Lessons on the Upanishads
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 14: Stages of Sadhana

I have told you everything connected with this series of lessons on the Upanishads. There is practically nothing left now. Yesterday I touched upon certain practical aspects and personal issues involved in living your daily life, not merely as a student of yoga and spiritual life, but as a person aspiring to live a good life, a comfortable and happy life, a perfect life, a satisfied life and an integrated life.

Our relationship to things, to this world, as I mentioned in the previous session, is to a large extent conditioned by the structure of our own personality. We see outside what we actually are inside. I told you that degrees of Reality do not really exist. Reality has no degrees; it is ever perfect, but it appears as if there is an evolutionary process taking place with gradations of descent and ascent – which is what is meant by degrees. This perception is engendered by our involvement in certain degrees of perception through the coverings of consciousness in ourselves.

To repeat briefly what I told you yesterday, our involvements are external as well as personal, social, political, physical, material, sensory, vital, psychological, intellectual and spiritual. These gradations of apperception of the nature of things reflect upon the way in which we approach things in general in the world, even God Himself, and it appears as if we can approach Reality only through certain stages of graduated ascent.

We cannot run out of our own skin; we are included within our own selves. We cannot escape noticing the kind of involvements of our own selves in this psycho-physical individuality, and this is a hard nut indeed before us – a kind of Gordian knot, as they call it, traditionally known as a granthi. Granthi is a knot. The way in which consciousness gets tied up to certain locations of perception and experience is known as granthis, or knots. There are supposed to be three types of knots, known as Brahma-granthi, Vishnu-granthi and Rudra-granthi. The manner in which consciousness is tied to psycho-physical individuality is the way of the knot, actually. Either you untie the Gordian knot, or you cut it. But, you cannot cut the knot; you have to untie it gradually. Nothing can be cut asunder; everything has to be opened gradually, like the blossoming of a flower. You cannot give a blow to the bud and expect it to blossom into a rose! It has to organically develop into blossoming in a spontaneous, healthy and happy manner. Actually, life has to be a happy process; it is not intended to be a torture.

Life is a movement from one degree of reality to another degree of reality; one stage of perfection to another stage of perfection; one level of wholeness to another level of wholeness. You are not moving from fraction to whole; you are living a life of wholeness even now, in this so-called fragmentary existence. You may be an isolated individual in human society, maybe an unwanted person; nevertheless, you are a whole person. Socially you may look like a fraction of human society, a part of the large mass of humanity; that is one way of looking at things. But each individual, even to the level of the minute cell or atom – everything – is a whole in itself. You are not a half human being, even if you are totally isolated from all other things. You are not a one-fourth human being at any time. You may have nothing; you may be a poor man with no relations of any kind, owning nothing, completely discarded, as it were, for all practical purposes. Nevertheless, you are not a part. You never feel that you are a chip cut off some larger whole. You are a complete person in yourself, under every circumstance. Inasmuch as life appears to be a movement from one level of wholeness of perfection to another level, it should not really be a source of suffering to anybody.

Anandena jatani jivanti, anandam prayanty abhisamvisanti (Tait. 3.6.1), says a great passage in the Taittiriya Upanishad: "From bliss this world has come." The world has not come from a grief-stricken gestation. From the joy of God this world of joy has come, it is sustained by the joy which is the nature of perfection, and it shall return to the Ultimate Joy, finally. "From joy it has come, by joy it is sustained and to joy it shall return." The Upanishads never say that life is a curse, that it is a hell. Nothing of the kind is the message of the Upanishads. The perfection of God can create only a perfection that is the world. Every part of your body is a perfection by itself. The littlest unknown limb of your personality is a perfection in its own way, which is why it is working in a harmonious manner. An imperfect limb cannot give you a perfect orderliness and a harmony of feeling. There are millions of little cells in the body – so many limbs and organs. Do you feel any kind of awkwardness because there are so many parts to your body? The manyness does not affect the unitariness of your individuality. Therefore, the way in which you have to live in this world and conduct yourselves as seekers of Truth has to be in terms of the involvement of your consciousness in the stages of ascent and descent. Ascent is the progressive march of the soul to the Supreme Being; descent is the evolution of the world from God down to the earth, down to the lowest atom.

