Friday, June 17, 2016

Teaching Vedanta in Germany

Teaching Vedanta in Germany

By Sitara Mittag

[I am grateful to Sitara for her ready consent to post her article at our Blog. For an Introduction about Sitara please see here -- ramesam.]

I feel blessed to have the opportunity of teaching Advaita Vedanta to select students who are sincerely committed to explore the ultimate truth. The program I adopt is highly flexible and tailored to the particular needs of the students, yet I have a general approach that I apply with variations.
 I have to admit that my way of teaching is quite time consuming compared to other teachers. But it works. That’s why so far I keep sticking with it. In the future I may have to change it because with more and more students joining I will have to find more practical solutions.
Medium of Instruction:
The medium of instruction is German, and usually I do not give classes in English. Even though most Germans have a working knowledge of English, some don’t (especially those who grew up in Eastern Germany where they learned Russian, and not English, as the second language). Most of my students are very intelligent and educated, but I also have a few who failed in school and do not know English. What I look for in a student is whether he/she wants to discover the ultimate truth and yearns for liberation (mumukshatvam). So if they have mumukshutvam, I accept them as students, with or without English. However, as the student advances in his studies, it usually becomes necessary to shift to English because I find that there are no suitable German translations of Vedantic texts, let alone Shankara’s commentaries on the Upanishads etc. Fortunately for us, so far there has always been one or the other student who could translate the texts from English to German with me carrying out the corrections. I use these translations in my classes.
Outline of the usual Program:
To begin with so far it has always been necessary for me to correct the perspective of the Western student’s mindset consisting in numerous pseudo-spiritual concepts – be they psychological, esoteric, or certain religious ideas. I do this in open talks with each student where I encourage him/her to ask any question that comes to mind. This initial deliberation helps the student to develop enough trust in what is on offer in Advaita Vedanta.
After a few such meetings, we start to go through the spiritual essays I published at my website (there are many more than just the ones translated into English). We discuss the topics in detail answering all the questions that may come up. In the course of that I familiarize them with certain Vedantic concepts without going too much in depth at this stage. If more than one student happens to start at about the same time, I conduct these sessions for all of them together.
As the time ripens for them to take up Vedanta in a more intensive way I first provide them with the background of Vedic culture by exposing them to select videos about India. I explicitly point out to my students that in this context we focus entirely on the upsides of the Indian world. Without this step, I realized that many things mentioned in the scriptures remain a complete mystery, resulting in misunderstandings that become impediments later. At this stage I take up Sw. Paramarthananda’s introduction to Vedanta, adding my own texts on the same issues written with the Western perspective in mind. Ideally there is more than one student in these meetings. After these 16 lessons, I give out a questionnaire that helps in self-assessment about what they have grasped so far. Once they know the basic terminology and concepts used in Vedantic teaching we study other treatises (prakaraNa grantha-s) and also Upanishads as appropriate. I use the commentaries published by Arsha Vidya Gurukulam in these classes. If they are not available, I take those from the Chinmaya Mission.
My students come from many areas in Germany (and some from other countries). The classes are conducted through telephone or skype conferences, which works very well for us. I purposely restrict the number of participants to be small. Also I take care to see that as we study the different texts, all the questions of the students are answered. My experience is that these interactive sessions are very successful when done with 4-6 people. I carefully choose the participating students for a class because I do not want some to get bored while others feel overly challenged.
Vedanta Seminars
I also have been offering a 6-day Vedanta-seminar suited to all levels twice a year. The participants observe silence for most of the time with me introducing certain processes (prakriya-s) and related concepts for them to dwell on. The whole process is based on a structure that is a mixture of silent sitting, listening to me as well as to (Indian) music, movement, going for walks, resting. Also all through the seminar everyone gets a chance to have special short meetings with me in order to clear his/her mind of any questions and doubts. We are going to have more of such seminars during 2017 in other areas of Germany. Taking part in the seminars is essential to the students. 
Meer Suddorf
(Photo: By Kerstin)
So far the seminars have been conducted on an island (see photo above) with just the sea and the sky and very few people around helping the minds of the participants to become exceptionally alert and imbibe the teaching in depth. New students get a really good start into Vedantic study while the advanced ones report that with each time they go through this process their minds become more and more subtle and sharp.
´Western students usually require a bit of motivation in taking up Vedanta in a systematic manner because there is so much on offer promising big gains with little effort to be made by the student. But quite soon they realize the value of studying Vedanta with resolve and commitment. The results of such a study are truly solid and every committed student is making steady and often surprisingly fast progress.
Acknowledgement:  Ramesam inquired about the way I teach students in Germany. After receiving my answer he suggested to post it on Advaita Vision and also at this Blog site. He was so kind as to help me put it into better English.

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