After listening to Acharya Shunya discuss her latest book Sovereign Self: Claim Your Inner Joy and Freedom with the Empowering Wisdom of the Vedas, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita, I was intrigued enough to order a copy. When it arrived and I held it in my hands, I became skeptical wondering what I may have bought into and I ended up with temporary buyer’s remorse.
Over the past months, I had felt bombarded by articles, social media posts, emails, courses, and books, all about self-improvement, touting the magic pill or the 3-quick-and-easy things I should do to become a better version of myself.
I needed to duck out and sit quiet. And I did. Until I heard Acharya Shunya.
When I started reading Sovereign Self and looking into the author, I realized that there was something more to this book and whether I went any further than just reading it, I became convinced it was a worthy investment.
Acharya Shunya Pratichi Mathur is the first woman in her 2,000 year-old lineage to become a Vedic spiritual teacher. Shunya was born in Ayodhya, India, and her life story is compelling.
According to the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) that awarded Shunya the Chaudhuri Award in 2016:
“Shunya’s grandfather carried on the teachings and charitable work of his father, Vedic scholar, yogi, and renowned Hindu saint Sadhu Paramatma Shanti Prakash.
“When Shunya was 22, her grandfather chose her to continue his work. “Every guru chooses a successor, and I was his,” she says. “I was the first female acharya [spiritual leader] in my family’s ancient lineage.”
“At 31, Shunya came to the United States and began offering Ayurvedic consultations and advice along with spiritual teachings from Vedanta and Yoga”(Valenzuela-Ours).
Shunya had her reasons for beginning with Ayurveda, but as she explains, over time she expanded her teachings and her reach:
“So when I arrived in the United States, thanks to my husband, who had a job here and my karma [right action], I was already an Ayurvedic healer for some time. As I had studied the three systems of ‘vidya’ (spiritual knowledge), which I had received in my lineage. Specifically: Advaita Vedanta, the Upanishads and the Vedas and then, Ayurveda and Yoga as a lifestyle. Advaita is a philosophy, a path to become one with our bliss being internally.
“But at the time, I thought I am not so sure I should teach the ultimate spiritual teachings. So I started with Ayurveda in the late 90s, when folks were eating poorly…It was less about a focus on the Atman (the Self) and Truth, and more about getting folks to each fresh food. Then I looked around, in India and in America, and even worldwide, Ayurveda was being taught as a pedagogic academic information and students were just under the stress of quiz taking and exams. The Ayurvedic faculty was feeling very proud of very much copying the western system of education in imparting such a great spiritual science called Ayurveda without even contemplating if the impersonal style was appropriate for imparting deep wisdom.
“So I knew I couldn’t copy any existing model and it was time for me to seed my own community, a spiritual community that upholds the spiritual truth that we are spirit with a body, we are not just a body with a spirit somewhere inside us. Spirit is the common factor between us, animals and plants.
“As I developed a spiritual community, I established a continuation of the wisdom school that has existed for thousands of years within my lineage. I gave it the name Vedika because Vedika comes from the ‘Ashtakoni’ or the 8 pointed ‘vedi’ (altar for fire offerings) in which fire ‘yajnas’ (rituals) are done which lead to transformation. I call it Global because it’s not specific to Hindus or people who look a certain way, eat a certain way, pray a certain way, it’s universal”(Duggal).
Since establishing Vedika Global in 2007, Shunya has written a couple of books, her recent one making widely available what she had originally side-stepped, the ‘ultimate spiritual teachings’ focusing on the ‘Atman (the Self) and Truth.’ This book is Sovereign Self.
To me, Shunya’s book is a bridge, a bridge between the teachings and wisdom of her ancient lineage and us living in the western world today. She lays a foundation and fills in the gaps, clarifying much of what has been lost in translation and often left out when it comes to the packaging of self-improvement and the search for enlightenment.
As it says on the book cover, Sovereign Self “provides a rare opportunity to receive these authentic teachings from a genuine Vedic master – one with a distinctly down-to-earth, feminine flavor who never lets us forget that our humanity is to be embodied and enjoyed.”
One of my most appreciated concepts Shunya shares is that of householder, which literally brings the spiritual journey to the Self home.
“My lineage is nonmonastic. We are a householder-sage lineage by tradition (known as grihastha sadhus). We are encouraged to remain established within society, take on life partners, raise children, and despite the worldly roles, nurture an inner life with spiritual disciplines until we awaken irrevocably to who we are – the Self. And upon awakening, the need to distance ourselves from our roles, home, and society becomes a moot point!
“I share this because you are likely a householder like me, holding down a job, running a business, navigating relationships, raising children, and taking care of aging parents. Like many people, you fantasize about leaving it all this behind.
“It is time to bury the illusion that for spiritual growth and to be samsara [ego] – and vasana [obsession]-free, you need to relocate to some exotic or spiritually remote destination, such as a commune or an ashram. Similarly, if you do live in one, you need not think you have spiritually arrived!”(192).
Shunya cautions her readers about what she views as barriers to growth. One is how much intellectual knowledge we consume, about whatever topic(s) we become obsessed with, along with the information we mindlessly ingest daily.
“Can our mind be content with enough knowledge to get by in the world and keep it a bit simple so wisdom can be cultivated from within? Can there be space so intuitive revelation of knowledge can happen from within?
“Must our mind be crammed with daily news, traffic update, and the latest videos going viral? A return to intellectual quietude is essential. When we focus solely on becoming “brainy” and gaining knowledge in more and more worldly fields, we build a wall between our mind and our true Self. It does not help us dismantle samsara (ego), nor help in deepening our own study of self-realizing teachings. To assimilate self-knowledge, we need a quiet, centered, and inwardly focused mind, not one swarming with facts, figures, and daily news bulletins”(78).