We are physically involved, from the outermost part of our personality. Nobody can forget that there is a body. You may be essentially pure, unadulterated consciousness, but the physical body hangs very heavily upon this consciousness; therefore it is that you have a weight. Consciousness has no weight, and the mind also cannot be measured on a weighing scale. It is the body that is heavy; it is a concentrated mass of location, involving a pattern of material forces in which the consciousness, which is your real nature, is involved. It has to be counted, taken care of. Even a naughty child in a family is not to be totally ignored as if it is non-existent. An intractable, disobedient and naughty boy in the house is not an irrelevant item in the house; he has to be taken care of and put to the pattern of the wholeness of the family structure. If some part of the body is sick, we do not cut it off; we see that it is healed and made part and parcel of the wholeness of our personality.

Likewise, the involvement of your consciousness in your physicality is to be taken care of by an adjustment which is in a state of harmony with the physical structure. The body is very active; the senses are active. The senses and the body work together. Actually, the body moves on account of the vibrations set up by the sense organs. This activity is perpetual. Nobody can keep quiet without doing something. This is what the Gita has said: na hi kascit ksanam api jatu tisthaty akarmakrt (Gita 3.5). You cannot sit quiet without doing something. A little bit of action, a little bit of your movement is unavoidable. This is so because there is an agitation created in ourselves by the preponderance of what is called rajas – the distracting and active part of prakriti, the matrix of all things. There are three qualities, or properties, of prakriti: sattva, rajas and tamas. We are not always in a state of sattva; clarity of perception and the feeling of satisfaction and happiness within are not always given to us. We are mostly turbulent in our personality, agitated and distracted. To put down this agitating medium in ourselves we have to employ certain means which are commensurate with this agitation. This is the work that we perform in a harmonious manner. The agitation, which is also a kind of activity, can be subdued only by another kind of activity, as a disease is cured by homeopathic medicines of a character similar to the disease already prevailing in the body. Similia similibus curantur: Like cures like. Action can be controlled only by action; diamond can be cut by diamond. This is a psychological secret in the approach to things, generally.

But what kind of action is it that can subdue agitated activity? A wholesome action. While it is true that karma, or action, binds, it is also true that certain karmas liberate. Na karma lipyate nare (Isa 2), says the Isavasya Upanishad. Action cannot bind the human being, provided it is oriented in the light of the omnipresence of God. Isavasyam idam sarvam (Isa 1). Otherwise, every action will produce a reaction. The fruit of action, the binding power of action, is nothing but the reaction set up by action which is motivated by externality and conditioned by space and time and objectivity.

So it should be wholesome, God-oriented work. It is work, of course – underline it. It is nevertheless work; God-oriented work is the means of putting down work that causes agitation. Binding action can be subdued by liberating action. This is known as karma yoga. Karma yoga is the art of uniting oneself with God Himself through action. You may be wondering how action can contact God, inasmuch as every activity is directed towards some objective that is ulterior. This is not the kind of action that we are referring to here, when we talk of God-oriented activity. The Bhagavadgita is difficult to understand. It is not easy to make out its meaning when we are asked to do work in a liberating manner. A wholesome work – spiritually conditioned work, God-oriented work, unselfish work, perfected alignment of oneself in work – will liberate you from the disadvantages of ordinary work.

You are also very busy every day. Everybody is doing work of some kind or the other, but they are binding works. The consequence of an action will tell upon you so heavily that afterwards you may repent for having done it. As the Gita tells us, the result of an action is not entirely in our hands. Even if the farmer takes all precaution to plough the field and sow the seed and pour water and manure it, it does not follow that it will yield the harvest. Other factors must also cooperate, such as rain, climate, sunlight and many other things which are of a natural character. Inasmuch as the fruit of an action is not in our hands – it is determined by forces which are cosmic in their nature – it is unwise on the part of any person to expect a particular result from a particular action. This is what the Bhagavadgita is telling us.

Therefore, by very carefully manoeuvring your life in this world through well-ordered activity, dissociating it from the idea of any fruit accruing therefrom, you will find yourself in harmony with two things at the same time. You are in harmony with Reality because of the wholesome character of your work. You are also in harmony with the agitations which are caused by rajo-guna prakriti in your personality so that you oppose neither the prevailing conditions at the present moment by way of rajasic work, nor do you oppose the conditions imposed upon you by the nature of Reality. You are a friend of this world, and also a friend of the other world.

