The Epistemology of Yoga
by Swami Krishnananda


The great difficulty in the fulfilment of the requirement in yoga is our inveterate belief in the substantiality and reality of things as they appear to our senses. The world is as much real in itself as a cloth is real, independent of the threads. There is a network of relations which makes the world appear as real. The world is not exactly as it appears to our eyes. We cannot discover this mystery of the structure of the universe because we, ourselves, are involved in this structure. The greatest difficulty in understanding anything in this world is that we cannot stand outside the world. Hence, we cannot know anything in this world.

The reality of things is commensurate with the reality of our own bodies and personalities. Since we, as percipients of the world, stand on par with the reality of the world outside, we cannot understand anything in this world in an impartial manner —as an observer thereof. We are participants in the world; hence, we cannot understand the world. We cannot understand anything in which we participate as an integral part. We cannot impartially judge our own friend, because that person is our friend; nor can we impartially judge our enemy, because that person is our enemy.

The proper attitude for us to understand the world is that we should neither have the idea that the world is a friend, nor have the idea that the world is an enemy. But we are always partial persons, hanging on this side or that side. Either the world is beautiful and grand and it is worthwhile possessing, or it is a wretched substance which is the ugliest thing conceivable. Either we like it, or we do not like it. But, understanding is not a process of liking or not liking. It is an apprehension of things as they are—which is outside the ken of sensory perception and operation. Here is the moot difficulty in the practice of yoga.

We cannot unite ourselves with anything, though this is the sum and substance of yoga practice. We are repelled by everything and, therefore, we cannot unite or commune with anything. The repulsion follows as a consequence of our self-assertion that we are percipients of this world. Every perception is a relation. Not only are we related to the objects which we perceive, but every object is related to every other object. Therefore, the whole world is relative; there is no absolute substantiality to anything in this world.

By a mutual pull exerted on one by another, the planets are moving along their orbits. Otherwise, one cannot understand how, unsupported, this planetary system is revolving and rotating in a mathematically precise manner. The explanation lies in the gravitational pull systematically exerted on one planet by the other, thus giving an idea of stability, whereas the stability is not independent of this relative pull exerted by one upon the other. So is the society of human beings, the organisation of things in this world. They are not substantial; they are like balloons, but they appear to be substantial, hard things on account of an illusory permanency attributed to them due to the relative interference and influence of one in relation to the other.

This is why they say the world is maya, the world is not true. But for us it is true, and it shall ever be true, because we are observers of the world—of which we are parts, and in which we are involved. No man can understand the unreality of things. It is impossible to go into these mysteries, inasmuch as we are not observers of the world. Therefore, in the end, every scientific observation of anything in this world is an inadequate, futile process. No scientist can know things in their realities, because the scientist is involved in the things that he observes —which, in his enthusiasm of observation and experiment, he forgets.

No one can know the world; and, therefore, the world continues, just as an undetected thief survives and thrives because he knows that he can never be detected. No one can detect this peculiarity that is secretly hidden at the root of things, because whoever tries to understand it is also a part of it. This is maya. This is avidya. This is the inscrutable nature of things. This is the difficulty before us. No one who is caught up in this illusory network of relations, which are taken for granted as being substantials, can take to yoga earnestly, because the value that is attributed to the substantials very persistently presents itself before the mind’s eye of even the best seeker in the world. The value of yoga will be tarnished and adulterated to the extent that value in the objective world is also, simultaneously, accepted.

To the extent that we are prepared to accept the value of substantial existences in the world, to that extent our love for yoga is diminished—is deteriorated and weakened. Each one of us stands as a witness before our own selves as to the extent of attraction that we feel towards the values of the world —which we cannot understand as unrealities, even once in our life. We talk about the values of things and the worthwhileness of our enterprises in this world. We cannot get over the meaning that we attach to our own personal existence, our individual life and all its relations, and the interrelations of things.

It is necessary to learn the art of becoming a witness of the world panorama before one honestly tries to enter into this dispassionate practice called yoga. To stand as a witness of the world would mean to also stand as a witness of everything in us which belongs to the world. It is not merely a witnessing of that which is outside our bodies, which is what we generally do in judgements and witnessing of things. The features and characteristics in our own selves belong to the world and, therefore, when we try to be witnesses of the world, we have also to be witnesses of our own selves. We should not partake of characteristics in ourselves which do not really belong to us, but belong to the world.

