Neil Dalal, is the Co-Director of an immersive feature documentary, GURUKULAM about life in a remote forest ashram for the study of Advaita Vedanta. The film was released to critical acclaim and has been widely screened in theaters, and cultural and educational venues across the United States. Neil is Assistant Professor of South Asian Philosophy and Religious Thought at the University of Alberta. He holds a doctorate in Asian Cultures and Languages from the University of Texas at Austin where he studied Indian philosophy, the history of Indian religions and Sanskrit. He has spent over four years in India studying Advaita Vedanta, the philosophy of non-duality, with traditional scholars and monks.
In this wide ranging conversation with Vikram Zutshi, he talks about the process of making the film and explores the differences between various streams of Indic thought, addresses issues of caste and draws comparisons between traditional and modern systems of education.
1) Describe the premise of your film. What do you want viewers to take away from it?
Gurukulam follows a group of students and their teacher, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, as they confront fundamental questions about the nature of reality and self-identity at the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, AVG, a remote forest ashram for the study of Advaita Vedanta in Tamil Nadu. Deeply observational and experiential, it transports viewers into the spontaneous realm of gurukulam life though intimate imagery and a richly layered soundscape. The film weaves together daily chores, meditation, ritual, and Advaita Vedanta teachings to evoke the presence of the place and a tactile sense of the sacred.
The film is unordinary in both style and content. It brings the viewer’s attention to fine grained visual and aural details and the ways Advaita Vedanta is embodied in its cultural context. It incorporates emic concepts and layers Advaita teachings not only through the collective act of listening in the classroom but also through discussions, symbology, and translations of chants and rituals. Stylistically, the film employs long shots and slower pacing so viewers can cultivate a mindful engagement of the place, community, and philosophy. The intention is to evoke a contemplative aesthetic, rasa, and an empathetic first person phenomenology of actually being there. Ideally the film acts like a meditative practice for viewers, creating a calm inner space for introspection through Advaita concepts.
By not setting down a specific interpretation, the film is neither apologetic nor critically reductive, and instead invites viewers to discover their own meaning. Mainstream documentary often dictates a narrative that encapsulates a cultural tradition for easy viewing consumption. This both occludes the insider perspective and others the culture as foreign, while providing a false sense of understanding with closure. Thus we intentionally did not use many fixtures of documentaries like narration, voice-over, or composed music. Gurukulam intentionally subverts the expectation of a simplistic philosophical and historical understanding of Advaita Vedanta or this particular lineage. This may be discomforting for some viewers, but hopefully insightful and liberating for many others.
2) How did the idea for the film come about? What is your personal connection to the story and it’s protagonists? Was it easy getting access to film at the AVG for a prolonged period?
The available scholarship on Advaita Vedanta is invariably textual, philosophical, or historical. There is very little out there on the contemporary living tradition. Some years ago the disconnection between my experience of the living tradition and the textual research I was consuming and producing struck me. Missing was the vibrant sensorium of sacred space and the dynamic nature of a practicing community. I wanted to convey how Advaita philosophy is taught and expressed within Hindu religious culture on a daily basis. And I knew that stepping into Advaita Vedanta through a more direct phenomenological perspective would be eye opening, an unusual kind of knowing.
Arsha Vidya Gurukulam was an ideal location to explore and film. It’s a place for serious study and is embedded in an orthodox Hindu community, yet also draws a diverse international student community. Swami Dayananda possessed a rare mastery of Advaita and continues to be a significant influence on the contemporary tradition. Hundreds of his disciples have taken vows of renunciation and continue to teach across the world. The AVG community identifies itself within the direct lineage of Shankara, the great Advaitin systematizer and commentator who lived circa the 7th century CE. They make a sincere effort to pass the tradition down even as new transnational Advaita Vedanta identities are emerging.