This is the preliminary step that one can take in the practice of spiritual life: karma yoga. By karma alone is karma controlled and overcome. When your mind is active, the physical body craves for work of some kind or the other. Keeping quiet without doing anything physically, but mentally brooding, is not supposed to be action which is liberating. This is what the Gita has told us.

After having attained some kind of mastery over this technique of conducting yourself in the world of action, you may take to concentration, which is called upasana. You cannot take to meditation, worship – upasana or devotion, as it is called – directly, when your mind is distracted or agitated. Agitations are caused by disharmony with nature, disharmony with human society, disharmony with one's own psycho-physical individuality. You can bring to your memory what I told you yesterday. Alignment of the psycho-physical individuality within, harmony with society and a kind of concordance with nature as a whole is expected. Until this is achieved, direct meditational work may not be of much success. There are varieties of prejudices in the minds of people; everybody has a prejudice. You prejudge things from your own point of view and foist your ideas upon things outside. This is the dirt that is in the mind; it is called mala.

It is believed that the mind has three defects, known in Sanskrit as mala, vikshepa and avarana. Mala is the dirt which covers the mind – like dust covering a clean mirror; thereby, the mirror cannot reflect light. And even if the dust is removed, the glass may be broken and it may not give you a wholesome reflection. The craving for things, the impulses of like and dislike, love and hatred, create impressions in the mind every day. They are piled up, one over the other, like thick clouds – which is what is meant by the dirt of the mind – and these impressions cannot be removed except by hard work. Why should you work? Why should you not keep quiet? Because it is not possible for you to keep quiet. Prakriti, nature, will not permit you to keep quiet; you have to do something. If you don't do a right thing, you do a wrong thing. Instead of doing something wrong, why not do something right, when it is found that doing something is unavoidable? The scriptures give a long list of the nature of this dirt that is covering the mind: raga, dvesha, kama, krodha, lobha, moha, mada, matsarya, irsya, asuya, dambha, darpa, ahamkara. There are thirteen types of dirt. I am not going into the details of all these things. It is not necessary for you to know all the details; it is enough to understand the meaning of it.

There is a kind of cloud hovering around our consciousness which is our heritage from various births that we have passed through earlier. It has to be scrubbed by karma yoga, which includes not merely the highly elevated cosmic work of the Bhagavadgita type – which, of course, is the highest thing that we have to aspire for. But karma yoga also implies and includes holy worship – rituals that you perform in altars, in temples, in places of pilgrimage, on special occasions, etc. They are also part of karma yoga. Anything that you do is a kind of work. All performance of every kind is a kind of doing. This doing of yours, which is the work, has to be an emanation of your being and it should not be an extraneous foisting of yours. If the doing is totally unconnected with your being, it ceases to produce any result which is worthwhile. What you are doing is nothing but the projection of what you are; then it is that your work will have a productive effect. If you speak and think what you are really inside, it will have a tremendous force; it will have a power of conviction. But if you think and speak what is not what you are, then it will be like an empty gale that is blowing for nobody's good. So the first step in yoga, in the art of spiritual living, is karma yoga, an outline of which I have mentioned just now. Only when you have attained palpable, tangible success in the control of your mind, bringing about a cessation of its extreme agitation caused by unnecessary likes and dislikes, will you be able to sit quiet and concentrate your mind. This is upasana, the next stage.

Karma scrubs the dirt of the mind, which is mala; upasana subdues the distractions of the mind, which is vikshepa. Even if you are a good person, unselfish in your behaviour, and for all practical purposes you are a well-behaved individual, the mind may not be under control. It will have its own distractions of a different nature. The agitations are not merely in the physical body; they are also in the mind. The mind is also constituted of the three gunas, which are sattva, rajas and tamas. The distractions of the mind can be subdued by upasanas – attempted concentration. What kind of concentration? On what are you going to concentrate? Doubts of this kind also may arise in the mind. For all practical purposes we may say the concentration is to be directed only on that which is your aim. An aimless life is no life. Many people live a desultory life, doing everything in a perfunctory manner, with nothing positive in their approach. Life is short. We cannot go on wasting our time in experimenting with things and achieving nothing, finally. Even a little good that we do, in the smallest measure, is a great achievement. Nehabhikrama-naso'sti (Gita 2.40): "Good deeds cannot perish; they will produce good results, always."

