“Responsive Listening to” (Swami Tyagananda) — Vedanta Society

Vedanta’s history goes back to the period when nothing was written: all teaching was oral. The only way to learn anything in those very ancient times was to hear about it from a knowledgeable person. Traditionally, therefore, the preliminary Vedanta practice came to be known as “hearing” (śravaṇa).

Today we can learn through reading as well. Reading is also a form hearing: when we read, we hear the words in the mind. We read printed books, but we also read on our desktops, laptops and other mobile devices. Much of our learning today occurs through listening to lectures and classes, podcasts and audiobooks. There is also the unconscious learning that occurs through what we see, taste, touch and smell. No matter which amongst our senses (indriya) opens the door to learning, the incoming information needs to be processed by the mind. This mental process is a kind of “hearing,” when the mind tries to make sense of the data it receives through any of its senses. 

There are two types of hearing. The first type is all-too-familiar. We hear a sound and, if it comes from outside, it is audible to us and to others. But the sound can also come from inside when we “hear” our thoughts. We always think in a language that we are familiar with. But in the case of external sounds, if we know the language, then the sound resolves itself into words, each with its corresponding meaning. If we don’t know the language, then the sound remains merely a sound and, if it is irritating, we call it noise.

The second type of hearing is responsive hearing. It is connected to the first—it is, after all, a response to the first type—but it can also be distinguished from the first. What is this second type of hearing? When we hear the sound, we recognize the word it represents, we understand its meaning, and we instinctively respond to it. All of this happens almost instantaneously. We can hear this response within us. Not everyone responds in the same way, so not everyone hears the same thing even when the sound and the word are the same.

Take a mundane example. If someone tells me, “You are stupid,” I hear the sound, I understand what those words mean, and I hear this person tell me, “You are stupid.” That’s the ordinary type of hearing. But then, almost immediately, I also hear this inside me: “How dare you?” Or “Me, stupid? You moron, you are stupid.” Or, “Why do people think I am stupid? I am not stupid.” I may choose to express in words what I hear inside me and give the person a piece of my mind, or I may choose to remain silent.

Now, a better example. What happens when my guru tells me, “You are the infinite and immortal being, pure and perfect in every way”? That is essentially what “You are That” (tat tvam asi) means. How I respond will depend on what kind of student (adhikārī) I am. If I belong to the highest category (uttama) of students, what I’ll hear and experience is this: “I am the infinite and immortal being, pure and perfect in every way.” That is precisely what “I am Brahman” (ahaṁ brahmāsmi) implies. If I am a mediocre (madhyama) student, I’ll probably shake my head and hear myself thinking: “That just doesn’t make any sense.” Or, “Who knows?” Or, “Even if that’s true, I just don’t feel myself to be that.”

When we study the Gita, it is important to keep in mind both these types of hearing. If we merely pay heed to the first type, the learning will remain superficial. The second type—responsive hearing—is important even in academic study, what to speak of its importance in spiritual study. When Krishna spoke to Arjuna, what did Arjuna hear? We don’t know—and we don’t need to know. The Gita may be a dialog between Krishna and Arjuna, but my study should transform it into a dialog between Krishna and me. When Krishna says something, what do I hear?—that is what matters.

The second chapter of the Gita provides two instances where responsive hearing is vital. The first instance is when Krishna describes the nature of the ātman. The ordinary kind of hearing merely reveals what the ātman’s nature is—and I may even wonder why I should bother about it. The responsive hearing, though, gives a radically different picture. Take, for instance, verse #17:

अविनाशि तु तद्विद्धि येन सर्वमिदं ततम् । विनाशमव्ययस्यास्य न कश्चित्कर्तुमर्हति ॥

Avināśī tu tad viddhi yena sarvaṁ idaṁ tatam, 

vināśaṁ avyayasāsya na kaścit kartuṁ arhati.

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