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The Stages of Knowledge of the Yoga Vasishtha
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken on June 19, 1983)

The general condition of human life, which may be said to be one of an acquiesced satisfaction with the world we see with our eyes, is a matter for deep consideration. That some sort of an investigation is called for into the way in which we live in the world is a necessity not felt by many people. We do not feel the need to inquire into our lives because everything seems to be clear to us.

The longings of the heart and the general pressures of human desire are so very well taken for granted as the most normal things in the world that they do not require any special attention on our part. There is practically no event or occurrence in our life that we feel needs any particular investigative attention, so we have been content in living a life of utter abandon to the condition that has taken possession of us—possession to such an extent that, to any thinking mind, it may appear that we have lost our personality. We have been sold to the conditions that have bargained to purchase us, and our subjection to these conditions of life is such an utter abolition of our independent way of thinking and willing that often it looks doubtful that we have any independence at all.

To be subject to the pressures of internal impulses is what we call the joys of life. Moving along with the current of a river is satisfying since we have abandoned ourselves to the flow of the current. The upward movement is not a satisfaction or a joy because there is opposition to our contemplated movements. Whenever we oppose our impulses, the joys are cut off.

Thus, a continuous asking for unending joy in the world will automatically mean a total subjection to the will of the master, and that is the world. An utter subject or slave of a superintending authority has, in a way, no fear because there is no opposition. We have no fears of any kind, or so it seems, as long as we are content to move with any demand that is made by our body or by the conditions of our mind. Whatever is demanded is given; therefore, the mouth of these impulses is shut by a provision of what is required, demanded,or asked for from moment to moment.

But this has not been an easy affair. It would not be a simple matter to supply the demands of a source which changes its attitude and types of demand from moment to moment. If a single, stereotyped asking is before us, we have enough time to think that this particular thing is what is expected of us, but the world does not seem to be expecting one particular thing from us. Our neighbours, our environment, the people who are part of human society in which we are living are, in a very important sense, hard taskmasters, and adjusting ourselves to the requirements of these multifaceted atmospheres tells upon our system. To be compelled to adapt and adjust to conditions which change from moment to moment is a great strain on the mind and the body. If it is impossible for us to live in the world without a moment-to-moment adjustment with the environment in which we are living, the freedom that we speak of becomes a total chimera. Whether it is hot or cold, we have no say in the matter. We have to adjust ourselves with it. Whether people are friendly with us or otherwise, we have no say in the matter and have to adjust ourselves with that also. There may be a hailstorm of painful conditions on our head, and we open an umbrella of protection against it.

There has been a continuous effort on the part of man to survive, irrespective of this utter subjection to uncontrollable conditions and circumstances. These joys, these satisfactions, these pleasures that are doled out to us as from a master to a servant are the immediate outcome of our willingness to subject ourselves to these conditions. As a dog is thrown a little piece of bread, the joys of life are thrown to us by these relentless powers of nature to which we willingly subject ourselves as helpless slaves. Thus is the joy of life.

But, who has time to think? A continuous subjection prevents even the movement of thinking. Time to think is not given. There is no permission given to us to think because to think would be to assert an independence of our own, and that is not allowed. We are perpetual slaves. Thus goes human satisfaction and human life, human misery.

A time comes, says the great scripture the Yoga Vasishtha, when one begins to contemplate the seeds and the very presuppositions of the conditions of subjection in which one is living. At least before going to bed, for a few hours we begin to think: “Am I really living a worthwhile life?” This primitive stage of not being able to even think is not worth any mention, really speaking. That our need for analytic thinking has not been felt is a great credit indeed to our ignorance and the extent of our subjection, because we are happy and we need nothing else. But why are we happy? Because we have sold ourselves. We have become slaves to such a degree that our life itself is in the hands of powers which we cannot understand, and over which we have no say. Such a kind of misery is the involvement of human life, but it is all a joy for the worm that travels in dirt because there is an acquiesced adjustment of the biological condition of the worm with the constitution of its environment. We are ready to live with anything; that is enough for us, provided our impulses are gratified.

Thus, there seems to be a final quintessential conclusion of human enterprises, and it is this much: that human life is not an independent, indivisible and standing value. It is a moment-to-moment, self-adjusting structure which charges itself regularly, day to day, with the capacity for such adjustment and adaptation. Our body can adjust itself to any temperature and our mind can adjust itself to any environment. If this is not done, if this adjustment is not to be expressed as a gesture on our part, there would be a sudden eruption of a condition in life which would make our life impossible.