I knew Swami Dayananda for nineteen years prior to his mahasamadhi last year and studied extensively in India with him. Over the years we had numerous discussions and he was always interested in my research. He was keenly aware of the difficulties of self-representation that traditional Advaita faces today, but was disinclined towards publicity and biographical praise. Fortunately after discussing the project he saw value in it and welcomed us to film. He was incredibly generous with access to AVG and his personal space, as well as trusting our independent process of filmmaking. I was already intimate with the location and knew many of the long-term disciples, sannyasins, and priests in residence there, so that helped ease the transition into filming a community far more interested in personal reflection than being in front of a camera.
3) What does the philosophy of Advaita VedantaVedanta mean to you? What are its historical antecedents?
Advaita Vedanta is a profound and sophisticated philosophy of non-duality as well as a systematic teaching methodology that carefully unknots the ignorance that entangles us in false identities, suffering, and baseline anxiety. Philosophically it elaborates a formula for non-duality as brahman, the essential metaphysical being, that ultimately makes up all things. Brahman extends, so to speak, not only materially but also subjectively as our very consciousness, the deepest core of our subjectivity. The possibility that my consciousness, which is immediate and directly evident to me, is both independent of my mind-body complex and numerically identical with universal unqualified being is just astounding. If freedom is to be found in and as consciousness then I am already free. How can I not probe this possibility? This view completely reorients self-identity and the starting point of any spiritual process, and has a tremendous positive psychological impact even for the neophyte student. And it reveals actual meaning in clichéd spiritual slogans like happiness is within or all is one.
At the same time it raises a whole lot of questions like why should I and how can I pursue wholeness and freedom if it is intrinsic to me already? Every Advaita student faces the paradoxical task of accomplishing what is already accomplished and striving for a goal that resists that very striving. I’m particularly intrigued by this intersection of philosophy and practice, and I’m fascinated by the systematic holism of the Advaita tradition. Philosophically it interweaves ontology, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics, and philosophy of language not only with each other, but within a broader framework of ascetic-yogic practices and psychology—and grounds all of this through a highly refined teaching tradition based in its textual sources. It’s a vast and complex tradition yet ultimately quite elegant and simple.
As for antecedents, the tradition certainly precedes the time of Shankara. He locates himself in an already established lineage going back through Gaudapada to Badarayana. And like all traditional Advaita Vedantins traces the teachings to their source texts, the Upanishads. In the traditional perspective the Upanishads have no beginning and no human authorship. For scholars the dating of the Upanishads is contentious, as is their metaphysical views, hence the proliferation of other Vedanta traditions, but most agree that the earliest ones predate the Buddha, 5th century BCE, and may be centuries older. What kind of lineages and communities developed in the immediate centuries after their composition is unclear; however, even if the Upanishads were not systematized philosophically early on, there was likely a significant amount of continuity as the texts were passed down from generation to generation.
4) How long did it take to film the entire documentary? How much footage did you capture and what portion of it did you end up using in the film? How long did the editing process take?
We filmed for ten weeks and lived in the Gurukulam the whole time. We needed time to settle into its rhythms and to allow the place, community and teachings to guide our process rather than our own agendas. Our film crew was tiny in order to blend into the background more, just my self, co-director and producer Jillian Elizabeth, and our cinematographer J. P. Sniadecki, a filmmaker and anthropologist at Northwestern University. We shot about 200 hours of footage, a rather large volume because we were there with no script and no constructed scenes and wanted to document the whole ecology of the community. Less than one percent of the footage made it into the film. The editing was a complex puzzle to figure out, particularly finding ways to artfully convey an experiential contemplative aesthetic, and to interweave Advaita teachings in a poetic and non-didactic style. We were fortunate to bring Mary Lampson, a fabulous and seasoned editor, on board. She worked with us closely for seven months spread over a year and a half to edit the film.
5) What has been the traditional policy for admission into Gurukulams down the ages? Are they accessible to all castes and sections of society?
