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Interview with Yoga and Vedanta Teacher Shastri

by Marjolein Wolf(more info)

listed in interviews, originally published in issue 31 - August 1998

Vedanta is a philosophical tendency based on the Vedas. These books are the last part of the Upanishads, the holy scriptures of Hinduism. The oldest parts of the Vedas date back from the 12th century B.C. The core of Vedanta is that the highest Self of a human being is identical with the most highest of existence. Or: God and humankind are not separated – they are both expressions of the same divine energy.

Yoga and Vedanta teacher Shastri is seventy three years old and has been engaged in the propagation of this old Indian theory for more than twenty years. He teaches at Vivekananda Kendra, an ashram not far from his place of residence, Bangalore. One of his Indian students, Sukumar Shetty travels to Europe regularly to teach Vedanta.

Mental freedom is a gift of nature to humankind. Use it!

India is well-known for its rich spiritual tradition. The country is not only full of temples and ashrams, but also of gurus and spiritual teachers. Their teachings are based on the centuries old Hindu philosophy Vedanta. Can we, modern western people, practise this ancient knowledge in our daily life? Yes, says Shastri. And it is not only possible, according to Shastri it already happens. In the whole world more and more people experience that Vedanta gives them useful answers to practical questions about life. In 500 to 1000 years everybody will practise Vedanta, whatever their religious background. Vedanta will save the world!

Yoga Teacher Shastri

Yoga Teacher Shastri

What is so special about Vedanta?

Vedanta considers spirituality as the study of the inner self. It investigates the forces which are active in human beings. The main question is: how far do we allow these inner forces to disturb our balance? Vedanta says that we have a high degree of freedom. I can become upset because of the circumstances that surround me, but I can also choose not to be disturbed. This is what distinguishes human beings from physical objects. If an apple is ripe, it falls from the tree. It doesn't have any choice. Physical laws cannot be changed. But psychological laws are flexible. The human mind is free. This freedom is an important structural psychological characteristic. It is a gift of nature to humankind, a tool with which we can grow to any level.

Western psychology is also engaged in understanding the human inner self. What distinguishes Vedanta from their approach?

Traditional psychology takes the view that human behaviour is mostly related to the law of stimulus and response. It considers this as an established fact and tries to explain all human interaction according to this model. But it forgets that every psychological interaction has an element of freedom. Psychology ignores this fact completely, while for Vedanta it is the main subject. It takes the view that all suffering is caused by the fact we consider certain ideas to be the truth. I don't have money, so I am miserable. I am physically not well, so I am miserable. If you insult me, I become angry. If society doesn't accept me the way I am, I feel sad. In short, it is considered as a rule that a certain situation in the outside world leads to an unpleasant state of consciousness. This is stimulus and response. But Vedanta says: I can choose not to be influenced by the situation. This is the freedom we have, the means to overcome all human suffering. Use it!


Spirituality begins at the moment you recognise this freedom. Then you start to investigate the mechanism of happiness. What gives you a feeling of happiness? You think for example that it is money, because with money you can buy things that give you pleasure. You buy the thing that you want and at the moment it's in your hands you experience happiness. Why? Because at that moment the mind stops longing and is quiet for a moment. This non-longing, non-searching state of consciousness gives pleasure, happiness. You think that it is the object you bought that makes you happy. But objects give no direct pleasure. They only give pleasure if they bring you to that state of non-thinking.

The object is only the medium. But we don't need a medium! Vedanta teaches us to achieve this state of consciousness directly. Decide: from today I can be happy without needs, without anything. I can feel joy while I am poor. Etcetera. Years ago I read this knowledge in a book and I thought: it is as simple as that, I have a choice.

And then your life changed the next day? Did it go that quickly?

