Step 1. Tattva Bodha
Bodha means knowledge. Tattva means reality. Reality being the non-dual self, Tattva Bodha means “self-knowledge.” The science of self-knowledge, Vedanta, is derived from the Upanishads. But due to cryptic nature of these texts, the teachings they contain need to be condensed and properly organized to accommodate beginners. Hence, introductory texts (prakarana granthas) such as Tattva Bodha were written. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that this text is only for novices. Just like the Upanishads it is based on, Tattva Bodha contains the entire teaching of Vedanta, albeit in an easier to understand format. With great clarity it teaches the qualifications necessary for liberation (moksha), gives the definitions of all essential Vedantic terminology, explains how the world is created, and shows how the essential identity between Isvara, jiva, and the world is the non-dual self. Therefore it is a must for those starting self-inquiry as well as a great aid to more advanced seekers.
- James' Commentary on Tattva Bodha
- Glossary of Tattva Bodha terms
- James’ video series on Tattva Bodha
- Sample video segment
Step 2. Bhagavad Gita
The Bhagavad Gita is one of the three primary texts of Vedanta, along with the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras. Despite being over 2000 years old, it remains immensely popular and continues to set people free to this day. Presented in the form of a dialogue between a self-realized teacher and his suffering friend, it systematically covers all topics related to enlightenment (moksha) such as: the cause of suffering, the correct understanding of renunciation, the practice of karma yoga, the nature of dharma, the value of values, the correct understanding of devotion, discrimination between the self and the ‘not-self,’ the nature of the three gunas, spiritual experience, the practice of meditation, and the qualities present in an enlightened being. Owing to its exhaustive treatment of both spiritual practice (sadhana/yoga) and self-inquiry, the Bhagavad Gita is perhaps the most important Vedantic scripture.
Step 3. Vivekachudamani
Vivekachudamani, which means ‘the crown jewel of discrimination,’ is a premier Vedanta text written in the 8th century by Shankaracharya, the most important teacher in the Vedanta sampradaya (lineage). As do all Vedanta teachings, it begins with an invocation to the self and discusses the uniqueness of the quest for enlightenment (moksha). After discussing the qualifications required for enlightenment, and emphasizing the need for a teacher, it proceeds to present the method of discrimination required to remove the confusion between the self—limitless awareness—and the ‘not-self’ comprised of the world and the body/mind entity we mistakenly believe ourselves to be. Other topics addressed are: the nature and origin of bondage, how it is maintained, how liberation happens, the nature of the individual, the nature of the self, the benefits of obtaining self-knowledge, karma for a liberated person and what happens after enlightenment.
Step 4. Aparokshanubhuti
Aparokshanubhuti is a beautiful 8th century text commonly attributed to Shankaracharya. The literal meaning of aparoksha is, ‘that which cannot be known through the mind and senses,’ and the implied meaning is ‘the self.’ Anubhuti literally means ‘experience’ but since it used in reference to the self, which is not an object of experience, the implied is ‘direct or immediate knowledge.’ Therefore, Aparokshanubhuti means, ‘direct knowledge of the self.’ As do most Vedanta texts, it begins by unfolding the qualifications required for self-knowledge. It then proceeds to carefully discuss ignorance—the cause of bondage—as well as inquiry, the means to remove ignorance and thereby attain liberation (moksha). This text is particularly interesting because the final verses convert the experiential language of Yoga into the Vedantic language of knowledge.
Step 5. Atma Bodha
Atma Bodha, ‘self knowledge,’ written by Sankaracharya is a basic Vedanta text of 65 verses, written for, ‘those who are purified and peaceful, calm of mind and desirous of liberation (moksha).’ In a simple style brimming with apt metaphors and elegant examples it makes the point that because enlightenment (moksha) is attained by self knowledge alone, one should undertake the ‘constant practice of knowledge.’ This practice of knowledge removes the ignorance (avidya) that is the root of all suffering: the confusion between the ‘not-self’ (anatma), the apparent individual, and the the self (atma), limitless, non-dual consciousness. To make the distinction between the two clear, Atma Bodha carefully unfolds a fundamental teaching of Vedanta, that of the three bodies (sharira traya). This text, the first that James ever commented on, was a personal favorite of his teacher, Swami Chinmayananda.
Step 6. Upanishads: Mandukya, Katha, Kena
The Upanishads are the basis of Vedanta. Although they are over 200 in number, only 11 are considered ‘primary,’ as they are the ones that Shankaracharya wrote commentaries on. In this video series, three of the primary Upanishads—the Mandukya, the Katha, and the Kena—are unfolded. The Mandukya Upanishad, upon which Shankara’s grand-guru Gaudapada wrote his famous treatise (karika), is often referred to as ‘the kind of the Upanishads.’ Despite its brevity, it thoroughly proves how, instead of being the waking, dream, or deep sleep state entity, one is actually the witness of these three states: limitless, non-dual consciousness. The Katha Upanishad presents Vedanta in story form, that of the boy Nachiketas, who after descending into the kingdom of Death, foregoes the offer of fantastic worldly pleasures in favor of acquiring self-knowledge. The Kena Upanishad, literally the ‘By whom? Upanishad’ starts by asking the question, ‘By whom is the mind and senses directed?’ and proceeds to show that it is in fact limitless, non-dual consciousness.
- James’ commentary on Mandukya Upanishad
- James’ translation of Kena Upanishad
- Nikhilananda translation of Katha Upanishad
- Upanishad Video Series
- Sample video segment
Step 7. Panchadashi
Panchadasi, ‘the book with 15 chapters,’ was written in the 14th century by Vidyaranya Swami, one of the Shankaracharyas of Sringeri Math. Unlike some Vedantic texts, Panchadasi presents the entire teaching in a clearly arranged fashion that avoids excessive repetition of ideas. It is considered to be one of the greatest scriptures of Vedanta and a compulsory textbook for all serious inquirers. It is one of James’ personal favorites, an opinion shared by the great mahatma of Chennai, Swami Paramarthananda.
- Bhagavad Gita Outline & Summary
- Glossary of Tattva Bodha terms
- Vedic Scripture Chart (as PDF)
- Vedas and Upanishads (as PDF)