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What is Yoga?
by Swami Krishnananda

(A write-up on the Yoga-Vedanta Forest University published in the July 1957 issue of the Divine Life magazine)

The Yoga-Vedanta Forest University (Sivanandanagar, Rishikesh) is a field for the training of spiritual seekers in the practice of Yoga and Vedanta. The studentship in this University does not consist merely in the study of any book or books or listening to lectures or discourses, but it is of a more practical nature. No doubt, listening to discourses or reading of books is a prelude to practice, but this University lays emphasis more on the moulding of one's personality under a spiritual teacher. Reading is an aid to the practice of Yoga and Vedanta. By ‘Yoga and Vedanta' we do not mean theoretical pursuits in a speculative field, but it is the application of a higher knowledge in our day-to-day life. We are likely to imagine that this University teaches two subjects, Yoga and Vedanta; but we will not be absolutely correct in holding that view, because they are not two subjects separated from each other, which alone this University is said to be intending to teach.

Yoga taken in its general sense is the art of contacting Reality. Vedanta is also the same in its practical field, and if we take the philosophical side of the practice of Yoga, it is in unison with Vedanta. Nor are we correct if we say that Vedanta is the theoretical side, and Yoga is the practical side, for Vedanta is not a mere theory. It is as much practice as any other Yoga. It is a different method of approach, but not truncated from others. If we understand by the word ‘Yoga' the technique or science of attuning ourselves to the Infinite, the distinction between Yoga and Vedanta is lost. Yoga becomes Vedanta and Vedanta becomes Yoga.

There is a beautiful verse in the Yoga Vasishta making reference to Yoga and Vedanta. Sage Vasishta says to Rama: Oh Rama, there are two ways of conquering the mind and realising the Infinite. What are the two ways? They are Yoga and Jnana – in other words, Vedanta. He defines Yoga as vritti-nirodha, the inhibition of the functions of the mind, and Jnana as samyag-avekshana, correct perception, i.e., equal vision, the perception of the common spirit in all objects of the universe. A tentative distinction between Yoga and Jnana is made here. Yoga is defined more as a negative method and Jnana as a positive method. Jnana is the affirmation of Reality, whereas Yoga is the withdrawal of objective consciousness. The result may be the same, but the methods are different.

The Technique of Higher Life

What does the Yoga-Vedanta Forest University teach? The Forest University is not biased towards any particular technique of Yoga. It teaches that Yoga which its founder-president, Swami Sivananda, practises and teaches to humanity. In one way we can say that the Yoga-Vedanta Forest University is the reflection of Swami Sivanandaji himself. What he is, that the University is. What he expects humanity to do, that the University is intended to teach. He expects every human being to be conscious of the higher life, and that art this University is aiming to teach to all people in the world. That art, that secret technique of being aware of the higher life, is Yoga, and that is what this University teaches. It is not just Hatha Yoga; it is not just Laya Yoga, Mantra Yoga, Karma Yoga, Raja Yoga or any particular Yoga that this University teaches. Here are all Yogas put together. Truly speaking, there is only one Yoga and all other names are just appellations of the ramifications of the one supreme Yoga, that integral method by which we tread that path to the Infinite. That is the Yoga which is taught in various ways in the University here.

But why is it that we teach various types of Yoga? Why are various names given to that one Yoga, and why do we seem to be practising it in various ways? That is because of the differences in the temperaments and in the aptitudes of human beings. The human being is a composite entity. He is not one indivisible whole. He is made up of several faculties or powers, and Yoga is just the correct objective application of the internal faculties. When any particular faculty is made use of, Yoga goes by a particular name. Man is constituted of various powers. The intellect is there, the will is there, the emotion is there, and there is the vital energy driving him to activity. There are persons who are predominantly rational or logical-minded, and some are more inclined to use their will power than their understanding or rational power, and there are others in whom the emotional faculty, the faculty of feeling and imagination, is predominant. There are still others who are of an active temperament, who have to work and who will express themselves through activity alone. Now all these men, according to Swami Sivanandaji, have to become Yogis because the practice of Yoga is the main duty of a human being. Whatever be the vocation of a person, he has to turn his activity into the practice of Yoga. There lies the greatness of the human being.

