The Epistemology of Yoga
by Swami Krishnananda

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Chapter 13: The Obstacles and the Stages of Knowledge

While consistent spiritual practice is an establishment of harmony with the universal nature, it is also, in another sense, an opposition to nature. There is a double aspect involved in spiritual meditation—coordination, and opposition. This mystery involved in the process is the reason why we are often under the impression that we are progressing and, at other times, have the opposite feeling that nothing is being achieved.

The reason behind this circumstance is that we belong to two different realms of being—the phenomenal and the noumenal. We have to struggle against the phenomenal involvement of our nature when we try to coordinate ourselves with the noumenal existence. While it is true, for obvious reasons, that God and the world are inseparables, in a different sense they are also contradistinctions. We cannot isolate the world from God, because God is present everywhere, and we have been told that the universe is the face of God—or, rather, the body of God Himself. Yet, there is a mysterious difference between what we regard as the world and what God Himself is, or what we think God ought to be.

In a particular, specific sense, the universe is the body of God; but, in another sense, the universe cannot be identified in any manner with the characteristics of God. This peculiarity introduces itself into our spiritual meditations, especially when we are able to move further on, to an appreciable extent. When no winds blow and no dog barks in the realm of nature, we should not be under the assumption that things are quite well, because nature is like a lion which, because of its strength, will not mind our existence. It will begin to snarl and stare at us only when it feels that what is in front of it is its opposition.

A little scratching activity of the thinking process— so-called meditation—will not affect nature in any way, and nature is not going to be afraid of our meditations. So, everything will be calm and quiet, undisturbed, as if nothing is happening anywhere. But the moment we push ourselves with the force of that which is called the noumenal in us, and elbow our existence into the thick of phenomenal interconnections, there will be that circumstance we call natural opposition.

Sage Patanjali made reference to this condition in some of his aphorisms, in which he said that many a difficulty has to be passed through in meditation in one’s endeavour to reach the Ultimate Reality. All that we consider ourselves to be will be shaken up from its very root. Physical illness, psychological doubts, and a feeling of spiritual aloneness and nothingness will take possession of us, and the condition will be indescribable—like a drowning man or a person who is thrown into empty space.

We are too very phenomenal; very little of the noumenal is in us. We belong to this world of external contacts and sensory relationships to such an extent that a wrenching of ourselves from such an involvement in our attempt at meditation will tell upon us acutely, in many ways. Our involvement in this world of nature is multifaceted, multifarious, and ramified in many directions. We are, to repeat what I said earlier, involved in this world socially, politically, physically, psychologically, even rationally —and, much more, emotionally. Would we like to sever all these relationships in our adventure of spiritual meditation?

We know how hard it is to break our affections. If there is anything difficult in this world, it is this. But when our will is strong and the reason is determined to achieve its spiritual goal come what may, the whole world will wake up, and we may have to stand before the whole world. Again, the lives of great saints and sages are examples before us. They had to stand and face the world. The world was ready to crush them down and see that they were effaced. Many times it appeared that they had to succumb to these threats from the world. All this is beyond our understanding. Somehow, the problems were faced and the world was defeated.

The process in spiritual life involves both progression and retrogression. It is not a smooth, buttery movement in one direction only. As in the activity of an army in the field of battle, it is not always a seamless movement in one direction. It is a coming back, and a moving forward—a descending, ascending, and many other things.

Each one of us has to be honest to discover within one’s own self the extent of one’s own involvement in this world. We should not overestimate our own capacities and be foolhardy in our attempts. There is no use in misjudging our involvements and patting ourselves on our backs. As we move forward we become lonelier and lonelier, helpless in every way, and it will appear that the world has deserted us.

In the earlier stages, as I mentioned, nothing happens; nothing appears to happen. Everything is good; everything is fine, and we are happy because we are still in the sensory world. To be fed with sense is to be happy, and we are acquainted only with this kind of happiness. We become unhappy and thrown to the winds when sensory pleasures are withdrawn. The ego and the body become fat by the feeding of the senses. The Yoga Vasishtha mentions, in a famous passage, that our personality becomes robust by the intake of sensory food.

