goal. For instance [in the Śrī Vidyā, the worship of the Goddess Lalitā Tripurasundarī], many potencies (śakti-s) emerge from the body of the Goddess to finally sit in sequence on the enclosures (āvaraṇa-s) [of the Śrī Yantra]. Then, through their worship they are reunited with the Goddess in which they get absorbed along with the worshipper. At that stage, the worshipper experiences oneness with the object of worship. This means that the cosmic manifestation which proceeds from the Supreme Self is not actually different from the Supreme Self and that Supreme Self is not different from our inner Self. This is the final view of Tantrism regarding worship.
MR : What spiritual disciple leads to liberation?
Swami Swarupananda Saraswati: First, one must renounce desires for mundane enjoyment; second, virtues like forgiveness, simplicity, compassion, contentment must abide in the heart.
MR : How to reach bliss?
Swami Swarupananda Saraswati: The mind and the sense faculties should work together. This is the main thing a man should strive for. Then, man should not run after desires because they shall never come to an end. For each desire that is fulfilled, countless more arise. Craving knows no end. That is why Śāṅkarācārya declares: tṛṣṇā kṣayam svarga padam kim asti. “Where is heaven? Heaven resides where desires have been destroyed.” Therefore, renounce desires!
Yoga and Samādhi
MR : What is the role of yoga in the spiritual path?
Swami Swarupananda Saraswati: Yoga counts eight divisions. Abstentions, observances, postures, control of breath, withdrawal of the senses from their objects, the fixing of one’s attention, meditation and samādhi (absorption). The first seven are means to samādhi. Once samādhi is achieved, the mind is emptied from every kind of thought. This quietness of the mind is the support that leads us from meditation to the direct experience [of oneness with the Self]. From this, the importance of yoga. But, as a matter of fact, postures, control of breath etc. are not necessarily needed for the achievement of yoga. Oneness can be experienced also independently from these practices.
MR : But how can we get liberation if we do not know yoga and its method?
Swami Swarupananda Saraswati: By the guru’s grace. The guru will explain to the disciple what samādhi is. Suppose you fall asleep. In sleep, you are senseless, you do not know who and where you are. Then sleep is over, and the state of waking is not there yet – it is when I wake up that I know to be a woman etc. and where I am. So, the state of waking is not there yet but sleep is over, that is the real samādhi. It is the guru who will tell you: « See, you are in samādhi. » [laugh] I give you another example. We are sitting together, discussing spiritual topics (satsanga) and someone knocks at the door. Suddenly our attention shifts to the door. But, just before shifting, our attention is no longer focused on the discussion and not yet on the noise at the door but remains between the two. Similarly, in the dance (rāsa-līlā) of Lord Kṛṣṇa and the gopī-s (cowherdesses), between two gopī-s, there is always a Kṛṣṇa. That means that between two mental states, there is always the Self, the state devoid of any mental construction. There is always Kānhā [Kṛṣṇa] between two gopī-s. [In the same way, when perceiving two objects successively,] the form of the pot appears in the mind then disappears and the form of the cloth is not there yet. In that interval, neither the form of the pot, nor the form of the cloth is present. The mind is formless. The guru explain what samādhi is in this simple, direct way. Otherwise, it would be very difficult to achieve it. The guru tells you what samādhi consists of. Once you have understood it, it is upon you to realize it.
MR : Is it possible for women busy with their family duties to reach samādhi?
Swami Swarupananda Saraswati: Definitely, they can. After getting up in the morning, you should practice meditation and you will feel at peace for the whole day. What truly matters is what your mind is focused on. [For example] in the old days, women used to carry water on their heads. [They were called panyārin-s]. From the well, they were carrying one pot full of water after the other. On their way home, they used to meet friends and chat with them or to come across some children and take them by the hand. But what was the focus of their attention? They would not let themselves be distracted from the pots.
‘Puṅkhānupuṅkha viṣayeṣu ca pareṣu brahmāvalokana dhiyam yahāti yogī saṅgīta tāla’.
”The ascetic won’t let himself be distracted from the vision of the Supreme Reality, even if he is enjoying worldly objects.”
Likewise, a funambulist, walking on a rope, is carrying many pots on his head, [up to] three pots, one above the other, with a small bowl on the top from which he pours water to wash everybody’s hands. He has to constantly remain focused so that the pots will not fall. In the same way, don’t distract your mind from the goal, concentrate on it.
MR : In other words, the housewife should look after her family always concentrating on her tutelary deity.
The Vedic tradition in the contemporary world
MR : Today, Indians are turning away from their own tradition. Is the Vedic tradition on the verge of extinction?
Swami Swarupananda Saraswati: Actually, the seed will never perish. A minority will remain faithful to the tradition and others [who had turned away from it] will ultimately return to the tradition. Once you have been told something true, even if you do not accept it immediately, that truth has entered your mind. One day you will return to it.
tattva pakṣapāto hi svabhāvo iti aham.
« To be inclined towards the truth (tattva) is a natural disposition of the mind. »
Something real always enters deep inside.
There was a gentleman who was an Indian and a brahmin. He was appointed ambassador to France. So French people wanted to ask him questions about the Bhagavad Gītā, but he didn’t know anything about it [since] he had received a modern education. So, he had to tell them the truth: although an Indian and a brahmin, he was unfortunately ignorant about the Gītā. He pitied himself and thought: « these French people are interested in the Gītā, it is a shame I am not. » Therefore, he began studying of the Gītā.
Wherever destiny brings you, if someone tells you something which is already found in your holy scriptures, you will think to yourself: “my own mother used to tell me the same.” Any man, even the most insignificant, is the very Self. There is this Sanskrit formula:
ātmā so paramātmā.
There lies for us a profound truth: the inner Self (ātmam) and the Supreme Self (paramātman) are one and the same. My inner Self is the same as the Supreme Self.