Modes of Yoga

When the intellectual powers are made use of exclusively in the practice of Yoga, we generally call it Jnana Yoga, because analysis, understanding, knowledge are the defining characteristics of this Yoga. When with the force of will, determination and decision the individual fixes his attention on the concept of God, he is called a Raja Yogi. When he begins to love God through emotion, devotion, feeling, he is a Bhakti Yogi. When he puts this knowledge into practical action, he becomes a Karma Yogi.

Karma Yoga is not an exclusive Yoga. It is an external expression of the internal knowledge which one attains through the practice of the other Yogas. The meaning is that Karma Yoga is not in any way cut off from Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga or Jnana Yoga. Thus this University teaches this complete, full, integral Yoga, which suits every type of individual in this universe. It does not unsettle the beliefs of people. It does not teach a person what he is incapable of understanding or practising. It remembers the dictum of the Bhagavadgita, na buddhibhedaṁ janayet (B.G. 3.26): “Never unsettle the minds of people.” And our Gurudev is an expert in this technique of moving with the universe. He takes any particular individual to the consciousness of the higher life through that level of consciousness or degree of existence in which he is placed.

Every human being is conscious of this physical universe, this physical body, and he has got a particular philosophy of life. In fact, everybody is a kind of philosopher, which means he has got a conception of life on which he bases his actions, and through that conception of life we have to lead him higher up. That is the greatness of a Guru. The Guru, if he is an able person, does not at once overshadow the feeling or understanding of an individual and take him to a different path altogether; but, on the other hand, he knows that all paths lead to the Infinite, that every individual in this universe is a part of the Infinite, and, therefore, it is possible for anyone to proceed from any place to the Infinite. One may be in any place, in any condition or under any circumstance, and yet it will be possible for him to rise from that condition to the Infinite.

The spiritual teacher, therefore, should be a very able person. He should be a Srotriya and a Brahmanishtha, as the Upanishad has put it. Only a person who knows the inner reality of things can teach Yoga and Vedanta to people, for it is not one and the same type of instruction that we have to give to all people. Though we give out the same truth, we give it in different garbs, and in different ways do we give it to different types of persons.

Buddhi Yoga

This teaching is exemplified in the life of our Gurudev here. If one closely observes his life, one will know what this University is teaching. It is the life-transforming knowledge that is expected to be given through this University. This University does not consist of merely buildings and books. It is not a University in the ordinary sense of the term, but it is a field for the training of the entire personality of man in every walk of life.

Yoga is not to be confined to a particular time of the day – for example, one would practise meditation only in the early morning, and at other times would be doing something else. This is not the Yoga this University teaches. Yoga should be practised at all times. How is it possible for a man to practise Yoga always? One may feel that if one practises Yoga always, one will not be able to carry on the other duties in the world. Therein lies the mistake. One may act in this world like all other persons, systematically, without reluctance. There is no objection to this. But how is it to be converted into Yoga? The secret of it is given in the Bhagavadgita. Sri Krishna, who synthesised all Yogas in the Bhagavadgita, says that activity becomes Yoga when it is based on what he terms ‘Buddhi Yoga'.

Buddhi-Yoga is another term for the continuous consciousness of the identification of the individual with the Cosmic Intelligence, which we call, technically, Mahat. When this consciousness arises in us, then, when we are acting in this world, our activity becomes Yoga. How is it? When we work, we feel that we are parts of the Supreme, and our activities are just the expressions of the Supreme Being Itself. Our activities become worship to the Supreme Being. What is the purpose of activity in this world? This the Yogi analyses, and finds that all activity is ultimately directed to the realisation of unending happiness, supreme bliss. When one carefully analyses one's activities, thoughts, feelings, emotions, desires, etc., one will find that all of these are directed to the realisation of infinite happiness, and infinite happiness is possible of attainment only when the source of that happiness is known. Whether a person is a Karma Yogi, a Bhakti Yogi, or any other type of Yogi, he must have a consciousness of this source first. There should be an understanding of the aim of human life, the purpose of existence here, and the meaning of action in life.

