Found in Sanga, Sanga 2004.

Q. In verses 2.31-2.38 of the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna says that one should do one’s duty but not be attached to the results. In our own duties or studies, it is difficult to see how we could work if we didn’t care for the results of our work. So what are we actually supposed to learn from this lesson in the Gita?

A. The spirit of this lesson is that there is something more important than the fruit of one’s work. Here the Gita tries to give us a bigger picture. According to the Gita, what is ultimately important is not if one wins or loses materially, but how one plays the game. Detachment from the fruit of one’s work and dutiful engagement does not involve being unconcerned about the final outcome or being apathetic about achievement in one’s field. Detachment is more about identifying with the fact that there is a grand scheme of things. In that scheme, the fruits of one’s activities are incidental. Ignorance of this is materially binding because one considers the fruits of one’s work, such as home, family, and possessions, to be everything.

It is noteworthy that this section of the Gita’s second chapter ends with advocacy of attaining mental equilibrium (Bg. 2.38), which is central to the yogic experience. No matter how adept one is in material acquisition, all such acquisition is of little value if one’s mind is not peaceful. Conversely, no matter how little one has materially, with peace of mind one can be happy.

Q. How do we as persons indoctrinated in a culture that respects no truth as absolutely valid find the emotional fortitude and faith to conquer what Bhagavad-gita (3.37) calls our greatest enemy: lust?

A. I do not believe that our western culture has no place for absolute values or truth, nor do I think that a culture that dismisses the notion of absolute truth can speak convincingly on the virtues of lust.

Lust is not merely an outdated religious prohibition. Lust is an expression of dissatisfaction, and objectively its pursuance does not lead to enduring fulfillment. Furthermore, it is a universally accepted principle that lust is undesirable to everyone on some level. This is illustrated by the fact that even the lustiest people despise certain manifestations of its excess in their own ranks. On the other hand, history has shown that the most cultured and educated members of society revere a spiritual person perceived as free from lust. Thus one needs to understand the principle that the Bhagavad-gita teaches in its condemnation of lust rather than merely viewing it as an outdated religious law that has no cultural support.

Q. When would it be proper to take initiation and what criterion should I follow to choose a spouse?

A. It is proper to take initiation when your heart makes it clear to you that your spiritual fortune lies in coming under the guidance of a particular sadhu. From the spiritual point of view, initiation is more important than marriage and thus the primary consideration in choosing a spouse should be similarity in faith. Together you and your spouse should pursue the transcendental ideal above all else.

Q. My personal blend of religion reflects what I perceive as truth. In my opinion the description of ultimate unity in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism is nearly identical; therefore, I appreciate all three religions and meditate on the Buddha standing beside a picture of Ganesa. This makes sense to me, but do you have any advice about the religious mix that I have adopted?

A. Underlying all ego-effacing spiritual paths there is common ground and certainly there is sense in seeing how all manifestations of divinity are interrelated. This makes much more sense than going to war over the differences between the various manifestations of divinity. At the same time, all ego-effacing paths do not lead to the same place as each represents a unique experience of life beyond self-centeredness. Also, some religious paths are more theologically developed than are others; that is, they tell us more about what God is than about what God is not, more about transcendence itself than about the nature of the material predicament. I personally find this to be the case in comparing Hinduism to Buddhism and Taoism, thus I find the Hindu path more compelling. At the same time, I do not hesitate to take wisdom from wherever it manifests.

While it is laudable to appreciate all manifestations of divinity, I humbly suggest that in your search you try to find a realized guide to transcendence, who will undoubtedly represent a particular path, and follow him or her. In doing so, appreciate other paths from your own perspective.

Q. What is the difference between Buddhism and Hinduism?

A. Buddhism arose out of Hinduism, so there are many similarities between the two. However, there are also many differences, and to complicate things, there are also many different types of Buddhism and Hinduism.

Both Buddhists and Hindus accept the doctrine of reincarnation, engage in meditation, and seek enlightenment. Both traditions understand material desire to be the cause of suffering, a suffering that exists only in the mind. Thus in both traditions freedom from material desire is understood to be the end of suffering and thus the end of birth and death (reincarnation).

While both acknowledge reincarnation, their understanding of what it involves differs, as does the nature of each tradition’s meditation, and their sense of enlightenment. Perhaps the most important difference is that Buddhism does not acknowledge the existence of God or an enduring notion of consciousness (the soul), whereas Hinduism acknowledges both of these.

Buddhists see only matter in constant transformation and seek to do away with what they would call the misconception that we are individuals. For Buddhists, matter is all there is, and because matter is constantly transforming, any sense of self derived from identification with a particular transformation of matter is illusory. Buddhists teach that by letting go of this mental identity one can become free from the notion of birth and death.

