The Epistemology of Yoga
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 12: Movement Towards the Self

The whole world is nothing but Self. Idam sarvam yad ayam atma, says the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Whatever was, whatever is and whatever will be is just this Self, and nothing more. This great proclamation of the Upanishad also lays the foundation for the great duty of man in the form of self-control. If all is the Self, what is self-control? What is yoga meditation? What are we going to restrain? The whole universe is vibrating with a centrality of Selfhood.

Previously, I mentioned that there are degrees of self. There are, rather, conceptions of self and different types of experience of the levels of self. It is this experience of the existence of degrees, or levels, of self that is responsible for the idea that there are degrees in the ascent, or practice, in yoga. The graduated steps—the orderly movement in yoga meditation—is consequent upon the presence of a graduated series in the notion of the self. The restraint of the self is, also, the realisation of the Self. The checks that we put upon the operation of the lower self are contributory to the experience of the higher Self.

We have to be very careful in understanding what we mean by the word ‘Self’ when we speak of self-control or Self-realisation. There is an immense difficulty in entertaining a notion of Self because, in fact, no notion of it can be entertained. One cannot have an idea of the Self, because the Self is that peculiar thing which is behind even the very notion of there being such a thing called the Self. Hence, no one can think the Self, or imagine it, or conceive it, or have anything to say about it. Yet, it has to be there. It has to be there because there seems to be something. We cannot say that there is nothing. The very notion of nothing is, also, something. Therefore, it is impossible to conceive that there can be nothing, because the conception of there being nothing is, also, something. So, we are in a difficulty here.

This eluding something is the so-called Self, the Atman, which is sometimes said to be, and sometimes said to not be. Nusye’stity eke nayam astiti caika, says Nachiketas to the great Lord Yama, as recorded in the Katha Upanishad. Some say it is; some say it is not. Does the Self exist, or does it not exist? If it exists, why should we control it, restrain it, subjugate it, or run away from it? If it does not exist, from where comes the need for realising it, or experiencing it, or running after it? Either way, we are caught. Neither can we say that it is, nor can we say that it is not.

But, while we cannot say either this or that about the self, yet, we can say both things about the self: It is, and it is not. In one sense it is, and in another sense it is not. The self that we are thinking of in our minds is an experiencing centre for the world outside. Such a self, ultimately, is not. It is this experiencing self which imagines that there is a world of experience outside. It is that which is to be restrained, and it is to be restrained to such an extent that it has to be abolished altogether.

This self is capable of being abolished, because it is really not there. There are not many points of view or many centres of experience in this world. So, the doctrine that there are no selves is also true, because there are no percipients individually gazing at the world or contacting it and experiencing it. This so-called centre of selfhood in us is a fiction; and fiction is also entertaining, sometimes. It has a reality of its own. Such a fictitious centre is what we call this ‘I’ in ourselves. Such an ‘I’ does not exist, really. It has to be subdued and completely annihilated. Like an incubus, a bad dream, it has to go.

This so-called self of ours is a knot—a granthi, as we are told—and this knot is a complex of energy movements, sometimes called chakras by certain schools of thought, animated by consciousness and, therefore, appearing like the self, just as a mirror may appear to be shining when light falls on it. Our individuality is not a reality, finally; and, if our individuality is to be taken as the selfhood, such a thing is not. It cannot exist. It is a contradiction of the ultimate nature of things.

Yet, we feel a hardness and substantiality in our individual existence. We are unable to abrogate our hard conviction that we do exist as individuals. It shows the extent to which we have descended into the grossened forms of individual consciousness. This individuality of ours is a knot—a Gordian knot, as it were—which cannot easily be untied. What it is made of is also a little difficult to say.

What are we made of? What is this knot? What is this individuality, to which this so-called I-ness is tied? Some say it is a fabric of desires. Some say it is a heap of frustrated feelings. Some say it is nothing but a reservoir of unfulfilled and defeated ambitions, desires, cravings—longings for power, sex, and self-existence. These three notions are highlighted by psychoanalysts like Freud, Adler and Jung. Finally, to them also, this individuality is a hollowness.

