The Foundation of Spirituality
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 3: The Sadhana Panchaka by Acharya Sankara

There is a famous five-versed poem called Sadhana Panchaka by Acharya Sankara, or at least attributed to his authorship, which concerns itself in a very concise manner with the stages of the practice of true spirituality, the procedure of engaging oneself in sadhana.

For the last two days we have been bestowing some thought on the preliminaries of even a correct understanding of what religion can be, what spirituality is, and what yoga is to mean to us. Yesterday, particularly, we had to conclude with a note on the necessity for renunciation, the development of a spirit of non-attachment, which is often identified with what traditionally goes by the name of sannasya. We could find time to ponder over some of the difficult issues arising out of the very concept of sannyasa and the errors of jumping into sudden conclusions in such important matters as these.

In these verses known as the Sadhana Panchaka, many a thing is told. Almost every verse has eight instructions. Different things are told, all very important. Though the spirit of the teaching of these verses has some relevance to the historical conditions of the time when it is supposed to have been written and is very ascetic in its note, it is at the same time of a perennial value if the ascetic injunctions which we seem to read in them are to be studied with a knowledge of the background of the injunctions themselves.

Every religion, every mandate or guideline in the direction of God, a life religious or spiritual, invariably seems to be involved in the emphasis on what is called renunciation. We understand a religious person to be a renunciate, and this was the subject we were trying to understand yesterday. What is it that we are really going to renounce in trying to implement this essential injunction that renunciation is an imperative precedent to any genuinely spiritual or religious life?

We had a humorous consequence drawn out of our workaday definitions of sannyasa or renunciation. “I have renounced the world and I own nothing.” We were trying to know what kind of world a person is expected to renounce, because the world of geography, the world of astronomy, does not belong to anyone; and a thing that does not belong to you needs no renunciation. It is important, therefore, to remember what exactly it is that you think is your belonging which you are supposed to renounce by means of the axe of detachment.

There is nothing in this world which seems to really belong to us. We are not owners of any property in the real sense of the term. We have no say in any matter concerning the working of the world. As I mentioned to you yesterday, you cannot renounce the hills and the mountains, the rivers and the oceans, the roads, and the stars and the sun and the moon, which is the world. Who is going to renounce all these things? If these are not the objects of renunciation, what else is it that you are going to renounce? And why is it that religion emphasises and lays intense stress on this need for what is well known as renunciation, tyaga, taking to a life of sequestration, a life of complete isolation, kaivalata?

This point is pithily mentioned in this verse belonging to the Sadhana Panchaka. Bhavasukhe dosho’nusandhiyatam (SP 1): The perception of defect in the satisfactions and joys of life automatically necessitates a distaste for what people usually call the values of life. The values of life are the joys of life. We do not call pains of life as the values of life. And are there joys in life? This is an investigation which a carefully conducted analysis will carry on philosophically, logically, scientifically, dispassionately. There is no doubt, at least from the point of view of man in general, that there is joy in life. If there is no joy in life, who would like to live here for three days? The point is not that we do not discover a veneer of joy or satisfaction in life. The point is, are we justified in our assumption that we are really enjoying satisfactions here, or are we under a misapprehension?

There are a hundred ways of conducting this analysis into the structure of the world as a whole, and this is precisely the function of philosophy. What the world is made of, implying thereby what man also is made of, will reveal what the world can give us – what we can expect from the world. The occupation of philosophy is this much: an investigation into the reality of the world as a whole. This investigation seems to present a different picture altogether of the essential characteristic of this world we consider as the source of our joys and satisfactions, even of our sorrows.

There is an almost unanimous conclusion arrived at by deep thinkers of great stature, both in the West and in the East, that there is a basic mistake in our perception of things; and an assumed validity of our process of perception also brings about, as a natural consequence, an assumption that the conclusions that follow from them are also valid. If something is taken for granted as a hypothesis, everything that logically follows from it also has to be accepted as valid. If the premise is valid, the conclusion should also be valid; but if the premise is not tenable, we should be careful to come to conclusions about the results that may follow from drawing deductions from such premises.

We have certain hypotheses, and we are born with these assumptions we may call our prejudices embedded in the very structure of our psychic personality. Our understanding of the world is nothing but the reaction set up by our psychic individuality in respect of what may be there outside us. Thus, our understanding of the world seems to be a psychic reaction. This is something very important to remember, and you can very well know to what extent you can rely on this understanding if it is only a tentative rebuff emanating from the present prevalent condition of your psychic personality in respect of the conditions prevailing outside.

There is a great difficulty before us here. The world passes through several processes of vicissitude historically, geographically, astronomically, physically, chemically, and biologically. So is the way in which we also undergo an incessant transformation, and our experience of the world, which we call pleasure and pain, is just this much: the peculiar adjustments and the reaction which follows from the given condition of the psychic personality of the individual in respect of a given condition in the world outside.

