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Aversion, Death, Rebirth, Vanity                        
Winter 2013












Alberto Martin has worked for many years in Canada as a surgeon (General Surgery) and studied Western philosophy at the University of Toronto. His main interest has always been the area of intersection between empirical science (Medicine in particular) and the human sciences (chiefly philosophy) where he published several articles and one book ('Por el Camino de Santiago'). Over the past 15-20 years the focus of his interest within the broad area of philosophy has shifted to Advaita Vedanta. He has also published poetry (in Spanish). Since his retirement he lives in Northern Spain with his wife.  He writes for






Question one and two were submitted by Stuart Sovatsky, PHD.


Q 1: Vedanta, Taoism, Buddhism, Judeo-Christian Gnosticism, Mystical Sufism, all laud sexual transcendence of duality and desire verified by transcendence of sex, from Buddha to Dalai Lama and millions of others in India over the millenniums. Has modern non-dualism created something new where sex and desire are not transcended?


Q 2: Is this a higher state than what Buddha and the founder of advaita, Adi Shankara, taught to monks and lay people and lived personally?


Alberto Martin; Life is a sacrifice, a sacred ritual, as well as a ‘play’. The first sacrifice consisted in the One becoming many. Correspondingly, there is a tendency or drive (ontological and psychological) in multiplicity to become One, to recover unity. Within this multiplicity there was a first differentiation: that between masculine and feminine, yang and yin, passive and active, etc. Shiva-Shakti represents this primordial dichotomy: two that are one. (St. Gregory of Lyons spoke of the deiformity of Man: God became Man – multiple individuals, which is equivalent to fragmentation of the One - so that Man may become God). Hieros-gamos, sacred marriage between a god and a goddess enacted as a symbolic ritual, is a mythological motif that speaks to that mystery in creation or manifestation. In Indian mythology, purusha, which stands for “God, Supreme” (or for the “individual soul or jiva”, depending on the context), underwent dismemberment at that primordial sacrificial rite.


Conversely, the part sacrifices itself for the whole (self-negation or self-annihilation), so that unity may be regained. Form sacrifices itself for its essence, so that unity may be re-established. This last way of expressing this mystery belongs to the metaphysical dimension, whereas at the physical, human one it is equivalent to tanzih, abstraction - the ascetic way (fanah in Sufism), corresponding to Transcendence. Contrariwise, tashbih is characterized by analogy, sublimation (bakah in Sufism), the way of shaktism, corresponding to Immanence and equivalent to tantrism -- which, for some (likely good) reasons, practically disappeared from India after a few centuries. Some practices within tantrism included the consumption of meat and alcohol and indulging in sex, all of them normally shun or prohibited.


Most saints, but not all - or most - sages have practiced the ascetic, or celibate way, including Shankara. One has to consider here two aspects or sides: 1) vocation, temperament, and 2) the aim or motivation. A 3rd factor would be opportunity (circumstances – personal, social, etc.). This is a complex issue, but under ‘opportunity’ such things as immediate environment (with or without women being present), culture, geography, and national character or proclivities, have to be taken into consideration. Finally, the time in which one lives, with its particular social and environmental circumstances, is of paramount importance - ‘Time does not flow in vain’ (Spanish saying). Circumstances change, at least in the ‘external’ world.


‘All this is very well’, someone may remark, ‘but what about sex: is it not universal, at all times and in all places, the strongest attraction for man (neutral sense), other than self-preservation?’ Indeed, one reads that in ancient India sexual obsession among the population was prevalent. ‘Hardly comparable to today’s North-America and Western Europe since the sexual revolution’, another might retort… ‘You only have to walk in the streets, or go into the subway system – women, women everywhere and scantly clad at that exhibiting their charms…’ Well, things may be different living in a remote village, but not necessarily so; the ‘revolution’ has extended – or is gradually extending - everywhere.


One way to avoid temptation if one lives in a city is – as pious Muslims are enjoined to do - to lower the gaze when passing by or confronting a woman. Or enclose oneself in a room; but this is ineffectual, since temptation resides in the mind, even if it may be said to start in and through the senses. What is left, then, is discipline and will power, hoping for the best (and ‘God’s grace’). And concentrating on what is most important: freedom and delivery.


