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The Epistemology of Yoga
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 5: Yoga - The Science of Living

The individual, the world, and God are the principle themes of all philosophical studies, and even of mystical experiences. We have inquired sufficiently into the nature of the human individual, its makeup and its constitutive differences. We have discussed, to some extent, the process of the perception of the world by the individual through the instrumentality of the senses and the mind.

Even as the individual is a complex of various layers of experience, and there are sheaths within sheaths—koshas within koshas—and the human being is not merely the physical body, so too the world is not exhaustively made up by only what we see with our eyes. Even as we are not as we appear outwardly in terms of the body, the world is not what it appears to the eyes. I mentioned previously that within the body there are the pranas, the senses, the mind, the intellect, and such complicated layers which constitute the individuality and personality of man. So too is the world.

There are planes of existence, called lokas in Sanskrit —degrees of reality—the lowest one being the Earth, or the physical universe. We cannot see anything beyond the physical realm because we live in a physical body. The subject and the object are always on par with each other as far as their degrees of reality are concerned. Neither can we see what is within us, nor can we see what is within the world. When we enter deep into our own selves we also, in parallel, go deep into the counterpart of ourselves in the world and begin to behold the inner layers of the cosmos. Just as we have the prana, the senses, the mind and the intellect, etc., within us, there are the planes of being, internally laid within this physical cosmos. The physical universe is not merely what we see with our eyes. Comparable to every layer within the individual, there is a cosmic layer.

The science of yoga makes out that there are plexuses called chakras within the body, which is very well known in hatha yoga circles, tantric circles, and certain other mystical circles of religious practice. It is very difficult to understand what these chakras are. Most of us are confused as to what they could be. They are pressures, or rather pressure centres, in the whole of our being, not merely in some part of the body—pressure centres, upon which an impact is felt, exerted by the counterpart of each centre at the cosmic level.

The physical universe presses upon the physical body. This is what is usually called gravitation, in the language of science. The pressure of the world upon us is gravitation; and the world presses upon us at every level of our being. The different centres within the internal layers of our personality, which receive this pressure from their own counterparts in the outer realms of being, are known as the chakras. They are not wheels or lotuses as they are sometimes described in a humorous, aesthetic manner by teachers. They cannot be understood by intellectual analysis, just as, for instance, we cannot know what energy is by any amount of definition and description.

A chakra may at times be considered to be a whirl of energy, a circle—as can sometimes be seen in a river. There are circular currents in rivers, sometimes even in the ocean, and if anyone is caught up in these whirling currents he is pulled in deep and cannot come out. There are one or two centres like that in the Ganga. People who swim there are cautious about these circular currents because anyone who goes near them is drawn in and does not come out. These currents of force, chakras, which take a shape or a form according to the desire potentialities of the individual, are actually the shapes which are assumed by the pressure from the whole universe in its different planes.

What are these planes? There are seven centres—the muladhara, svadhishthana, and so on. Corresponding to these chakras, or centres in the human body, which are all well known to many hatha yoga students, there are the cosmic planes outside. Actually, we should not say that they are outside, inasmuch as we have already decided that the world is not outside us. We are involved in the world, yet the world appears to be outside. As long as there is an insistence on the part of our personality to regard the world as an external object, we will go on thinking that every plane of existence, also, is external; so, even if we go to heaven and become angels there, that angelic world will be external to our angel self. Hence, one may be a denizen or an inhabitant of any plane of existence, but the individuality will persist. Even Adam and Eve had individualities, though they were in the Garden of Eden and very proximate to God, the Supreme Creator.

Thus, individuality is an inscrutable something which cannot be identified entirely with the physical body. Our individuality is not caused by the existence of the physical body, and it will persist and remain even after death. The existence of our individuality as a principle even after the shedding of the physical body is the cause of rebirth. Individuality is the self-sense, the power by which we affirm our existence as an isolated, independent being. This independence of ours is not a physical assertion, but a psychological affirmation—a mix-up, an inscrutable, un-understandable, mysterious complex—which is what individuality is.

