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Interview with Indian Yoga Teacher Sukumar Shetty

by Marjolein Wolf(more info)

listed in interviews, originally published in issue 21 - August 1997

What is the essence of spirituality according to the Vedanta?

Vedanta aims at liberation. The central concept is Samadhi. It is a state of consciousness, which is called Enlightenment in the West. It is the realisation of Godhood. To reach this state of consciousness is the main goal of every spiritual path, every practice or technique. It is the core of spirituality which is taught here in India. Several schools and disciplines use different words for the concept of Samadhi, but the essence is the same. To be in Samadhi completely is the only way to overcome the human suffering. It is impossible to do that in any other way. This is the only solution.

Sukumar Shetty

Sukumar Shetty

How does Enlightenment feel?

If you have an experience of Enlightenment, you are lifted into a divine consciousness. It has nothing to do with religion. It is a one hundred per cent pure experience of existence. At that moment you know that you are different from everything you have always thought about yourself and the world. You no longer identify with your body, your mind and the things that happen in your life. For most people this experience of Samadhi endures just a short time and disappears again. You need practice to make it last longer. It is a game. Because a short Samadhi-experience doesn't mean that you are "free".

Many western people don't believe that Enlightenment exists; or at least it is hard for them to imagine it.

The reason for this is that, in the West, one is not used to distinguishing between understanding and knowing.

Understanding is something you do with the mind. But it is not possible to know Samadhi with the mind. It is knowledge which can only be known by experience. That makes Samadhi a difficult subject to teach. You can't tell somebody what God or "the true Self" looks like.

The most you can do is show one the direction in which one has to look, or in which direction one should walk. In India we have this tradition of transmission of knowledge which is unknown in the West. Many people try to understand everything and are not open for things which go beyond the mind. For in this case understanding is not knowing. If one is satisfied only with understanding, one will never know.

How does this traditional transmission of knowledge work?

Two things are very important: a good teacher and the experience. As I've explained, nobody can tell you how it is to be in Samadhi.

The only way to reach it is to relax more and more. You can do that in many different ways. The most important thing is that the thoughts in the mind decrease and at the end disappear entirely. Then you shift into a different state of consciousness automatically.

However, you may not be able to recognise this state of consciousness as Samadhi, unless you are well informed about this knowledge by a competent person.

Why is this way of passing by knowledge so far from western convention?

In the West people are used to the fact that passing on knowledge is a complicated thing. They use difficult words and concepts. The idea being that it takes a lot of time and effort to learn something. But the knowledge which is passed by the Vedanta is very straightforward. The concept that Samadhi is the answer to all your questions is hard for western people to accept – just because it is so simple! The Vedanta is very straightforward. There are only two possibilities: you understand what they say or you don't understand what they say. There is nothing in between. For that reason many people – in India as well – turn away from it.

Where do we go wrong?

One respect in which things are going wrong in the West is on the point of mystification. Often people hang on to teachers' every word, who speak a mystical language. But if you study the old spiritual knowledge of the Vedanta, you will see there is nothing mystical about it: on the contrary, it is very straightforward. The mystification of reality is a pitfall for many people. It can be harmful, because it doesn't give you an answer to problems in daily life; if you are carried away by mystical ideas it will be very difficult at a certain stage to open yourself for the straightforward knowledge of the Vedanta.

Are there western teachers who can help you achieve the goal of Samadhi?

Yes, definitely. But there are also lots of teachers who lead their students in the wrong direction. That can happen in several ways.

The most important reason why it happens is that these teachers don't know the experience of Samadhi themselves. In that case one is not able to show someone else the way. It's hard to play the guide in an area you don't know yourself, isn't it? The role of the teacher is to give you the confidence that you are able to reach Samadhi and that it is not difficult. Many schools and teachers emphasise that there is a long way to go to become enlightened. With this approach it will definitely never happen. But a teacher who knows Samadhi by his own experience will never say something like that. He will say that everybody can reach it, any time.