The phenomenal part in us has to go to the phenomenal part of the world; and, that which is phenomenal in us should not be the judge of the world outside. The scientist is part of the world. His eyes are phenomenal instruments and, therefore, he can never understand the world, because he is a part of the world. His eyes, his instruments, his microscope, etc.—all the radar systems that he employs—are part and parcel of the phenomenal world, so he can be duped by the very instruments that he employs in understanding things. And so, we are under a spell of deception in everything that we try to know in this world and everything that we try to do in this world. When we quit this world, we go totally defeated. No one has gone with satisfaction, and no one has succeeded in understanding— much less conquering, possessing or enjoying—this world.

Here is a problem which is a terrific iron curtain before us, preventing us from probing into the mysteries behind it. Ordinarily this is not an easy affair, because to stand as a witness of the world would be to stand as a witness of one’s own self, as the self appears to the senses. This poor so-and-so sitting here is a part of the person seated in front, the objects visualised by the senses. They belong to the same category of things. A judge has to stand outside the defendants, the advocates and the witnesses in order to understand the nature of the case, but we have never been able to stand as a witness of the world. We are in the world—very much in it, organically connected with it, inseparably related to it—and, therefore, it is impossible to visualise the world. We visualise the world as we visualise our own personalities, and so we see in the world what we, ourselves, are.

It appears that the world before us is a reflection of our own minds. It is a mirror in which we see our own faces grinning, smiling, frowning, and so on. There is nothing in the world that we experience except what is in our own selves—the world as such, as it is said. The thing-in-itself has never been seen, and no one can see it.

No one can see it, because no one can go outside the world. Even if we stand on the sun, we are within the world, because the sun is a part of the world. Even if we go far away—millions and millions of miles away, light years away to the star Sirius—we are within the world, and we cannot know anything of this world. We can move to the most distant spots in space; still, we are within the world. We can dive into the nether regions, but we are still within the world. We can fly like an eagle to the topmost regions, but we are still within the world—because we are within our body. This is the problem.

Wherever we go, we carry our body and the mind which is enshrined within it and works through the body as an instrument. Therefore, we cannot escape this difficulty in knowing anything. We cannot understand even a sand particle on the Ganga bank. Not an insect, not an ant can be known as it is in itself. Here is the cause of our difficulties, our moods of melancholy, dissatisfaction, depression and retrogression in yoga practice, even with the earnest enterprises we enter into after years of preparation in yoga.

It is not for nothing that it is said that we require divine guidance and a supernatural assistance, which we have to summon and invoke, because yoga is a supernatural effort on the part of that which is supernatural in man. It is not man that practises yoga; it is that which is super-physical and super-individual in him which encounters this world.

The student of yoga is not a man or a woman; it is a different thing altogether. Our concepts of the human species are to be very effectively brushed aside by an inward affiliation with the true spark of light that we are. We are to dissociate ourselves from all the social and biological associations into which we were born and with which we were brainwashed—and which we have become, totally, as if they are our own skin. As we cannot run away from our own skin, we cannot run away from these conceptual relations, social and biological. Where, then, can yoga come before us? It is far away.

This is the reason why we are dissatisfied. We weep and cry, as if we have lost both God and the world at the same time, and nobody wants us. This happens in an intermediary stage of yoga where we either have no proper assistance or guidance from a superior, for reasons known to each one, or there are very hard oppositions arising from our own psyche which is not yet prepared for this arduous adventure.

Primarily, and finally, it looks as if we are our own obstacles; and, our difficulties land upon our heads like a vicious circle. We cannot understand things because we have suppressed emotions, frustrated feelings and unconscious impulses. As long as these impulses remain, not brought to the surface of consciousness and not fulfilled in the manner required, an understanding of even the ideal of yoga is not possble. But, on the other side, we are in the vicious circle again, because unless we take to yoga with effort—effectively, with intensity of aspiration—these impulses cannot be brought to the surface of consciousness. We are always caught, as if by both our ears, and it looks as if we are pulled with equal power in two different directions.

The causal network of the world cannot be broken through easily. The cause determines the effect, and the effect catches hold of the cause. As the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad puts it, in its own mystical language, there are the grahas and the atigrahas. The grahas are the sense organs, and the atigrahas are their objects. The senses grab the objects, and the objects grab the senses—like the embrace of a bear. We embrace the bear, and the bear embraces us. We cannot leave the bear; and, also, the bear will not leave us. We are caught. Even a crab will catch us. If we touch a crab, it will catch us with its claws. We will not be able to get our fingers out, it will take hold of us so tightly. So is the bear-like embrace of this world. The world has embraced us because we wanted to embrace it as a delightful thing. Once we embrace the world, the world is not going to leave us.