This is the reason why a perpetual motion, and a growing, and a tendency to step beyond oneself is felt in every individual. We never exist in ourselves. We always move beyond ourselves; at least, there is a desire to extend beyond ourselves. The finitude of our nature compels us to pay attention to something unknown, beyond ourselves.

Many have compared this world to a flow, a mere transition—like the flame of a fire, the movement of a river, a phantasmagoria, a city in the clouds, the water in a mirage, the snake in a rope, the horns of a hare, and so on. These illustrations exemplify the ultimate truth behind our individualities and, also, the extent to which we are caught up in a kind of delusion which we are unable to explain. If this kind of medley of confusion is what is meant by the self, it has to be completely annihilated. This is bondage, and bondage is nothing but this notion of selfhood—where the self is not.

Now, this bondage of selfhood is also of a complicated nature. Again, I revert to the point I touched upon previously. There are gradations even in our delusion. Our attachments are external indications of the way in which we are bound to this notion of self. The types of attachment, called asakthi, exemplify the characteristic of the bondage in which we are involved. We are not attached to one particular thing only, and it is not that the matter ends there.

Every bondage is a terrible involvement. It is like a thick layer of clouds, one hanging over the other, and one getting involved in the other. Our attachments are as difficult to understand as anything else. For the purpose of actual practice, we have been asked to concentrate ourselves on certain broad outlines of the manner in which this selfhood manifests itself. Mostly, we are attached to external things, though it is not true that this is the only kind of attachment that we have.

Yet we have to start from some point, as we cannot start from everywhere. As in a medical examination, we have to start from some sort of an experiment and observation of the kind of disease one is suffering from, though it may be a very difficult case. We know very well what we think in our minds when we wake up in the morning. Whatever our ideas are, our commitments are, our pleasures and pains are, these are the things to be taken note of first. The spiritual diary is very important in spiritual life. The spiritual diary is a note of the procedure that we have to adopt in the practice of yoga.

We have always to move from the lesser complications to the larger complications. The immediately visible things have to come first, and the invisible things may be taken care of later on. We should not jump into invisible spheres at one stroke while the visible ones are staring at us and we have not yet understood them. We have small problems which are very obvious and glaring, which have to be noted down in the order of their intensity. Even among the visible forms of involvement —attachment, aversion, etc.—there are degrees: the intense ones, the moderate ones and the lesser ones. The lesser ones should be addressed first. They have to be tackled in the order they have to be faced. As we may have many kinds of illness —headache, purging, fever, eczema, and so many other things—each has to be taken into consideration in the proper order.

The stages of yoga mentioned, especially in the system of Patanjali, are precisely the way in which we have to ascend —the manner in which we have to engage ourselves in yoga meditation. We have emotional attachments of a very difficult nature. Attachments are mostly emotional. They are not so much intellectual, though there can be a type of intellectual attachment which sometimes goes by the name of egoism. That is a matter to be considered a little later.

Emotional issues are very touchy. These are the vulnerable points in our personality. Generally, we are open intellectually but are cowards emotionally. We cannot expose ourselves emotionally as we sometimes do intellectually, socially, etc. This shows that emotion is a more secret thing, and more intimate to us, than intellect and our outer behaviour. Our emotions subtly worry us and keep us restless. Here again we come to the point of a good guide, a Guru.

Emotions are such private things that they cannot be contemplated even by one’s own self, much less exposed before another. The moment we bestow thought on our emotions, we get disturbed. The agitations in the deeper levels of our being can disturb us to such an extent that we may not even be able to properly exercise our reason at that time, especially when we are angry or when we are losing ground from every side and there is no hope of any kind whatsoever in the world. Everything seems to be lost; at that time, we are in a mood which is not rational or intellectual.

The student of yoga has to guard himself from the impulses which are characteristic of general human nature. Everyone is a human being; and, there are certain features common to all human beings. These impulses of human nature cannot be easily analysed unless we know the stages by which we have descended from the higher levels to the present level in which we are. These impulses, these desires, these attachments, these aversions are not erratic movements of personality. They are natural consequences of the present position we occupy in this universe in the scheme of evolution—or, we may say, involution.