So a desire arises sometime in our lives, at least when we are old enough to think: “Have I lived a worthwhile life in the sense of having gained anything which is meaningful? Have I gained anything from this world? Have I lived for any purpose?” These questions cannot arise at an early age because in youth the impulses of life are stronger, more impetuous and unrelenting in their behaviour. Our necks are continuously pressed down by our subjection to whatever is expected of us by nature and the environment. But the impulses weaken when we become physically old. Neither we can eat well nor drink well. Neither can we sleep well nor can we have an interest in life with such pep and sauce that we had earlier in our youth. Then it is that we begin to speak in a language of investigation and begin to question ourselves: What have I done in these longish years of my life in the world?

This condition of an incipient need felt for self-investigation, says the Yoga Vasishtha, is called subeccha, a desire for the good: “I must do something good. There is no use merely being a servant throughout my life because there is no saying when this life will end, and whatever has been bequeathed to me as a kind of remuneration for my subjection to life is not lasting. It may end at any moment. What will happen to me, where will I go, who will look after me, and where shall I be placed? Am I going to cease to exist after the body is shed? It cannot be.” The conscience does not permit the argument that we shall cease to be when the body is cast off. We think: “Oh, I am doing some good; I shall have my reward.”

Many a time the good deeds we perform do not receive any reward. They may even receive condemnation. But man feels: “After all, I have done some good. Maybe others have not recognised it, but my conscience says I have done some good. Will I go unrewarded?” The conscience says, “No, I shall not go unrewarded. Where will I be rewarded, if not in this world? This world has given me nothing. It has recognised nothing worthwhile in me; it has exploited me, put me down, harnessed me, utilised me as an instrument, and given me nothing of value.”

The conscience of a human being says that life shall continue after the end of this body, but what kind of life are we going to enter? This is sometimes frightening, sometimes solacing. It is solacing to those who feel a sense of inner conviction that they have really done some good and have not done any harm. “Some good I have done knowingly or unknowingly, whether it is publicised or not publicised.” To such a convinced mind there is a solace that life shall continue after the body is shed. “These good deeds, these charitable gestures, these attitudes of service which I have of my own accord demonstrated here, which have not been even recognised by people, shall receive attention in my next life.” That is a solace for those who are really convinced of having done something worthwhile and good.

But all are not of this type. We go with a suspicion; we go with a fear: “I have done practically nothing. I have perhaps earned a fat salary, but can this be called a good deed that I have performed, that I have saved enough money in the bank? I have commuted my pension, I have educated my children, and my family is well fixed. Well, that may be. Is this going to protect me in my future life? What shall guard me, take care of me?” It is the law of the other world. What protects us is law, not a human being, not any particular thing. It is a principle we call the law of sustenance of the world as a whole, which is obeyed implicitly, that will take care of us. “Have I obeyed the law, and what have I done?” These types of questions arise sometime or other in one's life, and the Yoga Vasishtha says this is vicharana. We go on thinking: “It is now time for me to do something worthwhile. I may perhaps enter a realm after death where a different set of laws operates. It may be a condition, it may be a country, it may be a land of people who may not have any value for the laws of this world, and what I have done to people here, to things here, may not have much value there.” Sometimes doubts of this kind may arise.

But there are universally accepted laws which, if obeyed, will stand by us as a large credit balance which shall be carried forward to the next world. These questions arise in us. Is there anything we can think of in our life today which can be really carried over to the other world? Or is whatever we have done in this world meaningful only here, and not in the other world? Is it a currency that is workable only here and not in the other world? Then this currency is of no value to us. But have we an international currency with us which we can take to the other world also? Have we anything like that? We shall be depressed, dispirited and agonised to receive answers from our own conscience that perhaps we are not yet ready to meet the contingencies of the other world.

This fear will grip us, though it is a purifying fear nevertheless. Such a fear is necessary. Often such fears purify us instantaneously. We rid ourselves of the memories of the past and decide once and for all not to commit an error in the future because of the fright of what may descend on us the next day, in a few days, in the next moment. An inviolable, ferocious predicament that may come upon us may purify us, cleanse us of our sins due to the repentance that we feel and the decision that we take to be right from this moment onwards. It is often said that all our sins, mountainous though they may be, can be washed out and discharged, destroyed, burned to ashes by a moment's decision which is correctly taken: jñānāgniḥ sarvakarmāṇi bhasmasāt kurute tathā (B.G. 4.37).