I would distinguish between the classical gurukulam model and its modern iterations. According to many legal texts like Manu’s Dharmasastra only those young students who are twice born, who have undergone the upanayana initiation ritual, properly received the Gayatri mantra, and entered the life stage of studentship, are eligible to live with a teacher and study the Veda and its disciplinary limbs. Of course it’s not clear if such texts are prescriptive of what the authors idealize or descriptive of actual ground realities. It’s likely that there were disparities on the ground according to time, location, and specific tradition, as well as in other fields of study like music or medicine. And it’s an open question of just how accessible or exclusive they really were. Scholarly opinion is divided on the degree to which women, sudras, and marginalized groups had access to Vedic education and the upanayana in ancient India, with some claiming a good deal of openness and others claiming the evidence is inconclusive. In any case, if we take a charitable view of the classical texts, their spirit is not one of purposeful exclusion but of emphasizing the proper attitudes and sincere actions that constitute the ideal student.
In Advaita Vedanta this is further complicated by its emphasis on renunciation and monasticism. A focused study of Vedanta would come at a later stage after a student’s basic education. And though some great Advaitins like Vacaspati Misra and Mandana Misra were householders, most were renouncers who either wandered or lived in monastic institutions. Regardless, from past to present there is a tremendous emphasis on the continuity of the tradition, which must flow directly from teacher to student. Modern gurukulams try to reinstate certain classical ideals such as inculcating proper student attitudes, long term rigorous study, and living with ones guru. Some are very specific about who is eligible, but others, such as AVG, are accessible and inclusive regardless of nationality, gender, and class.
6) What is the typical curriculum of study in a Gurukulam and how long does it take to complete the program? How is it different from regular educational structure in urban institutions? Are the two complementary?
Swami Dayananda designed a condensed three-year course that covers the major Upanishads, Bhagavadgita, and part of the Brahmasutras. Other texts may be included as well, such as introductory texts like the Atmabodha or advanced ones like the Naishkarmyasiddhi. By the end of the course students should have the skills to continue studying independently and to begin teaching. The average day at AVG is quite rigorous. It begins with early morning rituals and a guided meditation before breakfast. The rest of the day includes three Vedanta classes, one following breakfast, one preceding lunch, and a third in the late afternoon prior to the evening temple rituals and dinner. During the day students also attend a Sanskrit grammar class, a Vedic chanting class, and possibly a yoga class. A question-answer session follows dinner.
This kind of training shares skills necessary in a university setting, like the capacity for textual analysis, critical philosophical thinking, and language skills. In those ways they are complimentary. But student intention, orientation, and attitudes are foundationally different because they are studying themselves and engaging a type of yoga. The Gurukulam is a sacred space that seeps deep into one’s being over time. Immersion in the tradition, community, and its religious practices and strictures is radically different than secular urban institutions.
7) What are the main distinguishing factors between Vedanta and Buddhist doctrine?
India’s ascetic traditions shared a number of concepts, particularly around the nature of suffering, the importance of renunciation and yoga, and the possibility of freedom through a radical change in self-identity. Early Buddhism, similar to Advaita Vedanta, deconstructs entities or wholes, including one’s personhood, into transient conceptual fabrications that depend on something else for their existence. They arrive at this through their dependent origination theory of causality, and conclude the reduction in impartite non-composite entities termed dharmas, often problematically translated as atoms. Dharmas are just qualitative and possess no substantial nature. Therefore there is no self; at least not in the way we view our selves as entities persisting over time. For them consciousness is just the mind, and merely another impermanent aggregate reducible to further parts. Advaita Vedanta rejects Buddhist and Nyaya atomism. It reduces wholes, including the person, to pure consciousness. And it provides a number of fascinating arguments for why consciousness stands outside of causal relations and necessarily resists any further reduction or the critique of impermanence.
The later Mahayana schools of Buddhism, and some of their evolutions in Tibet, China, and Japan, are arguably much closer to Advaita Vedanta. Some of Advatia’s adversaries have even accused them of being Buddhists in disguise or crypto-Buddhists, though this accusation is more polemical ploy than reality. Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika school posits a theory of emptiness where all phenomena lack inherent existence and there are no end points to dependence relations. This appears to conclude in non-duality or complete non-existence, but there is no ultimate truth for Nagarjuna and emptiness is not a thing or a non-existence.