Thus, there is a mystical difficulty before everyone—not an ordinary empirical difficulty which we can understand and probe into. Something has involved us very, very intricately within its web of interconnections, and it is not for nothing that we are given this admonition in the Bhagavadgita: tad viddhi pranipatena pariprasnena sevaya, upateksyanti te jnanam jnaninas tattva-darsinah. “You have to go to great masters and be students of these great ones, with utter patience.”

Impatience is our problem. We are push-button people, and we want to push a button and yoga should suddenly flood us. This is not the way in which things work. The world is not operating with push-button systems. It has its own graduated, evolutionary method of working. Therefore, undaunted vigour of patience is necessary in the practice of yoga. One may have to suffer for a long time. One suffers due to one’s own weaknesses, not due to the impositions of discipline from a Guru or the requirements of religion or spiritual practice.

It sometimes appears that, in this century, the world is not prepared for yoga. It is unfit for yoga in the true sense of the term because it has descended too far into a mechanical way of living and a love of comfort—always after ease, satisfaction of the body, and social relations of the best type possible; and, yoga has to somehow or other get accommodated to this mechanistic way of living where comfort is the first thing that we seek and the satisfaction of the ego is certainly unavoidable, and our attitude is: yoga may come, if it wants to come.

We will not find a true yogi anywhere. We may run from earth to heaven, but we will not find one. The difficulties are obvious. We have make-believes, whitewashes before our eyes, and they can satisfy us. Anything can satisfy us, as we are prepared to be carried away by the winds of the world. We can have warmth blown on our face for the time being, and when we are warmed up, we seem satisfied. Our satisfactions are puerile good-for-nothings, and we are carried away by these satisfactions. We do not want Gurus; we want only pleasure, satisfaction, comfort, and an appeasement of our ego. If a Guru of that type comes, okay; otherwise, we have nothing to do with a Guru.

In fact, we have nothing to do with God Himself, truly speaking. It is difficult to believe that we are honestly seekers of God. We are pleasure-lovers of the ego first and foremost, seeking satisfactions of various types in society—the type of which is very clear before us in this Twentieth Century. Let each one probe into one’s own heart. Is one fit to confront the fiery face of God—which is that energy which can engulf us and transform us as if we are reborn, as Christ put it? Unless we are reborn, there is no entry into the kingdom of heaven.

We have to understand what this getting reborn is. It does not mean entering into the mother’s womb once again. It is a different kind of spiritual rebirth that we are expected to undergo. Hard it is, and we cannot understand what this self-transformation and rebirth is. It is a birth into the life of eternity, from this realm of phenomena. It is a withdrawal from this relative world of phenomenal connections and a birth into the cosmic noumenal existence. That is the rebirth Christ speaks of. Not entering into a mother’s womb once again—he is not speaking of that rebirth. We would not like to have that kind of birth once again. We have seen it once; enough of it!

But, everything does not seem to be in our hands. We are helpless persons. We are helpless because we are caught in a stream of the current of life which goes the way it goes, and we seem to be satisfied. It is impossible to avoid the great requirement of study and discipline under a great master. Nobody should be under the impression that one can stand on one’s own legs. Such legs are not provided to us. At least, to my eyes, such legs do not exist. The master is essential.

A few of us in the Ashram are standing witnesses to this necessity for a great master. A few of us here consider ourselves blessed—thrice blessed, one thousand times blessed —because we had this divine gift of having the divine satisfaction of living with a master. If we are anything today, whatever we may be, it is not due to the books that we studied, not due to the intellect that seems to be operating in us. They are nothing. There is a supernatural element that seems to have saturated us, which is not due to any kind of empirical training or yoga conferences, or any kind of known methods of training or sessions of meditation. Nothing of the kind did we have. We had no lectures, no sermons, no teachings of any kind, and nothing was told to us.

But, we were bathed in the sunlight of a great, protective force, which is what gives us satisfaction; and if the whole world goes to the dogs, we shall still be happy. It cannot affect us. If the sun falls on our heads, we shall still be happy. If the earth cracks under our feet, we shall still be happy, due to a reason which does not come from textbooks or from anything that we grasped intellectually by any kind of experience. We feel ourselves immensely grateful to God who made this world, for having given us this little titbit of the glorious adventure of being physically in contact with a supernatural person, Swami Sivananda. I do not hope to see another person of that type in this world, at least in this physical existence of mine, unless a miracle takes place.