Purna Yoga

Our activities are directed to a particular end. Every act has got a particular meaning. Every action proceeds from a particular source, in a particular manner. But what are all these? These have to be analysed and understood first. One will find that ultimately the actor, the action and the object towards which the action is directed are parts of one cosmic force, which has been expressed beautifully in one verse of the Bhagavadgita: brahmārpaṇaṁ brahma havir brahmāgnau brahmaṇā hutam, brahmaiva tena gantavyaṁ brahma-karma-samādhinā (B.G. 4.24). We offer everything to the Absolute. The offering is not merely of material things cast into fire. The offering is really of every action. We have to do everything as sacrifice. The word ‘sacrifice' implies self-abnegation, dedication of one's individual personality. That is called jnana-yajna. It means the destruction of the ego through supreme knowledge.Brahmārpaṇaṁ: Dedication is Brahman. Brahmahavih: The material that is offered is Brahman. Brahmāgnau: It is offered in the fire of Brahman, in the Cosmic Knowledge of Brahman. Who is the offerer? Brahmana hutam: Brahman Himself is the offerer. Brahmaiva tena gantavyaṁ: Such a person is to attain Brahman alone. Why? Because he has offered all his actions to the Supreme Being—brahma-karma-samadhi.

This verse of the Bhagavadgita gives a description of the Yogi who practises the Purna Yoga, which includes all Yogas. In his life we find Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga, Jnana Yoga and all other Yogas blended together. Sri Krishna Himself exemplifies in His being all the Yogas. We can say that the life of Sri Krishna is the best commentary on the Bhagavadgita. How the Yogi of the Bhagavadgita should live is illustrated in the life of Sri Krishna Himself. He lived in the world as a great actor, a mahakarta, a great enjoyer, a mahabhokta, and at the same time as a great renouncer, a mahatyagi, because He was conscious of his higher nature. Every aspirant, though he is not in that highest state, should direct his attention to the gradual realisation of the ideal set up by that state. The means should not in any way be completely cut off from the nature of the end; the nature of the means is determined by the nature of the end. For example, if I want to go to Rishikesh, I have to proceed along a particular path. I cannot go in the opposite direction. So, if our aim is the Absolute, Brahman, then we have to choose a particular path.

Yogic Vision

Though all paths lead to the Absolute, there is a method with which we have to tread that path. The Absolute is not an object; this is what is to be remembered. All our activities are generally externalised in space and time. What the Yoga-Sastras teach is that we have to change our activity into Yoga by feeling that our actions are not mere objective movements, but infinite processes. Those who are students of Western philosophy and have studied the philosophy of Whitehead would understand this point well. Whitehead was a great thinker who expressed in a very logical and scientific form what the ancient sages, the Upanishads and Bhagavadgita have said long ago. His theory leads to the conclusion that the fundamental error in life consists in a kind of consciousness, and this erroneous consciousness is the cause of one's bondage. It is not what one does that causes bondage, but what one feels when one does. Why is there an erroneous feeling? It is because one feels instinctively that he is an individual in space and time. The erroneous consciousness is that we are objective expressions, projected in space and time. Though we are transcendent in nature, essentially, these are the feelings that are implicated in our appearances here.

Then what is the aspirant to do? What is the Yogi expected to do? Alongside his daily routine of actions, he has to change his consciousness of action. Suppose he is working in an office. Even before practising Yoga he was working in an office, and even after knowing this technique he is working in the office, but the change that has taken place in his attitude is this: Previously he felt that the service that he did in the office was directed to an objective end – in other words, a selfish end, which has a transient nature. After the technique of Yoga is learnt and practised, he finds that he is just a speck in the Infinite, and whatever actions he does are just like whirls in the cosmos turning upon themselves, coming back again to the original point. Every individual in this universe reacts upon every other individual. Every thought and every action is a mirror through which is reflected the cosmic situation. This is very beautifully explained by Whitehead. He means that by knowing one individual correctly, one can know the whole cosmos. This is what the Yoga Vasishtha also has said.