A whirlpool of uncertainty, a palace of pride, a prison of punishment, a storehouse of sin, a fraud in a hundred different respects, an obstacle placed for us before the gates of paradise, the field of deceit, a basket of illusions, the open throat of hell. Such are some of the features of women, who change nectar into poison and are a chain by which man is attached to the chariot of folly, was sung by Bhartrihari, a seventh century Indian poet, with evident respect for (and fear of?) women and young girls of lotus eyes, face resembling the splendour of the moon, and the ambrosia on their lips.


Bhartrihari’s ambiguity towards love and women (the love of women) is, one would say, universal, paralleled in all traditions. Must one choose between a life where sensual enjoyment of natural pleasures is permitted and one of austerity or asceticism?


There are, of course, other options (or opportunities), such as romantic love where physical intimacy is either avoided or becomes spontaneous, generous, giving – the lovers being lost as individual beings in the high altar of unity or undifferentiation (two as/or in one). This is exemplified by (the myth of) Tristan and Isolde in the West, and the practice of sahaja in Medieval India. The former was sacrificial, redemptive love, and the latter (mostly) symbolical and free, signifying the marriage of Heaven and Hell, the identification of spirit and matter, the two poles in creation. As A. K. Coomaraswamy wrote, Physical proximity, contact, and interpenetration are the expression of love, only because love is the recognition of identity. These two are one flesh, because they have remembered their unity of spirit… The least intrusion of the ego, however, involves a return to the illusion of duality (‘The Dance of Shiva’, ch. ‘Sahaja’). This perfect state must be one without desire, because desire implies lack; whatever action the jivan mukta or spiritual freeman performs must therefore be of the nature of manifestation, and will be without purpose or intention... This is the innocence of desire (ibid).


Coomaraswamy warns about the danger of pursuing love of woman as a way of liberation which, for many, is an impossible way. In this context, he remarks that all desire (even of the husband for his wife) is adultery, and thus, it is non-attachment, not repression, which is the mark of the spiritual life. As Dennis Waite has remarked during a recent discussion on ‘Sex and Desire’ in ‘Advaita Vision’ (Q. 352), dwelling on it in any way will only take you away or keep you away from ever finding out the truth of the matter. And, let’s face it, you cannot prevent your body and mind from functioning in the way that nature has intended! Stop worrying about it! Turn your attention to the only thing that really matters, namely getting rid of Self-ignorance by trying to discover the nature of the world and your Self. On this same line, I can do no better than end these reflections with one or two more quotations from Coomaraswamy:


To refuse the beauty of the earth – which is our birthright – for fear that we may sink to the level of pleasure seekers – that inaction would be action, and bind us to the very flesh we seek to evade. The virtue of the action of those who are free beings lies in the complete coordination of their being – body, soul and spirit, the inner and outer man, at one.

All that is best for us comes of itself into our hands – but if we strive to overtake it, it perpetually eludes us.


NDM:  Alberto, just a couple of follow up questions, if you don’t mind.


Some say that overcoming a wrong "identity view" is nowhere near enough, because of the residual samskaras and vasanas. That it takes more practice and continual effort, even after a so called "Self realization".  What are your views on this below by Swami Shivananda for example? 


"The following rules would be very useful to those who are trying to observe Brahmacharya in thought, word and deed:


  1. Give up evil company, loose talks, cinemas and televisions, and newspapers and magazines dealing with sex and love. Do not mix freely with the opposite sex. If this is found unavoidable in the course of the daily duties of life, a male can mentally address a member of the opposite sex as ‘mother’. A female can address a male as ‘father’. Sri Ramakrishna used to look upon all women as forms of the Divine Mother. Anadamayi Ma, the well-known saint of Bengal who lived during recent times, used to address all elderly males as ‘Pitaji’ (father) or ‘Baba’.
  2. Keep your head bowed down while you walk in the street.
  3. Minimise your needs. Do not look into the mirror often. Lead a rigorous, disciplined life.
  4. Avoid looking at the mating of insects, animals and birds.
  5. Do not ride too much on a bicycle.
  6. Root out love of leisure and ease. Overcome laziness and always be engaged in some useful work. Let the mind be always occupied in the study of spiritual literature or some active work along useful lines. Let there be no time for idle pleasure.
  7. Let the work you do be a source of joy. Find pleasure in your work. Let it not be done under compulsion. The mind turns away from that which it does not like, and then takes recourse to other objects for getting pleasure. You should work freely and happily, so that there may not be occasions for the mind to resort to unhealthy practices. Work for the sake of God. Then all work will become interesting. Take to hard physical labour but do not exhaust yourself. Do your work as a hobby. Then you can do it happily.
  8. Do Sirshasana, Sarvangasana and Siddhasana. Practise deep breathing and Bhastrika Pranayama. Take long walks. Take part in games and sports.
  9. Take cold baths if you can. Do not use perfumes and fashionable dress. Do not attend dance or music parties. Do not sing worldly songs. You may take part in Kirtan and Bhajan without trying to display your musical talent.
  10. Do not smoke or take drugs or alcohol. They are harmful to the body and mind. Avoid non-vegetarian food.
  11. Give up tea, coffee, pungent foods and excess of sweets and sugar. Take them moderately if you cannot give them up altogether. If possible, fast once a week. Take only milk and fruit on that day. Do not take milk without mixing a little ginger with it. Avoid pungent, stimulating dishes, sauces, savouries and pastries."

Alberto Martin: I get your point, but first it must be realized that ‘overcoming a wrong “identity view”’, by the nature of things -  namely, the customary upbringing from early childhood and the social environment, including general and well entrenched opinions as to ‘who and what we are’– must be the hardest thing to do, more so, even, than resisting temptations, which can be helped, or overcome, besides force of will, with a series of measures – such as those included in the list of recommendations by Swami Shivananda (with which I am in practically complete agreement). I did mention before such things as casting the eyes downwards when confronting or passing by a young woman (an injunction to a sufi… a spiritual person, a man, obviously).


There is a phrase in the Bhagavad Gita which can work as an inspiration or motivation to go in the right direction: There is no lustral water like unto Knowledge (IV, 38). I quote here also a maxim, which I have as coming from the Maharajas of Benares: There is no religion higher than TruthSatyân nasty paro dharmah.


But, going back to ascetic practices, the question of temperament, inclination, or vocation (svadharma) is relevant. Should those practices be well nigh mandatory for all spiritual aspirants? My answer, as I point out below, is a qualified ‘YES’. Unquestionably, the majority of those items in Sw. Shivananda’s list may well be recommended to all such persons, whether married or unmarried. As to the former (the married), I mentioned in my previous comments  that looking to one’s wife, for example, with lascivious eyes – indeed all desire - is equivalent to adultery. So, the mark of a spiritual person is being innocent of desire, according to this view.


Furthermore, there is a place for abstinence within the framework of marriage, which, as the traditionalist author, Frithjof Schuon, has remarked, goes hand in hand with the virtues of detachment and generosity, essential conditions for the sacramentalization of sexuality. He goes on: Nothing is more opposed to the sacred than tyranny or triviality on the plane of conjugal relations; abstinence, the breaking of habits and freshness of soul are indispensable elements in any sacred sexuality… abstinence, which is both a sacrifice before God and a homage of respect and gratitude towards the spouse. For the human and spiritual dignity of the spouse demands that he or she should not become a habit, should not be treated in a way that lacks imagination and freshness, and should thus keep his or her mystery; this condition demands not only abstinence, but, also, and above all, loftiness of character, which in the last analysis results from our sense of the sacred or from our state of devotion (‘Esoterism as Principle and as Way’ – ch. ‘The Problem of Sexuality’).


I used the term ‘persons’ above. Incidentally, and in this same context, it has been said that ‘person’, ‘personality’ means being attracted to the world outside, willingly being an agent in that world – thus, different from being a contemplative, a spirituel, as the French say.