Hinduism, on the other hand, teaches that while matter is constantly undergoing transformation, consciousness is observing and fueling that transformation. It tells us that consciousness is distinct from matter, consciousness being the experiencer and matter that which is experienced. It also tells us that we (the soul) are consciousness—or a particle of it. Thus any sense of self that is based on identification with matter (body/mind) is an illusory one. In Hinduism the true self (consciousness) is not a composite of our attachments or desires that undergoes transformation along with those attachments. Rather Hinduism teaches that the true self is the witness to matter’s transformation and that by knowing our self (consciousness) and our source (God) we can become free from illusion and the cycle of birth and death.

Q. Both Buddhist and Vedanta philosophies provide good guidelines to clear obstacles, purify oneself, attain enlightenment, and serve others with compassion, but Buddhism seems to go further toward freeing all sentient beings from suffering. Yet you wrote that you see Buddhism as an incomplete path and have compared the nirvana of Buddhism to becoming stone. It seems that you wrote this because Buddhists teach that there is no direct realization of the self existing; therefore, they deny it. There is no proof of the atman (soul) other than in scripture, so how can we accept the divine revelation of the scripture if we have no direct experience of it?

A. I find Buddhism incomplete because Buddhism is a philosophy, whereas Vedanta is both philosophy and theology. Theology refers to study in pursuit of Theos—God. Buddhists believe that there is no God or soul (atman), as these two cannot be validated by reason. Thus Pope John Paul IV once described Buddhism as a negative theology. He was correct in the sense that Buddhism is about negation, while misunderstood as having spoken negatively of Buddhism.

Vedanta, on the other hand, assumes there is both God and soul and teaches that they can only be known by revelation. Vedanta reasons that the finite mind cannot capture the infinite through philosophical speculation and that God makes himself known on his own terms. How could it be otherwise?
The case for the necessity of revelation to arrive at comprehensive knowing is strong. Reason suggests that if there is perfect knowledge, it is venerable to those who are steeped in imperfection, and thus its pursuance involves devotion. Even some forms of Buddhism recommend that some type of ritualistic devotion accompany its reasoning. The Vedanta-sutra says that reasoning alone can never be conclusive, tarko ‘pratisthanat. According to Vedanta, the path to conclusive knowing is devotion, which in the beginning is supported by reasoning from the revealed scriptures. When devotion is firmly established in the heart, the need for philosophy recedes to the background.

When Buddhists say that there is no direct realization of the self, they mean that they believe that there is no self, no ontological reality known in the language of Vedanta as nondual consciousness. The ideal of Buddhism is to cease from identifying oneself as either something other than matter (nondual consciousness) or a particular combination of matter (body/mind). As Buddhists don’t accept spirit or the existence of a conscious energy separate from matter, they are left with only matter, matter in constant flux. Thus the nirvana of Buddhism must be prakrti (material) nirvana, not the brahma (spiritual) nirvana of Vedanta.

Therefore, to the Vedantin it appears that the Buddhist conception of nirvana is to merge into matter, becoming the stone, the tree, the earth, the sky, the entirety of matter in its ongoing transformation, and to transform with matter, never identifying with any particular state of transformation as being separate from the entirety of matter in flux.

In contrast, Vedanta posits that consciousness is eternal and blissful. It recognizes the limits of reason, and thus the necessity of revelation. The mantras of the Upanisads have come to us through revelation. They tell us aham brahmasmi: “I am Brahman (spirit/atman/consciousness)” and tat tvam asi: “So too are you that.” “That”—consciousness—is something positive, the full realization of which not only ends suffering but also enables one to taste joy itself. Vedanta says that tasting joy one eventually comes to know that Brahman is rasa, raso vai sah—a relationship of love. This is opposed to the Buddhist conception of relief derived from negating material suffering. So while Buddhism is about the negation of suffering, Vedanta, meaning the conclusion of knowledge, is about never-ending love, a love that reaches its zenith in Radha-Krishna.

Furthermore, compassion is not lacking in Vedanta. The Vedas say love and know, and love in the full sense of the term involves loving God and all sentient beings, which in self-realized love are experienced as the energy (sakti) of God. I personally adhere to the doctrine of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, called Gaudiya Vedanta, which traces its scriptural roots to the Upanisads. The Gitopanisad teaches that out of compassion God comes to earth for the deliverance of souls suffering in material bondage. Krishna further extends compassion through his devotees, who serve his cause tirelessly, and by scripture, through which he reveals knowledge of himself and our relationship with him. Thus the Vedas teach that the conclusion of knowledge is devotion, because by devotion one gains revelation—the gift of God.

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