Is there really any difference between the advaita taught by Sri Ramana and that taught by Sri Adi Sankara?
I see certain differences between the traditional advaita of Sankara and that taught by Bhagavan, especially the self-enquiry, which does not subscribe to the idea of meditation on the mahavaykas. Further, Bhagavan's teachings are extremely subjective, directing one's attention to the self.Is there really any essential difference between the advaita taught by Sri Ramana and that taught by Sri Adi Sankara? I do not believe that there can be, because differences can appear only in duality, and are impossible in the fundamental non-dual reality, which underlies the appearance of all duality. Non-duality or advaita is the true state of absolute oneness, in which no division, distinction or difference can even appear to exist.
Any differences that we might imagine to exist between the advaita taught by Sri Ramana and that taught by Sri Adi Sankara exist only in our understanding of their teachings, and not in the non-dual truth that they actually taught. One of the principal causes of our failure to recognise the essential oneness of the non-dual truth taught by all true sages or jnanis lies not in their teachings but only in the so-called "traditional" interpretation of their teachings.
Most people who attempt to interpret or explain the teachings of sages have not experienced the non-dual reality that those sages experience as their own true self or essential being, and hence their interpretation is coloured by their lack of true inward clarity. As Sri Sadhu Om used to say, "The followers are the swallowers of the master's principles". That is, most people who claim to follow any true sage have failed to understand the true import of such sages' teachings, and hence they have distorted and misinterpreted those teachings when they have attempted to explain them.
Ganesan writes that he sees "certain differences between the traditional advaita of Sankara and that taught by Bhagavan, especially the self-enquiry, which does not subscribe to the idea of meditation on the mahavaykas". This highlights one of the fundamental flaws in the so-called "traditional" interpretation of the teachings of Sri Adi Sankara and other ancient sages who experienced and expressed the truth of non-dual self-knowledge and taught the means to attain it. Most "traditional" interpreters of the advaita philosophy failed entirely to understand what the ancient sages taught as the means to attain the non-dual experience of true self-knowledge, but fortunately for us Bhagavan Sri Ramana has clarified the only true means to attain this experience in a very simple, lucid, explicit and unambiguous manner.
If we have read and understood the teachings of Sri Ramana correctly, and if we then read the teachings of Sri Adi Sankara and other ancient sages, we can clearly recognise the truth that those ancient sages taught the same means as Sri Ramana, namely the practice of atma-vichara or 'self-enquiry'. For example, in verse 11 of Vivekachudamani, which I have quoted and explained on page 429 of my book, Happiness and the Art of Being, Sri Adi Sankara says:
Action [karma] is [prescribed only] for [achieving] chitta-suddhi [purification of mind] and not for [attaining] vastu-upalabdhi [direct knowledge or experience of the reality, the true substance or essence, which is absolute being]. The attainment of [this non-dual experience of] the reality [can be achieved only] by vichara and not at all by [even] ten million actions.From this verse, it is clear not only that Sri Sankara taught that vichara or 'investigation' is the only means by which we can attain the non-dual experience of true self-knowledge, but also that such vichara is not any form of action. What is this action-free practice of vichara or 'investigation'? So long as our attention is directed towards anything other than our own self or essential being, it assumes the form of a thought or mental activity. Therefore the only form of attention or 'investigation' (vichara) which is not an action is self-attention, that is, attention or consciousness that rests in itself, its own essential being or 'am'-ness.
This is the practice of atma-vichara or 'self-enquiry' that was taught both by Sri Sankara and by Sri Ramana as the sole means by which we can attain non-dual self-knowledge. In other words, since our goal is non-dual self-consciousness, the only means by which we can attain it is to cultivate or practise the same non-dual self-consciousness, which is not a state of action or 'doing', but only a state of just being (summa iruppadu).
Meditation upon a mahavayka such as 'I am brahman' is an action, a process of thinking or imagination (bhavana), and hence it can never lead us to the non-dual state of just being. Such meditation may help to strengthen our conviction that we are brahman, the absolute reality, but once we are convinced of this truth we should give up attending to the thought 'I am brahman' and should instead attend only to our own essential being, our non-dual self-consciousness 'I am'.
As Ganesan rightly observes, "Bhagavan's teachings are extremely subjective, directing one's attention to the self". This directing of our attention towards our own essential self is indeed the true purpose of all the mahavaykas such as 'it you are' (tat tvam asi) and 'I am brahman', so by directing our attention only towards our own self Sri Ramana has achieved exactly what the mahavaykas were originally intended to achieve.