No, you are right if you say that it doesn't happen immediately. The recognition of freedom is the turning point, but it is of course just the beginning. The knowledge gives you a base to revise your attitude to life. Vedanta offers you a reorientation, based on logic. When you accept the concept of freedom, it slowly starts to implement the necessary corrections. In two months, in two years, in five years... (Laughing): Personally it took me ten years! If your conditioning is very strong, it will take a long time. But the main thing is that you turn the direction of your thinking. Then you create a base for transformation in yourself. Then changes take place, although it might take years or decades.

queAnd then? What is eventually the goal of this attitude to life?

To overcome suffering. Or: a permanent state of happiness. You feel comfortable in all circumstances. That is what we call Samadhi, Enlightenment. In the ultimate state the thinking stops completely, both in the form of words and in the form of images. It is wakeful sleep. Like in sleep this state of consciousness is characterised by the absence of activity. But the forgetfulness which is inherent in sleep, the lack of awareness, is missing. Your awareness is awake, but you are not doing anything.

For many people Enlightenment feels so far away from daily life that they feel like dropping the whole Vedanta thing.

That is a shame, because everyone can have benefit from this knowledge. It is not that, either you are in a state of higher consciousness, or you are not. It is not one thing or the other. Your awareness moves slowly in a direction where everything becomes more light and soft. Every step on that path is healing. If I relax ten per cent, I feel ten per cent better. If I focus my attention to peace, then I will become more peaceful immediately. On every level and to any degree you can have benefit from this philosophy. You can continue doing everything like you used to. It only demands a mental reorientation. Instead of doing the dishes while you are thinking: ugh! you think by yourself: well, its just a few dishes, why should I mind. Then you start liking it. That is the practise. Enlightenment and the way to Enlightenment are not different from each other. They are the same.

That sounds easy, but how do you recognise if you are on the right path?

I can give you two check-ups. First you will notice a change when you are alone. You are less and less bothered by the force of boredom.

Your need to go and see other people and to talk, to do this, to do that, becomes less. You are just contended with yourself. Second, you'll get less excited and disturbed by the circumstances that surround you. Situations that affected you a lot, have less and less influence on you. Of course, everyone has certain values and preferences, but if the circumstances don't fit in with that, you won't get upset quickly.

Your mental state becomes more stable. You feel more quiet and peaceful. It is a gradual process. But the symptoms are perceptible, both by yourself and by the people that surround you. It doesn't matter so much anymore if you have company or not, if you have a partner or not, if you are in a welcome or in an unwelcome situation.

You can look very quiet, while in your head there's a hurricane.

Yes, I also would call that a form of feeling miserable. Fast movements of the attention. Thoughts like: I have to do this, I have to go there, anger, jealousy, hate – these are all elements of speed. And speed always creates an unpleasant feeling. Another factor that causes agitation is the searching state, the questioning mood. In our mind there are continual questions like: what is this? why that? This is focussing our attention on a certain point. If we do that for too long a period of time, it creates tension. Speed and focussing are parts of human suffering. Without those two it is beautiful inside, relaxed. There develops a state of slowness, of expansion. That is the way to Samadhi.

It seems that our thinking is an obstacle in the search to relax. Wouldn't it be nice if we would have a button to switch the mind off?

Oh, but you must not check growth with the question of; if there are thoughts or if there are no thoughts. The development has got more to do with the speed and the intensity of thoughts. I can think very fast, but also very slowly. You can look at somebody and take in one hundred details of the dress she is wearing. But you can see only the main thing: the dress is white. It is the difference between casual thinking or thinking with the urge to see and know everything. Thinking casually is light and soft. It doesn't put any pressure on you. If something doesn't pressure you, then there is nothing wrong with it. So this casual way of thinking can go together with Samadhi. Only on a very deep level of Samadhi thoughts disappear completely. At that moment you are not able to function normally anymore. A minimum of connected, successive thoughts are required to act.

Some Hindu approaches consider daily life to be an illusion. What does Vedanta say about that?

