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Biographies > Atmananda (Krishna Menon) - Householder Karana Guru


by Peter Holleran


   "It is not the vital experience itself that really enlightens one, but it is the correct understanding of its significance.”


   Shree Atmananda (1883-1959) was a modern day sage who taught a vedantic approach to self-realization, and was well-respected by Paul Brunton, Ramana Maharshi, and many others. Atmananda was a sage among sages who had attained proficiency in all yogas prior to assuming his principle role of teaching jnana. John Levy and Walter Keers were influential in bringing his work to the attention of the West, with Levy personally assisting Atmananda in the English translation of his works Atma Darshan and Atma Nivriti. Atmananda urged Levy to promote his teachings in a more accessible form, and to that end Levy wrote The Nature of Man According to Vedanta and Immediate Knowledge and Happiness (Sadhyomukti), while teaching students out of his home in London.

   Not a believer in world-denying asceticism, Atmananda had a wife and family as well as a demanding career in law enforcement. He went so far as to encourage others to take up the same line of work, affirming that spiritual realization achieved under such conditions was enduring, final, and much stronger than realization gained in an ashram or monastery. Atmananda held firmly to the conviction that the only thing one had to renounce for liberation was the ego, and this itself was only possible through the light of knowledge, or spiritual insight, and not through motivated self-effort directed towards some goal outside of the self. Rather, the correct method was to recognize, transform, and absorb everything objective into the ultimate subjectivity. He said, “God is only a concept, though the highest the human mind can make. But you are not a concept.” For Atmananda, everything perceived or conceived, even nirvikalpa samadhi and God, were objective, and needed to be recognized in what he called the “right Absolute” or “ultimate ‘I’-principle. The conclusion of Zen Buddhism is similar; Abbott Zenke Shibaya writes:

   “In Zen such personality is called the “Primary Man,” for such a man cannot be produced by human efforts. Such a man is also called “The Master.” This means he is the absolute basic subjectivity.” (1)

   A traditionalist, to achieve this realization Atmananda held that the help of a karana-Guru, or sage established in the ultimate Truth, was essential.

   When he was but ten years old, Krishna Menon (later Atmananda) was visited by a sannyasin of some repute and given an initiation into a form of mantra yoga. He practised assiduously for several years but by his early teens became convicted by the rationalistic model of western education and “converted” to atheism. He went on to university and then law school after which he became prosecuting inspector for the police department in Trivandrum. The spiritual quest soon got his attention again, however, and he began spending sleepless nights drenched in tears, agonizing over his need for God. He became convinced through his study that it was only a realized guru who could give him the help that he needed, and he was in constant mental torment over when such a being would appear. Knowing he was not competent to choose the right guru he began to pray to the personal God to bless him with the right Guru. Not long after his tumult began he came upon the sannyasin he had met as a child, who assured him that he would soon meet a Mahatma who would guide him on the path. In 1919 Krishna Menon met his master of regal bearing who went by the name of Yogananda (not to be confused with the author of Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda), who answered all of his questions and more. Shri Atmananda attested to the fact that:

   “Much more than the unassailable logic and applicability of the answers, it was the supreme humility of the great svamiji that captivated the heart of the aspirant and enslaved him at last. The ego being thus paralysed, Shri Krishna Menon immediately prostrated at the feet of the svamiji, literally washing his feet with his tears. After some moments when he could barely speak, he got up and prayed for instructions to enable him to reach the Ultimate, if he was considered worthy. The svamiji, who was only waiting for that moment of genuine surrender, replied with a smile of love and joy, ”It is for that and that alone that I have come all the way from Calcutta (over one thousand miles). I have no other interest in Trivancore. I knew of your yearnings even from that distance.” (1a)

   Master and disciple were together for only one night, during which the sage taught his charge the path of devotion to Krishna, various other yogic techniques, as well as the path of jnana (knowledge) using the strict enquiry or vichara “Who am I?” Krishna Menon was reluctant to engage devotion and yoga, but Yogananda explained,

   “I appreciate your reluctance to take to the preliminary courses of devotion and yoga and I admit you are quite right, for mere realization of the ultimate Truth, the last course, namely the jnana path, is alone necessary. But I want you to be something more, which you will understand only later on. Therefore please undertake them first. It won’t take you long to finish them both.”
(2)

   What this "something more" was might account for the perceivable 'glow' or effulgence in Atmananda's person, as found in many saints and siddhas, in contrast with less integrated and more 'dry' vedantins, and may also be illustrated by Atmananda's later ability to deal with disciple's karmas and after-death states in traditional Hindu Satguru fashion as revealed by the following quotes:

   "Lewis (Thompson) told me that Sri Krishna Menon had told him that it had taken him three days to undo the ties with his (Lewis') disciples from his former birth when he was supposedly a Tantric. it shows what all these beings take on themselves when accepting a disciple..This is why surrender to a guru is so supremely important."

   Atmananda said that Lewis had an "intense struggle" for a month after leaving his body." (2a)

   One must keep in mind that even the great non-dualist Sankara was a bhakta, tantric, jnani, as well as yogic adept with advanced siddhis, and not just a verbal-oriented philosopher. That there are depths to realization that are not merely random accessories to the 'real thing', then, hardly seems arguable except within more narrow advaitic circles. Atmananda made a distinction between being a realized jynani and being an Acarya or sage. The latter, in his view, needed an intimate familiarity with all paths in order to be able to guide all those who came to him.

