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Kundalini Yoga
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken in April 1981)

In Sanskrit philosophical parlance, the universe is called Brahmanda and the individual is called Pindanda, by which what is meant is the universe is the macrocosm and the individual is the microcosm. The individual is an atomic representation of the cosmos, so it may be said that we can recognise a cross section of the universe in every individual. The pattern and the layers of expression of the universe can be found exactly in a similar form in the individual, only very minutely. Perhaps we may say it is something like a huge banyan tree hiddenly present in a tiny seed thereof.

We are aware that even an inanimate atom works like a solar system, with a central sun controlling the movement of the planetary activity of what scientists call electrons. There is a ratio of distance between the centre and the periphery which is equivalent, as it were, to the ratio of the distance between the Sun and the planets moving around the Sun. It is said that this pattern operates everywhere, not only in the world of living beings, but also in the level of inanimate matter. There is a small universe present everywhere. Even in a grain of sand, the universe is hidden.

This great doctrine is the background of a system of yoga practice popularly known as kundalini yoga: the fixing of the consciousness on the microcosmic centres of the individual which correspond to the macrocosmic planes of existence. To touch any part of the universe is to touch the whole universe. If we touch a grain of sand on the bank of the Ganga, we have touched the cosmos, because everywhere the same pattern is present. This great truth is taken advantage of in a meditational system known as kundalini sadhana.

The word 'kundalini' means a coiled-up, serpent-like force. The zigzag movement thereof is very intricate in the lower forms of life, and the intricacy becomes less and less, and more and more straightened, as life evolves higher and higher. It is terrifically involved in an unintelligible manner in the lowest forms of life, in crude forms of thinking, in matter, or in the material way of living. The involvement is unimaginably intricate. There is no transparency present there, even in the least modicum. It is totally opaque to the entry of any kind of life. Tamas predominates in the lowest centre which, according to the terminology of the system called kundalini yoga, is the muladhara chakra. These are all technical terms used in this doctrine or system of practice.

The physical realm—the material form of living, the crudest type of existence—is demonstrated and symbolised in the fundamental position, or the basic form which the individual assumes, represented in what is known as the muladhara chakra. There are infinite planes of existence and, therefore, there can be infinite layers of our personality. These layers in the individual, microcosmically representing the cosmos, are called chakras in Sanskrit, which means a circle—or rather, a circling pattern of power or energy, like a whirl that is sometimes seen in a moving river, a whirl which vigorously works in a particular manner, so that anything that is caught in it is held in that whirling motion. It will not allow the ascent or the descent of anything which is involved in the whirl. If a person is caught up in the whirling force of the waters in a river, that person can neither come up nor go inside. He is caught in the whirl of the current, which moves very forcefully. These centres, or chakras, are whirls of energy in which the consciousness of the individual is caught up, like an insect that whirls round and round in the same point of the whirl, unable to get out of it. In the language of the Puranas and the epics these are all called the lokas, or the various planes of existence, and individually they are called the chakras, or the whirls of power. There is an enormous amount of detail that is provided to us in regard to the formation and the function of these chakras, and the literature on this subject is equally enormous.

The reason why I thought of speaking on this theme today is that many students have a subconscious feeling that kundalini yoga is a pre-eminent form of yoga practice, and there is also a consequent feeling that the liberation of the soul, or the salvation of the spirit, which is supposed to be attained through the practice of yoga, is capable of achievement only through this particular path known as kundalini yoga. Many students put the questions: Can I rouse the kundalini by devotion to God, bhakti? Can I rouse the kundalini by the Patanjali system of yoga? Can I rouse the kundalini by japa? Can I rouse the kundalini by worship?

The implication behind all these doubts is that the principle occupation of spiritual practice is the rousing of the kundalini, a notion that somehow enters the minds of students, partly due to the great propaganda that is done in the name of this yoga by protagonists thereof, and partly due to reading literature of a mystical or an occult nature, due to which one gets the idea that yoga is nothing but the rousing of the kundalini. It may be so, and it is perhaps so, but the interpretation that is foisted upon this system of practice is a little misconstrued, and far divergent from the truth of the matter.

Apart from the philosophical suggestiveness involved in this practice, by which we can compare this with any other system of yoga to the same extent, it has to be added as a word of caution that this particular technique has a special danger involved in it which is not as patent in the other types of practice. The reason is psychological or, we may say, psychophysical. The interference of consciousness with the operations of the body is to be engaged in or undertaken with caution, because any concentration that is bestowed upon parts of the body affects the function of those parts. A vigorous activity of that particular centre can be set up, and the vigour of the activity can assume such proportion that it can go out of control.

