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Anupama Gopalakrishnan meets with Swami Dayananda Saraswati during his visit to Michigan.
This exclusive conversation explores the concept of non-duality and the purpose behind AIM for Seva.

"Every human being is born, not merely as an observer of the world, but with the faculties to be an active participant in creation. Since we are living a symbiotic, interrelated life, our contribution may help me live, and my contribution may help you live. We are thus interconnected..." (A Collection: Talks and Essays of Swami Dayananda)

Excerpts from the interview:

Q: A lot has been written about Advaita or the concept of nonduality. How would you explain non-duality in simple terms?
A: Non-duality is a concept that is very profound. It takes a certain understanding to appreciate this. However, it’s not totally unknown to us. The advaita philosophy (or that of nonduality) is not easy to explain briefly. But, I will try explaining it as simple as possible: Suppose you long for something/someone – you are alienated from that object/person. The desire you have within you is to fuse with that object or with the person. This expression, this fusion is called non-duality. For example, when a beloved is forlorn because the other isn’t anywhere around causes anguish and sadness. None of us are interested in alienation. Everyone is interested in fusion. This is Advaita. But again, you must understand that non-duality is not meant to simply imply one-ness, but the distinction between “what is” and “what is not” that is found in the ever changing/permanent nature of what is being considered. When there are two people who are genetically different, their knowledge level is different but they can fuse into one frame of experience called love and understanding.

Q: Shankara and Ramana Maharishi had different concepts of spiritualism? The basic individual is psychologically skeptical to understand different approaches provides by great saints. How do you explain this?
A: Shankara doesn’t advise anybody anything. He talks about realities, certain can pursue this in a way where they don’t change anything – The only change is in the attitude towards  commitment to the life of Karma Yoga – life of reincarnation. There are two lifestyles for this knowledge. There is no advocacy. No such thing. Depends on where one is – its left up to the teacher. The Teacher-student concept has been coming down for ages since Lord Shiva.Ramana stressed on the subject matter where you have to know who you are before acquiring knowledge about other things.

Q: How do you relate Eastern philosophy with the western concept of life? How does one maintain that balance? 
A: When we think of East, we think of a nuclear concept: “My family”. “My” is edited and abridged. Me involves the person and his/her spouse and children. This is further reduced to one’s self again. In the West, space becomes very crucial between partners  or friends. Each one wants to live in one’s space. That means the incapacity to adjust or embrace is increasing. The Capacity to share, love, adjust is reduced. This is not healthy. We have to grow. Child has always been synonymous with a consumer while an adult has always been a contributor. Therefore an adult has grown from a consumer to a contributor. Therefore a matured adult is one who contributes the most and consumes less.

Growth lies in your commodiousness and capacity to embrace the universe – That's when the bigness within you comes out. Whether its is the west or the east- the human being has to grow into an all embracing person…if they don’t they become introverts and the psychological problem becomes acute. Some sort of harmony can be brought about if people who do not have dogmatic notion and who can think in terms of pure understanding (without being influenced by outer forms), make an attempt. The wisdom of the East can be understood by the West and vice versa. East should absorb western life style like keeping the environment clean, readiness to work, knowledge to coordinate ideas etc; West should know how to share and sacrifice That will be beautiful fusion.

Q: What is the significance of prayer? Many believe that all religions preach the same – be it Hinduism/Christianity/Buddhism or Islam.
A: Every form of prayer is valid. Whether it is Hebrew, Latin, English or Sanskrit. Prayer has got its own result: Karma Pala. This is a typical Hindu concept. Every religion does not have the sophistication like the one in the Hindu prayer. The sophistication is because of our understanding of what Iswara is? Hindus say that there is only god. Like other religions, we don’t say one god. Buddhism, Islam, Christianity may have a few common threads with Hinduism in relation to love and understanding-but they are wholly different. The Hindu approach is different in a sense that we invoke the god in all aspects. And we have a specific spectrum of prayer- which in my world I call it more like a sprayer.

Prayer is a process of a particular type of thinking. In a prayer, there is someone who prays and an altar to which the person offers his or her prayer. There is also a mode of prayer involved, which differs from person to person. A prayer can be said in simple words or it can be an elaborate ritual, highly traditional and scripturally sanctioned. It can be purely oral or purely mental. Either I pray for the sake of achieving something for myself or for the sake of some one else. Even when I pray for the sake of another person, the prayer is still my prayer.

When I see someone who is unhappy, who is suffering, I also suffer because I am human. I am affected by the condition of that other person and I can’t stand it. I want the person to be happy, which really means that I want to be happy. Therefore, a prayer for others is also for the sake of my own happiness. Everything is centered on me alone. I am not such a dull, insensitive person that I can be happy when someone around me is unhappy. Therefore, every time I pray for someone else, I am praying for my own happiness. Even when I am culturally mature enough to pray, “Let the whole world be happy,” it is because I cannot happily sit in a world which is unhappy. I am speaking here, of course, on the empirical level.