These investigations of the mind, vicharana conducted thus, compel us to set our foot on a right path. We resolve: “I have done many wrongs. I am very sorry indeed, and I shall rectify myself just now, at this moment. I shall tune myself to that obedience to the eternal law of God, and thus I surrender myself.

Actually, these decisions of the spirit of the human being, which can be even instantaneous, coming flash-like, can be so effective and purifying in their nature that saints, devotees tell us that actions piled up in our mind as memories of several earlier lives can be set at naught by the piercing flame of this repentance and surrender of oneself to God.

The mind, which is usually fat with its egoism of continuous attention to the body throughout its life, the ego which is rendered fat by being pampered with the satisfactions of the world of senses, gets thinned out. The Yoga Vasishtha says the ego becomes stout; it puts on weight. It tells us how the ego becomes fat day by day. The more are we tied by affection to persons and things, the stronger becomes our ego and assertive instinct. By acquiring wealth in the world, by becoming richer and richer materially, economically, by holding property, this satisfaction fattens the ego. By gaining the objects desired by the lower impulses, the ego gets fattened. By these tantalising phenomenal presentations of the joys of life, mistaking the cool shadow under the hood of a serpent for a comfortable place to rest—with such mistaken views the ego becomes fat. The Yoga Vasishtha compares the coolness of earthly satisfaction to the coolness under the hood of a cobra. Who will take rest under there? Even if we are parched in the hot sun, will we take rest under the hood of a cobra because it is cool there? This is the world, and so is the joy of life which will sting us one day or the other, to our own torment and discomfort, and it is better to guard oneself before such a stage of utter helplessness takes possession of us.

Here the mind is rejuvenated into a new orientation of thinking. Nothing of the world can satisfy us. There was a king called Yayati. The story comes in the Puranas and in the Mahabharata. He was very fond of sensual gratification. He was getting old, but his desire was not waning. He was in a state of grief. “I am old. My sense organs are not strong enough to receive the joys of life.” He went to his children and said, “Lend me your youth, my dear children. After I am satisfied, I will hand it back.” Nobody was prepared to give his youth. So he cursed them; he uttered some imprecations. One of them, it is said, was agreeable to this request. In a mysterious way by tapas, austerity, by vicarious suffering, as it were, vicarious transference, we may say, the youth of the poor boy was transferred to this old man. He became youthful again, and enjoyed all the pleasures of the senses. But again old age came. When he returned the youth, he was old again. It is said that he went to the heavens due to the effect of his sacrifices, but he was not repentant. He was asked: “What have you seen?” He replied, “What have I seen? Nothing can satisfy me. There is no end. The pleasures of life have not satisfied me. All the rice and the wheat, all the gold that is on Earth may not be sufficient for the satisfaction of one man.” This is what he said. All the gold, silver, wheat, rice and the sugar, and so on, all the things of the world will not be sufficient to satisfy the cravings of even one person in the world. And what about many of us?

Thus, in the end, one decides to gird up one's loins to lead a life that is really recognisable in the higher realms of being into which we have to enter one day or the other. Sadhana is the stage into which we enter after this condition of vicharana. Subeccha, desire for the good, is the first stage. Vicharana, investigation, self-inquiry, is the second stage. The thinning out of the mind, the threadlike condition of the ego which was earlier very fat with these joys, as if it is going to break, is the tanumanasi condition of heightened spiritual practice, or sadhana.

What is sadhana? What is spiritual practice? What is it that can save us from these turmoils of the life of sorrow? It is by an inward communion that we establish with the law of God—or, we may say, rita or satya, the law of the universe, which is another way of saying that we sacrifice ourselves at the altar of God's creation. A yajna is performed by our Atman. A jnana yajna, a knowledge sacrifice, which is knowledge of the fact that our very existence is inseparable from the creation of the Absolute, impels us to surrender ourselves to this All-being. Towards this sense, sadhanas are practised by japa, kirtan, svadhyaya, puruscharana, dhyana, tirtha yatra, study of scriptures, holy baths, charitable acts, gifts, and so on.

When the mind is thinned out and the ego is almost famished, the light of the Atman reveals itself. The sun, though so fiercely brilliant, is completely clouded by thick layers of water particles, as if an eclipse has covered the sun. When dark monsoon clouds cover the sun, even midday looks like night. Such a condition has befallen us. The light that is within us is beclouded by the layers of unfulfilled longings, desires which have been carried over into our present life from our earlier lives by their non-fulfilment, and are lodged in our subtle body, the linga sarira. These desires are thick, but they have to scud. The clouds have to move by a fierce concentration directed towards this yajna purusha, the omnipresent reality which is the ultimate reason why we have even these apparent joys of life on Earth.

