Practical Vedānta in the Works of M. Hiriyanna

A paper titled “The Perspective of Practical Vedānta in the Works of M. Hiriyanna” was presented by Arjun Bharadwaj at the international conference “New Frontiers in Sanskrit and Indic Knowledge” (NFSI) on 12th June 2017 organized by the Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth. The current article contains excerpts from the paper.

The previous article defined the three cardinal values – Truth, Goodness and Beauty – and their relation to the ideal – mokṣa. It was seen that a conscious experience of the eternal Bliss constitutes mokṣa and according to the Vedānta of Śaṅkara, it was something that could be realized within one’s lifetime. Man’s daily pursuits are after happiness and thus, a perfect state of untainted Joy, characterized by mokṣa is an ideal that none would not want. Thus, the definition of the ideal is not merely theoretical, as it includes practical experience and the empirical validation for the existence of the ideal is also through universal experience, as shown in the previous article.

The following sections tell us the steps that need to be taken by an aspirant of mokṣa and shows how both the process and the product of the Vedāntic pursuit are practical.

The Training of the Vedāntin

Man is characterized by a double nature. As a member of the animal world, he acts on his instincts and desires and he also has in him spiritual leanings. The course of the Vedāntic discipline is meant only for those, in whom the spiritual leaning has predominance over animal instincts. These are men in whom the conflict between the flesh and the spirit is sharp and irrepressible.

Hiriyanna identifies three progressive stages for the training of such men in their Vedāntic pursuit.

  • First Stage:

    The first stage of Vedāntic discipline is to cultivate a life of social morality. This broadly comes under the value ‘Goodness’ defined in the previous section. Most people, in spite of their sincere desire for spiritual development, feel that the world’s good has real value for them and cannot make up their mind to abandon it altogether. The Vedāntic tradition requires them to practise nitya and naimittika karmas (a disciplined daily life and good deeds) and avoid pratiṣiddha karmas (forbidden activities). Getting up early in the morning is an example of a nitya karma, performance of certain obligatory rituals constitute naimittika karmas and killing a human is an example of pratiṣiddha karma. Karmas prescribed are not merely religious but are secular too – for example, duty to our parents and teachers, which are of immediate practical significance. The person in the first stage may devote his time and energy for securing his worldly interests provided he does so in some way not disadvantageous to society, but as far as possible conducive to its welfare. He should also not give up his sva-dharma, i.e., activities that are in line with his natural traits and his character. He is not required to abandon the pursuit of sensory pleasures, but only needs to rationalize them. This is what the traditional term ‘varṇāśrama-dharma’, signifies in essence and is required for the upkeep of civic cohesion. ‘Varṇa’ signifies a life-style and preference for occupation that is true to one’s nature and āśrama signifies the duties of an individual at different stages in his life. This shows how ill-founded is the charge leveled against Vedānta that it weans away men for society.

  • Second stage:

    A person who has sincerely followed the first stage will soon realize that both the worldly and the spiritual ideal cannot be pursued at the same time and that they are two opposing aspects. He ceases to think of making the best of both worlds and sets his eye on the higher. The rule of life prescribed for him has two components – niṣkāma karma and upāsana.

    Niṣkāma karma signifies overcoming the tendency of human nature to yield to selfish or natural impulses and to have ‘purification of the heart’ (sattva- śuddhi/ citta-śuddhi) as the general result of all duties. The immediate result of the duty, whatever it may be, is to him a consequent but never the end.  Thus, he is not careless about the results, but does not see the material benefit of duty as its real result – the real result being sattva-śuddhi. His social morality does not let him compromise on the quality of his work and he strives to deliver the best immediate result without being emotionally attached to it. Being dispassionate about the result makes him give his best in the activities he is involved in. It should be noted that he is dispassionate about the product of his work and is not indifferent to the process.

    The steps recommended so far show that Vedānta does not advocate passivity or indifference. It only stresses on disinterestedness in the ephemeral results of an activity and to strive for sattva-śuddhi. Critics mistake disinterestedness for absence of interest. The true Vedāntin is not devoid of activity, but is devoid only of anxiety which invariably accompanies interested activity and the anxiety is usually regarding the outcome of the activity.

    Upāsana, roughly translated as ‘meditation’ is traditionally seen as an important step in the Vedāntic training. The specific variety of upāsana required is a process of mentally identifying oneself with the object meditated upon – a process not merely of thinking about it, but actually becoming it, in imagination. According to Vedānta, what distinguishes one object from another is merely formal and nominal, reality being equally present in all. The aim of the Vedāntin is to attain this underlying reality by transcending the limits of his individuality and graduating it to universality. Upāsana serves as an exercise preliminary to such attainment. A simple case is where a person meditates upon a deity and identifies himself completely with it. The practice of upāsana cultivates the intellectual habit of intense concentration and the emotional one of feeling akin to and identifying ourselves with things commonly regarded as outside us.  It helps in transcending the duality and helps in identifying oneself with the whole of the universe. One can first try by identifying the five elements in the body with those of the universe and then go further.

    Although upāsana  is not directly linked to moral good,  individual refinement and seeing all as one does good to the society. When a no second is seen, at least virtually even if not realized by experience, the person ceases to be selfish, i.e., stops indulging in activities that do good only to him and not to the rest of the world. The difference between the world and himself, has at least theoretically, ceased to exist to him. This aims at cultivating what may be termed as detachment from the mere particular and really amounts, to seeing all as equal.

