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The Study and Practice of Yoga

An Exposition of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali


Chapter 53: A Very Important Sadhana

For the purpose of those students of yoga who would not be in a position to practise these meditations daily as has been indicated up to this time, the great sage Patanjali says that the same goal can be reached, though with a greater effort and in a longer period of time, by milder techniques of sadhana if intense meditation is difficult. The very attempt at the control of the senses – austerity, about which we were discussing previously – generates a new strength in the mind and sets the mind in tune with more impersonal powers. Thus, meditation becomes less difficult than it would have been otherwise.

It is the pressure of the senses towards objects that prevents the mind from taking to exclusive spiritual meditations. The objects of sense are so real to the senses that they cannot easily be ignored or forgotten. Even the very thought of an object will draw the mind towards it, and every particularised thought in the direction of an object is a further affirmation of the falsity that Reality is only in some place, in some object, in some thing, in some person, etc., and it is not universal in its nature. The universality of Truth is denied by the senses, at every moment of time, in their activities towards sense gratification.

The very purpose of the senses is to bring about this refusal of the ultimate universality of Godhead, to affirm the diversity of objects and to push the mind – forcefully – towards these external things. If this undesirable activity on the part of the senses can be ended to the extent possible, this force with which the mind moves towards objects can be harnessed for a better purpose, for a more positive aim than the indulgence of the senses in objects. The very restraint of the senses from their movement towards objects is a meditation by itself, at least in some sense, because energy cannot be bottled up, unused; it always finds expression in some way or the other. If we do not utilise it in more beneficial ways for spiritual purposes, the only alternative would be for this mental energy to leak out through the senses towards objects of sense. If this leakage is blocked and prevented, the energy wells up within like the waters of a river that will rise up when a bund is constructed across it.

This energy that is thus stored up and conserved will naturally find its way in the direction of a better aim than what is pointed out by the senses. This effort is called tapas, austerity. Literally, the word ‘tapas’ means heat – a heat that is generated by the preservation of energy in the system. It is not merely the heat of fire. It is energy, a concentrated force which, when it is accumulated to an appreciable extent, will light up as a kind of aura in one’s personality. The radiance will emanate from one’s face, from one’s eyes, from one’s personality. This is nothing but the very same energy finding its expression in other ways than the sensory indulgence in which it would have engaged itself if self-restraint had not been practised.

All meditation is freedom from distraction by directing the energy in one specified manner, and it is also freedom from every other motive, purpose or incentive. Since the senses are accustomed to contemplation on objects and will not so easily yield to this advice, another suggestion is given – namely, a daily practice of sacred study, or svadhyaya. If you cannot do japa or meditation, or cannot concentrate the mind in any way, then take to study – not of any book at random from the library, but of a specific sacred text which is supposed to be a moksha shastra, the study of which will generate aspiration in the mind towards the liberation of the soul.

A daily recitation – with the understanding of the meaning – of such hymns as the Purusha Sukta from the Veda, for instance, is a great svadhyaya, as Vachaspati Mishra, the commentator on the Yoga Sutras, mentions. Also, the Satarudriya – which we chant daily in the temple without perhaps knowing its meaning – is a great meditation if it is properly understood and recited with a proper devout attitude of mind. Vachaspati Mishra specifically refers to two great hymns of the Veda – the Purusha Sukta and the Satarudriya – which he says are highly purifying, not only from the point of view of their being conducive to meditation or concentration of mind, but also in other purifying processes which will take place in the body and the whole system due to the chanting of these mantras. These Veda mantras are immense potencies, like atom bombs, and to handle them and to energise the system with their forces is a spiritual practice by itself. This is one suggestion.

There are various other methods of svadhyaya. It depends upon the state of one’s mind – how far it is concentrated, how far it is distracted, what these desires are that have remained frustrated inside, what the desires are that have been overcome, and so on. The quality of the mind will determine the type of svadhyaya that one has to practise. If nothing else is possible, do parayana of holy scriptures – the Sundara Kanda, the Valmiki Ramayana or any other Ramayana, the Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana, the Srimad Bhagavadgita, the Moksha Dharma Parva of the Mahabharata, the Vishnu Purana, or any other suitable spiritual text. It has to be recited again and again, every day at a specific time, in a prescribed manner, so that this sadhana itself becomes a sort of meditation – because what is meditation but hammering the mind, again and again, into a single idea? Inasmuch as abstract meditations are difficult for beginners, these more concrete forms of it are suggested. There are people who recite the Ramayana or the Srimad Bhagavata 108 times. They conduct Bhagvat Saptaha. The purpose is to bring the mind around to a circumscribed form of function and not allow it to roam about on the objects of sense.

