The Philosophy and Psychology of Yoga Practice
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 8: Yoga Psychology as a Philosophical Study

Coming to the psychology of yoga, we have to draw a distinction between the field which it covers and the area of study generally associated with what we commonly know as psychology. For those who are educated in the Western sense particularly, psychology perhaps means an investigation into the functions of the human psyche in all its structural peculiarities and patterns, and it mostly concerns itself with empirical relationships, human affairs, man as he appears to another man – functions of the mind studied as they can be experimented upon or observed by the very apparatus of which the mind is constituted.

The difficulty with the human mind is that when it applies the technique of empirical observation in the study of anything, it gathers information about circumstances, events and things as they could be accommodated by the instruments of perception and cognition which it wields, and it cannot know more than that. We have observed that philosophy is not to be identified with a mere empirical approach to things; it is not also a mere intellectual feat or rational study based on observation and appearance, but it is rather an attempt to go deep into the very suggestiveness, the implication, the hidden significance of what we call experience in general.

There are underlying peculiarities and facets in the experiences we undergo in life apart from the outer forms of the experiences themselves, and thus there is a difference between the method of science and the adventure of philosophy. But, more profound is the spiritual requirement of any study that goes by the name of yoga and, in the field of the practice of yoga, human nature is studied not as an isolated bit of experience or an object as we study in physics, chemistry, etc., but something which is an expression or emanation of a wider field which conditions it – a field which cannot be experimented upon or observed by mental faculties or sense activities.

As we had occasion to observe recently, the cosmology of the Sankhya, the Yoga and the Vedanta tells us that the human being is not an independent unit that can be studied in isolation, irrespective of its relationship with others, because it is a conditioned outer expression in space and in time of an unconditioned non-spatial and non-temporal being, because of which the aim of yoga is super-temporal. The purpose of the study and the practice of yoga is not merely temporal achievement or acquisition of any empirical character. It is transcendent in a very important sense because the aspirations of the human being themselves point to something which is transcendent to the observable field of its own present operations. Our daily activities, our conduct and behaviour, our relationships with other people and things, the business of life as a whole, may be said to exhaust what we call the empirical world. But philosophy is not merely a process of the observation of these features of our life. It is not looking at the world as a cat or a cow would look at it, though we can look at the world in that way also, and oftentimes we look only in that manner. There is something peculiar and special in the very constitution of human understanding which enables it to infer the very presuppositions of the possibility of such experience. There are certain hidden causes behind the effects which appear in the form of world experience.

Thus psychology, in the light of Yoga and Vedanta at least, is rooted in philosophical studies. In the cosmological enumeration of the categories mentioned in the Sankhya and the Vedanta, man is rooted in the universe. So, there is a cosmical sweep that pushes forward even psychological endeavours, and all our little desires are blown by the winds of the cosmos; they are not merely human in their nature. This is a small introduction to our present occupation by way of study of the inner constitution of the human individual as a preparatory step to the practical techniques that we have to employ in yoga proper. The human individual is a cross-section of the universe. Whatever is in the universe is also in a microscopic, miniature form in the individual. We are little cosmoses, little universes; therefore, a study of the objective manifestation of the universe, which we called cosmology, also implies a corresponding study of this cross-section called the individual, the human being, with which alone we are primarily concerned.

Now, there is something very interesting about this cross-section, this individual, this human being, this ‘I’ and ‘you’, appearing to be a chip of the block of the universal setup of things. We are many times called ‘images’ of the cosmic Being; “Man is made in the image of God,” is an oft-quoted saying. We have to understand these statements with caution. In what sense is the individual a part of the universe, and what are we going to understand by this proclamation that man is made in the image of God? Here, philosophical investigations are likely to go a little out of their bounds and drive empirical characteristics into the realm of what cannot be accessible to the senses, the mind and philosophy when it is unable to pull its legs out of the earth, and the field of sense observations may introduce empirical, logical categories into realities which go beyond the ken of mental and sensory experience. Thus, we are likely to picture the universe in terms of what we sensorily experience and mentally cognise or intellectually understand. Even the Ultimate Reality, whatever be its nature finally, is likely to be interpreted by the human mind under the conditions in which it is clothed.

