Tiruvannamalai, a city in Tamil Nadu, has the sacred mountain Arunachala as its divine hub. Its latest master of fame being Ramana Maharshi, the giant of Advaita-vedanta from early 1900's, this awe-inspiring mountain has been a home to countless jnanis and siddhas over the millennia. It is one of the pancha-bhuta-sthalas, abodes of the five elements, representing fire-element.
In the origin story of Arunachala, the old Puranic narrative tells of Brahma and Vishnu having a disagreement over who of the two was the highest divinity. Amidst the quarrel, a vast beam of fiery light sprang forth, a pillar of splendor penetrating the cosmic extremes. Both humbled before the insurmountable challenge, they concluded this cosmic splendor, the presence of Siva, to be the highest reality. This halo materialized as the mountain Arunachala.
We spent one night in the well-maintained guesthouse, and one night at the holy mountain itself. I suppose it was inevitable that I was to be drawn, as if pulled by a magnet, to the highest peak of this 2200 feet manifestation of cosmic radiance. The climb barefoot was a challenge enough, but having come so far, I wanted to spend the whole of the twelve hours I had, from dusk until dawn, at the sahasrara or the thousand-petaled crown of the mountain, as attaining sahasrara alone the supreme non-duality and integration is realized.
Soon enough after the sunset a thunderstorm set in motion. Sitting alone in the solitude of the peak atop a three-meter boulder, the fierce winds were rocking me back and forth even in the steadiest of postures. Rainfall was very minimal, but the atmosphere was very humid. Dark rainclouds were flying past me all around, both beneath and above, at a fierce velocity. It was as if Arunachala, this living mountain pulsating with an otherworldly halo, wanted to give the best of its shows for me.
The weather soon became too extreme to bear while sitting, and I found myself curled up inside the thick shawl I carried. There was little chance for conventional meditation. I spent the better part of the night, aside the few hours of rest, observing the rise and fall of sensations and feelings, their interplay, their intrinsically empty nature. Let no more be said of the night, a night that brought a certain objective to fruition, for some things are to be hidden in the cavity of the heart.
It was in a book by Swami Rama, "Living with the Himalayan Masters" (highly recommended), that I read a wise note of reconciliation on Advaita-vedanta and Buddhism, the two non-dual traditions that have been a source of much insight to me as of late. Narrating the story of his visit to his grandmaster in Tibet, he writes of an encounter with a wise lama:
I heartily agree with the above message. It is in vein that scholars describe and criticize philosophies that are beyond their realm of direct experience obtained through application. Even the best expositions are only approximate estimations of experiential realities that transcend common levels of experience and rationality.
"While in Gangtok I lived in a monastery, which still exists on the northeast side of the city. There I visited a lama who was a remarkable man. He was a genuine Buddhist yogi and a learned Sanskrit scholar who had lived for many years in Bodhigaya in India. Usually the scholars of Buddhism criticize Shankara, just as the swamis from the order of Shankaracharya criticize Buddhism.
"But this wise man, citing references from many texts, taught me a synthesis of Buddhism and Shankara's advaita system. He said, 'There is no difference between these two systems of philosophy as far as the ultimate Reality is concerned. There are verbal differences, but no experiential differences. Cast off all sectarian influences and attain the highest state of consciousness or nirvana.'"
In the Buddhist theory, all of reality is characterized by three factors, anitya, duhkha and anatma — all objects are temporary, sources of discontent, and non-self. The root of existence is avidya or ignorance, and the continuance of conditioned existence arises from trishna, or craving. The concept of nirvana or final cessation transcends all non-self conglomerates and is indescribable. The liberating factor is prajna or wisdom, arising from vipascana or wisdom-perception.
In Advaita-vedanta, the problem is in adhyaropa or superimposition of illusory concepts on the nature of objects. Adhyaropa arises from avidya, or ignorance. Existence unfolds with the interplay of raga and dvesa, or attachment and repulsion. The agocara-tattva or ingraspable final reality is understood within the formation world only as neti-neti, "not this, not this". The liberating factor is jnana or wisdom, arising from nididhyasana or meditational wisdom-contemplation.
Contrasting Buddhism and Advaita-vedanta is a fascinating field, better explored on an experimental basis than in dry academic comparisons, or expositions by biased in-tradition scholastics. For the interested, I'd like to share a link to David Loy's Enlightenment in Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta: Are Nirvana and Moksha the Same?, an excellent essay comparing the enlightenment-concepts of Buddhism, Advaita and Sankhya, three classical traditions positing the basic three approaches to the matter-spirit dichotomy.
The visit to Ramanashrama and Arunachala left me with fond memories. I will, no doubt, be revisiting the place with more time at the opening of a suitable future opportunity. I can see why Ramana would have considered Arunachala the greatest of his teachers.