Do not try to do too many things in a day. Do small things. These small things will become big later on. The seed will become a large banyan tree later. The concentration has to be directed on what you consider as your great aim. The aim is also of a gradational character, and you cannot immediately pitch upon what kind of aim it is on which you have to concentrate. That which is immediately above your present condition may look like an aim for the present purpose. There is something just above you, and that is your aim at the present moment. If you are sick, the gaining of health is your aim; there is no use of thinking of anything else at that time. If the body is ill, what is the thing that you do at that time? Do everything; move earth and heaven to see that health is restored and you are robust in your personality. If you are hungry, or you have starved for days together, or you have not slept for days together for some reason or the other, what do you do at that time? You take rest and do whatever is necessary to appease your hunger and thirst. These are the little things of life, but they are not in any way unimportant things. A little toothache can kill you, and you know how painful an earache is. These are not unimportant things.

Thus, the immediate present is the object of concentration and, as I mentioned to you in the previous session, nature does not gallop like a horse. It moves smoothly like the flowing river and, therefore, little things are to be taken care of first. "Take care of the pennies; the pounds will take care of themselves," as the saying goes. Little drops make the ocean. So do not say "I am a spiritual seeker; I am thinking of God", while you are aching otherwise in your psyche, in your body or in your social relations. Let firm steps be taken gradually. Fine physical health is necessary, and a reasonably secure and comfortable life in the world is, of course, very, very important. All this has to be taken care of and should never be neglected. Do not allow the body to run riot or the mind to go hither and thither in its own way. Care has to be taken in these little, small things. Sometimes small things upset us much more than big things. One event, one occurrence, one word is enough to upset you totally, and a tornado or a whirlwind will not upset you so much. Hence, little things are big things; they have to be taken notice of in a very concentrated manner. From the physical, from the social, you rise to the sensory, the psychological, the intellectual and the spiritual. These are the grades of the ascent of yoga practice.

One of the ways to achieve concentration of the mind, the performance of upasana, is to adopt some means of loving what you consider as your aim. Finally, it is the love that you evince towards things that actually counts in life. Whatever be the aim or the thing that you are pursuing, it should not be mechanically pursued – and, also, it should be loved from the heart. A thing that you do not love will not come to you. Not even a dog will come near if you don't like it; if you dislike it, it will run away from you. The affections that you evince from your heart are, to a large extent, the thermometer which will decide the nature of the success in your concentration. The concentration of the mind on your concept of God Almighty, for instance, may be what you understand by upasana, or worship. From your own point of view of understanding, it may be perfectly right, but there must be an ardent longing for it. The Yoga Sutra tells us tivra samveganam asannah (Y.S. 1.21): "It is near only to that person who ardently longs for it." Anything that you intensely long for will come to you. This is the secret of life. You must ask for it wholly, from the bottom of your heart; and if you ask for it really – not unreally, from the lips only – and entirely, totally, and want only that and nothing else, in keeping with the law of things, it has to come. Therefore, the success in life, whether spiritual or otherwise, is in the manner of your whole-souled pouring yourself upon it, and your karma, your work, also should be a pouring of yourself upon it. If you pour yourself on the work, the work will be beautiful. All work is beauty; it is not ugly. It just looks ugly and a disastrous drudgery because it is an outside thing weighing heavily upon you. Anything that is outside you is not yours, and it is not worth attempting at all.

Therefore, the love of God must manifest itself in an appreciable measure and, as you know very well, your mind is constituted in such a way that you cannot love anything in this world wholly. You have some kind of affection for certain things, but you cannot love anything entirely, unconditionally. Here is the whole point. Unconditionally you cannot want anything. All your wants are conditional. "Under these circumstances I want it. If these conditions are fulfilled I like you. If these conditions are not fulfilled, go; I don't want you." Do you call it love? And you use the same yardstick to measure God Himself. "If these things come from Him, I like Him. If it does not come, I may even think that He does not exist."