   After a few years Krishna Menon began having long stretches of nirvikalpa samadhi, but, nevertheless, like Brunton after his time with Ramana Maharshi, remained unsatisfied, because he realized that samadhi was time limited and was caused by intense effort, while the Absolute he desired was uncaused and self-luminous. He therefore took up the path of jnana and by 1923, in just four years, achieved the fulfillment of the advaita sadhana, as well as the others - all during his period of spiritual discipline being guided by his guru in subtle visions. Soon afterwards he inwardly received the name “Atmananda” from his guru and was referred to by that name from then on.

   Like Nisargadatta and so many others, after his realization he wanted to take up the path of the wandering renunciate, but again his guru appeared to him in a vision and advised him to remain a householder, serving his wife and family and society, while preparing for the devotees who were to come in the future. Atmananda retired from the police force in 1939, having risen to the level of District Supervisor (the equivalent of District Attorney in the United States).

   His later writings suggest his initial realization matured into sahaj, or the realization of the Soul, Consciousness Itself (or Overself as designated by Brunton). Atmananda, for instance, told a person who was an adept at entering the highest mystic trance of nirvikalpa that such was good, but that it was not the highest state, and that it was now necessary for him to “understand the world through the mind’s intelligence.” This is similar to the Chinese sage Huang Po, who said:

   “The original Mind is to be recognized along with the working of the senses and thoughts; only it does not belong to them, nor is it independent of them.” (3)

   While the Witness has been referred to as the “awareness of awareness,” the realization in sahaj is that of “awareness itself, whether the world arises or not.” In this realization the “eyes of the heart” open and all is recognized as being non-separate from the reality of Mind or Consciousness. In the intermediate stage, that of the Witness Self, itself impersonal, there is a relative freedom in the midst of phenomena, but the greater recognition or insight has not yet dawned. There is a final stroke yet to go. While necessary, the realization that the knower is separate from the known, the witness different from the witnessed, must be gone beyond and both realized as one and inseparable. Paul Brunton explains that in the ultimate stage

   "There is no subject and object, whereas in the witness there is still subject and object, but the subject no longer identifies himself with the object as the ordinary man does.” (4)

   Sri Nisargadatta said:

   “One must know that the real exists and is of the nature of witness-consciousness. Of course it is beyond the witness, but to enter it one must first realize the state of pure witnessing. The awareness of conditions brings one to the unconditioned...The witness is the reflection of the real in all its purity. It depends on the condition of the mind. Where clarity and detachment predominate, the witness-condition comes into being.” (5)

   "King Janaka said [to his guru, Yog-Vashista] "Yes, I am neither king nor beggar, I am the dispassionate witness. The Guru said: This is your last illusion, that you are a gnani, that you are different from, and superior to, the common man. Again you identify yourself with your mind, in this case a well-behaved and in every way an exemplary mind. As long as you see the least difference, you are a stranger to reality. You are on the level of the mind. When the 'I am myself' goes, the 'I am all' comes. When the 'I am all' goes, 'I am' comes. When even 'I am' goes, reality alone is and in it every 'I am' is preserved and glorified. Diversity without separateness is the Ultimate that the mind can touch. Beyond that all activity ceases, because in it all goals are reached and all purposes fulfilled." (6)

   Sri Nisargadatta admits that "really there is no witness, because there is no-thing to be a witness to." (7)

   Thus one realizes non-dual truth, the final part of Sankara's formula: "Brahman is Real, the world is illusion, Brahman is the world."

   The common initial psychological effect of penetrating to the heart-root or the witness position in in jnana samadhi or its equivalent, nevertheless, is that one tends to distance himself from the body and the world by his abidance in the Witness consciousness. He does not necessarily yet realize the origin and nature of all apparent objects as Consciousness Itself, which takes understanding and time to mature into a lasting state of sahaj. This may have been the case with Ramana Maharshi in the early years after his first awakening. He only gradually adapted his awakening to active life in the body. The eminent Krishnachandra Bhattacharya, in my opinion, attempts to describes, in Sam 'khya fashion, the Witness stage as follows:

   "Freedom from ahamkara does not by itself mean knowledge or realization of the self (or isvara). It is in the first instance a merging or forgetting of the self in a tattva higher than ahamkara, a free identification of the self with infinite buddhi - either in the form of feeling or in the form of willing. Free identification means identification in the explicit subjective attitude as distinct from unconscious or erroneous identification which impllies the objective attitude and the conceit of the body.” (8)

   V.S. Iyer, vedantic scholar and realizer, court philosopher of the Maharaja of Mysore, who was an important influence on Paul Brunton [PB referred to him as "my teacher"] as well as Nikhilinanda and Siddeswarananda of the Ramakrishna Mission, all who brought teachings of vedanta to the West, in his Commentaries, Vol. 2 (9) similarly wrote:

   "The mere absence of ego does not produce gyan. See deep sleep for instance. For a man may be egoless, and yet be deceived by the world appearing to be real. Hence inquiry, based on science, is also needed." (2064)

   "Brahman is permanent and is not a state. Moreover it is the activity of buddhi which brings the understanding of Brahman and buddhi is inactive in sleep [and Nirvikalpa]. Finally, the sleeper sees nothing whereas the gnani sees the world, sees Brahman even in waking." (2638)


   Concurring with the need for buddhi and the waking state for realization, Ramana Maharshi would sometimes quote scripture, "The Self is always shining in the intellectual sheath." (source unknown)

   In Vol. 1, Iyer continues:

   "European psychology has not gone beyond personality, has not reached the Witness. This is because unless one's mind is sufficiently sharp the notion of the Sakshin cannot be seen. One must perceive that the I itself comes and goes, as in sleep for instance. What it is that perceives this? It is the Witness. The I is an object, the Witness is the subject. This position is the next step ahead of Western psychology. It much be reached, mastered and then dropped for the next higher step, the understanding of the Atman. The Witness-self is not an individuality, it is universal, but still it is a temporary stage, not the ultimate truth. It is for beginners and here Maharishi's "Who AM I?" analysis is most useful as it shows beginners that the I comes and goes, and that they must look beyond it to the principle of Awareness which tells you of these appearances and disappearances of the I. But beyond that point the Witness self, the Sakshin, the Maharishi's teaching does not go. Higher than his is the doctrine of the Atman. The notion of the Witness arises only when you consider the objects from this standpoint which assumes the real (not ideal) existence of all objects, the antithesis of a subject; a Witness must arise. But there is a loftier standpoint wherein the objects are dismissed from consideration entirely through the use of avastatraya [an analysis of the three states] and thus non-dual Atman is reached...But that is not the end. We have to know all the world, and we have to know the real I."

   "...The notion of Atman as the Witness or knower, of the three states is not the ultimate position. But we are forced to adopt it as a preliminary step, because we cannot leap into the ultimate view at once. From that view there are no separate states because the ego which knows them is itself as transient and illusory, itself known and seen like other drysams
[objects or things seen]. Unless you know the true position of the ego, Vedanta cannot be grasped." (p. 282-283)

   Thus, the transcendental Witness consciousness realized in jnana samadhi (and touched upon but not necessarily as accurately understood in ascended nirvikalpa samadhi) is not yet realization of the Overself or Soul, which is not the “witness" of anything, but the very heart or condition of which everything is an apparent modification and in which everything arises, changes, and disappears. The Soul in sahaj is realized when it is discovered that the transcendental consciousness is the source not only of the ego-I, but of the body, mind, and the world of relations as well, and the exclusive tendency of attention to invert upon itself is transcended. The Witness is let go and Being, the natural state, alone remains. One passes from Emptiness to Fullness. Thus, there is often this two-stage process. One realizes, as Anthony Damiani once stated, that the Witness, which at first seems like a stupendous realization, is not that pure, and that there is a further awakening (He nevertheless confessed to knowing himself as the witness self, and described it, with feeling, as "peace, peace, peace"). PB states:

   "The momentary glimpse of the true self is not the ultimate experience. There is another yet more wonderful lying ahead. In this he will be bound by invisible hoops of wide selfless compassion to all living creatures. The detachment will be sublimated, taken up into a higher level, where the universal Unity will be truly felt." (10)

   "How can a mental state be the final realization? It is temporary. Mystic experience is such a state. It is something one enters and leaves. Beyond and higher is realization of unchanging truth." (11)

   According to Iyer, this occurs through the exhaustive use of buddhi in the waking state:

   "Whoever speaks of the oneness of things must first of all prove the illusory nature of the external world. Then alone can unity be proven." (Vol. 2, 1827)

   "Truth is not to be got by thinking only, you can go on thinking about the world until the end of time but you will only get one thought following another thought. On the other hand, neither is truth to be found by not-thinking. Thus the question of truth never arises in sleep [or nirvikalpa], a non-thought state. The two must be combined in order to discover truth." (1828)
[Note: this is controversial; Nirvikalpa has different meanings depending on the context. Here Iyer refers to it as if it were laya or a blank, but it is not a blank; rather, it is pure consciousness. It is only that its relationship with the world must be made clear].

   Atmananda asked students to inquire into the three states of waking, dream, and deep sleep, as well as the ego-I, in order to come to the underlying Atman, consciousness, or turiya which is always present. Iyer tells us:

   "Ego is the last thing that will screen the Atman. It is the most difficult of all to subdue. The I can be got rid of only by knowing that it does not exist, that it is only an idea, that it is dying every night." (2056)

   "The ego is called a serpent in India because it lives hidden in a dark hole, going in and coming out from time to time." (2058)


   Once this seeing-through is accomplished, the going into and out of samadhi is seen as unnecessary. Atmananda stated:

   "The samadhi experience is that ‘I was happy.’ But when you understand, from a Karana-guru, that Happiness is your real nature, you come to realize that you are yourself the goal of samadhi. With this understanding, all hankering after samadhi disappears; though samadhi might still come upon you sometimes merely as a matter of course or samskara. But you will never again be attracted by the enjoyment of happiness in samadhi." (12) .

   Contemporary non-dual teacher Adyashanti more simply stated:

   "You only want various things because you do not know who you are. But as soon as you come back to yourself, to that empty awakeness, then you realize there is nothing more you want because you are what you want." (13)

   On the nature of the “Witness” consciousness, he states:

   “”The world is Brahman” collapses the position of the external witness. The witness position collapses into the totality, and suddenly we’re not witnessing from the outside anymore. Instead, witnessing is taking place from everywhere simultaneously - inside, outside, around, up, down. Everything everywhere is being witnessed from inside and outside simultaneously, because what is being witnessed is what is witnessing. The seer and what is seen are the same. Unless that is realized, we can get stuck in the place of the witness. We can get stuck in a transcendant void, in emptiness.” (14)

   On a practical level, Adyashanti points out that with the collapse of the witness position,

   “you can start to see the elements of ego that are using the witnessing position as a way to hide, to not be touched by life, to not feel certain feelings, to not encounter our lives directly and intimately in a gritty, human way.” (15)

   What he is pointing to here is that the realization must become embodied and human, and not remain transcendental only.