We have been warned by deep thinkers that the individual is not so simply a part of the universe, though in a very important and specialised sense we are part. We are not bits of the Almighty and literally pieces of the universe, though we are that, with a cautious note to be underlined at the same time. This is very important to remember in order that we may free ourselves from any kind of illusion about experiences that one may have in yoga, meditation, etc. People generally have illusions about these things. The experiences under conditions of mental concentration can easily pass off for a divine delight or an entry into the bosom of the Absolute, which circumstance can make us feel a little over-estimated in our own selves because of a lack of proper judgement of the conditions necessary for assessing the true nature of transcendent experience. When the individual was struck off from the universal setup – call it mahat or ahamkara, or Hiranyagarbha or Virat, or whatever the name be – something ununderstandable took place.

When a citizen of a nation is banished from his country or a person is imprisoned in a jail, something peculiar happens to him, apart from the fact that he remains the same person irrespective of his location. There is on one side the fact that nothing has happened; wherever we are, whether we are in a temple or a jail, we are the same person, we are the same x y z, a b c d. What has happened to us? Instead of living here, we are living somewhere else. This is one aspect of the matter. But, something different has taken place to the person proper. That person is not the same as he or she was earlier because the person, so-called, is not merely a physical location. Our physical or geographical placement is not the only definition of ourselves, because we understand ourselves as something more than only the requirement of the physical body. There is a change of the very outlook of the person; the person proper, changes. A jailbird is different from an emperor on a throne, though physically they are the same – and what the difference is, each one will know. This is only a prosaic example that I am placing before you to draw a distinction between our position in the setup of the cosmos and the position we are occupying now as human beings on this earth.

Incidentally, by way of a little digression, I may cite an interesting anecdote that occurs in the Brihadaranyaka and Chhandogya Upanishads which is profound with deep spiritual meaning. The celestials and the demons, the gods and the asuras, were at loggerheads with each other. There was a war going on between the gods and the demons. The gods were overthrown by the demoniacal principles; they were defeated, and cast out of the heavens. The gods thought, “What has happened to us? We are in a very unfortunate state.” They consulted their Guru, conferred among themselves, and hatched out a plan that they would sing the holy chant called the Udgitha in Upanishadic language, which is a sacred hymn of the Veda. They told the divinity of the eye, “You chant it, and by that chant we shall energise ourselves so powerfully that we shall overthrow the asuras.” When this contemplation was going on in the mind of the celestials, the asuras understood this and attacked the divinity of the eyes and prevented it from chanting, and so the plan did not succeed. The same thing happened with the divinity of every other sense organ – the ear, nose, and so on. All were defeated and quelled.

It was a very sorry state of affairs for the gods. Then they told the prana within to chant the Udgitha. The prana is to be understood in the sense in which the Upanishads understand it, and not as the hatha yogins understand it. It is not merely the breath in the sense of a function of the empirical individual. The Upanishads understand many things by the word ‘prana’, finally meaning thereby, ‘the total representation of a cosmic force in ourselves’. Then the chant of the Udgitha by the prana produced a novel effect; it was not like the senses operating. The asuras attacked the prana also, and the Upanishad very humorously tells us that they were thrown out, as a ball of mud cast over a hard rock breaks to pieces which will be scattered helter-skelter. The asuras were pounded and thrown hither and thither by the very force of this chant of the Udgitha by the prana. Then the gods won victory. They were once again positioned in their original location as divinities, as celestials, as pristine gods, and were not merely the empirical superintendents of the sense organs of individuals.

This is a story, an anecdote, a parable which has many meanings. Great masters sometimes speak in parables for the understanding of the common folk, since direct logic or scientific instruction may be difficult for us to absorb. We are ourselves these gods, these angels who have been defeated by the asuras. What are we to understand by the asuras, or demons? For our purposes, the asuras are nothing but the forces of sense attraction, outward impulsion, centripetal energy, the impulsion of consciousness to move out of itself, away from the centre. The Atman is trying to become the anatman, as it were, the Self becoming the not-self, and there is a desire on the part of everyone to jump out of oneself into the objects of sense outside – to run about in space and time, like a crazy one. This longing is the asura, the demon in us; and when it attacks us, we are naturally defeated.

The Upanishad says that the eye can see both good and bad, the ears can hear both good and bad, the tongue can taste both pleasant and unpleasant, and the same is for the nose and the touch. The positive side is the celestial, and the negative side is the demoniacal. But there is something in us which cannot be so affected. The ‘I’ or the ‘we’, the central personality or the root of the personality, is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It is that out of which these concepts arise. There is something super-ethical and super-moral in every one of us, which means to say, super-social, super-relational, which gets into the rut of thinking in these relational terms when it is fashioned into the mould of sense experience and conditioned intellectual understanding.