Most, if not all, of our pleasures are sensory. We have no spiritual happiness within ourselves. When we are elated within, it need not necessarily mean that the spirit is operating. It may be an emotional satisfaction caused by the sensation of having what one has obtained in this world of relations, and so our happiness is relative, nevertheless. The happiness that is consequent upon the entry of God into our being is a death of all earthly pleasures.

This is surprising and most intriguing for every one of us. Why should our pleasures die when God enters us? Why should we become unhappy when we become spiritually-oriented persons? Why should spiritual life mean a destruction of the joys of the world? This is so because the joys of the world are sensory joys. Even the greatest satisfaction we can think of is, finally, motivated by sense activity. It is not spiritual, because spiritual bliss is non-relative. It does not require contact with anybody or anything else.

We can, to some extent, understand whether our pleasure is sensory or otherwise by subjecting it to a touchstone of internal examination. Is our happiness caused by contact, by relation, by acquisition? Or, is it a self-blossoming from the very fact of our existence, independent of any kind of psychological or emotional relation? We will find that our pleasures are not born of just our existence, but are related to certain conditions prevailing in the world.

What we call the world is nothing but conditions of relation. The world is relation; that is all. And, inasmuch as God, the Supreme Reality, is non-relational, every movement in the direction of God-being is a movement towards non-relation. Therefore, there is a simultaneous withdrawal from relation. This involves withdrawal from all pleasure centres of the world because pleasure centres are relatively connected to us, not absolutely oriented in our being.

Thus, when there is a war going on within and without —behind, and in front of us—between the two realms to which we belong simultaneously, we are torn apart into shreds. The troubles of a spiritual seeker, in the advanced stages particularly, are unthinkable,indescribable—horrible, really. We cannot understand these things by reading metaphysical books or logical texts. Some insight into these problems can be had only by the study of the lives of great saints and sages. They are greater examples before us than metaphysical books or philosophical treatises. A person who has lived this life is a better example than a textbook.

This is so because spiritual life is not academic information or study, but life, and nothing can be more difficult to understand than what life is. The difficulties that we may have to pass through have been listed by Patanjali: the body rebels, the mind rebels, the emotions rebel, the reason rebels, society rebels. There is no friend for us anywhere. Our physical health is mostly connected with sensory satisfactions, even as our emotional feelings are. We are totally sensory, root and branch. There is nothing else to us.

So, any attempt at the restraint of the senses tells upon the physical health, mental peace, social security, and also intellectual conviction, in many ways. We will be shaken in all these levels. In Patanjali’s list he mentions, first and foremost, physical reactions set up by the organism in the form of many unpleasant sensations: aches, illnesses, fevers and so on, dullness of attitude and a subsidence of enthusiasm, a torpidity of mind, and a putting off the sessions of meditation by procrastination and by one excuse or the other. Excuses are many, and every excuse has a justification behind it. We can substantiate it and logically convince ourselves that we are on the right path. But, the greatest difficulty that Patanjali mentions is doubt and a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness.

The last, and not the least, of the problems is a sense of incapacity on one’s part. Everyone has felt it; even the great ones had to face this difficulty. Many a time we feel that God has left us. He is not going to help us. We may even doubt the very existence of God. Does He really see us? Does He exist? Is there such a thing as Nirvana, spiritual salvation? Is there such a thing called moksha, or are we in airy abstractions?

Even if such a thing be, we seem to be away from it, with no contact with it. The mind will wind up all its activities and go to sleep. Inordinate sensory activity, gluttony, talkativeness and excessive social contacts felt as a necessity from within, coupled with a desire to sleep excessively, will all be the reactions that the mind will set up. This will all gradually, slowly, secretly sneak into us, and we will not know that the enemy has entered our camp.