    This unity and bridging the gap can be seen in art. For instance, Kālidāsa in his play Śākuntalam– has his characters address even non-human elements of nature with kinship terms – ‘brother plant’ and ‘sister creeper’. He shows that hermits are those who have realized the kinship of the whole world. Here, the cardinal value of beauty comes in. The overcoming of duality naturally happens while enjoying a work of Art – the ‘I’ is forgotten momentarily and connoisseurs are in a state that is completely devoid of selfishness. This needs to be consciously cultivated in daily life and it amounts to self-sacrificing love – for what is love but unselfish attention? A great artist gives unselfish attention given to all characters in his work of art and he needs to be extended to his daily life too for his Vedāntic pursuit. The same applies to a good connoisseur- to extend the state of no selfishness from a work of art to the world as a whole.

    Love: Though most religions claim to cultivate love in man, its scope is usually limited to mankind. This limitation implies preference that rests on an egoistic consideration. The ethics of advaita, however extends love to the whole of the sentient creation. Thus, this widening of range of its definition makes love universal in character; and it consequently banishes its opposite of hatred, but also indifference, that usually complements hatred. The advaitic concept of Love, is thus not limited to mere fellowship of all living beings, but their fundamental oneness, which is brought about by denying the distinction between one sentient creature and another. According to the Upaniṣads, all forms of love are but flashes of that Love, that is deeper and wider than other conceptions. This can be cultivated by the practice of upāsanas.

    Thus, the kārmic discipline possesses only moral value and upāsanas have intellectual and emotional values too. While the former has self-conquest as its goal, the latter leads to self-sacrifice.


  • Third stage:

    By the end of the second stage of training, the Vedāntin will have discovered the interrelation of part and whole, and will have therefore ceased to live a self-centered life, but he has not yet risen from a notion of appearance to that of reality; for in truth, there are no parts at all and the whole is integral and one. Jñāna (knowledge of ultimate reality) is the key word to this last stage of spiritual ascent. It is of two kinds – parokṣa (mediate) and aparokṣa (immediate). The former is merely an intellectual apprehension of the truth, while the latter is an actual realization of it in one’s own experience. Mediate knowledge can be acquired by a study of the Vedāntic texts and through the words of a teacher. This phase is called śravaṇa. It is followed by manana, which is the means of convincing oneself, through reflection, of the truth learnt by śravaṇa. Study and reflection lead only to a mediate knowledge, and it is only immediate knowledge or the inward experiencing of unity that can bring about final freedom. Mere intellectual conviction of the truth does not suffice to reach the Vedāntic goal but we actually need to see that the finite and the infinite are one. To take the traditional example of a person mistaking a rope for a serpent in semi-darkness, no amount of reasoning or assurance by another will finally convince him that it is not a serpent. It is only when he sees it for himself with the aid of a light that he will be totally convinced of the reality.

    To get a first-hand experience of the reality that has only been intellectually perceived, we must practise nididhyāsana, i.e., communion. By its constant practice, the contemplative will be able to see the ultimate truth piercing through the veil that hides it. The vision of reality will necessarily be a fleeting one in the beginning. It must therefore be captured again and again until it begins to endure. Then the disciple becomes a jīvanmukta, i.e., one who has realised the ideal of mokṣa through direct experience.

What makes the other schools of philosophy less practical?

It will suffice to show, in brief, that two major schools – dvaita and Buddhism, as seen in popular practice today are less practical than the Vedāntic school as retold by Śaṅkara. Other schools of philosophy fall within the spectrum with dvaita and Buddhism at its extreme ends.

Simply put, all dvaitic, i.e., dualistic and theistic schools hold that absolute differences exist between the individual, world and God, whatever their definitions might be. Defining God as an entity extraneous to the material world and as an ideal that can be actualized only after the death of the individual gives it a mystical dimension. An objective mind might ask for the proof for the existence of such an ideal and asks if it can be brought under the purview of universal experience. Buddhism as popularly practiced today negates the world and advocates the life of a recluse. On the contrary, the Vedāntic school advocates an all encompassing positive attitude of mind and its ideal of mokṣa can be realized through direct universal experience



[1] Hiriyanna M, The Mission of Philosophy, Kavyalaya Publishers (Mysore: 2004)

[2] Hiriyanna M, The Aim of Indian Philosophy, New Era (Madras: 1929)

[3] Hiriyanna M, The Ethics of Advaita, Vedānta Kesari (Madras: 1942)

[4] Hiriyanna M, The Quest after Perfection, Journal of the Madras University, Vol. xiii. 2

[5] Hiriyanna M, The Indian Conception of Values, Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Vol. xix, Part I (1938)

[6] Hiriyanna M, The Training of The Vedāntin, The Karnataka (Bangalore: 1917)

[7] Hiriyanna M, Indian Conception of Values, Kavyalaya Publishers (Mysore: 1975), pages 292-312

[8] Ramachandran T. P., The Builders of Indian Philosophy Series – M.Hiriyanna , Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers (New Delhi: 2001)

Arjun Bharadwaj  Practical Vedānta in the Works of M. Hiriyanna arjun b

Arjun Bharadwaj

Arjun is a poet, translator, engineer, and musician. He is a polyglot, well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, Hindi, English, Greek, and German. He is currently studying comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature.
Arjun Bharadwaj  Practical Vedānta in the Works of M. Hiriyanna arjun b