Discernment (Viveka)

The practice of discernment (viveka) is the simple practice of looking in order to figure out what’s what. We do it all the time, which is how we are able to take decisions in life. When we are able to distinguish right from wrong, or good from bad, most of us choose to do what is right or what is good. Another criterion we use is to do what is in our best interest, or what makes us happy and helps us avoid pain and suffering. It is obvious that we need to look and think in order to determine what makes sense and what doesn’t, what is right and what isn’t, what is worth pursuing and what isn’t.

As the first of the Four Practices (sādhana-catuṣṭaya) though, discernment is not merely the practice of looking and deciding, but looking deeply and carefully and only then deciding. This makes a huge difference. Sometimes we don’t look long enough or deep enough and sometimes we are in too great a hurry. The decisions made without sufficient thought often misfire and we end up doing things that we later regret. We have all made such mistakes sometime or other, perhaps often.

It is true that we may not have the luxury of time always. Sometimes we are required to take split-second decisions. There is no time to think then. We just have to go with our gut. But such situations are rare. Most decisions in life don’t have to be made instantly. If we take our time, if we pause to take a deep breath and look carefully, we may notice things we may have missed before. Looking deeply and carefully is at the heart of discernment. Only when we look deeply do we see the nuances and the subtleties involved. That increases our chances of choosing well. When our choices are wise, we suffer less and rejoice more.

But there is more to discernment than simply avoiding pain and being happy. When looking deeply becomes a habit, we notice that things are not always how they appear to be. What feels like a good thing may, upon close observation, turn out to be not so good. What feels worthless at first sight may be found to be valuable when we take a closer look. This teaches us to not be taken in by appearances. When we begin to see things as they truly are, we are able to take good decisions.

Something more happens as well. Because we now notice things that we had missed before, we inevitably start asking the kind of questions we did not ask before. Discernment is like deep sea diving. Under water we encounter a new world, a world that was not visible on the surface. Looking deeply also reveals to us a new world. We see others with a new pair of eyes. The world feels different. Naturally, questions arise.

I may look at a chair and begin to wonder—is this object anything more than material particles held together somehow in a form which is assigned a name in every language? I may look at the world and ask—is the world simply an expansive ocean of atoms and molecules, or protons and electrons, held in place by various forces? What makes the people around me different from “objects”? Why are people and animals classified as “living” and the chair before me is “nonliving”? When I meet a friend, I am really seeing a physical body which is responsive and looks conscious. Is my friend simply a body? What about the friend’s mind and the intellect? Are those material too? Is there anything at all which is not material?

The practice of looking deeply may fuel in my heart the urge to know if life has any ultimate purpose beyond my efforts to make the most of life until I am devoured by death. I may want to know who this “me” is for whose sake I do whatever I do. Unless I figure out who this “me” is, how can I make sense of whatever is seen as “mine”? Does the “me” survive death? If it does, then who really dies? Also, where does this “me” disappear when I’m asleep? What is this mysterious movie called dream that I see every night? How does it manage to appear as real as the world I’m seeing at present? My world vanishes when I sleep and the dream world vanishes when I wake up. Neither of these persists without break, so why do I think of one as real and the other as unreal? Are these two worlds really different?

Most of these questions, and their possible answers, can be unsettling. They can shatter my present understanding of myself and of the world around me. Looking deeply is beneficial, but looking too deeply may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Deep sea diving is not for everyone. I may want to return to the surface and waddle in the muddy waters of this world again in order to resume my shallow life—and most of us do just that. Discernment is an exciting practice, but it is difficult to persevere in it without patience, courage, and most importantly, faith in oneself. The practice of discernment is for heroes, not for cowards. It is for the brave, not for those with a weak heart.

If I have confidence in myself, I won’t be afraid to explore uncharted waters. When I begin to look deeply at myself, it becomes obvious that my body has been growing and changing continually. The same with my mind—my ideas, hopes, feelings, fears, memories have been changing, evolving. In the midst of all these changes, I still feel I am the same person. Something has remained unchanged in me. The unchanged part is the “real me.” Separating it from everything that is changing, separating the real from the transient, is a gift of discernment.

Way back when, a revolutionary discovery was made and it was this—the unchanging is infinite. It is birthless and deathless, pure and perfect, utterly free and unfettered. It is nonmaterial, hence laws of matter don’t apply to it. As infinite, it is one and undivided. In stark contrast, everything around me is diverse and divided. It begins at some point and it ends sooner or later. Everything in the world depends on everything else. Things are interconnected by the inexorable law of cause and effect. The self (ātman) is conscious, infinite and eternal, whereas the world is material, temporary and transient. The Ātman is real. Compared to it, everything else feels illusory. It is this distinction between the real and the illusory, the unchanging and the constantly changing, that we have the power to see if we continue to look deeply with patience and perseverance, courage and determination.