I mentioned the terms mahat and ahamkara in the language of the Sankhya, and Hiranyagarbha and Virat in the style of the Vedanta. We are integral parts of this Universal Being. The gods were thrown out and were defeated in this war, which means to say that they were cast out in the same way as Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden. There was the fall of the angel, as we hear in scriptural cosmology. This fall is the story of creation, the fall of man.

When this happened, the divinities lost the position they occupied; and we have lost our position. We are not now positioned as officials in the government of God. We are like people thrown out of our offices; and we know what happens to a person who is thrown out of a government office. He no longer has anything to do with the government. He is a nothing and a nobody, and he feels very sorry. But when a person is positioned in a particular office in the government of the universe, the whole energy of the universe flows into that person. A single official in the government can summon the power of the entire government, if the necessity arises. He is a conduit pipe, as it were, of the whole force of which he is an inextricable functional part. We were in that position; we could see God. Adam could see God and speak to Him, but we cannot see him; we do not know where God is. When we were positioned in the Virat, or in the cosmic Being, we interpreted the whole creation in a different way, quite different from the way in which we are see things now. The central authority of a government looks at things a little differently from the way an ordinary person looks at them, for reasons which everyone knows. The position which one occupies under a given condition will decide the way in which one looks at things. We are now looking at things – the whole, persons, and everything – in a way in which we were not seeing them earlier, when we were positioned in the organic structure of the Universal Being.

Now, to give you a little idea as to the meaning of this anecdote from the Upanishad, what it seems to mean is this. The chant, so-called, is the attempt of the fallen soul to revert to the cosmic originality, and this attempt is foiled by the powerful urges of the senses and the empirical understanding of the mind. The more we try to move towards God, the original Universal, the more is the vehemence of the pressure we feel from the counter forces. The senses drag us more at that time than they would ordinarily under normal circumstances, so this war is going on; and the sufferings, the encounters, the difficulties of a yogin are very strange indeed. They are not like the ordinary sorrows of the man in the street because the yogin is really being pulled in two different directions with equally powerful troops. The chant, so-called, is the yoga meditation, and this meditation is not to be conducted with the eyes, the ears, the nose, or any of the sense organs. This meditation is not to be conditioned in any manner by sense experience. It should not be a visualisation through the eyes or an interpretation through any experience of the senses. This was not successful because the senses have an affiliation with something else which is other than what we are aiming at in meditation. They are not true friends.

The senses have been accustomed to a life which is different from the kind of life we are attempting to live by way of yoga meditation, so we cannot summon their help in this endeavour. The meditation is practised by us, and not by the senses. This ‘us’ is the prana spoken of. As I mentioned, we are not the senses, not even this body. There is a centrality of status occupied by our consciousness which is impersonal in every sense of the term. This true ‘I’ in us, the soul, as we call it, the Atman in the language of Sanskrit, is to be summoned. “Evam buddheh param buddhva samastabhya atmanam atmana” (Gita 3.42), are the words used in the Bhagavadgita. The senses have to be controlled by invocation of a power which is superior even to the senses and the mind. –“Buddhe param buddhva”: having known that which is superior even to the understanding, and invoking its grace and power, one can subdue the senses and the mind. So, when this was undertaken by the gods, they conducted a meditation which was enough to produce a force that could not be counteracted by any of the sensory impulses. The soul is stronger than the senses. There is something in us which is more powerful than any power that the senses know or the world knows.

This story that I have narrated will give an idea of the jurisdiction of our studies in spiritual psychology, yoga psychology, including mind and understanding. We are studying the present condition of the human psyche with the presupposition of what its background is and, therefore, yoga psychology is also a philosophical study. It is not an empirical science in the sense in which it is understood in Western parlance. Ethics and psychology, in India particularly, are rooted in philosophy, in metaphysics, in the very spiritual outlook of life. So, even psychological studies are spiritual studies, and are not merely sociological or economic studies.

The individual cross-section, therefore, while it is a miniature of the cosmos, is also a fallen piece and is not merely an organically living piece, in the same way as when a hand is severed or the heart of a person is plucked out. It remains the same physical heart for all observational purposes, but it is no more a living heart. The heart that we study as a living organic part of the human system is different from the heart that is plucked out from the body, because its organic relationship is removed. This is, again, where the true philosophical or spiritual outlook of things differs from the scientific outlook. Science believes that everything can be studied isolatedly; one bit of an object can be studied independent of its relationship with anything else. This cannot be done if it is true that things are not basically cut off from other things. A finger that is a part of the body is a different thing from the very same finger cut off from the body. It is not the same thing, and we cannot say that we can sever a finger and keep it in a test tube and study it in the way it would operate as a part of a living body. Thus the human individual, when it has fallen, severed from the universal, has become a piece which has been cut off from the organic structure of the universal Virat; therefore, our experiences today as human individuals, through the instrument of our psyche, is different from the way in which we would have observed things and known things as originally connected with God-being.

