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The role of the teacher

Why do I need a teacher? Simply because Vedanta is essentially an oral teaching tradition using the words as a means of knowledge. And they have to be unfolded by a teacher to a student to accomplish their purpose.

Vedanta says categorically that one should not try to look alone in the Scriptures and that without teacher one cannot obtain this knowledge 13. What are then the skills required to be a teacher of Vedanta?

The teacher is the one who has been exposed to the teaching and the texts of Vedanta for a length of time and knows the methodology to handle the words of Vedanta. He also has grown into a more or less mature, compassionate and objective person 14. He also should have clear understanding on the subject matter 15 .

First of all, let us discuss about the words and the manner in which they need to be handled by the teacher. The words of Vedanta are compared to a mirror through which I can see myself. The words the teacher employs are known words. Obviously, he can not communicate anything with unknown words. But words are limited by the fact that they can only : (1) describe objects that have qualities, (2) point out things which belong to a certain species, (3) unfold a particular type of action or (3) portray the relation one object has with another 16. They describe what belongs to the domain of our empirical reality that can be known through our usual means of knowledge. Therefore, these same words are inherently incapable of revealing or capturing the ultimate reality that has no form, no color, is not connected to anything in the empirical world or is not an object of any action 17.

How to overcome this limitation? Does it mean the teacher can not use any words to reveal the nature of this reality? In this case the Upanishads would be useless since they are in the form of words! There is only one solution to this inherent limitation of the language: the words of the Upanishads have to be employed deliberately by somebody who knows how retaining the core sense of the word, take out the usual connotation and unlock their intended or implied meaning. This way, by implication, known words can convey the nature of the absolute reality, Brahman.

For example the immediate meaning of the word sat, existence (used in the satyam jnanam anantam section from Taittriya Upanishad which gives the essential definition of the ultimate reality), is existence in time and space. Any object exists in the space-time framework. We have no other understanding of existence apart from this conventional or literal meaning. Thus, while unfolding the meaning of Sat, the teacher has to retain the root meaning of the word sat as existence. However, he/she has to point out and prove how this "Sat -existence" mentioned by the Upanishad is not subject to time but is truth of everything including time and space 18.

In order to illustrate the importance of this problem, here follows an imagined dialogue between a student and a teacher who neither knows the subject matter nor the methodology of teaching. This teacher just utilizes one descriptive word after the other, contributing nothing to the understanding of the student:

"You are ignorant about yourself. In reality, you are immortal. Why? Because you are eternal. But I am mortal? No you are beyond time and space. How is it possible? Because you are not made of any parts. Therefore you are untouched by anything and eternally pure. But sometimes I feel sad and unhappy! Because you have not yet realized that you are eternal bliss....what you need now is to meditate upon these words and you will experience the bliss that you are."

Secondly, the words of the Upanishads are found within a certain context and are used with a certain intention to convey a specific meaning. One has to decide what meaning has to be given to a word 19. There are also times that sentences seem to contradict each other 20. Finally, sometimes sentences are cryptic and often in the form of paradoxes 21. The teacher has to know exactly what is the intention of a given text, how it is introduced from a specific standpoint and elaborated by following a particular method of teaching. Hence the teacher should be extensively exposed to the method of teaching from his/her teacher to unfold the vision of Vedanta 22. We can note that this is not peculiar to Vedanta but is common to any discipline of knowledge. If I want to get Masters Degree in quantum physics, I have to go to a professor who has at least a PhD in this field.

Finally, a qualified teacher will also make clear to the student that he is not speaking about a reality other than himself. Therefore, the knowledge born of the words will be direct knowledge. If Vedanta was speaking about an object remote from me in space or time, it would give me only indirect knowledge. But here, what is unfolded is not a concept or an abstract reality, it not an object away from me 23, Vedanta is talking about the true nature of myself, the self evident me, always available as 'I am' 24 .

If the fact that the words of Vedanta give me direct knowledge of I, is not understood clearly, the study might turn into a scholarly pursuit of the system of philosophy. In some other cases, one may start believing that words of Vedanta give theoretical knowledge and it is practice or experience that enables me to verify the nature of I being limitless. 

One needs to clearly understand that this reality is already me, it is available here and now, I only need to know it as it is. It seems to be away from me because of my ignorance. Hence, the teacher must have the skill to eliminate this ignorance, and that is the essential quality of a teacher of Vedanta.


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