Does a teacher always have to be enlightened himself?

No, that's not what I'm saying. One is not enlightened just like that. The first time you have a Samadhi experience, you usually fall back into your old consciousness quickly. It demands a lot of practice to stay in Samadhi for a longer period of time. It's not really necessary as such to show people the way to Enlightenment. If you have had the experience yourself, although it didn't last very long and it passed by again, then you know what you are talking about. There are also teachers and gurus who are continuously in the state of Samadhi, but that is a different story. There is, by the way, nothing wrong with people teaching yoga without knowing the state of Samadhi themselves. They are often serious and sincere in helping their students to relax. Especially for beginners they can be useful and I respect them very much. But their teachings may not lead to Enlightenment.

How do western teachers point their students in the wrong direction?

One of the major mistakes which is made is that Samadhi is confused with a state of trance. These are two different things. Trance is a state of consciousness in which you float between dreaming and being awake. It means that you are very relaxed and it feels very pleasant. That is a positive thing in itself. It can release stress and decrease psychosomatic diseases. I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with this state of trance. But it must not be confused with Samadhi.

What exactly is the difference?

There is a crucial difference. If you go into the state of trance, you are going away from the world, away from daily life. Your consciousness is pulled into a field of fantasies which are projections of the consciousness. It feels great. It makes you high, like in a beautiful dream or by drugs. It gives you a possibility to escape from the reality of life. It is a flight. But the moment you fall back, you are disappointed. It might happen that you start to dislike normal life and the everyday reality. All you want is to return to that pleasant state of trance. In that way you are creating an increasing gap between yourself and reality. And while you are doing that, you are not transcending the mind, but you stay within the mental patterns. Samadhi is a step further. You go beyond the thinking completely and abolish every separation between you and the rest of the world. Because in essence you are only separated from the world by your own ideas. It is just a conditioning of the mind.

Unfortunately is it easier for the mind to go into trance than to go into Samadhi. Again, there is nothing wrong with it, but your spiritual path should not end there, because that will make you miss the essence. Spiritual teaching must be directed at making the student understand the difference.

Are there other areas in which western teachers 'go wrong'?

Many of them are tempted by modern-day marketing and sales techniques. They advertise with noisy slogans to attract students. But that's not the way it works with spirituality. You can't create students. If they come to you it's something which just happens. Besides, they are so eager for attracting students that they are caught in a pitfall: they are trying to please the public. They are going to do the best they can to cater to the wishes of the people. But spirituality is not meant to please people. It can even be a very unpleasant experience to go on a spiritual path. The fact is that real spiritual knowledge destroys the personality. That's why there are so many people who drop out. They are looking for techniques which give them a pleasant feeling – although this is only temporary.

How do western teachers try to please the public? Can you give an example?

The ego can be satisfied and flattered in many ways: for example, by connecting spiritual knowledge with physical pleasure and well-being. There are schools which announce that yoga and meditations make you look younger, that they make you look more beautiful.

From a spiritual point of view that is a crime. Because in that way you are using spirituality to encourage physical desires. The Vedanta throws the whole concept of body-consciousness overboard. The identification with the body must be stopped. Enlightenment has nothing to do with the body. And that's a fact which is difficult to accept for western people. Their major problem is often to let go the body-awareness. In your culture there is so much emphasis on the body. Everybody is trying to stay fit and to look good. If you stimulate this as a teacher, you just lead people away from the right path.

But those are, sometimes, attempts to relate spirituality to everyday life, are they not?

Yes, and that's a good thing in itself. It is important to give spirituality a place in earthly matters, like work and relationships with other people. But it must not stop there, because there is more. And offering someone half knowledge is as dangerous as offering wrong knowledge. It can lead somebody in the wrong direction and be confusing. One who thinks they know what life is all about might stop searching for answers. That takes away the chance that one really finds out what life is all about and what the true nature of "the self" is.

Why do people feel attracted to teachers who offer them half or wrong knowledge?