   Atmananda stridently affirmed that the feeling of the need to re-enter samadhi, or the need to prolong a state like nirvikalpa samadhi, or to prolong the timeless experience of pure consciousness glimpsed in the interval between two mentations or thoughts, or between two states (such as sleep and waking), were “vicious yogic samskaras.” He also considered the often coveted nirvikalpa samadhi to be among the phenomenon rather than the ultimate noumenon as has often been assumed among yogis and mystics.

   This thought baffled me for a time, but the following quotes clearly explain his reasoning:

   “The pioneers of the traditional (cosmological) jnyana path understood and interpreted the spontaneous state of deep sleep as the seat of causal ignorance. It was with a view to avoid or remove this presence by human effort that the nirvikalpa samadhi was invented. They succeeded in their goal but only partially, because when they came out of the samadhi state, the shroud of ignorance engrossed them again. So a permanent solution had to be sought again.”

   “Two distinct kinds of action have been employed in order to visualize the Truth. They are called voluntary and involuntary, with reference to the attitude of the mind. The voluntary action
[i.e., yoga] makes the mind active and tries to comprehend Truth as its object. This path is evidently doomed to failure, since it can never take you beyond objective truth. Nirvikalpa samadhi is the highest experience that can result from such action. It is preceded by intense effort. In the relative level, this effort may well be considered to be the cause and nirvikalpa samadhi its legitimate effect. So nirvikalpa samadhi is limited by causality. The yogin admits that he goes into nirvikalpa samadhi and comes out of it. Therefore it is also limited by time. In order to get into nirvikalpa samadhi, the body is necessary for the yogin to start with. Therefore nirvikalpa samadhi is also limited by space. Thus nirvikalpa samadhi clearly forms part of the .Yoga or mental effort is the cause, and samadhi is the natural effect. But the Absolute is uncaused. Therefore, samadhi can never be the Absolute, but only a state; and as such it can never enlighten you.”

   One teacher wrote of this limitation such that “even in nirvikalpa samadhi attention is extended outside of the heart as a gesture towards an independent object.” [i.e., God, Absolute, Self]. The real subject, the true ‘I’- principle, or the ‘right Absolute’ in Atmananda’s terminology, is not yet recognized. He continues:

   “Unable to refute the argument that Peace prevails in the interval between two mentations, some imitation teachers - possessing mere book lore - advise their unfortunate followers to endeavor to extend the period of the interval, hoping thereby to extend the Peace in time. Poor souls, they understand neither Peace nor the interval.... If you are able to stand as your nature even for a second, and know that you were beyond time during that experience, you were really in the timeless. There is no need to lengthen the duration of that experience. That tendency is a vicious yogic samskara.....You are mistaken about your position between two mentations during the so-called interval. It is true that it appears as an interval to you, when you stand in time and look at it from there. But when you reach that interval, you find yourself divested of body, senses, mind, space and time, and then the so-called interval appears no longer an interval but ‘timeless’. The idea of prolonging the timeless is absurd. The mistake arises because you stand as an embodied being and look at it from a distance, in the waking state...The idea of prolongation is a ‘vicious samskara’ of time, which arises only after the inception of the mind. If you dance to the tune of this samskara, you will never reach the ultimate goal. Even great yogins have often been stranded for years in nothingness, as a result of this subtle miscalculation...because the experience of nothingness also gives you a reflected and limited peace and happiness.”

   “In your attempt to reach the Absolute, you transcend the realm of objects and senses, and sometimes get stranded in a state of void or nothingness. This void or nothingness, though highly subtle, is still objective in character; and you remain as that positive principle which perceives that nothingness also...So whenever the concept of nothingness confronts you, take the thought that nothingness is also your object, and that you are its perceiver, the ultimate subject, whose nature is Consciousness; and it becomes one with the ‘I’- principle. The void is the last link in the chain which binds you to the objective world. Its appearance in the course of your spiritual sadhana is encouraging, since it forebodes the death-knell of the world of objects, of course in the light of knowledge.”

   “Shri Buddha first analyzed the eternal objective world in the right yogic fashion, utilizing mind and intellect as instruments, and at the end reached what may from the phenomenal level be called void or nothingness. A negative can never subsist by itself. Much less can it be the source of positive things. That which was called void or nothingness has to be understood as Atma itself. Buddha must have gone beyond and reached the atmic principle himself. But Shri Buddha’s followers seem to have stopped short and interpreted the Ultimate to be that void or nothingness.”
(15a)

   [Note: similar warnings of being stranded in nothingness abound in different traditions: Nagarjuna warned that “believers in emptiness would end up in a self-condemned void”; ‘Nothingness’ is but the third of the four higher jhanas in buddhism, followed by the plane of ‘neither perception nor non-perception’, and only then Nirvana; while the masters of Sant Mat speak of a great void termed Maha Sunn, beyond the realms of form, where countless souls can get trapped on their inward journey, on this mystical path].

   No mincing of words here! When speaking directly of absolute Truth Atmananda is often uncompromising.