I shall repeat once again the bare outline of this process of descent, for the purpose of regulating our thoughts in the direction of practice. We have not suddenly jumped down from God. There has been a gradual coming down. There has been, as our religions tell us, a mysterious occurrence in the process of creation: the individual sparked off from the cosmic whole. This is what is called the fall, in scriptural language—an event that is described in practically every religion, in different ways.

This fall is a catastrophe, a sudden shooting off like a meteor from the whole, which is God-being—or one may call it the universe, in one’s own language—which is a kind of blow that is struck on that which has been shot off from the whole; and, suddenly, there is a blankness, an unconsciousness. Sometimes we have similar experiences in our own practical life when we become unconscious and we cannot see, we cannot hear, we cannot think; we are completely blank due to a sudden shock that has been injected into us.

If we have lost everything and there is nothing, not even one broken needle that we can call our own, we may receive a shock. At that time the mind will cease to think, and there will be a blankness. Even in midday, when the sun is blazing, we will see only darkness everywhere. When sorrow becomes deep, our eyes will become blind and the mind will become turbid at one stroke.

This condition is a kind of sleep, a coma, which follows as an immediate result of the separation of this angelic spark from the divine conflagration. It is called the fall of Lucifer, who was an angel. We were all angels. We are not devils, really. But, we look like devils due to something that has happened to us. Originally, we were radiant sparks of divinity—which we are even now, essentially, basically, at our root. But then this spark, which is radiant, becomes charged with the power of self-affirmation—which is the Satan we speak of. Satan is that power which affirms an individual existence, independent of God Himself.

This affirmation is preceded by an unconsciousness. There is an obliteration of every kind of awareness.It is said that this condition of unconsciousness lasts for some time, and no one knows how long it lasts. Here is a mystery. As the Aitareya Upanishad tells us, there was a great agony felt by each spark, or angel, or the fallen individual, and we were sunk into the ocean of hunger and thirst. There was a cry of agony. It is the loss of Soul, the loss of Self. The Supreme Self is God, the Universal Being; and, the loss of consciousness of one’s relation to that Being is the loss of Selfhood. So, to lose one‘s Self is the worst thing that can happen to anyone.

Now we have lost our Self and gained the whole world —which means nothing to us, finally. The loss of Self is such a loss that one cannot tolerate it for an indefinite period. One cannot even sleep, eternally. The condition of unconsciousness cannot last forever. Hence, there was a struggle on the part of this fallen individual to rule in hell rather than serve in heaven. As the poet says, “It is better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven.” So, we are now ruling in hell because we do not want to serve in heaven, before God.

This rule in hell, or whatever we call it, commences with an artificial consciousness of individuality by the stroke dealt upon the individual at the time of this separation. This is the intellect, the reason. The intellect that we speak of is a refracted consciousness. It is not the original consciousness of the divinity which we were in the beginning, as angels. We cannot easily describe the way in which the intellect works or the reason operates. It is not the original consciousness.

When we think, we are not thinking like angels; otherwise, we would be little gods moving here in this world. But we are not that. A complete topsy-turvy motion takes place when there is a reversal in the order of perception, which happens at the time of the shot-off individual regaining consciousness as a self-existent person, which we are now. We are sparks that have been cut off from the whole, descended from the higher worlds. From Satyaloka, Tapaloka, Janaloka, Maharloka, Svarloka, Bhuvarloka, Bhuloka, we have come to the Earth plane—the lowest plane conceivable.

Here, we have lost the consciousness of our relation to the whole. No one can imagine that we belong to all things. Even with the farthest stretch of the imagination, this idea does not come to us. We are always separate. But the Self-existence of the Supreme Being, which is at the back of each individual, asserts itself in a different way altogether in the egoism of the human being. Egoism is only a topsy-turvy affirmation of this Universal Selfhood. Instead of there being a Universality of the affirmation of Selfhood, there is a physicality of the affirmation of selfhood—an individuality and a terrible isolation felt within oneself, as if the Self is nothing but this body and there is nothing else. This consciousness, which was originally the cause of all things, becomes the effect.