We need to know and understand the healthy view that all forms of prayer is valid…but all concepts of god is not true. God should not be confused even though we have confused the concept of God.

Pujya Swami Dayananda Saraswati is a teacher of teachers in the traditional style of enlightening people through the Vedanta shastra.  Pujya Swamiji is the Chief Acharya of  Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, a Gurukula dedicated to the teachings of Sanskrit & Vedanta, which has branches in India and the United States. The Gurukulam offers Indians and non-Indians, Hindus and non-Hindus alike an opportunity to study the profound spiritual knowledge of the Upanishads, Bhagavad-Gita, Brahma-sutras, and other classical Vedanta texts. Swami Dayananda is currently the most revered teacher of Advaita Vedanta in the world. He is the founder and coordinator of AIM for Seva, a national movement to bridge the gap between the mainstream society and people living in remote areas of India. 

Q: Man is always in pursuit of happiness and peace? Is there something called real happiness? What is your take on it?
A: Let us take a simple example from our everyday life. When we go outside. We have the road traffic: Traffic on both sides are busy…all are hurrying to different ends. Neither what you are searching for is in this end nor in that end. Everybody is searching different things – hoping to achieve something but nobody gets it in full measure. For some people they get happiness listening to music=- so happiness is music itself…

Let us go back to the Eastern philosophy and Western life concept as we discussed earlier - One loves one’s child, one's house, one’s wealth, etc., not for the sake of the child or the wealth or the house—it is for one’s own sake. This is a very important thing to understand. Even an altruistic action like community service is not so much for the sake of the community as it is for one’s own sake. Whether the happiness is because of some recognition or some improved self-image or some genuine empathy with the people you serve, you are the one who sees yourself happy through that action. You do that service so that you can see yourself happy. It is not for the community’s sake; it is for one’s own sake, even though it does reveal a certain expansion on the part of the person that is a mark of growth.

Instead of just confining one’s own world to a simple nuclear family, the person’s heart is able to extend to cover the community. This shows that the person has achieved a certain level of maturity. Still, in the happiness of the community, the person feels that he or she will be happy, and therefore, again, everything becomes beloved only for the sake of the self. At the end of it all, you come back to the existing theory of non-dualism.

Q: How do you account for dubious sages, performing miracles et al…
A: We name people. We blame them also. Society has its own norms and idiosyncrasies. There are people in the society – people who take to a spiritual life. They have to fight against themselves to grow into persons that they want to be. Different demands/perceptions will always be there. Society must be very clear. Therefore an individual needs certain understanding about one’s religion– there are some norms which we can go by. Again, as I mentioned earlier, the whole concept is profound. The quest to acquire that knowledge should continue. Miracle is an event for which you don't know the cause. Of course the swami knows the cause. We should remember that out of something alone comes something - Nobody can produce anything out of nothing.

Q: What do you think about the interference of religion or spiritual leaders with Politics?
A: We are ruled by people. We require the right type of people. Rulers should have a prayer attitude. Religion should not be a state promoted nor should it be a state hated. If the ruler is prayerful, dutiful- someone who could put dharma first – shows the spiritual level of the people. The state has to be secular – all religions are to be promoted. Its good not to make a religion state- not be vote catching. Institutions of state and civil society would be deepened or even superseded by voluntary cooperation and genuine self-rule at all levels. There should be an end-state of universal peace, world community and universal trusteeship over resources. In the mean time, conflict and hatred have only to be removed and love will shine only through socially responsible agents and actions. I feel that the state needs to be ruled by people who have strong spiritual belief because these individuals can cease rare opportunities and perform courageous actions.

Q:With all the stress and pressures in this competitive world, people are relying towards Spiritualism? Do you think this is the answer for a peaceful mind?
A: It all depends on who the person is. If he/she is 70 years old- going spiritual is a good retirement plan. Youngsters who say that have some psychological deficiencies that needs to be addressed. After all, it’s a question of commitment. Its not easy to leave everything…it needs to be done properly if you have set your mind into it.

Q: What was the objective behind AIM for Seva?
A: AIM for Seva is an all India movement. And by movement, I mean an effort that is taken care of by the people. It starts somewhere and gathers momentum. Then it reaches a critical stage and ends. The movement aims to transform and unite the Indian society with Seva, meaning service. As I mentioned earlier about Adults being contributors, this was what I was talking about. Like a freedom movement – we need this caring movement. So that the society is self sufficient. India needs to take care of itself. If we all come together as one family, we can!. Our purpose behind this movement is to create a bridge of cultural, social and economic strength between the people who have and the people who don’t have. In other words, AIM for Seva is a bridge connecting the mainstream society with the people living in remote areas.

Q: Any special words for the Michigan Indian community?
A: One should keep the quest going. You require a certain support group/study group to understand the concept of nonduality and experience it. Continue with spiritual practices. Also, one should accept facts as they are and then act to improve them. Act all the time, never react. Reaction does not produce anything and also understand that everybody has a mind like you have and because of the mind everybody has problems. 

For more information on AIM for Seva, visit

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