Again, to repeat, we are still in the phenomenal world. It has not left us. Fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters—all the relations who love us intimately—are connected with nature as a whole. They will weep before us. Everything that we have severed ourselves from will present itself as an endearing thing before us; and it will become more endearing as we try to reject it more and more. The more we try to abandon a thing, the more beautiful it will look, the more necessary it will appear, and the harder it will be to avoid its presence. That which we are trying to be away from will appear to be coming nearer and nearer to us—in direct proportion to our attempt to be away from it. The more we wish to avoid a thing, the more frequently will it come to us. This is how nature will work, to see how we are faring.

The other difficulties, of an astral nature, not merely physical and visible, are also mentioned in the scriptures of yoga. These astral problems—the supernormal visions and the auditions and temptations and oppositions mentioned—are the cosmical counterparts of our own internal makeup. Our desires themselves become persons and present themselves as hard realities in front of us.

When Buddha was in deep meditation, his wife was there in front of him, with a little baby on her lap. He was not able to understand how this could be. “How has she come from the palace, from such a long distance? How is she seated before me in the thick of the forest?”

“My beloved one, how have you deserted me and come? Here is this little child of yours. Are you going to kick it aside?” This is what the young and beautiful wife Yashodhara exclaimed before the meditating Buddha, to his consternation and fright. How could this be? And, angels danced with beautiful music—not the music that we hear in this world, but music that will melt our hearts and scathe our nerves completely. Such celestial music was around him. Beauties unimaginable by this world, undreamt of by man, were presented. But Buddha was made of different stuff. He knew the reason behind these appearances—the causative factors behind the appearances of this kind—and stuck to his guns in his pursuit. Still, the matter did not end there.

When we resist a temptation, we are assaulted by fear and an untold type of insecurity and threat from every side, as if our life is going to break into pieces. Thunderbolts and lightning from the heavens may appear to descend on our heads, their causative natures not easily discoverable. All this is because nature has two sides—beauty and terror. It is beautiful on one side, and terrible on the other side. Nature has both these things. Nothing can be so tempting, and attractive, and beautiful as nature is. Nothing can be so fearful and terrorising as nature can be. Sometimes nature puts on a very beautiful feature; and when we are not going to acquiesce in its presentations, it will raise up a storm in the way that only it can.

We have a description of the Visvarupa-darshana in the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavadgita, where in earlier stages it was a terror and, later on, it became a very calm and composing, motherly, affectionate presentation before Arjuna. Everything in this world, everything in creation, has these two sides —beauty and terror. Everything is beautiful; everything is terrible. This is so with everything, even a mouse. It can be a very beautiful thing to see and touch. It can also be a very terrible thing for us. Even an ant—nothing can be excluded from this feature. The whole universe is two-sided. Every man, every woman, every child, everything is of this nature—good and bad, beautiful and ugly, nice and terrible.

When we progress in meditation, we have to pass through these stages—which have minor details, of course, and cannot all be described here. But the major side is a temptation of grand and attractive presentations of sensory test in every sense of the term—physical, astral and celestial included —then, a terror of death threatening from every side. Who can withstand all these things? Do we think that any one of us is made of such stuff that we can face these difficulties? They are not difficulties. That is a very poor word that I am using. They are much more than this. They are death itself, yawning before us.

In the Epics and the Puranas there are some graphic presentations of how we can be confronted—as, for instance, Surpanakha, as described in the Ramayana. She was the ugliest of persons one can imagine, a most terrible being, and she appeared as the most beautiful. And Putana, who is mentioned in the Bhagavad Purana—such a terrible ogress, frightening even to think of, appeared as the most beautiful being ever. We do not know how we can encounter nature, this creation.

I am reverting to the point that all this is so because we belong to two realms of being at the same time. This is why we have these difficulties. We belong to this world of relations externally—in space and in time, and in causal connections. We also belong to God, finally. So, there is a tug-of-war between these two natures, one pulling us from one side and the other pulling us from the other side. Therefore we are torn, as if people are pulling us from two different directions—one pulling this ear and another pulling the other ear.