Light flashes when sadhana is intensified; the mind is purified, the intellect is stabilised. What happens? The clouds of desire disperse. The longing for contact with objects of sense breaks, and affection for things ceases. In light of the fact that our mind and ego are only a network of longings for external objects, we may very well understand how they break when desire ceases. As a cloth is made up of threads, the mind is made up of desires. It has no independent existence apart from the threads. So is the mind; so is the ego.

This beclouding of the mental awareness in terms of objects of satisfaction is not something real, hard, substantial. It is a complex interrelated structure, like a fabric; it can be reduced to nothing when the threads of desire are pulled out one by one, and then the clouds disperse and the sun shines. The Yoga Vasishtha considers this condition as sattvapatti. Sattvapatti means the attainment of a flash of lightning of spiritual awakening. As we see lightning flashes in the sky, we will begin to see the flashes of the spirit before the vision of the mind. They come and go, which is why they are called flashes. It is not a perpetual radiance like the midday sun. We shall await this. It has not yet come, but there are indications that we are moving in the right direction. When we move in the direction of the vast ocean, a cool breeze blows over our face, which tells us we are nearing the ocean. When we near the Ganga we feel: “Yes, I am near the Ganga; I feel the coolness of the water.” Indications will be presented before us in the form of musical intonations, fragrant smells, soft touches and brilliant flashes. This is what yoga scriptures tell us. These are indications that we are advancing in our sadhana. Superphysical satisfactions will present themselves before us, satisfactions which do not necessarily arise by the contact of the senses with objects. These are satisfactions which do not require any object at all. An automatic arising of the joy from the Self itself will come in the form of a flash of radiance, sattvapatti.

Then what happens? There is no necessity for the mind to long for contact with anything, at any time. What is called contact ceases because of the inner permeation of the spirit with the very substance of all things. The awakening that has come now educates us into the understanding that our joys are not the products of the contact of the mind with objects. They arise spontaneously from the eternal rock-bottom of our own being and, therefore, all longing for contact ceases at one stroke. Asamsakti is this condition of having no contact with anything. It is a condition of non-contact because the spirit has no contact. It is a non-contactual permeating principle, ethereal like the vast space or sky. It is present in the hearts of all things, that being the real source of joy, and it needs no contact with anything outside for awakening this joy from inside us. Actually, contact of the senses with the objects will then be seen as a malady, a sickness, a sorrow that has come upon us. It is an illness.

What happens afterwards? Glorious descriptions are given to us in the Yoga Vasishtha which will transport us into ecstasy, which will make us dance in joy that such a thing is possible after all. These things which are told to us by these scriptures are unthinkable, unimaginable, and beyond comprehension even by our farthest imagination. We shall not be able to live in this world due to the possibility of having such attainments. What happens then? The Yoga Vasishtha says padartha-bhavana is there. A pithy word is used. Matter vanishes; spirit reveals itself. Matter, the so-called hard world of rock, bricks, iron and steel, this world of such hard substances melts into the liquid of omnipresent light. Matter becomes radiance. We have heard modern science saying that matter is convertible into energy and light. They are inter-convertible because they are made of the same substance.

The lodgement of the spirit in sleeping matter is awakened to its own self-independence. It frees itself from these shackles into which it appeared to subject itself, and matter, which appeared as a shroud for consciousness, becomes an appendage and a glory, a shakti of the Purusha, a light of the sun which is no more a shroud for the sun. The whole world lifts the veil that it was putting over its face to delude us, to make us feel that it is something different from what really is. That veil which the world was putting on to deceive us, distract us and subdue us is lifted, and the glory of eternity in this temporal world is revealed before the all-seeing eye of the immanent Spirit. The world vanishes into the Supreme Being. Padartha-bhavana—no world, no object is there anymore; or rather, in another sense, it is the recognition of the true padartha, padartha-bhavana. The real substance is discovered by a direct entry and insight into its reality.

The culmination of this process is the melting down of our very existence in this vast sea of eternity. This is the state of moksha, turiyaturiyatita as it is called. Towards this great goal we are moving with our little foibles here, with our little deeds, with our ups and downs, with our little sadhanas and prayers. With our little humble efforts in life we are gradually trekking towards this Might of all mights, the Almighty, the glorious radiance of immortal nectar which is awaiting us. The very thought of that glorious attainment is possible for us: “After all, it is possible for us! If not today, then tomorrow it is possible. I shall have it, and it has to be had!” With this conviction that it must be had and it is possible and practicable, we shall attain it.