The centres, or the chakras, to put it in a different way, are the centres of the desires of man. We are interfering with our desires when we concentrate on these chakras, and nothing can be worse for us. They are like serpents that cannot be handled easily. When they lie in a corner and are not active, they do not assume the ferocity they are capable of. It is only when we touch them or rouse them into action—wake them up from their sleep—that they begin to assume their true nature. This is the case with any animal, not merely a snake, and desires are like animals. Either they should be left to themselves, or they should be controlled; there is no third alternative. Either we do not interfere with them and leave them to themselves, or we have the power to control them or harness them in the way we require.

Most of the desires of man are like sleeping beasts. They are there like wild powers, but because they are sleeping and nobody interferes with them, it looks as if they are not there at all. A sleeping tiger, a sleeping lion or a sleeping snake may not attract one's attention, because they are asleep. To rouse them to action is a danger. But if it is necessary to rouse them or wake them from sleep for some purpose, and we cannot avoid rousing them, then before we enter into this adventure of waking them from their sleep we should guard ourselves with the necessary equipment to face them when they wake up.

This is not done by most seekers of yoga. They unnecessarily poke the sleeping snake, throw a stone at the sleeping tiger, or give a blow to the lion that is asleep. This is a mistake that most seekers make when they take to kundalini yoga or tantra yoga, etc. It is beautiful to ride on a tiger or to utilise a lion for our personal occupations in daily life. We may use the lion to plough the fields, if we can, but one knows what it means to even attempt such a procedure.

The desires are not merely appearances on the surface of the mind. They are terrific powers which try to have their way in a particular direction. Their force is such that they have succeeded in compelling the consciousness to assume the form of this body itself. The so-called 'I' or 'we' seated in this hall, this person or these persons, are only slaves, puppets in the hands of these uncontrollable powers which are microcosmically directed by macrocosmic purposes—the will of God, if we would like to call it so. In the Upanishads, particularly in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, we are given a mythological or, we may say, an epic description of the very manner in which the universe was projected. The same doctrine is propounded in such scriptures as the Yoga Vasishtha, for instance. All this is beyond us at the present moment. We will be merely flabbergasted if we try to probe into their mysteries. We will be overtaken with consternation.

Scientists of today also seem to be heading towards this conclusion when they have propounded their final say in the matter of the origin of the universe as a concretisation of cosmic dust, which again is a picturesque form taken by a centrality of the universe which, in a humorous manner, our physicists call the cosmic atom. We cannot understand what the cosmic atom is. We have to stretch our imagination to try to understand what that could be. This is the Brahmanda, called the cosmic atom in English. Perhaps they call it an atom because it is an indivisible compactness of a universally expanded nature, and perhaps there is no other word to explain this situation. This atom split into two, says our modern science. The Brahmanda split into two halves, says the Manusmriti. Both tell us the same thing. One half became gold and the other half became silver, is the epic description of the splitting of the central atom of the cosmos, the Brahmanda. The two became four, four became eight, eight became sixteen, sixteen became thirty-two, and then it became the infinitely variegated pattern of the universe down to the minutest sand particle, the electrons, and so on.

All these are subsidiary reverberations of the impact given by the original thought, if we would like to call it a thought, or the original impulse. No one knows from where that impulse came. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad tells us that Ishvara, Purusha, willed, and that will is the impact, which is the origin. The One became two. The One, having become two, attempted a union of the two in order that it may again become the original One. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad describes creation—how the original seed form of the division into individualities took all the multitudinous aspects of the phenomena that we see with our eyes. You and I, and every blessed thing that we can see or think of, are all shreds, bits, or chopped-off pieces of this original, indivisible wholeness, Ishvara's Being. We are little pieces of Ishvara, cut off perhaps in the same way the Earth was cut off from the body of the Sun by the movement of a giant star. Scientists say that once upon a time, aeons back, a giant star passed nearby and caused the Sun to split into the planets that revolve around it today.

Thus we are bits of God, pieces of the Absolute, and miniature eternities moving here on this Earth. This is the philosophy behind tantra and kundalini yoga—a grand philosophy and a wondrous technique. Nothing can be compared to it in its efficacy. But the danger that I hinted at lies in the fact that the Original Will has the capacity to compel the little bits to work according to its own pattern in such an intensity that to operate in a different manner, as required by the practice of yoga, would mean a herculean feat on the part of the seeker. Often it is said that it is like moving against the current, but it is something more difficult than even that.

We have to humbly submit to what the ancients have told us in the scriptures as to the manner of the manifestation of the universe. We cannot question why and how this happened. Therefore, to return to God would be to reverse the process by which we have descended through the current of the manifestation of this Cosmic Will, which formed itself into these little wills of all of us, down to even an ant.