The mind needs variety, no doubt, and it cannot exist without variety. It always wants change. Monotonous food will not be appreciated by the mind, and so the scriptures, especially the larger ones like the Epics, the Puranas, the Agamas, the Tantras, etc., provide a large area of movement for the mind wherein it leisurely roams about to its deep satisfaction, finds variety in plenty, reads stories of great saints and sages, and feels very much thrilled by the anecdotes of Incarnations, etc. But at the same time, with all its variety, we will find that it is a variety with a unity behind it. There is a unity of pattern, structure and aim in the presentation of variety in such scriptures as the Srimad Bhagavata, for instance. There are 18,000 verses giving all kinds of detail – everything about the cosmic creation and the processes of the manifestation of different things in their gross form, subtle form, causal form, etc. Every type of story is found there. It is very interesting to read it. The mind rejoices with delight when going through such a large variety of detail with beautiful comparisons, etc. But all this variety is like a medical treatment by which we may give varieties of medicine with a single aim. We may give one tablet, one capsule, one injection, and all sorts of things at different times in a day to treat a single disease. The purpose is the continued assertion that God is All, and the whole of creation is a play of the glory of God.

The goal of life in every stage of its manifestation is the vision of God, the experience of God, the realisation of God – that God is the Supreme Doer and the Supreme Existence. This is the principle that is driven into the mind again and again by the Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana or such similar texts. If a continued or sustained study of such scriptures is practised, it is purifying. It is a tapas by itself, and it is a study of the nature of one’s own Self, ultimately. The word ‘sva’ is used here to designate this process of study – svadhyaya. Also, we are told in one sutra of Patanjali, tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe avasthānam (I.3), that the seer finds himself in his own nature when the vrittis or the various psychoses of the mind are inhibited. The purpose of every sadhana is only this much: to bring the mind back to its original source.

The variety of detail that is provided to the mind in the scriptures has an intention not to pamper or cajole the mind, but to treat the mind of its illness of distraction and attachment to external objects. The aim is highly spiritual. Sometimes it is held that japa of a mantra also is a part of svadhyaya. That is a more concentrated form of it, requiring greater willpower. It is not easy to do japa. We may study a book like the Srimad Bhagavata with an amount of concentration, but japa is a more difficult process because there we do not have variety. It is a single point at which the mind is made to move, with a single thought almost, with a single epithet or attribute to contemplate upon. It is almost like meditation, and is a higher step than the study of scriptures. Adepts in yoga often tell us that the chanting of a mantra like pranava is tantamount to svadhyaya.

The point is that if you cannot do anything else, at least do this much. Take to regular study so that your day is filled with divine thoughts, philosophical ideas and moods which are spiritual in some way or the other. You may closet yourself in your study for hours together and browse through these profound texts, whatever be the nature of their presentation, because all these philosophical and spiritual presentations through the scriptures and the writings of other masters have one aim – namely, the analysis of the structure of things, and enabling the mind to know the inner reality behind this structure. There is a threefold prong provided by Patanjali in this connection wherein he points out that self-control – the control of the senses, austerity, or tapas – together with svadhyaya, or study of sacred scriptures, will consummate in the adoration of God as the All-reality.

The idea that God is extra-cosmic and outside us, incapable of approach, and that we are likely not to receive any response from Him in spite of our efforts at prayer, etc. – all these ideas are due to certain encrustations in the mind, the tamasic qualities which cover the mind and make it again subtly tend towards objects of sense. The desire for objects of sense, subtly present in a very latent form in the subconscious level, becomes responsible for the doubt in the mind that perhaps there is no response from God. This is because our love is not for God – it is for objects of sense, and for status in society and enjoyments of various types in the world. And when, through austerity, or tapas, we have put the senses down with the force of our thumb, there is a temporary cessation of their activity.

But the subconscious desire for things does not cease, just as a person who is thrown out of his ministry may not cease from desiring to be a minister once again; he will stand for election another time, if possible. The subtle subconscious desire is there. He will be restless, without any peace in the mind, because the position has been uprooted. The senses are unable to move towards the objects because we have curbed them with force by going away to distant places like Gangotri where we will not get any physical or social satisfaction. But, there is a revulsion felt inside, and there is a feeling of inadequacy of every type. This will create various doubts – if not consciously, at least subconsciously.