If we have a good guide, a Guru, he will take care of us. Or, we may have such strength within us that we are strong enough to face everything, and we are positively convinced that God is appearing before us in all these ways—because God is all these and every other blessed way. That is not necessarily the only way in which we can think of Him. Every event is an event occurring in the realm of God. Everything that is visible to our eyes, as well as everything that is not visible to our eyes, belongs to the creation of God.

The reason behind our likes and dislikes, our satisfactions and our fears, is the type of special relationship that we establish with certain parts of nature due to our specified forms of individual makeup called prarabdha karma. The much spoken of prarabdha karma is not a thing or a substance. It is a kind of vehement force which ties up our individuality to this particular form of body and establishes sympathetic relationships with nature outside, corresponding to its own needs. Our present needs evoke certain sympathetic reactions from nature, and only these reactions and actions are our concerns. Everything not connected with this particular form or need of our body and our personality as a whole is rejected.

Hence, our world is only that circumscribed area which is requisite for this particular group of forces operating in our body, called the prarabdha karma. It does not mean that in other lives we will be asking for the same things that we are asking for now. Why go to other lives? Even in this very life, we ask for different things at different times. There is a flow of karma, like the movement of a river. It is not a static, stone-like cement pillar, and that is why there is a change of our attitude from day to day. Our likes and dislikes change. This happens because we are moving, experiencing, passing through various connections, just as we pass through various vistas when we travel on a long journey. When we are moving in a vehicle, we do not see the same thing always.Actually, this body of ours is a vehicle during this process of evolution. It is moving. Not merely the body, everything that we are—all the five koshas, everything that our constitution is made of—moves.

When we move, we begin to visualise many things. These visualisations are the so-called rebirths and transmigratory processes. But we cannot understand that we have passed through such vistas, that we are passing through some now and we have yet to pass through certain others, because we easily forget the past and we have no knowledge of the future. We have a little, blinkered knowledge of only the present circumstance.

Today I have spoken a little bit about the internal intricacies involved in the practice of meditation, which is not a very happy thing always, though it is going to take us to the happiest state or goal ever.

Now, we again take up the theme we were discussing previously, to continue its thread—namely, the stages of meditation, which are the stages by which we have descended into this present condition of ours through the process of creation. We are now human beings; and, there are beings lower than the human species—animals, plants, and inanimate matter of rocks, stones, and the like. Evolution seems to begin with inanimate existence, where consciousness totally sleeps. It is said that it wakes up into life in plants and the vegetable kingdom. It is in a dreaming condition, as it were, in the animals, and it is awake in the human state.

But it is not fully awake even in the human state. It is only awake to the fact of the finitude of human nature, and it is not awake to the future possibilities or potentialities of human nature. Descriptions of the higher stages are given to us in the Upanishads, such as the Taittiriya. Human happiness is supposed to be a unit, a little drop of the happiness that is possible in the higher realms, which are designated in the Taittiriya and the Brihadaranyaka Upanishads as the realms of happiness of the pitris, the gandharvas, the devas, the angels or the celestials, the rulers of the gods, the masters, adepts, yogis, and incarnations—and, finally, of the Creator Himself. In Indian tradition, Brahmaloka is the highest conception of happiness—where everything is everywhere, and everyone finds everything at one place or at all places; space and time get abolished in an eternity and an infinity of self-possession.

Man is very low in the stage of evolution. He has not reached the crown of this process. Man is not the crown of creation yet—though he has the consciousness of being some such thing in the future. The finitude of our human nature, of which we are now intensely conscious, is also an indication of the latency of the perfection that is within us. As human beings we have some aspirations, together with our foibles. There is something good in us, together with many things that are bad. This goodness in us is an aspiration for the higher possibilities to which consciousness directs us when it becomes rarefied into spiritual aspiration.

The Yoga Vasishtha also tells us that there are seven stages of knowledge. Everywhere, we are told of the seven stages. The desire to be good and to do good is the first stage in spiritual life—subecha, as the Yoga Vasishtha puts it. Many people do not have even the desire to be good. They do not know what it is to be good. The idea itself does not occur to them; they are like animals. They live a natural life of impulses, for the satisfaction of the senses. But, there are some people who cogitate: “It is good to be good.”