   Vedantist Iyer, speaking of the "lightning flash" of understanding, the transition from the witness to the Self, philosophically puts it this way:

   "The students suddenly grasp the idea that all the world is only a thought, and that he himself is also a thought, and that all this thought-world is inside himself, is Atma, Brahma. With that he recognizes that the thought itself is Brahman with all its ideas it includes Brahman too, including the idea of himself." (#2584)

   Regarding the use of the intellectual faculty (buddhi) in accomplishing this, Sri Nisargadatta says:

   "Your expectation of something unique and dramatic, of some wonderful explosion, is merely hindering and delaying your self-realization. You are not to expect an explosion, for the explosion has already happened – at the moment you were born, when you realized yourself as being-knowing- feeling. There is only one mistake you are making. You take the inner for the outer and the outer for the inner. What is in you, you take to be outside you and what is outside you take to be in you. The mind and feelings are external, but you take them to be internal. You believe the world to be objective, while it is entirely a projection of your psyche. That is the basic confusion and no new explosion will set it right. You have to think yourself out of it. There is no other way." (16)

   PB summarizes this line of thought:

   "A mystic experience is simply something which comes and goes, whereas philosophic insight, once established in a man, cannot possibly leave him. He understands the Truth and cannot lose this understanding any more than an adult can lose his adulthood and become an infant."(17)

   In spite of all this, Atmananda

   “did not discredit any particular path, but only pointed out the wrong emphasis in the application of instructions, if there were any, and advised each to follow his own chosen path with right discrimination and deep earnestness. Many yogins and bhaktas from different parts of India, and some even from abroad, who had been victims of various ailments or disorders as a result of slips in their instructions or wrong emphasis in their exercises, came often to seek his help. He listened to them compassionately and helped most of them by proper explanation, interpretation or correction. He always insisted that the ground should never be cut off from under the feet of a spiritual sadhaka, without giving him something better instead.” (17a)

   While he was a serene jnani or sage, Atmananda was capable of freely expressed emotion. When his wife died he excused himself from his place of employment, attended her funeral, weeping openly and profusely, so much so that people thought he would never stop, and then returned to work with full attention to the duties at hand. Twenty years earlier, he tended the death of his mother with all the traditional duties of a devoted son, burning camphor and prostrating before her body in tears. He was a man of deep feeling, but he maintained that such feelings were always under control from his position as Consciousness. In saying this, however, he did not imply that the sage strategically avoided the emotions of life or distanced himself from the human dimension altogether. He stated:

   “Feelings never come to him uninvited. If he thinks that it is time to act with discretion, feelings respectfully keep at a distance. But the moment he invites them they rush in like torrents. Again the moment he puts on the brake by a mere thought they disappear. This was what you were witnessing in me in those days. It is wrong to attribute either composure or indulgence to the Sage. He is the conscious background of both.” (18)

   Atmananda was a great realizer, outspoken in his criticism of both the suppressive tactics of the yogi and the weak emotionalism of the bhakta. In doing so, and becoming so strict in the jnana approach, Brunton felt he may have gone a little overboard in rejecting some of the earlier practises or sadhana he underwent which for many aspirants serve as preparation to make the later realizations more accessible. Some have also questioned whether Atmananda's comments about controlling his emotions may have indicated that he had yet to enter the fullness of sahaj, but exhibited a lingering tendency to hold on to the witness position instead. An impartial examination of his teachings suggest that this was not the case. He clearly distinguished the witness from Consciousness.

   But there is no denying Atmananda had a sensitive side. He could openly weep, he enjoyed devotional singing, dancing and poetry, especially the daily singing of his beloved disciples Nityananda, which often threw him into deep moods for hours altogether. He used to say that it was only his own spiritual talks and the few hours of listening to the spiritual songs that really sustained his life...He asserted that music was a “moksha-kala” which, if used with discrimination, would take one smoothly to the ultimate truth...In the days of his Saguna Sadhana, there was a period when for days and weeks together he was drowned in divine music from within himself, as though from the flue of Lord Krishna, throughout the waking self. Many of his friends and eminent musicians during that period had the pleasure of enjoying it and forgetting themselves for the time being, by putting their ears close to Shri Atmananda’s.”(18a)

   In 1953 his devoted wife passed on after being bedridden for a year, during which Atmananda “was sleeplessly awake to her physical needs and calls, tending her day and night...and his own health suffered severely on that account...When she was about to pass away, he sat close by, and passing his hand along with her ascending prana helped her to be tranquil and conscious of her real nature - the Truth. At the last moment, when the life principle was about to leave her body, in the right yogic fashion, he pressed his forehead against hers and helped her life principle to merge in Him - the Ultimate. Immediately he got up, and in less than five seconds came out of the room, collected and composed, and announced her passing away in one word to the European and Indian disciples anxiously waiting: ‘Finished.’ How sharp, short and significant this announcement was need not be commented on.” (18b)


   Atmananda, not the austere vedantin some may assume, said that:

   “It is often a sweet recreation and delight for an established Sage to expatiate upon Truth with arguments and illustrations, or to talk with tears about devotees and their personal gods.” (18c)

   He also said;

   “Tears of soft divine emotion are the panacea for all yogic ills.” (18d)


   So many are the quotes and anecdotes relating to tears in Notes on Spiritual Discourses one would easily assume he was a true bhakta rather than advaitin. But that was often one of his points: advaita leaves out nothing, and its devotion is real - for the Supreme Self - and how could that be dry and heartless? The perfection of discrimination doesn’t wipe that away.