The implications of this discovery are staggeringly magical. When we experience reality unfiltered by the mind and the senses, everything that limits us in life disappears. Fear of death vanishes. We forget what stress and anxiety feel like. We are immersed in bliss, filled with love, and experience unimaginable freedom. This is not a pie-in-the-sky fable. This is what others before us have directly experienced. A record of what they discovered is found in the Upaniṣads, which are the primary source of Vedanta. This is not a matter of believing what some texts say. Whatever they say is open to testing. We can verify the truth for ourselves. Throw blind acceptance out the window! Swami Vivekananda’s powerful words come to mind:


“[True religion] is not talk, or doctrines, or theories; nor is it sectarianism  . . .  Religion does not consist in erecting temples, or building churches, or attending public worship. It is not to be found in books, or in words, or in lectures, or in organizations. Religion consists in realization.” (CW 4. 179-80)


If the Ātman is real, we must experience it for ourselves. Simply reading about it in books is not enough. We don’t have to accept God merely on faith. If God exists, we must see him! Nothing less will do. Nothing else can satisfy us fully.


“[We] must realize God, feel God, see God, talk to God. That is religion.” (CW 4. 165)


The practice of religion begins with discernment. That is the first step, and the most important one! Every journey begins with the first step. If I want to practice discernment, how do I go about it? There are a few commonsense things I can try to do:

  1. Quieting. A regular practice of prayer and meditation often leads to a state of inner quiet. This can last for a while but usually fades away when we get busy with our daily chores. With sustained practice, it is possible to summon the inner quiet at will—and this greatly helps in the practice of looking deeply.

  2. Withdrawing. We all have our biases and prejudices, our own special likes and dislikes. These can get in the way of decision-making and vitiate the process. It is helpful to remain as neutral as possible when we look deeply at anything to understand it well.

  3. Deciding. After a careful study, it is easier to make an assessment with confidence. The conclusion we reach helps us decide what should (or should not) be done next.

The blessing of always looking deeply at everything far outweighs the challenges that arise in the practice—and challenges there will be plenty if we take the practice to heart. As we have seen, the practice of discernment raises questions that may not have immediate answers, but it is the rigorous search for the answers that makes life meaningful and worth living. It brings depth and stability that is missing in the superficiality of our present life. As the reality begins to unfold and our blinkers disappear, a new world is revealed. The old me fades away. A new me, the real me, takes its place. The practice of Vedanta begins with discernment, or looking deeply, and it ends with me discovering myself, my true self.

Because the practice of discernment ultimately leads to seeing the distinction between the real and the unreal, or between the eternal and the transient, Vedanta texts define discernment in those terms. See, for instance, Śrī Śaṅkarācārya’s Aparokṣānubhūti (“Direct Experience”), verse 5:

नित्यमात्मस्वरूपं हि दृश्यं तद्विपरीतगम् । एवं यो निश्चय: सम्यग्विवेको वस्तुन: स वै ॥

Nityaṁ ātma-svarūpaṁ hi dṛśyaṁ tad-viparītagam,

Evaṁ yo niścayaḥ samyag-viveko vastunaḥ sa vai.


“Discernment is the firm determination that the Ātman alone is eternal and whatever is seen is indeed its opposite (in other words, transient).”


Sometimes discernment gets defined not in terms of the Ātman (the real self) but in terms of Brahman (the reality underlying everything), the two—Brahman and Ātman—being identical.

In Sadānanda Yogīndra’s 15th century text Vedāntasāra (“The Essence of Vedanta”), discernment between the eternal and the transient is defined thus:

ब्रह्मैव नित्यं वस्तु, ततोऽन्यदखिलमनित्यमिति ।

Brahma-eva nityaṁ vastu, tato anyad-akhilam-anityam-iti.

“Brahman alone is eternally real, everything else is transient.”

Sri Ramakrishna expressed the same truth in different words—and this teaching of his occurs frequently in his conversations with disciples. “God alone is real,” he repeatedly told them, and he often added, “all else is illusory” or “the world is unsubstantial, like a dream” (Gospel, 396, 400, 421, 788, 911).

It is the conscious practice of discernment that launches us on an exciting journey. It begins in a simple way, separating the good from the bad and the right from the wrong. When we continue to look deeply and carefully at everything, within ourselves and also around us, we see a new “me” and a new world. If we are able to keep doing that and not turn away, it leads to the experience God, the eternal being, the reality behind all appearances, and discovering it to be not different from the true inner self.

Such is the primacy of discernment that Śrī Śaṅkarācārya called it “the crest jewel” (cūḍāmaṇi) of Vedanta practice in his celebrated text Vivekacūḍāmaṇi (which we are presently studying every Wednesday evening at 7:30). Perhaps it was not an accident of history that the greatest Vedanta teacher of our own time came to be known as Vivekananda, “the bliss of discernment."

In the next post, we’ll take a look at the second of the Four Practices—namely, Detachment (vairāgya).

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