Integrality of Creation

The individual at a particular moment reflects the cosmic condition. We are inextricably connected with every particle of this universe. When something happens to me, it will be felt throughout the universe. Why is it so? It is because the universe is an organic whole. If my toe is pricked, the pain is felt by the whole body. Like that the whole universe will react upon the individual that acts wrongly, and will favourably influence him who acts rightly. We should not make the mistake of thinking that we can act privately, silently, in an unknown manner, in a corner of the universe. Such a thing is impossible, according to Whitehead. Everything is universal. If one has done a good act, the whole universe will feel the joy of it, and if it is a bad act, it will be painfully felt by the whole universe. This was declared in the Yoga Vasishtha long before Whitehead was born. This point is to be remembered by the practitioner of Yoga, whether he is a Bhakta, a Raja Yogi or a Jnana Yogi.

No action is to be done which is directly or indirectly detrimental to the consciousness of the unity of the individual with Brahman. Such an action which denies the existence of the Absolute is wrong action, and that which affirms it is righteous action. Desire, anger, greed, which are called in the Bhagavadgita as gates to hell, are processes by which the individual personality is asserted, and consequently, the Infinite is negatived. As a result of the affirmation of the individual forces in the personality, one gets bound to the earth. Therefore, every aspirant who practises any kind of Yoga has first to root out the impulses of desire, anger, and greed, and he has to be perfectly righteous. Ethical and moral perfection is absolutely necessary, for it is the foundation of Yoga. What are called the yamas and niyamas are the basis of all Yogas. They may be called by different names in different Yogas, but practically they mean the same thing.

Practical Expression of Yoga

A person has to become virtuous. And what is virtue? Virtue is the nature of that action, feeling or thought which affirms directly or indirectly the Supreme Infinite; on the basis of this we have to practise Yoga. This is the Yoga which this Forest University is teaching. It does not ask one to be a conspicuous human being. One will have to think and feel differently, without being attached to the things of this world. Anasakti (detachment) is the watchword, the motto of all Yogas. Non-attachment is the fundamental teaching of the Bhagavadgita. It is the negation of the feeling that the external world in its physical character is real and is separated from the knowing subject. Attachment is indicative of the feeling that objective possession brings happiness, but this idea has to be removed from the mind. Happiness is not in the objects. Happiness is in the consciousness of having possessed the objects. It is not in the objects as such. If it is in the consciousness, we have to find out what consciousness is. When that is known, we have known the source of true happiness. Metaphysically speaking, consciousness implies infinity and immortality. When this consciousness is discovered and analysed, we shall at the same time be discovering what is immortal and infinite. And if the Infinite is the source of happiness, it has to be realised.

It is not enough if we simply say that the Infinite is bliss or try to obtain it in an objective way; we will fail in that direction. Even if the Infinite may be the object of our quest, the moment we objectify it, it becomes the world. The world is the spirit manifested in space and time. When we look at the Absolute through the senses, it appears as the universe. We are now visualising God through our senses. The scriptures say that we should behold God through intuition. When the faculty of intuition is made use of, we know God not as the external universe, but as identical with our own consciousness. Here we get the supreme bliss, because we have identified ourselves with the Infinite. The Infinite is consciousness, and we are also consciousness. The drop must merge in the ocean; the river must enter the sea. Then we realise the significance of the Upanishadic utterance yo vai bhūmā tat sukham (C.U. 7.23.1): “The Infinite is bliss.” No other thing in this world can give us bliss.