   “A great man has said that a devotee goes into samadhi with tears in his eyes and that a jnyanin comes out of samadhi with tears in his eyes. But I say that this is not yet the whole truth. One can very well both go into and come out of samadhi with tears in his eyes. This is definitely higher than the former experiences. The experience of the devotee was the result of contemplation (bhavam) of his ishta-deva. The second was the result of a short contact with the ultimate Truth. The third is the characteristic of the sahaja state of the established Jnyanin.” (#971)

   “When you reach the Ultimate by following the path of pure jnyana, you experience deep Peace and Happiness expressing itself sometimes in the form of gushing tears and choking voice. This is not an experience of the head, but of the heart in you. On the other hand, there are many instances of Sages like Padmapada and Vatishvarattamma who have reached the Ultimate through the heart, and heart alone, directed to their Guru - the Absolute - with deep devotion. They have subsequently guided aspirants to the Truth, even on the Jnyana path, most successfully. Thus it is clear that what one experiences through either path is the same Reality, the one through the head and the other through the heart.” (#583)

   “The disciple who takes the Guru to be the formless Ultimate, is taken to the right Absolute. However, the disciple whose sense of discrimination is less developed, but who has a deep devotion to the person of the Guru, may well take the Guru to be the form. His love and devotion compensate abundantly for the lack of discrimination, and he is easily taken through the form to the formless, and thence to the Absolute even without knowing it.” (690)



   To sum up the thrust of his advaitic teachings, however - if such be at all possible in brief - Shri Atmananda was critical of teachings of any path that proposed a liberation for the ego or some objective entity or self. For him, liberation was not merely going beyond bondage or subjection to the cycle of birth and death, but going beyond the illusion of birth and death. He joined Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta in maintaining that realization consists in becoming profoundly aware that one has never been in bondage, that, in fact, there is no “one” to be in bondage or to be liberated, and that the answer to the question “when shall I realize?” is “when the when dies.” Further, "I have never told you that you will never be reborn; I have only said that you will be rid of the illusion that you were ever born or will die." According to the sage, while there is apparent suffering in life, it can never be eliminated without the transcendance of the sufferer. He taught that through discriminative inquiry the divine mystery, Reality, or Brahman, becomes self-evident, while worldly knowledge is nothing more than “giving a name to the unknown and immediately dismissing it from your mind.” (19) Thus knowledge of all worlds is only knowledge in a conventional naming sense since it is secondary to the great Unknown and Unknowable (to the mind) Reality, but which is the Real Knower Itself, Atman, revealed through the faculty of Buddhi in the waking state, in which the world is reduced to ideas that are inherently reabsorbed into Oneself, after which the non-difference of Atman and Brahman may be known.

   Atmananda wrote:

   "The head and the heart are not water-tight compartments. They complement each other. It may be said that ‘It is a harmonious blending of the head and the heart in the ultimate Truth that is called realization.’ It may generally be said that one gets enlightened through the head, and gets established in the Truth through the heart. A thought, when it is deep, becomes feeling or in other words descends into the heart. Deep knowledge or objectless knowledge is ‘Love’. Love always gives and never takes. If only the giving is spontaneous and prompted by the heart alone, it is efficacious and divine. The slightest taint of the ego in the giving pollutes it to that extent. If you follow the path of love, until love is its own fulfilment, you reach the highest. But an ignorant aspirant can never complete it unaided. The help of a Karana-guru is absolutely necessary, at least towards the end." (#1179)

   Atmananda was a master chess player and would often play the game with some of his disciples. He stated on many occasions that "he utilized even the game of chess to speed the spiritual progress of those who played with him." (20)   One is reminded of the famous story of a game between Rumi and his master, Shams Tabrez. Rumi was checkmated, whereupon he, also a master player, exclaimed, "Oh no, I have lost!" but his Murshid replied, "No, you have won," giving him liberation by a tap on the forehead with his sandal.

   A liability when reading the works of Atmananda and other like sages, particularly without the benefit of their personal company, has always been that one may get caught up in the lure of the verbal argument and prematurely bypass various preparatory physical, emotional, mental, moral, and devotional practises that for many makes the more advanced practises of insight and enquiry possible or fruitful. A high degree of free energy and attention is required to pursue jnana yoga to a successful conclusion. Thus advaita has always traditionally required preparation. It is not just a “talking school,” but demands real maturity. Atmananda nearly admitted as such in the case of the famous mystic-devotee Caitanya:

   “Through the path of devotion alone, it is possible to rise to the highest plane of objectless love, without adopting any separate jnyana sadhana. But as far as the devotee is concerned, the object world and problems relating to it still remain to be solved or explained, to make his experience complete. He only forgets it in the flush of his deep devotion. Formerly, he used to perceive the world with its usual sense of reality. Until it is proved to be what it really is, there is always the danger of the object world being an impediment to his ultimate perception and establishment in his real center. Even after reaching the stage of objectless love through devotion, corresponding to pure Consciousness through jnyana one has yet to understand that this objectless love is but the expression of that which can never be expressed. This light can be obtained only from the real Jnyanin, and so at this late stage the devotee has to take direct instruction from the Karana-guru and go beyond. In this new light, all doubts about the world stand automatically solved; and he sees the world as nothing other than his subjective self. In this connection, it is said that Shri Caitanya, after long years of experience of so-called objectless love, had to take instruction about the Truth from one of the sages of Shri Sankara’s order, in order to get to the Absolute.” (20a)

   And further:

   “Devotion is the most popular method adopted all over the world but unfortunately, for the vast majority of aspirants, it is left incomplete. It is usually inspired by phenomenal religion, ethics and blind faith; and therefore is inevitably blind in its application. It takes into consideration only the physical and mental aspects of the object of its devotion. These two aspects are transitory and therefore yield only transitory pleasures and transitory powers, though all this is in all humility attributed to the Lord. Most devotees usually get enamoured of this pleasurable state; and being afraid of losing the glamour of it, they stubbornly refuse to examine the content of their experience in the light of right discrimination [i.e., using higher reason, or vidya vritti]. Thus they get stranded in that state of empty and fleeting pleasurableness. Even Shri Caitanya was no exception to this. His super-mystical experiences were the result of blind devotion, which kept the world spellbound for years, but at last they faded away. For a period of about twelve years, he was immersed in virtual stagnation. He is then reported to have approached a Sage (from a Shri Shankara order), who initiated him into the ultimate Truth. The path being beautifully prepared and his heart being sublime as a result of his former experiences of selfless devotion, he could imbibe the spirit of vedantic instruction and instantly visualize the Ultimate. This is the one path of liberation open to all devotees, if they earnestly desire to visualize the Truth, which alone can be called real salvation or liberation.” (20b) [Note: for Atmananda, “visualization” is equivalent to “realization.”]

   Truly speaking. how many seekers come to advaita with “the path being beautifully prepared and his heart being sublime as a result of his former experiences of selfless devotion,” whether through a mystic path like Caitanya or otherwise? It is so easy to forget this part and then fault the methods of advaita,,” studied on their own or, worse yet, without the guidance and grace of an Enlightened Teacher.

   In the Sage’s company, however, as beautifully expressed by Atmananda, one gets a boost from a radiant presence that burns his words deep within the heart:

   “You first listen to the Truth direct from the lips of the Guru. Your mind, turned perfectly sattvic by the luminous presence of the Guru, has become so sensitive and sharp that the whole thing is impressed upon it as if it were a sensitive film. You visualize your real nature then and there. But the moment you come out, the check of the presence of the Guru being removed, other samskaras rush in and you are unable to recapitulate what was said or heard. But later on, whenever you think of that glorious incident, the whole picture comes back to your mind – including the form, words and arguments of the Guru – and you are thrown afresh into the same state of visualization you had experienced on the first day. Thus you constantly hear the same Truth from within. This is how a spiritual tattvopadesha helps you all through life, till you are established in your own real nature.” (21)

   Sri Nisargadatta concurs:

   "Words of a realized man never miss their purpose. They wait for the right conditions to arise which may take some time, and this is natural, for there is a season for sowing and a season for harvesting. But the word of a Guru is a seed that cannot perish. Of course, the Guru must be a real one, who is beyond the body and the mind, beyond consciousness itself, beyond space and time, beyond duality and unity, beyond understanding and description. The good people, who have read a lot and have a lot to say, may teach you many useful things, but they are not the real Gurus whose words invariably come true." (22)

   Anthony Damiani likewise explains that, in contrast with the ordinary teacher or guru, the sage:

   ”..works quite differently. He goes into the stillness, into the void mind. Then when he comes out, he holds your image in his mind and imagines you or conceives you to be what you really are and then he dismisses the picture. And then for the next ten lives (!) you may be struggling to become what you really are. And the very power and concentration of his thought is so intense that it will bring to pass what he imagines you to be.” (23)

   Even without this rare opportunity, careful study of the words of a true sage is time well spent for it will plant seeds in the soul that germinate in due season. But actual company of a karana guru is a rare blessing, and Sri Atmananda would always maintain that even a great aspirant, could only attain liberation with the help of a living Teacher or Karanaguru. He once wrote, "The unconditioned love towards one's own Guru is the only ladder to the goal of Truth."

   Shree Atmananda insisted that a sadhaka had only one ultimate or final teacher.

   Contemporary teacher Francis Lucille, a disciple of Jean Klein who himself knew Atmananda, demurs a bit on this last point, as is understandable, given that he is riding the wave of a loose-knit group of new realizers for whom the role of spiritual friend is increasingly favored over that of guru. Still, he states:

   "A living guru (spiritual teacher) is, in most cases, necessary to facilitate both enlightenment and self realization. Although the karana guru (the guru whose role is to help the disciple through the last stages of realization) appears to the disciple as a seemingly separate human being, he or she is knowingly established as universal consciousness. He sees  the disciple as  his own Self. Consciousness in the disciple, being recognized for what it truly is, resonates with the silent presence of the guru. The mind of the disciple becomes gradually and mysteriously quiet, with or without the use of words, until the student has a glimpse of the causeless joy of his natural state. A relationship of love, freedom and friendliness that leads to the eventual spontaneous stabilization of the disciple in happiness and peace gets established.

   A true karana guru never sees himself as superior or inferior to anybody, nor does he or she take himself or anybody for a sage or an ignorant, for a spiritual teacher or a disciple. This impersonal attitude creates an unmistakable perfume of friendship and freedom that is a prerequisite for the success of the final stages of the self realization process."
(copyright 2000, Francis Lucille)

   While in his writings he was truly a radical non-dualist, in practice Atmananda was a traditionalist regarding the guru-disciple relationship, giving due respect to different levels of reality:

   He considered it a pitfall to shout all too soon that ‘everything is Consciousness’ in a worldly or relational environment, and he continued pointing out ‘difference’ as long as this was the true state of affairs to the student. Thus he considered advaita, non-duality, not applicable to the relationship between teacher and student.

   “Think of your Guru only in the dualistic sphere...don't apply your intellect to it. It is far beyond the intellect. Apply your heart wholly to it and get lost in the Guru. Then the Ultimate dances like a child before you.”

