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A Short History of Religious and Philosophic Thought in India
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 6: The Yoga-Vasishtha


The Yoga-Vasishtha is an inspiring philosophical work pregnant with lofty spiritual thinking and written in beautiful Sanskrit poetry. It begins with a description of the sorrows of life which is transitory and tantalising. The pleasures of sense are deceptive and it is man's ignorance that drives him to the pursuit of happiness in objects which appear to be pleasant only as long as there is desire for them. The restless mind does not find peace in anything of the world. The desires have no fixed aim but jump from one centre to another in search of that happiness which they cannot find anywhere outside. The whole life of man is a wild-goose chase, ending in no profit to the anxious mind. This painful condition is the outcome of the ignorance of the true nature of happiness. There is no way to freedom and real joy for the spirit other than the acquisition of right knowledge.

Knowledge does not drop from the blues, without proper exertion. Rightly directed effort is sure to lead to perfection. One should develop an attitude of contentment (Santosha) and tranquillity of mind (Santi), as also resort to company with the wise (Satsanga) and rational investigation into Truth (Vichara). It is difficult to find a better method for the acquisition of the knowledge which is identical with spiritual insight or direct realisation of the eternal verity and not mere intellectual understanding or theoretical reading.

The Ideal Character of the World

The fact that there is perception of objects by a seer or observer presupposes the existence of a conscious unity between the object and the subject. Unless there is admitted a universal spiritual reality existing everywhere, equally, the perception of objects cannot be explained. There cannot be relationship between two things unless there is a relating or connecting entity independent of the related terms. A subtle analysis of the perceptional situation discloses the truth that both the subject and the object are phases of a universal consciousness.

The nature of the world experienced by the individuals is accounted for by the constitutions of their minds. There is an objective 'something', which is invested with relative characters by the experiencing individuals through the reactions produced by their minds in relation to it, which is nothing but the cosmic stuff of the manifestation by Ishvara or Brahma, the Creator. There is, thus, an objective world of creation by the universal mind of Brahma and there are also the subjective worlds created by the minds of the individuals. Space and time do not have any absolute meaning, being relative to the standpoints of observing centres or perceptual contents. When the observational activity of the mind is put to rest, space and time are not experienced. Space is the relation of the coexistence of ideas and time is the relation of the succession of ideas. As coexistence and succession themselves are ideas, the world has no existence independent of the mind, working from the subjective side as the thought-process of the individual and objectively as the Will of Brahma. The spatiality, temporality, regularity and objectivity of the world are as real as those observed in the world of dream. As the dream-world vanishes in waking, the waking world vanishes in the experience of the Absolute.

The relativity of the cosmos implies the existence of worlds within worlds and worlds interpenetrating one another without one being aware of the existence of others. Everyone is locked up within the processes of his own mind and hence worlds which exist outside the purview of a particular set of thought-processes cannot be known to exist. The number of worlds, therefore, cannot have any limit. It is infinity moving within infinity. But the worlds, though they are all made up of the same stuff as the mind - individual or cosmic - differ in their makeup and contents. Some of them may be almost similar in nature, but mostly they differ completely and may be inhabited by different kinds of individuals who cannot be even adequately imagined by our present state of mind. The evolution of the world goes on due to the impetus it has received from the mind of Brahma and the process of creation continues even in the individuals, though in a misplaced and distorted manner, quite at a tangent from the original Will of the Creator.

Life After Death

The relativity of life points to the fact that it is not possible for one to be satisfied with desire for any object. The relative nature of things implies that there is no permanency in the structure of any objective form. Every desire, therefore, is an attempt at the impossible, for no fulfilment or satisfaction can be had from objects which are not enduring things but situations or contexts of experience. Desire for life in the body is due to the misconception that reality is confined to individuality. The wrong notion that the body is the reality leads to further errors in the form of the belief that the things of the world are meant for one's enjoyment or utilisation in different ways. That the world with its contents is not to be used as means to the selfish ends of any particular individual is the conclusion of right knowledge. But ignorance assumes a vain importance and meddles with Reality to the doom of the ignorant individual. The unfulfilled desires of individuals cast them into a series of transmigratory lives involved in the chain of causation. The death of the body is the change brought about in the form of individuality and so it is not something to be feared. If death means the cessation of oneself, that would indeed be welcome, for death would then put an end to all pain at one stroke. And if death is the process of evolution, it will still be welcome, for it is desirable that the soul should evolve for perfection. There is no extinction of soul in death. When the physical body is cast off, the soul moves with a subtle body (Ativahika-Sarira) consisting of the mind, senses and pranas. After a period of unconsciousness during death, the soul invested with the subtle body made up of desires becomes conscious of the world into which it is born. This process continues till the soul attains liberation in the realisation of the Existence-Absolute (Satta-Samanya). This realisation is moksha, which is the transcendence of name and form in Eternal Being.