The second stage is where we deeply think over the ways by which we can be really good: “How can I be good? What is the meaning of ‘good’? And how can I do good?” These investigations come under the second stage, called vicharana. This is the language of the Yoga Vasishtha. Subecha is the first stage, and vicharana is the second stage.

The third stage is one of sadhana, or direct practice, where the mind gets thinned out. This stage is called tanumanasi, the attenuated condition of the mind where things become less and less attractive and the world does not fully satisfy us any more. In the animal condition of human life, everything seems to be satisfying. We are very happy with all things in this world. But when we feel that the things of this world are not going to satisfy us, that there is something wrong with them, that there is a defect in things—and we are seeking something which the world does not give and cannot give, we are in the state of tanumanasi.

The first three stages mentioned—subecha, vicharana and tanumanasi—are considered to be the stages of sadhana, or spiritual enterprise. The Yoga Vasishtha is very quick and rapid in its enunciation of the stages, but these three stages are filled with many details of spiritual practice, or sadhana—especially the third one, because the Yoga Vasishtha seems to suddenly jump from the third to the fourth stage. It tells us that in the fourth stage, called sattvapatti, we have flashes of divine light. This is, at least for many of us, a very far-off stage. We do not seem to be having flashes of divine light so easily.

The Yoga Vasishtha tells us that in the fourth stage, sattva manifests itself. Sattva is another name for light. We are mostly in a morbid condition of rajas and tamas—full of desires and sleepiness, torpidity, etc.—but when sattva predominates and to a large extent subdues rajas and tamas, its percentage gets enhanced and its light is visualised internally as a flash of lightning which comes and goes. This is the fourth stage, called sattvapatti. When the flash of lightning—which is a symbol or insignia of divine manifestation—is felt, we begin to taste it as a great delight. It is not merely a light to illumine things outside. It is not like a candle flame, or even like sunlight. It is not a light which illumines objects. It is the light emanating from the Self; so, it is very tasty to the senses. There is a condition described in the Vedanta texts as rasa svada—the involvement in the taste, the delight, of this experience.

It is said that we should not go on tasting this delight, because it is only a flash and it may come and go. If we are concerned too much with the taste of this experience, we may forget that there are also higher stages. We may even get attached to the taste. This should be obviated with diligence. In a few verses of the sixth chapter of the Bhagavadgita, some reference to this condition is made. We have to be detached even from the sensation of delight because we are still in the lower stage, and any kind of delight which is appreciated by the self-sense should not be regarded as a complete experience. The self-sense still persists because we are going to experience this light, and as long as this persists, we have to be guarded.

There should be a detachment, or an asamsakti, even to this flash and the joy that accompanies it; this is the fifth stage mentioned in the Yoga Vasishtha. Then, the glory descends. God takes care of us, as it were. From all directions, angels begin to appear before us—not as persons, but as powers of nature who have unmasked themselves and are no more masquerading in the form of sense objects: persons and things. These persons and things that we see in this world today are masquerading angels. They appear deceptive because of the masks that they are putting on. The masks will be removed in the sixth stage, called padartha-bhavana, where the true realities behind the persons and things of the world will be visualised.

Sometimes a mother tries to terrify her child by covering her face with a cloth and making a sound like a devil, and the child is terrified. It runs away, not knowing that it is its own mother that is coming. When a mother is in a playful mood, sometimes she does this; but then she removes the veil, and the child comes jumping back and sits on the mother’s lap. Similarly, now the angels are terrifying us in the form of the things that we see with our eyes; and then they will unmask themselves and show that they are friends, not enemies. For us, these are all theories only. We seem to be very far away from the stage when the angels unmask themselves.

The true form—the padartha, or the substance of things —will be revealed to us in the sixth stage; and then they will embrace us, but not as human beings, because even the mask that we are putting on now will be removed. Thus, it is an embrace of soul with soul that is the merger. That is Nirvana; that is the extinguishing of this temporal flame of individual existence, to which we have to ascend through the very stages by which we descended.