   “In the physical presence of one’s own Guru, even a Jnyanin feels like a child before the Absolute. That is the only altar before which an advaitin always falls bowing unconditionally. Advaita is only a pointer to the Guru. You do not reach Advaita completely until you reach the egoless state. Never even think that you are one with the Guru. It will never take you to the Ultimate. On the contrary, that thought will only drown you. Advaita points only to the Ultimate.”


   And also:

   “It is true that advaita is the highest. But it was there all through time, and it did not come to your notice or help you in the least. It needed only a single ray, through a word, from the floodlight of the physical Guru, to enable you to see advaita and to visualize the Reality. The disciple, who has a throb in his heart, does not need a thought to trample down the question pertaining to the Guru the moment it is heard. Therefore even the thought of oneness with the Guru is unimaginable to a true disciple, even from an a academic standpoint.”

   Atmananda considered a devotional attitude to be a great help. But in an instruction he made it clear that such an attitude is only appropriate towards your own Guru.

   “That particular Person through whom one had the proud privilege of being enlightened, that is the ONLY FORM which one may adore and do Puja to, to one’s heart’s content, as the person of one’s Guru. It is true that all is the Sat-Guru, but only when the name and form disappear and not otherwise. Therefore the true aspirant should beware of being deluded into any similar devotional advance to any other form, be it of God or of man.”

   In another statement he reveals how strict and dualistic he was in respect to the student and guru relationship:

   “A disciple should never bow allegiance to two Gurus at the same time”; to which he added that “accepting more than one guru at a time is even more dangerous than having none at all." (Philip Renard, quoted from hyperlinked article below)

   "If one feels that he is not able to love his master as he desires, it really means that he still loves his master deeply, but that he is not yet satisfied with the love he gives him. That is all. This dissatisfaction with the depth of one's love for his master is the nature of true love; and it will never disappear."

   The following quote I find very interesting from an advaitic-type sage like Atmananda; perhaps it holds an enigmatic key to reconciling various mystic paths with jnana paths:

   "Guru alone has the revered place of honor and veneration in all planes. It is an experience that sometimes when you go deep into pure Consciousness and get lost in it (nirvikalpa samadhi of the Jnanin), you see the person of your Guru there, and this vision throws you into an ecstatic joy taking you even beyond sat-chit-ananda. Blessed indeed are you then."


   Atmananda refused to appoint a successor, insisting that where Vedanta was concerned there should be no institution. He also said that if we did not make use of the teachings of the sages that sacrificed and went before us we were “ nothing but ungrateful wretches.”

   His view on love for ones Guru might be summarized in this quote:

   “If the disciple has deep love and devotion for the person of a Guru who is a Sage, it is enough. Nothing more is needed for the disciple by the way of Sadhana or instruction from the Guru to reach the Ultimate and stand established there.” (#315)


   See the excellent Atmananda by Philip Renard.

   Also see The Teaching of Atmananda: Universal and Individual for a discussion of the "direct path" of Atmananda versus traditional "cosmological, indirect paths (including jnana paths)," giving the pros and cons of each approach, as well as various samplings of discourses by the sage.


1. Abbott Zenkei Shibayama, A Flower Does Not Talk (Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1970), p. 52
1a. Nitya Tripta, ed., Notes on Spiritual DIscourses of Shree Atmananda, Vol. II, (1953-1959) (Trivandrum, India: The Reddiar Press, 1963), p. 538
2. Ibid, p. 539
2a. Ram Alexander, Death Must Die: A Western Woman's Life-long Spiritual Quest in India with Shree Anandamayee Ma (Varanasi, India: Indica Books, 2006 (2002), p. 314, 408
3. John Blofield, The Zen Teachings of Huang Po (New York: Grove Press, 1959), p.
4. The Notebooks of Paul Brunton, Vol. 14 (Burdett, New York: Larson Publications, 19 ), 8.85
5. Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj"I Am That" Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj(Durham, North Carolina: The Acorn Press, 2008, p. 176
6. Ibid, p. 230-231
7. Ibid, p. 328
8. Krishnachandra Bhattacharya, Studies in Philosophy (Calcutta, India: Progressive Publishers, 1956), p. 296
9. V.S. Iyer, Commentaries, Vol. 1 & 2 (ed. Mark Scorelle, 1999)
10. The Notebooks of Paul Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 14, 8.107
11. Ibid, Vol. 11, 2.29
12. Nitya Tripta, op. cit., #928
13. Adyashanti, Emptiness Dancing (Los Gatos, California: Open Gate Publishing, 2004), p. 227
14. Adyashanti, The End of Your World (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, Inc., 2008), p. 95
15. Ibid, p. 98
15a. Nitya Tripta, op. cit., #’s 923, 1034, 1013, 965, 1115, 1086, 1089, 187
16. Sri Nisargadatta, op. cit., p.
17. The Notebooks of Paul Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 13, Part Two, 4.198
17a. Nitya Tripta, op.cit., Life sketch of Shri Krishna Menon (Shri Atmananda)
18. Ibid, #554
18a. Ibid, Life Sketch of Shri Krishna Menon (Shri Atmananda)
18b. Ibid
18c. Ibid, #1176
18d. Ibid, #622
19. Ibid, (Vol I & II),
20. Ibid Vol. II , p. 557
20a. Ibid, #79
20b. Ibid, #1387
21. Ibid, #934
22. Sri Nisargadatta, op. cit., p. 421-422
23. Anthony Damiani, Looking Into Mind: How to Recognize Who You Are and How You Know (Burdett, N.Y.: Larson Publications, 1990), p. 186