I mention this because none of you should be under the impression that a little yoga camp or a yoga course of three months is enough for you. You will be the same person again, because the world is too hard for every one of us. It is a terrible ogress, and you cannot stand before her. This little training is a scratching on the rock with a little needle, which is only a little satisfaction for you—a kind of satisfaction that something worthwhile has been done. You have scratched on the rock a little bit, but it is not enough. So, you must be really honest and sincere students in the pursuit of the great ideal and goal of yoga, and not merely curiosity-mongers trying to find out if something is there—if God is there at all. If this is the attitude, you will get nothing. You will go back disappointed, worse than what you were before.

This predicament should not befall you. It is essential for you to be honest to your own selves first and foremost, before you try to be honest to others. To thine own self be true. Nothing can be more difficult for us than to do this, because we can be carried away by our own impulses unwittingly, unknowing to our own selves, and we will not know what is happening to us.

Therefore, have good friends. Be always in the company of people who will give you spiritual sustenance, strength, and enable you to imbibe a higher force in life. Do not be in the midst of people who will distract you, talk nonsense, gossip, and waste your time. Be in the midst of people who will speak good things, glorious things, and who have divine ideals. When you study books, study only those great glorious texts which will inspire you to a realm which is beyond this world—like the gospel of Christ, which goes by the name of The Sermon on the Mount, or the Bhagavadgita, the great Upanishads, the proclamations of the Zen masters and the great Sufi mystics like Jalaluddin Rumi and such other great, glorious teachers whose words will inspire you beyond your wits. Good company is very important. Do not be in the midst of friends who will waste your time and distract your attention, who speak nonsense and of worldly things.

This world is going to be the same thing that it was. Nobody can change it. God has made it with His ordinance, and nobody can change His ordinance. Many have come and many have gone, and the world is the same; it cannot be changed. It cannot be changed because the very structure of things is beyond the capacity of human understanding. Therefore, we have to be very practical to hope always for the best, yet be prepared for the worst if it comes, so that we will not be taken by surprise by the events of the world. If something wonderful takes place, be happy, God is very kind. If something bad takes place, be satisfied, because the world can give us only this much.

In a cloth shop we can get only cloth, and not salt. In a salt shop we can get only salt, and not sweetmeats—and so on. This world cannot give us any satisfaction; it can give us only pain. Anityam asukham, duhkhalayam asasvatam is the description of the world given in the Bhagavadgita. It is transient: anityam. Asukham: unpleasant, because it is a relative world. It is not a substantial thing and, therefore, it cannot give us pleasantness always. Dukhalayam: the abode of sorrow is this world. No one is wholly happy, and no one can be entirely happy. Asasvatam: that which comes and goes. It is like a mirage, a city in the clouds, etc. These are the comparisons made in regard to the pageant of this world.

We have to be very cautious because at any moment we can be snatched away from this world by the powers that be. We are working hard in this world—not for this world, though we may be under the impression we are working for this world. Here again we are under a deception. We do not know how many minutes we are going to live in this world. If it is not certain as to how many hours and days we are going to live in this world, why are we working for this world? We are misguided, and in a predicament where nobody knows how many minutes one is going to live in this world. It is impossible to believe that anyone can work for this world. No intelligent person will work for the welfare of this world, because one does not know how many minutes one is going to live in this world.

Unconsciously we are working for an achievement which is not of this world—unconsciously, because consciously we do not know this. We are caught so tightly in the network of relations that we are made to believe that we are working for this world—though, really speaking, we are working for another welfare altogether which is not of this realm. We are totally deluded in the impression that we are of this world. We think that we work for this world, that this world is ours. Not so is the case.

May we awaken our minds, and pray to the Almighty: dhiyo yo nah prachodayat. May our understanding be rightly directed. May we expect nothing from anyone, not even from God, except right understanding—not satisfaction, not pleasure, not happiness, not long life, not anything that one would usually expect in this world, but right understanding. May our understanding not be tarnished, may it not be muddled. May it not be caught up in delusions. May it be directed along the channel of the movement of the spirit toward its glorious destination.

This is our prayer, and may this prayer be granted. May the blessings of all the masters, sages and saints of yore— those who have been in this world and are now invisible, and also those who are now visible—may their blessings be upon us all. May the Almighty be kind to us, be merciful to us. May blessedness be on the whole world, and glory to you all!