Neither the human individual as a percipient of the world, nor the world as an object of the percipient, are static indivisible masses. The world is a flux, as many a thinker has said. So are we, so is everything, even up to an atom and a grain of sand. This movement, this flux, this incessant transiency of every constituent composite, whether outside in the form of the world of perception or inside in the form of the percipient individuality, brings us to a crucial issue which needs consideration: How are we to come to any final conclusion about any experience of ours at all?

Is there a finality at all in this world which, transitory as it is, carries with its transitoriness of motion everything that is also with it – myself, yourself, everybody? This peculiar enigmatic character of the fluxation of the inner constituent of all things is evidently one of the reasons why people such as Buddha said there is no permanency anywhere. There is only transiency, and that much is this world.

From one point of view, this may be a very correct deduction from existing verifiable premises. A transient reaction by a transient constituent of the percipient to a transient condition of the object outside cannot but be transient. Hence, the joys and the pains of life are also transient. Here comes the forte of a teacher like Buddha. There is nothing substantial, nothing solid, nothing that you can call durable even for a split of a second. You cannot step into the waters of the river even for a second without actually stepping into a different water altogether. The flame of a lamp is not a mass; it is a moving fluxation of atomic energy.

What are our experiences, then? Our experiences are like the fast-moving presentation of cinematic pictures. For half an hour a person may be standing and gazing at you in the film projected on the screen, but he is not standing there. That impression on the mind of the percipient of this picture on the screen as a standing posture is a composite illusion created by thousands of movements which constitute this apparently standing posture of the person. So the apparent fixity of a thing may be only an illusory presentation of a tremendous rapid movement inside, though we may think there is solidity. And apparent fixity of things, the tentative feeling in our minds that we are living a continuous life for days and months and years, is supposed to be attributable to a peculiar harmony and a temporary generality that is at the back of this incessant fluxation, both in the constitution of the percipient and the world outside.

Now, we are human beings in a general sense, so there is a general uniformity in the way of our thinking, but in details we are different from everybody else. In minute details of our personal lives, one cannot agree entirely with the other though we speak of a single humanity as if it is one single indivisible entity. I am bringing this illustration before you to explain how there can be a tentative reliable presentation of fixity of perception and a feeling that there is a uniformity and, therefore, a permanency in our experiences in life, notwithstanding the fact not a single individual can be totally identified with another individual in any way. In every sense you are different from another person, but you somehow or other get on with these inward fluxations of your composite personality, differing altogether from others by planting yourself on a generality at the back, as in the illustration of the cinematographic presentation, the screen is the picture which gives the idea of permanency. If the screen were not there, there would be no pictures visible.

It is very important to remember that this world is a transiency, and how could you call anything meaningful if it is just a bundle of transiencies? It is only movement without anything that is moving. Something flying – only flying is there, but nothing is flying. “Such is the wideness of the world,” said one conclusive character of Buddhist psychology.

There is something very important in all these conclusions. They are not totally wrong. The world is totally void. It contains nothing if it is true that it is only transiency. ‘Transiency’ is only a word meaning nothing finally, because there cannot be transiency unless there is something which carries this characteristic of transiency; and that something cannot itself be transient, a point into which a teacher like Buddha did not want to revert, for obvious reasons.

Bhavasukhe dosho’nusandhiyatam. These joys of life are a phantasmagoria. This is like the city that is seen in the clouds, a circle presented by the movement of a firebrand, water in a mirage. These are illustrations given of the structure of life. And don’t say, “I am permanent; I am living for many years.” I have already told you this assumption that you are living continuously as an indivisible unit is a false picture that you are presenting of yourself, because you are mixing up by means of a peculiar error – what is known as adhyasa in the language of Acharya Sankara and Vedanta philosophy – a mutual transposition of characters. The character of the screen in the picture hall is transferred to the moving transiency of the projections on the film, and vice versa. Thus is the beauty of the cinema.

There is, therefore, the necessary for adhyasa in order that you may enjoy anything or even suffer anything. This adhyasa is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘a mix-up of values’. The utter transiency which is the essence of individuality, or the essence of anything in this world, is made to appear as a permanent, valuable and reliable something on account of a screen that is behind. This distinguishing analysis between what is really there as a screen giving the impression of permanency, and the transiency of what is really there, is called viveka, discrimination. So, vairagya cannot be there unless viveka is there. There is a necessity on your part to develop this intellectual, analytical acumen by which you can distinguish between appearance and reality, the transiency of things and the permanency which has to be there in order that you may be even under the illusion that there is such a thing called transiency. As Acharya Sankara would say, even the appearance of a snake cannot be there unless there is a rope at the back. The appearance of water in the desert cannot be there unless there is desert, and so on. Illusions, mistaken notions and utterly miscalculated conclusions also have at their back something which prompts these conclusions. This distinguishing ability is the viveka shakti.