Birth and death are due to the operation of the law of karma, which is the principle of reaction to selfish actions. Selfishness is the result of individualised existence separated from the Absolute. Though no such separation is really possible, imagination assumes it falsely and creates an artificial bondage for the individual. Liberation is therefore rethinking on right lines and resting in the consciousness of one's identity with the Absolute. Evolution and involution are the processes of the rising from and setting into the Absolute of phenomena due to the activity of universal mentation which is called Brahma or the Creator.

The Absolute

It is impossible to correctly describe the nature of Reality, for all descriptions are determinations into form, and all such determinations mean a creation of separation or duality which does not obtain in it. Hence we cannot say whether Reality is this or that, of this nature or of that. In every definition of the Absolute it is falsely objectified or externalised into an 'other' to the knowing consciousness. There is, thus, no such thing as 'knowing' the Absolute in the sense of anything that the mind can conceive. The only tentative description of it is that it is Universal or Omnipresent and is Omniscient and Omnipotent. It is undifferentiated existence, consciousness and bliss. Though it is everywhere, it cannot be seen, because it is not an object. It exists as the essential Seer or Self in everyone. It is most subtle, though it is the origin of the whole universe and everything is sustained by it and all things return to it in the end.

Means to Liberation

The way to ultimate spiritual freedom in the Absolute is to maintain a perpetual consciousness of it. No false sense of renunciation or austerity is of any use in this endeavour. Though a teacher can point out the way, the actual spiritual life has to be lived by one's own self. For knowledge or direct experience of Reality is the only way to liberation. Constant meditation on the presence of the Absolute in everything (Brahmabhyasa), by the thinking of It alone, speaking about It alone, discussing with one another on It alone, and depending on It alone for one's existence, is the highest method of practice. This is the way of Jnana or Wisdom. Another technique is the control of the mind (Chitta-Vritti-Nirodha) by yoga and withdrawing the mind from externals to the Absolute. A third way is to regulate the vital energy (prana-Nirodha) through pranayama and restrain the activities of the mind gradually for higher meditation.

The Stages of Knowledge and Liberation

There are seven stages by which the spiritual seeker rises progressively. The first stage is Subhechha or the good intention to pursue the right path of knowledge. The second is Vicharana or a rational investigation into the ways of acquiring knowledge. The third is Tanumanasi or the attenuation of the mind due to the subtlety attained by the practice of meditation. These three stages constitute the condition of Sadhana or spiritual seeking. The fourth stage is Sattvapatti or the realisation of spiritual equilibrium on account of the attainment of the highest mental purity. The fifth is Asamsakti or non-attachment to and non-contact with externality or objectivity of any kind due to the vision of universality. The sixth is Padartha-Abhavana or the non-perception of materiality or individuality due to the realisation of the Divine Existence. The seventh is Turiya or the ultimate state of the experience of the Absolute. The last four stages constitute the condition of realisation or perfection. Turiya is also called Jivanmukti, wherein established, one has the experience of Supreme Perfection, even though one is residing in the body for the time being due to the operation of Prarabdha-karma. When the Prarabdha is exhausted, the body drops, and the Jivanmukta becomes a Videhamukta or liberated beyond the body. One who is liberated while yet living is indeed the greatest soul on earth (Mahatma). His actions are universal (Mahakarta), his enjoyments are universal (Mahabhokta), and his renunciation, too, is universal (Mahatyagi).

The Yoga-Vasishtha is not a book to be read by the beginner. It is regarded as a text meant for the perfected ones or Siddhas and not for the seekers or Sadhakas. The method of teaching employed in the Yoga-Vasishtha is in answer to the needs of the human mind. Generally, the doctrine is stated in the beginning, and is illustrated by a story which instils the philosophy into the mind, effectively. The author of the book is confident that in the presentation of philosophical and mystical truths the work is incomparable and it exhausts every question of metaphysics, psychology and ethics. A constant study of this book stimulates the mind of the reader into a steady state of knowledge of Reality. It is one of the greatest philosophical theses that has been ever presented under the Sun.