Now, what are these instruments of which we are made? We have a mind, we have emotion, and we have various other psychic faculties, instruments of cognition, perception and contact for the sake of experience. Psychologists differ in their opinion as to the way in which these instruments are manufactured by the individual. Desires are the causes of the particular type of instrument that is projected by an individual. The necessity conditions the character of the instruments of action. This is what some psychologists, such as Lamar in the West, hold. A tiger requires teeth and claws, and a dog requires canine teeth for purposes well known, but the human being does not require such teeth. It does not require claws and talons or a beak, while the bird may require them. The porcupine requires protective spikes on its body, but man does not require them. The bear has thick fur, but man does not have this fur. It is said that all these differences are due to the necessities of the conditions in which these individuals are placed for survival. This is one view of modern psychology. Why should we have eyes? Why should there be a nose? Why these sense organs? Because the central individual, the jiva, so-called, has to pass through certain experiences, and these experiences are possible only through these instruments. The desire to see is the cause of the projection of the eyes; the desire to hear is the cause of the projection of the ears, and so on.

This is an interesting arrangement of several particular layers, though there can be an endless categorisation of these layers when we go deep into the psychoanalytical structure of the psyche. For all practical purposes, to understand this in the light of Indian psychology, we have five layers – the physical, the vital, the mental, the intellectual and the causal. In Sanskrit these are generally called the annamya kosha, pranamaya kosha, manomaya kosha, vijnyanamaya kosha and anandamaya kosha. We are not one solid body, like a steel frame, seated here. There are five layers. They can also be split into many other minor layers for deeper study, but for the time being it is enough if we know that these are the levels of our inner being. When we perceive a thing, when we understand or cognise, these layers condition this cognition, this perception.

Now, we will revert our attention to some of the studies we conducted earlier. We realised that our essential nature is consciousness, call it purusha, call it the Atman, whatever it is. Minus this consciousness, no cognition, no perception or awareness of anything is possible. The cognition or perception or the knowledge of an object outside is the act of consciousness. This activity of consciousness, by way of perception of an object outside, is limited by the structure of these layers through which it has to pass. It is as if there are five screens made in five different ways in front of a light, and the light rays have to pass through these five screens. Or more properly, to make it clearer, we may say there are five types of lens placed one over the other through which light rays have to pass; and we can imagine what the interpretation of this light would be in respect of the object outside when it passes through five differently constituted lenses. The object will never be seen properly; it will be a completely made-up picture, a distorted form that is presented to the consciousness. We can imagine what sort of idea we can have of the objects of the world or of anything in the world if this were to be the reason behind our knowing anything and if these were the causes of our knowledge of anything in the world. We do not understand anything properly. It is not possible because we have this peculiar set of spectacles. Once we thought we have only one pair of spectacles, space and time; now we are given to understand that there are many other difficulties, one making the other worse than the earlier one.

We have to extricate our consciousness from involvement in these lenses, these vestures, these layers, these conditioning levels of being, stage by stage. Actually, these layers are not like spectacles we can throw off at our will. I can put on my spectacles, and take them off and put them aside, but these layers are stuck to us as our skin is sticking to our body. We cannot remove this layer of our personality called the skin by peeling it off; we cannot peel our flesh and marrow. More intimately are these layers stuck to the consciousness, so that we have become the layers. I am the body, am the mind, I am the prana, I am the senses, I am the intellect, I am everything; they are inseparable. Consciousness has got involved in these layers in such a way that it has become them, and so the freedom of the consciousness that we are aiming at through yoga meditation is a hard task. Nothing can be more difficult than that because even in little things of the world, where we are involved in deep affections, loves and hatred, for instance, in which condition the object is not so vitally connected with us as our skin or marrow or flesh, we are unable to free ourselves from them.

If our affections are poured over an object, we feel we are dying, as if we are wrenched out of that object; or if there is bereavement from that object, we feel life is worthless if the dear object has gone. Oftentimes people commit suicide, hang themselves, because that which they considered as necessary, lovable, dear, has gone. If objects that are so remotely related can affect us to such an extent,–imagine the way in which we can be affected by these layers which are not so remotely connected, but have become one with the consciousness. When the thief has entered the police camp and he has become the police, who can detect him?

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