To be honest I am not so happy with the word illusion. What is an illusion? Everything is space, energy. As science has proved, matter is compact energy. If molecules come close enough to each other, then we see a chair. If molecules are a little bit less close, then we see, for example, steam. You cannot catch steam, you can walk straight through it. Does that mean that steam doesn't really exist? Well, if you want to call something like this – or daily life in general – an illusion, I don't mind. But personally I don't wonder what is real and what is not real.

Because, no matter if the world is real or not, I do react to it! You say something to me and I become angry with you. Where is this anger coming from? From the silence inside of me something is set in motion. That is also energy and where is this energy coming from? If I think: it is nonsense to become angry like that, it slowly disappears. As a human being I am able to mobilise or demobilise energy. How can I do that? Those are the main questions Vedanta asks, as a central concept, that humans are the only living beings that are able to direct energy consciously. In our inner self, concentration and diffusion of energy take place. I can with my awareness activate or deactivate energy. It is a process that takes place inside of us. Science should experiment with that, because here lies the secret of creation.

Is that the principle that magic works with?

Yes, you can read that in the books of Carlos Castaneda. It is possible to materialise with your thoughts. I tried it a couple of times myself. Concentration and steadiness are requested, but it works. Only, the question that remains is: so what? It is not important.

No, not if you have learnt to be happy no matter what your personal circumstances are. But we live in a society where matter is very important. Do you think, considering our conditioning, that western people can make the change of attitude to life?

My daughter lives in the United States and I visited her several times. Many people are concerned about the fact that they want to buy a new car since the neighbour has a newer model than they have themselves. They know someone who lives in a big place and they start to long for that too. Functionality is usually not the main reason for their needs. But still my expectation of the future is optimistic. If the knowledge of Vedanta is transmitted in the right way, it is easy for people to pick up the essence and to change their attitude to life. Especially since intelligent people have that ability, and if the intellectuals of the society change, the rest will follow. It is a process that is already taking place at the moment.

Do people who want to walk on this path need a teacher or can they get the knowledge for example from books?

You will save yourself a lot of time when you have a teacher and don't have to continuously interpret the texts from the scriptures yourself.

A good teacher teaches in such a way that the knowledge is transmitted on a different level every time. In this way he or she elevates you more and more. Surrendering to a teacher softens the mind. That can help you. But there is also a risk in following a teacher. If you follow a teacher, you must be aware that surrender is not a goal in itself. If you use it to put your mind on zero, then you are doing well. But to follow a teacher blindly is useless, because if you do so you are not investigating the inner self. Eventually the main purpose is to understand the mechanism of suffering and happiness yourself. You can do that without a teacher.

Unfortunately I never found a teacher that suited me myself. When I was young, there was a period in my life when I was looking for a teacher. I had a very fast life and I felt very miserable. I wanted to die. I was asking everybody what I did wrong, but nobody could help me.

Then I started to read the Vedas and rediscovered the truth. But you must be able to read between the lines, which is not easy.

How do you see the future?

As I said, more and more people are opening up to Vedanta. My optimistic expectation is that in 500 to 1000 from now years everybody will be involved in yoga and Vedanta. It might become a new world philosophy, without pushing aside other religions. You can be Christian, Muslim or whatever and share the study of Vedanta. That is because Vedanta is not a religion; it is the study of the inner self. There is no place for gods, like Christ or Krishna, because it is not necessary to worship something in the outside world. The only thing you do is bring your attention to the inside. You are worshipping the divine energy inside you.

What will be the consequence of this change?

The knowledge which Vedanta carries with it, will save the world. If humankind realises that what happens outside of himself doesn't have to affect him, all suffering will stop. Everyone who is convinced of this truth, becomes another person. He doesn't have to be selfish anymore or to grab, to exploit or to compete. Eventually we are only doing these things because we think that money and matter bring pleasure and happiness. This misunderstanding will disappear if we come to see the truth of Vedanta. In this way Vedanta can direct the face of world civilisation to the divine.



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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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