There was a devotee in Hong Kong, a well-wisher of the ashram and a devotee of Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj. He had no children. Once, twice, thrice, four times, five times he tried, but he could not beget children. He asked people to do japa and so on. When he failed the sixth time also, he wrote a letter: "I had a doubt that perhaps God does not exist; now it is clear to me that He does not exist." This is the kind of expectation that we have from God. If our bread and jam and our house and property are secure from our own point of view, God must exist. If He is pouring rain for the need of a farmer, but that rain causes a nearby building under construction to collapse, what do you call God – a kind person, or an unkind person? There is a farmer with a dry field who expects rain, and nearby somebody is building a house and he would not like heavy rain to fall on it. So, what should God do at that time? Should He send rain or should He not send rain? One person will praise God; another will curse Him.

This is to point out how difficult it is to understand things in a holistic manner. If you cannot love a human being, you cannot love God either. Saints tell you that if you cannot love what you see, how can you love what you do not see? An abstract woolgathering manner, where you build castles in the air about your love for God, cannot be regarded as affection because even when you think that you love God, there may be suspicions inside: "After all, I don't know what will happen. After all, nothing may take place. After all, I may not achieve It. After all, It may not be existing at all."

Varieties of doubts are listed in the Vedanta scriptures. "Such a Thing may not be there; even if It is there it may be not possible for me to achieve It; and even if I achieve It, what will be may fate, afterwards?" Many of you must be having this difficulty: "After reaching God, what will happen to me?" Do not say it is an unnecessary question; a very serious matter it is. After attaining God, what will you do there? Will you go on sweeping the floor of God's palace or looking at Him or receiving His commands? If you find that it is a very unpleasant existence, what will you do there? Here is the question: "What will I do there?" Purification of the mind by way of unselfish karma, or action, will set at rest all these difficulties. Because we are now thinking with a turbid mind, all these questions arise which are partly humorous and partly foolish. Such questions will arise because our concept of God is inadequate – inadequate because our mind itself is not prepared for such a concept. So, by an arduous attempt on our part to purify ourselves through worship, even by way of ritual, japa sadhana, etc., much of this dirt can be scrubbed out and we can attempt real concentration on the nature of Reality.

For your purposes as seekers of God, the object of meditation would be, of course, your own notion of the Creator of the universe. This universe must have come from some creative power. Ordinarily, you posit this creative power as a transcendent element, above the world. You cannot immediately imagine that It is just now, here, because It has created this which you are seeing before your eyes and, therefore, It must have existed prior to that which It has created. It is prior and, therefore, It is also transcendent. The aboveness, the extra-cosmic nature, the transcendent character of God is also something ingrained in our mind, however much we may go on saying that He is immanent. God is above us; He is a distant object. The idea of distance arises on account of spatiality and temporality involved in our experience, and also due to our belief that God created the world and, therefore, He must be above the world. Hence it is that we look up to the skies with open eyes when we pray to God in our own humble way.

The personality of God is also something unavoidable in the earlier stages. You may be told by people that God has no form. What is the use of saying that? You cannot conceive a formless thing. Even the concept of the formless is also a form only. Even water, which has no form by itself, will assume form when it is poured into a bucket. The bucket's nature, the shape, is the actual shape of the water. Thus, the manner of your thinking will decide the form of the object of your meditation. Concentration on a particular thing is what is insisted upon, and the point in concentration is that you should not think more than one thing. To the extent you are able to concentrate on one thing continuously for a large extent of time, to that extent you are successful in concentration. If two thoughts arise in the mind, it is not a successful concentration.

In the earlier stages, especially in the case of a novitiate, several thoughts will arise. You will be struggling hard to fix your mind on some particular thing and, at the same time, struggling to avoid thoughts which are irrelevant from your point of view. When you think of God, you would not like ungodly thoughts to enter your mind. If you think of God, you would not like the thought of the marketplace to enter your mind. This is how you will feel when you actually sit for meditation. That is, you will strive to shut out certain thoughts which you regard as disharmonious with the characteristics of that on which you are concentrating. So, there are two thoughts. Even in your attempt at concentration on one thing, two thoughts are there: the thought of avoiding unnecessary things and the thought of that which you consider as necessary.

