How to Attain Enlightenment by James Swartz

James Swartz has been teaching traditional Vedanta for over 40 years in America, Europe, and India, and this 300-page book represents a comprehensive exposition of what this ancient tradition is all about.  After years of misguided spiritual seeking in the 60’s, James eventually ended up sitting at the feet of Swami Chinmaya, who eventually “set him free” through the teachings of Vedanta.  James has been teaching Vedanta ever since, and is the best elucidator of traditional Vedanta there is, especially to Western audiences.  He presents the teaching in a very direct, no-nonsense manner – heck, look at the title of his book!  Some may call him dogmatic.  But upon reading (and rereading) this book, it becomes clear that he is simply telling it like it is.  In the process of calling a spade a spade, if he steps on some toes, so be it.

I want to emphasize the fact that he teaches traditional Vedanta, so that it is not to be confused with Neo-Advaita.  Traditional Vedanta is an all-encompassing teaching because the subject matter is non-duality, and by definition of non-duality, nothing is separate from anything else.  To attain the wisdom of non-duality, all facets of life must be understood in the context of non-duality.  Therefore traditional Vedanta contains within its teaching expositions about the nature of the world, the nature of the individual, and the unity of the two.  Because the whole sphere of existence can be broken down into the objective physical world and the inner subjective world, a true non-dual teaching takes into account both aspects and reconciles them so as to leave no confusion regarding their inherent unity.  Compare this with Neo-Advaita teachings, in which the relative world of everyday existence is regularly left out.  It does not make sense for non-dual teachings to ignore this facet of life, and this is where I feel Neo-Advaita is lacking in comparison to the roots of “traditional” Vedanta.

One of the most valuable contributions of this book is James’s emphasis on correcting the misperceptions many people have about enlightenment.  This issue is tackled right off the bat in the second chapter of the book, in which he lists and debunks common “enlightenment myths”.  Because let’s face it – anybody with Internet access can create a website touting their enlightenment.  In this day and age, information can be created and spread so quickly that it becomes impossible to weed out the false from the truth.  This is how the spiritual community becomes susceptible to wrong ideas about enlightenment, and this must be tackled first before any headway is made into one’s spiritual journey.  Perhaps it is due to this reason that James hones in on the enlightenment myths at the start.

Some of the myths of enlightenment that he debunks are: that it is a “transcendental state”, it is having no mind (or an empty mind), that there can be levels of enlightenment, that it is a special status, and that it is the fulfillment of all desires.  The common thread tying these myths together is that enlightenment seems to be an experience that one can encounter.  We seek and seek for that one experience that will reveal to us the eternal truth.  Thus we do all kinds of practices to quiet the mind, be in the now, or chant mantras endlessly in hopes of falling into that special experience.  This is a universal trap that anyone interested in spirituality falls into eventually, and James clearly and logically explains why these practices are a misguided attempt to attain enlightenment.

For example, if reality is non-dual, then why should one particular experience “contain” enlightenment?  Experience should already validate the non-dual nature of reality.  The science of self-inquiry – Vedanta is a Sanskrit term meaning self-inquiry – is a process that leads the person to the understanding that reality is non-dual.  It is a self-evident understanding that must be true no matter the time of day or state of mind.  The aim of Vedanta is to explain the logic of self-inquiry, and upon repeated application, contemplation, and meditation on these teachings, to establish non-dual vision.

Naturally, the complex, and sometimes tumultuous human experience seems to pull us in a million directions during our everyday lives.  Our attractions and aversions seem to cloud our judgment and take precedence over the silent truth of non-duality.  Therefore, to have non-dual vision be one’s natural state, one must meet a list of basic psychological factors conducive to enlightenment.  These traits aren’t written in stone, but they are based on common sense.  Chapter 4 contains a list of psychological traits, some of which are: emotional maturity, dispassion, an open mind, self-motivation, self-discipline, and a balanced mind.  People lacking in some of these traits may find themselves becoming blocked in their spiritual journey, and James gives good reasons why.

There are no worries, however, since James outlays several everyday practices that can help assuage the daily agitations, help us grow, and mature into a person capable of fruitful self-inquiry. These teachings are called the Yogas.  Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, and Jnana Yoga are outlined in chapters 8 through 12.  Employing the Yogas (or any practice one finds useful) in daily life will lead to a neutralization of the attractions and aversions that normally used to bind us.  This often involves a change of lifestyle and a growing out of certain preferences, attitudes, and behaviors.  Thus, contrary to popular belief, the spiritual path is a rational, nuts-and-bolts, and practical path in which constant attention is given to our everyday beliefs and behaviors.

Vedanta is the original systemized enlightenment teaching, and James does an extraordinary job of extracting the essential nectar of the teachings from its dusty, ancient, Sanskrit origins and elucidating it with utmost clarity.  One review cannot do this teaching, with its rich history and depth, even a modicum of justice.  James’s book is the best introduction there is to this subject.  To learn more, James has a website,, in which he has thousands of pages of Q&A emails from readers, as well as hundreds of hours of audio – all for free.

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