There is some tendency in prakriti, in nature, the downward pull of this Original Will, to compel everything to think externally, outwardly. This compulsion is called desire. The Original Will is the central desire of the cosmos—to which a reference is made in the Nasadiya Sukta of the Veda, where we are told the universe had its origin in the desire of the Eternal. Desire, or kama, is the cause of the universe: kāmas tad agre sam avartatādhi (Nasadiya 4). And that central desire of the Eternal has become the little vehemence with which the minds of the individuals work in the direction of their objects.

Now, the tantra and the kundalini yogas go deep into this process by which one has descended from the Eternal, and try to reverse the process, to take a round-about turn. This is described in a secret language in the texts of tantra, unintelligible to the common reader and misleading to novitiates, so that to practise this yoga by merely reading a book would be to handle dynamite without knowing how it works. The teachers of these techniques have kept this art very secret by guarding it through ambiguous language, by using imagery in the style of expression, and by a purely symbolic way of presenting the entire technique. Therefore, if we take the whole thing literally, we would be losers. Their language is very strange, and sometimes it is totally impossible for us to understand what is in the mind of the person who expressed himself in such a style.

Here is one example of this humorous way in which they speak about interesting themes: "When the dog is there, there is no stone. When the stone is there, there is no dog." Now, what do we understand from this? We would think that we would like to pelt a stone at the dog. But when the dog is there, we do not see a stone, and so we are helpless because we cannot throw a stone at it. And when the stone is there, there is no dog, so how to throw a stone at the dog, when the dog is not there? This is how our mind may work in understanding this interesting, enigmatic saying. But this is not the meaning of the statement. I am not going to tell what it actually means, as it is a different subject. "Embrace the tree," says the great saint Tirumular in one of his poems. Why should we go and embrace the tree? If this instruction is taken literally, everyone would go and hug a tree and imagine that yoga is being practised. He does not want us to hug a tree. What is in his mind is something different.

Likewise, many mysterious practices and techniques are seen to be involved in these peculiarities of practice, by which the desires are handled and harnessed for the reverse process of the movement of consciousness to the Eternal Will from which we originated, and through which we have come down. By controlling the whirling powers within us by a practice of fixing the attention of consciousness on the different parts of the psychophysical individuality, we unlock the knots with which we are tied to this individuality—the granthis, as they are called. There are said to be three granthis, called brahma-granthi, vishnu-granthi and rudra-granthi. They are to be untied, and not snapped. The Gordian knot is not to be cut, but untied, which is a difficult process. Because it is a Gordian knot, it is not easy to untie it.

Both the tantra and the kundalini systems, being almost parallel in their doctrines and their practices, invoke certain techniques of thinking, behaving and concentration which require uncanny willpower on the part of a person. Desires are controlled by the manipulation of the desires themselves. Just as we catch one elephant with the help of another elephant, one desire is controlled by another desire. We do not destroy the desires, but utilise them in a strange manner, as we can utilise one thief to catch another thief. We become friendly with one thief, and he will tell us where the other thieves are. Thus, we catch hold of one desire and force it—in a very intelligent manner, of course—to handle the other desires also. Thus, the so-called desires become an impersonal means by which one can overcome the limitations to which one is subject on account of the centralisation of these desires in these knots or locks.

But a person who is subject to desires cannot handle them. This is the danger. And who is not subject to desires? Therefore, Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj used to say that these yogas are not suitable for this age, Kali Yuga, where the will is weak and no one can understand anything. Hence, these techniques are not to be adopted by impure minds or unintelligent individuals whose discrimination has not been properly awakened, and who do not have a proper guide or a superior to help them.

These few words which I placed before you are like an introduction, as it were, an introductory feature to a great treasure of knowledge bequeathed to us by the ancient masters, which has been lost these days on account of the extraneous occupations of the human mind and the involvements which are totally opposed to the inward aspirations of the Spirit.

All yogas, whatever be their nature, aim at the same goal. The purpose that is served by one yoga is also served by other yogas. Therefore, to the question whether by bhakti yoga the kundalini can be raised, the answer is yes, because there is an automatic action taking place when the mind is concentrated in whatever manner is prescribed by the particular system or doctrine, provided the conditions laid down are fulfilled and there is no deviation from the prescribed conditions.

There are not many yogas. There is only one road and, as the Bhagavadgita puts it, we may safely designate it as Brahma yoga: sa brahma-yoga-yuktātmā sukham akṣayam aśnute (B.G. 5.21). All the other yogas are various facets of the single crystal of the integral approach of the whole being to God, which is Brahma yoga.