And what are you renouncing? I am coming to the point we left yesterday. All teachers of religion and spiritual life tell you to renounce. You have to renounce that peculiar accretion that has grown on the screen of permanency in the form of the joys and sorrows of life. What you call the world that is to be renounced is a very difficult thing to understand. You cannot easily know what sort of world it is that you are going to renounce. In fact, you are going to renounce a world which is not there at all. This is very strange indeed. Am I going to renounce a thing which is not there? It is really not there. The world is not there; it is a void. But why should I renounce a void which is not there?

The renunciation here consists in actually abandoning the mistaken notion – underline these words – ‘mistaken notion’ – that what is really a passing shadow looks like a real substance and reality. It is a withdrawal of consciousness from projecting itself into the phenomenon of space and time. That factor – space and time – which is invariably involved in every process of perception causes the externality of the world, and this notion that the world is outside you compels you to move in its direction. You have naturally to develop a relationship with that which is outside you. Whether the world is really outside you or not is a different matter. That compulsive factor of space-time and causation, as they say, forces you into the belief that the world is outside you, and anything that is outside you requires on your part an adjustment of yourself, and you engage in this adjustment and adaptation either by liking a thing or not liking a thing. Likes and dislikes follow. Raga-dvesha automatically result from ignorance of the fact that transiency cannot be reality, appearance cannot be the Absolute, and what is not there cannot be what is there, really speaking. What is, is certainly different from what is not, but a mixing up of what is with what is not is empirical life.

Renunciation is difficult. You cannot easily practice renunciation. I concluded yesterday by saying that all this difficulty arises because you have not found it either necessary or possible to sit at the feet of a master, a great Guru, a teacher who represents this wisdom. Who wants a teacher? Everybody is a teacher himself; everybody is a guide, everybody is a leader, and nobody is a servant of anyone. This attitude has to be shed because the world is made of such stuff that it cannot bend before your little understanding. This is just an empirical projection of your own whims and fancies, and nobody has succeeded in bending the world before himself. It has managed to kick him out. All Caesars and Napoleons have gone to the winds; such is the power of the world. The power arises in the enemy due to your not understanding what the enemy is made of. Your ignorance of what is in front of you is your weakness, and that is the strength of the other party.

So viveka is the first thing that is enjoined upon a true spiritual seeker. Vairagya need not be practised subsequently as a different item altogether. A person who has woken up is not sleeping. It is not that you wake up first and sleep goes afterwards. They are simultaneous occurrences. Vairagya is not something that follows afterwards as a child being born to a father. It is an automatic occurrence. The gaining of health is also the removal of the disease. The rise of the sun is the exit of the night. And this illumination called viveka is at once vairagya. Who will eat poisoned food even when he is really hungry? Even if you have starved for days and days and you are writhing with gripping hunger, would you eat poisoned diet? So is this illustration of great masters. These joys of the world are delicious dishes presented before you mixed with utter poison; and what this poison is, one cannot easily discover because the poison is mixed without your knowledge. If you know it, who will go for it? If you know that you are entering a death trap, will you walk over that place which is meant for catching you? If you eat poison, one life is cut off; but if you eat the poison of desire for objects of sense, several lives may be ruined. This is a verse from one of the minor Upanishads, evidently quoted from the Yoga Vasishtha.

Why so much emphasis on non-desire for objects of sense? I have already explained to you the metaphysical background of the need to have no desire for anything. It is not an instruction given to you by somebody, like the judgement of a court upon a client: Do this or don’t do this. It is a wisdom that is made to awaken in yourself. The objects of sense are not sources of satisfaction, and your experiences in regard to the objects of sense – the world as a whole, in general – these experiences are passing phenomena; therefore, your joys are unreliable phenomena. Today’s joy is tomorrow’s sorrow, and so on. No one can have real joy here, and no one can be permanently unhappy also, because the joys and the sorrows are temporary reactions of the subjective transient constitution of individuality to a similar constitution of the world outside. Thus, the whole world is perishable.

These are some of the philosophical foundations behind Acharya Sankara’s little instruction on the practice of sadhana, which he tries to explain in a few verses in what goes by the name of Sadhana Panchakam. I was told, “Say something on Sadhana Panchakam,” but I think I have told you something more than what is actually readable there on the surface. The very foundation of this instruction is given to you. Renunciation, sannyasa as it is called in Sanskrit – the life of an ascetic, a recluse, an ashram life, a life of a spiritual seeker, a religious mendicant, a devotee, a servant of God – what does all this mean, finally? Well, you may say it is rootedness in God. But again we come to another difficulty. What is this rootedness in God? Atmeccha vyavasiyatam follows: Having discovered the defective character of every experience in life, joyous or otherwise, root yourself in the true Self of the cosmos, Paramatman, the Supreme Self.

What is this Supreme Self, the God that you are speaking of, and what actually do you mean by fixing yourself on that reality? Here again we are on the border of the same difficulty which you are trying to forget: “How am I to relate God to the world? How am I to relate this world to God, this so-called transiency you are speaking of catching hold of my throat every day, and that which you call the permanency of life?” I will have something else to tell you in the days to come.