There is also a third variety of thought – the mental placement of the ideal in front of you. God Almighty, or whatever it is, is placed in the context of your perception, through the mind. A kind of holy distance is maintained between you and the object; it is not just touching you. It is difficult to imagine such a thing. The thought that there is a little distance between you and the object of meditation is one thought; the thought that you would like to avoid is another thought; the thought of the nature of the object is the third thought; and the thought that you are contemplating and you are existing is the fourth thought. So, even when you are actually concentrating on one thing – at least attempting to concentrate on one thing – you will find that there are four thoughts automatically arising in your mind, though apparently it appears that you are concentrating on one thing only. The Yoga Sutras go into all these details.

These four thoughts are not actually distracting media; they are necessary processes of overcoming the distractions of the mind. Later on, after some time, having attained success in your concentration, you will find there would be no necessity for you to avoid certain thoughts. It is only in the earliest stages that you feel certain thoughts are unnecessary. "I should not think of the jungle; I should not think of an animal; I should not think of a railway station or a marketplace or something which is unpleasant." This is what you think. But later on you will find there is nothing unpleasant anywhere. The unpleasantness is only the wrong placement of your personality in the context of that particular reference. You are disharmoniously placed with that thing which you consider as evil, unholy, unnecessary, etc. If you are harmoniously placed with an event that is taking place or a thing that is there outside you, you will find that it ceases to be something unnecessary or interfering; it will never interfere with you. Your considering that it is unnecessary is the reason why it starts interfering. When you have decided that you do not want a thing, naturally you cannot expect any cooperation from that thing. But why should you consider that a thing is unwanted and should be rejected? It is because you have not understood it properly. The context of its existence in relation to the context of your existence has not been properly grasped. Therefore, in a certain advanced stage you will find that unnecessary thoughts will not exist, because there is nothing totally unnecessary in this world. This is a little advanced stage; in the early stages you will not be able to realise this. Thus, with this precaution, take to concentration, and take for granted that you have now achieved some success in making yourself acquainted with the truth that there is nothing that you have to avoid in this world. Thus, the world becomes friendly with you. A cool breeze will blow and everything will be fragrant to you.

Then comes your difficulty with the object itself. How will you adjust yourself with the presence of that object in front of you which does not seem to be touching you, which is a little distant from you? Let the object be at a distance; it does not matter. You can glory in the beauty and the grandeur of that object for the time being. Inasmuch as you have concluded that this object is ultimately real – if it had been not for that fact, you would not be concentrating on it – it is the final thing for you, and all things that you expect from anything will also be there in that thing, and it will bestow upon you all that you expect. The Ishta Devata, the object of your meditation, is capable of bestowing upon you all things that are anywhere; it can give you anything. All the world's blessings will come from that one thing, as it is a concentrated point of the whole cosmos.

The idea of the object, the concept of the ideal before you, the Ishta Devata so-called, is a concentrated spot of cosmic power. You can touch it, and you will be touching the switchboard of the cosmos. It is not some isolated dot or a thing that you are concentrating upon. The idea of isolatedness must be removed. It is touching one part of your body, as it were. When you touch a part of the body, even a little spot, you are touching the whole body. You know very well how it is, because the entire body is concentrated on every part of the body. That is why you feel an entire occurrence taking place even if only a little touch is made. Such a concept has to be introduced into the object of meditation. It is not sitting somewhere. "My God is somewhere; his God is somewhere else." It is not like that. Actually, no object is in one place only. There is an interconnection, vitally, of every object with every other object, as the limbs of the body are connected integrally and internally. So you will feel happy to realise that this object of your meditation is the touchstone of the success of your meditation. It is the root of the whole cosmos; it is the vitality which you are concentrating upon, by which you can evoke the powers of the entire creation. It is something like an incarnation. An incarnation of God may look like a particular individual, but it is the focussing point of the entire power. The whole thing is concentrated there – all the world, all creation. Then you will feel a joy inside. "I am not wasting my time in concentration, because I am actually at one with that Force, which is gazing at me with eyes that are multifaceted as if the whole cosmos is looking at me." Great joy it is to realise this.

Thus, concentration will become an art of feeling joy. Concentration and meditation are happy processes. You will never be tired, you will never be exhausted by sitting for meditation. You will feel greater and greater satisfaction, and every session of meditation will make you healthier, stronger, more wholesome in your outlook, and you will be able to convince yourself you have actually achieved something substantial. Today you have become better than yesterday.