Madhyamika holds a doctrine of two truths with parallels to Vedanta’s empirical, absolute distinction. And Advaitins like Gaudapada and Sriharsha incorporate some Madhyamika concepts or undercutting arguments to their advantage. The other primary Mahayana school is the Yogachara of Vasubandhu. He discusses a different theory of emptiness as the non-existence of the apprehending subject and object, which only arise momentarily and simultaneously in the perceptual process. This kind of non-duality is also similar to Advaita but leans towards a subjective idealism of mind only, whereas Advaita maintains a provisional realism to the external world independent of our perception. It’s rather difficult to separate Mahayana Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta in their final non-dualistic positions. The identity or difference between sunyata and brahman depends on one’s perspective and which interpretive lens we use, ontological, epistemological, or semantic. In either case we find many philosophical and methodological differences along the way. Shankara is quite critical of the Buddhist schools. He provides extensive rebuttals of Yogachara, though perhaps too hastily dismisses Madhyamika and their potential similarities.
8) How are Tantra and Yoga distinct from Advaita Vedanta? Did Ramakrishna, who had a syncretic approach to religion, succeed in harmonizing them?
Tantra is not a singular category and its many branches are a veritable forest. Some forms of it, like Abhnavagupta’s Saiva non-dualism, are quite close and possibly influenced by Advaita Vedanta. In their case non-duality is Shiva, the dynamic vibration of consciousness manifesting as the world. This view affirms more reality to the world than Advaita. Other forms of Tantra like Saiva Siddhanta are more dualistic, yet despite this philosophical difference Advaita communities in Tamil Nadu may have absorbed some of their religious practices. Generally speaking, Advaita does not include transgressive practices or prohibited substances to cultivate power or appease deities, and is less focused on the use of symbolic diagrams, elaborate visualizations, or alchemical-energetic practices like kuṇḍalini or bindu in the Haṭha Yoga context.
If by yoga you mean Patanjali, then the primary difference is the ontological background of Samkhya in the Yogasutras. Advaita disagrees with Samkhya’s dualism of matter and consciousness, and underlying this are different positions on causality and evolution. Advaita also holds a stronger theistic view compared to Samkhya’s criticism of a creator deity, though Samkhya and Patanjali are open to other types of personal deities. Yet there are key points of agreement, like the use of Samkhya guna theory in the Bhagavadgita as foundational elements of Vedanta psychology. The most important parallel with yoga is their agreement on the self-existent and self-illuminating nature of consciousness, always witnessing mental activity—what I believe to be the kingpin of all Advaita philosophy and practice. And by and large Shankara accepts and endorses Yoga’s practices, even though he disagrees that suppressing mental thought, Patanjali’s samadhi, functions as an independent means of knowledge. I look at the Yogasutras as a manual sufficiently open ended and non-sectarian enough to be incorporated by different Brahmanical traditions. It’s no surprise then that Advaitins like Shankara, most likely a later Advaitin with the same name, and Vacaspati Misra wrote commentaries on the Yogasutras. And medieval Advaitins like Vidyaranya incorporated a good deal of Yoga theory into their writing.
I can’t judge whether Ramakrishna successfully harmonized these three traditions. I suspect that there are too many differences to make it possible though, and any attempt to harmonize them may lead to an entirely new tradition that loses the original ones. Harmonizing the disparate threads in just one tradition is difficult enough. Tantra is itself trying to make sense of classical Yoga and Advaita, and medieval Hatha Yoga attempts to synthesize both Tantra and Advaita as the non-dual metaphysical background to its physical techniques; but both are new independent traditions with different means and ends. If an attempt to harmonize all three also attempts to maintain their individuality, then we may end up with an inclusive but philosophically inconsistent system and/or one tradition will have to be elevated hierarchically over the others. This all begs the question of why one would seek to harmonize them in the first place. I view them more pluralistically. These traditions are allied cousins and comfortable with their mutual differences.
Share this Post