Role of the Spiritual Teacher

The Yoga-Vedanta Forest University teaches this Yoga of the Absolute in various ways. Even in a particular Yoga, for instance Karma Yoga, there are various methods of practice. This University teaches Yoga through various new techniques, Yoga as suited to different temperaments of aspirants. Even all Karma Yogis are not of the same temperament, and so we have to teach Karma Yoga also in different ways. Similar is the case with all the other Yogas: Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, etc. So the teacher should be an expert, one who is established in the consciousness of the Absolute. Such a person alone can teach Yoga, truly speaking. It cannot be taught by lectures, because Yoga is not a thing to be merely heard; it is to be assimilated and put into practice in our daily life. It is difficult, like walking on a razor's edge. We are so much attached to this objective consciousness that it is extremely hard to extricate ourselves from it. Only he who has tried to free himself from the clutches of this objective consciousness will know how difficult it is. It is possible only through the grace of the spiritual teacher.

The spiritual teacher is not an ordinary man. He has got inner force. He transforms people not merely by precepts, but by an inner power that is invisible. We call it ‘shakti-pata'. He sends spiritual force to the disciple and transforms him, in addition to the precepts that he gives in words. Though the disciple may not feel it, he is being inwardly transformed by the Guru's grace, and in the higher stages, the disciple will actually feel it. God Himself works through the Guru, and the Guru is the channel for the flow of the grace of God. Therefore, in order to practise Yoga, it is absolutely necessary that we should sit at the feet of the Guru. It is just vanity to feel that merely by reading books one may practise Yoga. Without the help of the Guru, we shall not be able to practise Yoga because we will be facing too many difficulties. The aspirant has to remember that at a certain stage he will not be able to know whether he is tempted, opposed, held up or misled on the way. Sometimes the aspirant will be stagnant. Then it is the Guru who has to come and say, "Look here, child, you are stagnating; this is an obstacle." Sometimes temptations will come. They will come in such a way that the disciple himself will not know that they are temptations. The Guru will have to tell the disciple that they are temptations. Sometimes the aspirant may be moving in a wrong path. The Guru has to point out that he is following a wrong path and ask him to follow the right path. That is why a Guru is necessary.

Central Ideal

This University, therefore, teaches the practice of Yoga, not merely the understanding of Yoga – in all its aspects, not merely in any particular aspect of it – under the guidance of Gurudev Sivananda. We are to be integral beings, and we have to train all the sides of our personality. If we train only one aspect, the other aspects will revolt. There should not be rebellion of the forces which have been ignored. Therefore, our Gurudev teaches the Yoga which is the integral transformation of the personality of the individual for Eternal Life, and this process of transformation by Yoga has to be undergone every minute of our life, not merely at 4 o'clock in the morning. Yoga is to be practised always. Though one may sit at 4 o'clock in the morning exclusively for meditation, one must remember that the act of meditation should be there continuously in all actions. Meditation should not be completely cut off from daily activity. Nor can we be completely meditating throughout the day. Everybody must act, and will act. But one has to act in such a way that one will not be bound by the desire for the fruit of actions. This is the special feature of Karma Yoga.

It is extremely difficult to practise this Yoga, because one has to be very vigilant, while acting in the world. Yogo hi prabhavāpyayau (Katha 2.3.11): "Yoga comes and goes." It does not last long, and, therefore, with supreme vigilance, extreme carefulness, one has to practise Yoga. Every moment of our life, we have to be Yogis. This is what the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita teach. This is what the Yoga-Vedanta Forest University teaches. Every moment of our life we have to remember God and transform every bit of our activity into Yoga. This is the central curriculum of the Forest University here, and this is well exemplified in the daily life of our Gurudev. We have to learn it from him directly, more than through verbal teachings. Though we learn this Yoga through his writings and his spoken words, there is more than all these: his own example. He who knows what he is in truth, who knows what the implied meanings of his behaviours and actions are, knows, I feel, the true nature of Yoga. May we all be blessed with the strength to understand the nature of true Yoga and the fortune to sit at the feet of the Guru to practise this Yoga for the realisation of the Supreme Being. This is my prayer.