The cause becomes the effect, and the effect becomes the cause. We have shot off from the universal whole and, from the point of view of the whole to which we belonged, we are effects rather than causes because we proceeded from the cause which is the universal whole. Yet, we look upon the universe as if it is an effect, as though it is outside us. That, from where we have come, appears to us as that which is outside us. The world of perception is the original mother of all things. It is not an effect. It is not an object of perception. Rather, we are its objects. The universe may look upon us as effects, shot off from itself as the cause. But, we think the other way round —that we are the subjects, and the world, the universe, everything, is external to us. This is a reversal in the order of perception.

The original subject looks as if it is the object, and the object looks like the subject. We are objects to the Universal Consciousness, and that Consciousness is the Supreme Subject. This is the reason why the Upanishad says idam sarvam yad ayam atma: All this is the Self. But, this is not our experience. The universe is not a self to us. It is a material content. It is an insentient object outside us, and we are the subjects.

We have created a heaven for ourselves in this world of topsy-turvy experience by creating relationships of various types—firstly with the intellect, the mind, the pranas, the senses, the body, and with every other thing in the world we call social relation. We have come down very, very gradually to this present condition.

Yoga is a reversal of this movement. Te pratiprasavaheyah suksmah, says Patanjali in one of his sutras. All problems can be solved by a reversal of the order of the movement of the effects from the causes. In the order of creation, the effect proceeded from the cause. There is a series—A, B, C, D, E, F, G—etc., and yoga is a movement in the reverse order. The last item in the scheme of creation is the first thing to be considered in yoga; and the first thing in the order of creation is the last thing that we have to think of. The last thing is the condition in which we are involved now, with our attachments and aversions, loves and hatreds, and a conviction that we are living in a material world. The yamas, so-called—ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, aparigraha mentioned by Sage Patanjali— constitute a system of discipline by which we weaken our attachments to things and our emotional relationships to the people around us.

It is a hard thing, as everyone knows. We cannot be alone to ourselves even for a few months. We will be like fish out of water. We will feel wretched if we are absolutely alone somewhere for months together. Try to be alone to yourself for some years, and see what happens to you. Your brain may cease to operate. You will not know what is going to happen. There will be an unhappiness that you cannot explain.

This happens because the emotions do not find an outlet of satisfaction. They have been forcefully thrown inside due to the absence of conducive circumstances and suitable objects for their fulfilment. That is the reason why we run about here and there, in all directions, to see that our impulses receive satisfaction. We have a hundred impulses, not just one or two—but, basically, there are a few, like ringleaders, that have to be understood. These basic impulses arise on account of a vehement struggle of the individual to maintain itself somehow or other, by hook or by crook. The finite individual does not want to get abolished, because that appears to be the destruction of selfhood. We have planted a kind of self in our own body, and we worship it as the true one. Not merely that—we have gone further, still.

We have many other kinds of self which we love, and we know what they are: money and power, the body and its relations, maintenance of the body and all that is necessary to perpetuate it. These are our subtle longings, and no one can gainsay that they are there. They may be visibly there or invisibly there, but they are, nevertheless, there. These have to be transmuted. The sublimation and transmutation of these impulses is a difficult thing. It is like melting ourselves in boiling oil—not possible.

However, this can be done, slowly, by the application of different methods—not one stereotyped method. We should not apply only one method in dealing with our desires, our attachments, our longings, our impulses. As is the nature of the impulse, so is the type of remedy that is to be applied. If you are intelligent enough, you can do it yourself. A good student with a clarified understanding can deal with his own self. But, if it is not possible, take the help of a person who is superior, a guide.

When the external attachments cease—which may take years in most cases—and we do not seem to have a strong like or dislike for any outside person or thing, then the internal difficulties will manifest themselves: intense hunger, thirst, and fear of death. These will take possession of us. We know what hunger is, what thirst is, and what insecurity is. When we are in a comfortable society, these problems do not rear their heads much. We do not feel so insecure or harassed by hunger and thirst, because we know very well that we are in an atmosphere of people from whom we can receive support of one kind or the other.