The human mind operates as follows: if I am searching for something, I have a concept or expectation in the back of my mind about the thing I'm looking for. I will only accept information that fits into this concept. This is the way it works with everything, and with spirituality as well. The Vedanta doesn't offer any concepts which western people are familiar with, and within which they can effortlessly insert their ideas.

Even more: because spirituality is directed at the destruction of personality, it pulls everything down. Because the subject is unknown, is doesn't offer any grip. The teachers who are trying to please the public usually make sure that they give them something familiar.

Is there a difference in attitude towards spirituality between Indian and western people?

Oh yes, there is a big difference. It might surprise you, but in the West people are much more open for spirituality than here in India. The main reason for that is that the West has reached a material climax. There is an abundance and the people are not curious anymore about material matters. They have seen it, done it and also been through the disillusionment which materialism brings along. They know that it doesn't give them what they are looking for. In India everybody is still chasing the capitalist dream. The atmosphere is a little bit like: first I want to be rich, then I'll go and meditate. People don't have time for spirituality because they have to earn a lot of money.

Of course one can't generalise this. There are a lot of people in India as well who feel attracted to spiritual knowledge. But the curiosity towards earthly matters dominates at the moment.

If western people are so open, how come it seems they don't find what they are looking for?

There are loads of people who are searching seriously and sincerely for spirituality, but they bump into the fact that they are flooded with information and options. They run from one workshop to the next seminar, without finding what they are looking for, until they are completely fed up with it – unfortunately! The problem is that they can't find the right teacher. Both in India and in the West there are just a few teachers who have both the experience of Samadhi and are able to pass over their knowledge to others.

How does one recognise such teachers?

Before you choose a teacher, find out what motivates him to teach. A sincere teacher has only one intention: to pass on his knowledge.

He doesn't expect people to kiss his feet, worship him, give him money or do other things to please him. Besides, he will never be disturbed by any question. Even if somebody wakes him up at the middle of the night, he will talk to that person relaxed and with endless patience. He is able to talk for hours without getting tired. He is willing to talk to anybody at any moment, as far as it's concerned with his subject. He may also show a general disinterest in any other discussion.

Is it possible to recognise a good teacher from the things he says?

Yes, a good teacher relates everything to Samadhi. He doesn't show interest in anything else, but bends every conversation to the subject of Enlightenment. In this way he shows that there is only one principle underlying all possible knowledge. That's how you recognise a person who knows.

But such a person is like a needle in a haystack, isn't he?

Yes, that's true! That's why it is so difficult for so many people to find a good teacher. But if you feel a strong desire to find the right teacher, and if that desire is stronger than every other desire, he will come to you. That is a law of nature.

If all spiritual paths have the same goal, reaching Samadhi, then why are there so many different schools and approaches?

That has to do with the ignorance of the followers of the paths. Real teachers all say the same. Jesus never said that his message differed from those of other spiritual teachers. Can you show me one sentence that disagrees with the tenor of that in the Bible or in the teachings of the Buddha? No!! They didn't make any difference. But their followers, who translated their teachings into a religion later on, made it a personal thing: this is our knowledge and it is superior to other knowledge. That is ignorance. Samadhi is not a subject to discuss or argue about. If there are two people who both experienced Enlightenment, then they can never have a different opinion about it. It is impossible.

So you are sure all spiritual paths have the same destination?

No doubt. There is no other option. If you reach Samadhi, you will see there is no difference. There is only one answer to all your questions: go and search for your true self. Stop doing all other things."

Just a personal question. Living in this beautiful area in India, what is driving you to a hurried Europe?

All the intelligent and wise people who are open for simple, clear knowledge. There is a great need for spirituality in Europe. Many people react very positively to the knowledge I offer them in my workshops about Vedanta. That's what brings me to the West. And to be honest I have to add that there is a financial reason as well. I have some financial commitments here, which will fortunately soon be fulfilled. Then I will be able to continue my teachings without asking money for it.