She goes on, cautioning against the over-consumption of knowledge without reflection and practice:
“The Vedas are clear that the Self is not attainable by mere study or great learning. If we are studying for the thrill of the intellect but not living by the message, then we are not coming any closer to spiritual freedom and liberation. Baba [Shunya’s grandfather, Guru Ayodhya Nath] used to say that even if one studies the four Vedas many times over, one cannot know the essence of the Self, just like the ladle cannot know the flavor of the food it is used to serve. You must try to catch a glimpse of the light within you”(78).
Shunya also raises the red flag about spiritual bypass, the invitation and temptation to skip the work, yet expect to reap the benefits. This occurs as teachers and students and leads to delusion.
“Frequently today, bits and pieces of a “whole” and often ancient knowledge tradition, like the Vedas, get apportioned into bite-size practices,”(85) and from which we expect nirvana [perfect happiness and peace]. There’s a lot more to it, and Shunya takes the time to translate, explain, and connect Vedic nondual (undivided) wisdom in its whole, pure sense.
“The Vedas, which precede both masters [Patanjali and Buddha] by several thousand years and influenced both, always advocate meditation and the cultivation of wisdom together. Each fulfills the other…
“This is not only about the vendors of pop spirituality. It is also about the seekers who drive the trend…
“But, the best things in life are gained with preparation and patience.
“Therefore, the oldest Vedic, Buddhist, and Zen spiritual traditions – from India, China, Tibet, Japan, and other ancient cultures – insist that we spend enough time refining, studying, and purifying our own motives with an authentic master and then acquire knowledge from reliable sources, such as time-tested sacred texts, while taking the necessary time to get it right”(86).
Shunya is speaking from experience. She shares her arduous journey:
“As an ordained acharya (“spiritual preceptor”) of my lineage, I try to model the path of non-pretentious, real-life spiritual teachings in here-and-now circumstances. I do not try to prove my holiness, but rather embrace my inherent, undeniable inner battles with my own darkness too. I talk about my own relationship struggles openly and my not-so-perfect past, when I struggles with demons in my samsara [ego]. That is why, though I graduated from my spiritual studies with my guru Baba at age twenty-four, I took the time it took and did not take on my first spiritual student until age forty.
“What was I doing up till then? I was certainly not leading people on journeys I myself had barely started. I was honestly employing the wisdom I learned from my teacher in my real-life laboratory of relationships, discerning and detaching, and trying to explore what it feels like to be in my swadharma [unique inner calling], to embody arjavam [cultivated consistency in thought, word, and action]. I was learning to hold on to something authentic inside me even when the price I would pay would be great”(323).
You’d think a reader who does not plan to work with an “authentic master” would turn away at this point, but no. Shunya makes it very clear that there’s something here for everyone. Each of us can choose to elevate ourselves to a consciousness beyond where we are now and it is made clear that if we work toward this, we will be rewarded.
“The Vedas explain that all the diverse goals of humanity can be categorized under an umbrella of four universal desires, known collectively as purushartha:
“Dharma, which is pursuit of virtue
“Artha, which is pursuit of survival
“Kama, which is pursuit of pleasure
“Moksha, which is pursuit of a Higher Truth, of Self, God”(276).
Artha and Kama instinctively exist in each of us, but come with guidance too. For Artha, “We must not be greedy, but we must make an effort to be abundant, since abundance is our natural vibration” and for Kama, “Pleasure may have a limited role in the grander scheme of things, but it plays and important role…Don’t pretend, in the name of spirituality or God, that you don’t care for sensory pleasures; that makes you pretentious and gives rise to yet more delusions”(276).
But Dharma and Moksha are sought by those who experience the “urge to find greater meaning in life”(277).
Sunya spends a lot of time explaining Dharma which “relates to virtue, living life with nobility, following a good value system, and conscious living”(277).
Sunya informs us that Dharma is the “first rung on the ladder toward moksha, total awakening!”(287).
There are a variety of ways to move closer to Moksha, working with a trusted guru or teacher, according to Shunya, is the best way and that advice makes good sense.
At present, I strive to improve and expand my dharma. Sunya reminds us, “dharma is an ongoing lifestyle that even teachers refine and then enjoy until the last day of a given lifetime”(294).
A copy of Sovereign Self is available for well under $30 and comes with access to free teachings, guided practices, and meditative music.
Shunya stresses that:
“The Vedic tradition is unequivocally united on this fact: genuine awakening can be earned by anybody willing to do the inner work of purifying and illuminating the ego (samsara), with self-knowledge. There are no awakening “haves” and “have nots”(374).
Shunya has reinforced my belief that there is no magic pill, no simple tips for immediate transformation. It requires guidance, work, time, practice and minimally, a second reading of this book! If Moksha [higher truth] is something you desire, it appears well worth the effort.
Acharya Shunya is a Nasty Woman Writer, courageously and generously sharing her wisdom and encouragement worldwide.
© Maria Dintino 2021
Acharya Shunya. Sovereign Self: Claim Your Inner Joy and Freedom with the Empowering Wisdom of the Vedas, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2020.
Duggal, Anjula. “Igniting Our Inner Fire. A Spiritually Enriching Conversation with Acharya Shunya Ji of Vedika Global.” Levitating Monkey. http://levitatingmonkey.com/igniting-our-inner-fire-a-spiritually-enriching-conversation-with-acharya-shunya-ji-of-vedika-global/
Valenzuela-Ours, Rachel. “2016 Chaudhuri Award.” CIIS News and Events, May 19, 2016. https://www.ciis.edu/ciis-news-and-events/news-room/chaudhuri-award