The various types of suspicion that arise in our mind, and the diffidence we often feel in our daily practice, are due to the presence of subtle desires. The subtle desires may not look like desires at all. They will not have the character of desires, as they are only tendencies. They are tracks or roads kept open for the vehicle to move. The vehicle is not moving, but it can move if it wants; we have kept everything clear. Likewise, though the vehicle of the senses is not moving on the road towards the objects outside, there is always a chance of it moving in that direction, in spite of the fact that it has been controlled.

Austerity, tapas, does not merely mean control of the senses in the sense of putting an end to their activity. There should be an end to even their tendency towards objects; otherwise, they will create a twofold difficulty. Firstly, they will find the least opportunity provided as an occasion for manifesting their force once again; secondly, they will shake us from the core of all the faith that we have in God and the power of spiritual practice. The powers of sense are terrible indeed. They work on one side as a subtle pressure exerted towards further enjoyment of things in many ways, and on the other side as a feeling that, after all, this practice is not going to bring anything. This is a dangerous doubt that can arise in one’s mind, because it is contrary to truth.

Nehābhikramanāśo’sti pratyavāyo na vidyate (B.G.II.40), says the Bhagavadgita. Even a little good that we do in this direction has its own effect. Even if we credit one paisa (one-hundredth of an Indian rupee) to our account in the bank, it is a credit, though it is very little. It is only one paisa that we have put there, but still it is there. We cannot say it is not there. Likewise, even a little bit of sincere effort that is put forth in the direction of sense control and devotion to God is a great credit indeed accumulated by the soul. There should not be a doubt whether it will yield fruit. We should not expect fruit in the way we would dream in our mind, because the nature of the response that is generated by the practice depends upon the extent of obstacles that are already present and not eliminated. The peculiar impressions created inside by frustrated feelings will also act as an obstacle. The frustrated feelings are the subtle longings of the mind, deeper than the level of conscious activity, which create a sense of disquiet and displeasure in the mind.

We are always in a mood of unhappiness. We cannot know what has happened to us. We are not satisfied – neither with people, nor with our sadhana, nor with anything in this world. This disquiet, peacelessness and displeasure which can manifest as a sustained mood in spiritual seekers is due to the presence of the impressions left by frustrated desires. We have not withdrawn our senses from objects wantonly or deliberately, but we have withdrawn them due a pressure from scriptures, Guru, atmosphere, monastery, or other conditions.

Sometimes factors which are extraneous become responsible for the practice that we have undergone or are undergoing; and because the heart is absent there, naturally the feeling of happiness is also not there. When the heart is not there, there cannot be joy. That is why it is suggested that the sadhana of self-control, or control of the senses, should be coupled with a deep philosophical knowledge and spiritual aspiration, which is what is indicated by the term ‘svadhyaya, and the other term ‘Ishvara pranidhana’, which is adoration of God as the ultimate goal of life.

The purpose of sense control, study of scripture and adoration of God is all single – namely, the affirmation of the supremacy and the ultimate value of Godhead. This requires persistent effort, no doubt, and as has been pointed out earlier, it is a strenuous effort on the part of the mind to prevent the incoming of impressions of desire from objects outside on the one hand, and to create impressions of a positive character in the form of love of God on the other hand. Vijatiya vritti nirodha and sajatiya vritti pravah – these two processes constitute sadhana. Vijatiya vritti nirodha means putting an end to all incoming impressions from external objects and allowing only those impressions which are conducive to contemplation on the Reality of God. Vijati means that which does not belong to our category, genus, or species.

What is our species? It is not mankind, human nature, etc. Our species is a spiritual spark, a divine location in our centre. The soul that we are is the species that we are. So all impressions, thoughts, feelings and ideas which are in agreement with the character of the soul, which is our jati, or species, should be allowed, and anything that is contrary or different from this should not be allowed. The vijatiya vritti nirodha is the inhibition or putting an end to all those vrittis or modifications of the mind in respect of things outside, because the soul is not anything that is outside. Sajatiya vritti pravah is the movement like the flow of a river, or the pouring of oil continuously, without break, in a thread of such ideas which are of the character of the soul – which is universality.

This threefold effort – namely, a positive effort at the control and restraint of the senses from direct action in respect of objects outside, deep study of scriptures which are wholly devoted to the liberation of the spirit from the beginning to the end, and a constant remembrance in one’s mind that God is All with a surrender of oneself to His supremacy – constitute a very important sadhana by itself, which is the meaning of this single sutra: tapaḥ svādhyāya Īśvarapraṇidhānāni kriyāyogaḥ (II.1).