You don't think that will be a little bit frustrating, only giving without getting anything in return?

(Laughing loudly): No, no! The most joyful thing for me in life is to find a sincere student who is curious about the knowledge I want to pass on. To find such a student is worth more than a million dollars. A student who likes to listen to me, lifts me up. Teaching is a very strong way to go into Samadhi.

Epilogue

After talking to Sukumar I lie down to relax in one of the hammocks around his place in the mountains. I muse a little bit about the things he said about the role of a teacher. What exactly does he mean when he talks about this 'other tradition of knowledge-transmission'? At a certain moment Sukumar comes to me. "I would like to show you something", he says. He gives me a book about three-dimensional perception. And goes off. Not really brimming over by enthusiasm I leaf through the book. I see only pages filled with strange computer graphics. According to the description you should see beautiful three-dimensional pictures in it, but I don't see anything special. To give it a change I peer for a full minute at one of the pages. Nothing spectacular appears on my retina. Bored I throw the book in the grass. Who the hell cares about these stupid three-dimensionals? Within a second Sukumar is standing next to me. "What's up?" he asks. I answer: "Don't see anything. Probably not my piece of cake, this three-dimensional stuff. Just leave it."

Sukumar is laughing. "I'll give you a clue", he says. "Put the book against your nose and then remove it slowly from your face without focussing on one detail or the other. Just try. Really, you will be surprised." And he disappears again. With a slight resistance I do as he says, realising that I probably look pretty ridiculous and extremely short-sighted with this book so close to my face. But at the moment the book is about ten centimetres from my face, it feels like my brain starts to turn. From the page at which I'm staring suddenly three dolphins come forward. One is obviously on the foreground, while the other two are frisking behind him. It is a completely new perspective and it is wonderful. Fascinated I keep on staring. Until I move the book a little bit further from my face and the image burst like a soap bubble. All that remains is the boring page with the monotonous computer-graphics. Did I really see three dolphins swimming in this page just a second ago?

If I turn my head, I see Sukumar is watching me from a distance. He comes to me, an interested expression on his face. "I'm impressed", I tell him and describe the picture I just saw. "But suddenly it burst and now I can't see it anymore."

"Would you be able to describe to somebody what just happened and what you saw?" is Sukumar's next question. "Maybe a vague description would be possible, but it would definitely be different from experiencing it yourself", is my answer. "That's how it is with Samadhi", Sukumar replies. "I can tell you how it is, but only if you experience it yourself will you know that it exists and what it is like.

As a teacher I can give you clues where to direct your attention to. And afterwards we can talk about your experience. I'm here to support you, but to reach Samadhi is something you are in the end doing yourself."

About this Article

The dialogue between East and West is, nowadays, in full swing. More and more western people travel to Asian countries, practise yoga & meditation or study old Indian scriptures like the Vedanta. How do native Yogis feel about these developments? During a trip through India, journalist Marjolein Wolf visited yoga teacher Sukumar Shetty and asked him for his opinion about the integration of eastern techniques and philosophy in western society.

About Sukumar Shetty

Sukumar Shetty is 40 years old and lives in Samse, a small village in Karnataka, South-India. He was educated at the Vivekenanda Kendra, which is located close to Bangalore. He gives workshops about the Vedanta both in India and in Europe. His next visit to Europe is planned in September 1997. He will be in Amsterdam the first week of September. For more information, contact: Mr Jiva: 0031–20–6438828.

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About Marjolein Wolf

Marjolein Wolf is a 35-year-old journalist, writing freelance for Dutch magazines about spirituality. A Raja Yoga practitioner for many years, she is particularly interested in ancient Hindu philosophy. She has travelled to India five times, visiting several ashrams, gurus and spiritual teachers. She has published various articles about these trips. Previous interviews by Marjolein in Positive Health have been: in Issue 21 – Indian Yoga Teacher Sukumar Shetty; and in Issue 31 – Yoga and Vedanta Teacher Shastri.

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