When we sever ourselves from relationships with things, then these impulses react upon us with a rapacious vengeance, because the body is the self. If the body is the self, it has to be given its due. The body is hungry, the body is thirsty, and it is afraid of destruction. These are the three difficulties that the body feels, always. Normally these problems will not arise, because we are always in human society with our friends. We never are afraid of death, nor do we think about hunger and thirst, because we are well off in many respects.

But, we should have no friends; nobody should look at us and nobody should speak to us. When we have withdrawn all connection from everything, we will see what happens. The natural forces which constitute this physical individuality will set up a revolt, and it will appear as if our bodily individuality is getting disintegrated. No one knows what it would be to experience this condition. To feel that every nerve cracks, every bone breaks and the flesh melts, is something unthinkable. They say that great saints and sages such as Buddha had to pass through these experiences. He felt that his bones were cracking, his flesh was melting, and all hell was descending on his head. Everything was experienced, but still he had the guts to face all this.

Violent desires will manifest themselves when social connections are severed—desires which cannot even be detected as long as we are comfortably placed in society. Read the lives of great saints and sages, and how they experienced life. Their lives are greater gospels and stories than what can be found in logical texts. St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila, and some of the great saints of India, both ancient and modern, right from Parashara and Visvamitra, are examples before us. We will be terrified even by reading about the lives of these people. We will not be able to contain these things in our minds.

This is so because, in yoga, we are trying to untie this knot of individuality. Inasmuch as this knot is our own selves, the untying of it is like untying our own selves, which is like losing ourselves. What can be worse for us? We try to lose our own selves by dismantling this whole edifice of personality, by dismembering the whole body and everything that it is made of. We may say that we understand, but when it actually comes to it, we will not be able to go near it. It will be like touching blazing fire. We may touch even fire, but cannot touch this subject.

Even this difficulty comes in stages. As our detachment from social relations is to be practised gradually, step by step, and not at once, at one stroke, the internal ascent of consciousness from the lower to the higher is also graduated. Inasmuch as we have descended from the Supreme Being gradually, we have to ascend, also, gradually. The life of Visvamitra, as narrated in Valmiki’s Ramayana, is very beautiful to read. Many times I felt that it is the whole story of the human being, the story of the seeker. From the lowest material life of royal comfort which Visvamitra enjoyed, he rose to the supreme heights of God-consciousness. But, how did he achieve it? The difficulties he had to face are all interesting things to read.

The connections of our personality, our individuality, with things outside, with nature as a whole, are countless in number. Each one has to be snapped. These connections are vital, like nerve currents; and, we cannot snap a nerve. We know the pain we feel if we cut off one nerve in the body. Similarly, the severing of each attachment is like cutting off one limb of the body; such is the agony that we feel when one attachment is to be overcome with effort. It is impossible to logically describe loves, attachments and affections, because love is something which escapes analysis of every kind and we should not subject it to any kind of vivisection, whether psychologically or philosophically. Love is what it is. Love is something that escapes everybody’s notice, and it is that which controls all things.

The love of Self is the source of every other love in the world; and, the love of Self is supreme in the light of the varieties of self we have referred to earlier. When we speak of love of Self, we mean love of every kind of self. Thus varaigya—detachment, self-restraint, self-control—is the overcoming of the involvement of the higher self in a lower self. And, we should not take a step in the direction of the higher self, even the self immediately above, unless the lower one is completely subjugated.

All desires have to be either fulfilled or they have to be destroyed. They should not be allowed to remain. Either desires go because of complete fulfilment or they go because they are totally annihilated. A beggar wants nothing because he cannot get anything. A king wants nothing because he has everything. Either way, they want nothing. In any case, desires should not be there.

These are internal processes which follow in the wake of external detachment. Yoga is a gradual movement from the outer to the inner, and from the inner, finally, to the Universal.