Newcomers to Advaita may become frustrated with the amount of repetition that occurs in its literature. Time and again, the same metaphors are encountered, like those relating to perceptual difficulties involving a protagonist looking for glasses already on a face or a missing pearl necklace that is actually in position around the seeker’s neck. Then there’s that analogy of snake and rope, the ubiquitous inclusion of which seems prerequisite for introductory material.
Lately, however, there’s been personal cause to reflect on the importance of repetition and the part it plays in developing understanding. After reaching an impasse with Swami Dayananda’s Bhagavad Gita Home Study Course, I’ve been recovering ground, turning once again to the excellent audio transcripts of Swami Tadatmananda’s Bhagavad Gita lectures for supplementary support.
Going back over Chapter Two of Bhagavad Gita I’m surprised how much I missed, in terms of information that hasn’t gelled properly which led to later confusion. There have also been certain insights that resonate much clearer now, in light of the experience of having lost my way with Swami Dayananda’s text.
Particularly useful was the advice that Swami Tadatmananda offers in his discussion of Chapter Two Verses 10-12. About an hour into that particular session, Swami Tadatmananda remonstrates that those looking for a scholarly understanding of Bhagavad Gita are wasting their time. The goal, he says, isn’t knowledge or adopting a new belief system. The only goal is that of personal discovery.
Coming from an academic background, students may be used to examining information in order to regurgitate that data to produce essays, sometimes adding a bit of personal insight or original thought in order to show a level of understanding. Speaking of a parable about a parrot that could speak Sanskrit, Swami Tadatmananda relates such feats to those who know the right words to say without necessarily having personal experience of the subject under discussion. One may be able to intellectually grasp the notion that what one seeks already dwells within the body, but until realisation occurs, all that is happening is ingestion of theory, rather than witnessing that theory in action.
Yet repetition does have a valid part to play in Advaita. First and foremost, it’s worth remembering that śruti has been passed down as part of an oral tradition. As a word, this Sanskrit term, śruti, is used to signify sacred texts from which the canon of Hinduism is comprised, referring to the Vedas and incorporating the Upanishads. Its literal meaning is ‘hearing’ and, according to tradition, śruti stems from the dawn of time, transmitted to rrishi (sacred authors) by divine transmission.
In order to aid the transmission of śruti to future generations, śloka was used. Śloka is a poetic pattern that literally means ‘song’ involving two half-verses or hemistitches of sixteen syllables that together form a couplet. Classic works like Ramayana and Mahabharata use ślokas extensively, creating memorable patterns through repetition that act as mental prompts or mnemonics.
Such patterning creates mental hooks that aid memory through creation of prompts in the same way as modern songs, although most popular music in the West is now predicated on rhyme rather than alliteration or syllabic intonation. Further mnemonic devices were included in the composition of śruti such as metaphor and similie, creating vivid associations that stuck in the mind.
Many of the metaphors we encounter in Advaita today are taken from Shankara’s commentaries or bhashya on śruti dating back to the 8th Century. Shankara was an Indian philosopher who was responsible for establishing major principles that form the backbone of Advaita Vedanta. Metaphors like the snake and rope that appear in Shankara’s commentaries have been handed down from guru to disciple for nearly two thousands years as a means of illustrating how the veil of maya (illusion) can be lifted.
In semi-darkness, a person can be convinced that a snake is coiled in the corner of a room, and with such conviction comes attendant fears that enhance the perception. To the person who thinks there really is a snake, the snake exists. Only when a light is shone on the object of perception can truth be established. The snake turns out to be a coil of rope and misconception is banished.
Advaita Vedanta is claimed to be the metaphoric light that lifts the veil of illusion. Some metaphors, to a Western audience, may seem rather dated and of limited use. We’re not used to encountering snakes as a general rule, let alone being in a situation whereby it is likely we may confuse them for coils of rope.
The metaphors in circulation, like those cited above are, however, easy to grasp, regardless of contextual setting. They are memorable and create an easy point of access. In fact, they are so memorable that at times they come across as being too simplistic, too easy to grasp, too familiar, resulting in complacency of understanding. ‘Of course I get it. Only a fool wouldn’t get it.’
Yet why change what apparently works rather well? As a means of introducing complex concepts such metaphors serve the purpose, hence why so many teachers still utilise them today, and continue a tradition dating back nearly two thousand years.
Should repetition frustrate our studies, it may be worth keeping the above in mind. We should caution ourselves to beware of the familiar and be prepared to continually re-examine and investigate topics until the true nature of what we study is revealed. Such knowledge needs to be based on personal understanding and experience through application as opposed to intellectual understanding. Only personal experience can bring about realisation of truth. Such was apparent whilst on holiday when I discovered a snake... and rope.