On the question of samskaras or vasanas, and taking from what I just mentioned, once I know that I am not a ‘person’ (an active “collaborator”, as it were), no longer there is agamin samskara for ‘me’ – in fact, there is no ‘me’. Prarabdha samskara, on the other hand, continues, as per Vedantic teaching, because ‘the arrow has already been released’. In other words, there are things which we are not able to avoid doing, or, let’s say, are being inclined to do.


NDM:  Are you saying that post moksha, there is no more free will, or a sense of free volition, to overcome these inclinations? 


Alberto Martin:   I said ‘being inclined to do’, not ‘determined to do’. There is bindingness, there is inclination (samskara or vasana), and there is freedom. In a way, everything is bound to happen – there is no free will; individual destinies (life stories) are what they are and were destined to be; this is the play of life, of samsara, where each person (‘persona’=mask) has a role to play, and one can either resist it or accept it willingly, knowing that it is a role. That is because samsara is also nirvana. If I know that I am not the role, but the witness behind the mask, then I, who am witness-consciousness, am free. Witness-consciousness is not different from pure consciousness; in fact they are the same, as taught by Advaita Vedanta. The tendencies (vasanas) are there, but under the light of consciousness they become inert. This understanding is called paramarthika in Advaita; the first one, which gives some reality to the vasanas,  is called vyavaharika, which is empirical or conventional.


‘Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains’, said, or wrote, Jean-Jacques Rousseau - “out of control”, as you say. How can it be so except that (unlike with Rousseau’s meaning and intention) ‘he’ sees himself as occupying a restricted space, the tiny space of the ego? Ignorantly, but willingly - and this is the tragedy - he has not seen his true dimension or stature, and as a result his perspective has become extremely narrow. The controlling factor (‘controlling’ in a positive, not a negative sense) is not other than the light of consciousness which, inexplicably, has been obscured since birth by a kind of veil. This veil is (congenital) ignorance. The gods have played a bad trick on men (was it because Prometheus’ act – stealing the ‘fire’ from them?). Fallen man’s will power, unless it is illumined by reason=intelligence=light of consciousness, amounts to nothing.


NDM: Some say that upon Self-realization, with the total understanding that one is not the doer, all of the samchita samskara, (back account, or piled up karma) is destroyed and future actions incur no more agamin samskara.


Alberto Martin: ‘samchita karma…’ I am not an academic or scholar, only a free-lance ‘something’. I could be called a generalist – who knows nothing about everything (whereas a specialist is someone who knows everything about nothing). Every time I see that word, let alone many other Sanskrit words, on a printed page, I have to go to the dictionary. Karma as cause-effect relationship in the physical world of phenomena, as well as in the moral one is understandable, and I have no qualms about the latter. I prefer to talk, though, about inherited or congenital traits, familial upbringing, and environmental (social, geographical, climatic) factors; also happenings/accidents affecting or influencing the individual. A deeper understanding, I think, is the Buddhist law of depending origination – a concatenation of causes and effects as an explanation for everything that happens.


Two kinds of karma (samchita and agamin samskaras), as you said, are inoperative in a fully realized ‘person’, such as Sri Atmananda Krishna Menon. But also the prarabdha, I submit, since such person is no longer a ‘person’; he knows his true identity. Any consequences of his/her actions may have some repercussions in their body or mind, but will be inconsequential. S/he ‘will not mind’. The body has to die. The mind is already dead – or transfigured – in their case.


NDM: But what if you violate these conventional laws?


Alberto Martin:  If by ‘conventional laws’ you mean moral laws, I already said that they are understandable, as Kant’s moral imperative is so, and they must be rooted in reality itself: Beauty-Goodness-Love (sat-chit -ananda) – the supreme archetype or ‘Idea’ of Plato, which is the Good Itself. So, I would take their root as being metaphysical rather than merely moral (understood as empirical and social and based mostly on cultural differences, that is, custom, and thus relative) - Rta, Dharma, the eternal law or Order, cosmic as well as moral, is that root.


But if by ‘conventional laws’ you mean those taught in traditional Hinduism (prarabdha, etc.), I already gave my position in the previous paragraph; they are true to an extent – to the extent that they are practical and preparatory towards a deeper understanding of reality. That is why I think that, rather than metaphysical, rooted in reality, they are methodological, doctrinal and, I suggested, provisional.