What is a human being? A human being is not necessarily the physical body. No one will say that the human being is only the body. Is the human being the mind? Even that would be difficult to accept. We cannot say that the human being is only a mind and nothing else, because there is also a body, and maybe something more. Is the human being the spirit within? We cannot say that the human being is only the spirit. Not the spirit, not the mind, not the body—what else is man?

Man, the human individual, is a mixture of different aspects abstracted from different levels of being, so that what we call the human individual, or any individual for that matter, is a complex, like a chemical mixture, and is not an indivisible whole. This explains the artificiality of human nature, which is the reason why it is called transient and perpetually moving onward—restless, and never satisfied with even a moment's existence in one given condition. We always move onward and onward, like a river that flows. Life is a river; every individuality is, also, a river. It is a river because it cannot rest. It must always pass beyond itself into the next higher stage. Restlessness is the characteristic of the human individual, and of every atom in the universe.

This is the nature of every finite individual. Anything that is limited has the character of overstepping the limitations of that finitude in the direction of attaining limitlessness. Corresponding to the limited, finite centres within us, there are the unlimited counterparts in the planes of existence of the cosmos. Ordinarily, these planes are not visible to the eyes—just as radio and television waves are not visible to the naked eye, but they are visible with a mechanism which can catch them due to its subtle inner makeup. The vibrations of the higher realms of being cannot be felt by the gross body, and the celestial music cannot be heard by the fleshy eardrum; yet, these planes exist.

The Puranas and the Epics recount the nature of these inner layers of the cosmos—what the world is made of, internally. We say there is such a thing called evolution. The rising up of the dimensions of personality from inanimate matter to the vegetable kingdom, then to the animal level, then to human nature, is supposed to be indicative of a rise in the levels of dimension in experience. Man, today, is sometimes prone to think that evolution has stopped with man. This is why we say that man is made in the image of God and everything is well with man. But, it is not true. Everything is not well with man. He is a very unhappy creature.

The unhappiness that characterises human nature is indicative of the fact that evolution has not yet stopped. There is a further movement onwards to the higher levels of being. We have been told again and again by such teachers as theosophists that man has to become superman. In the West there were thinkers like Nietzsche who, in their own way, started the doctrine of the superman, pointing out that man, as he is today, is not complete. That is why he is unhappy.

But Nietzsche's superman is different from the concept of the superman of the East. It is not the self-affirming, egoistic superman of Nietzsche we are thinking of and speaking about here, but the spiritual efflorescence of the human individual to the larger expanse which is potential within him. The superman is a transcendent man, and not an egoistic man. He is not a power-hungry tyrant, but a spiritually evolved, divine personality who has overstepped the limitations of humanity. That is why we call him a superhuman being—ati-manava, as he is called.

Upanishads like the Taittiriya Upanishad and the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad tell us that man aspires for higher states of knowledge, experience and happiness. When a person sheds his body, he is reborn in a realm of existence where his desires can be fulfilled. If the desires are very profane, turbid and tamasic, or even extremely rajasic, there is a possibility of getting reborn in this very world itself, or in a world which is similar to this world but more purified in nature. If the tamas and the rajas are to some extent subdued and a ray of sattva has raised its head, these persons are reborn in Gandharvaloka, which is supposed to be the realm immediately above the human level, which penetrates the physical realm but cannot be visible to the physical eyes.

The realm of the angels is, generally speaking, the very same thing which the Upanishad speaks of as Gandharvaloka, Pitriloka and Devaloka—the realms of the demigods, the gods, the celestials, the angels, Indra, and the like, where there is no old age, no hunger, no thirst, and no fatigue, not even death, until the whole universe is absorbed into the Absolute. Such is the joyous and delightful experience of the angels in heaven. These realms, Gandharvaloka, Pitriloka and Devaloka, are sometimes referred to as Bhuloka, Bhuvarloka and Svarga-loka—the physical, the astral and the celestial realms. We can, to some extent, understand what these super-physical levels—astral and celestial—could be by a study of what the scriptures say about the experiences of the angels there. But, there are realms above the celestial level. The angels are not everything.

The Upanishads, the Puranas and the Epics tell us that there are seven planes of existence; it is not that the degrees of manifestation of reality end only with these three—the physical, astral and celestial. The other lokas, or planes of existence mentioned, are above Svargaloka, or the celestial realm. Maharloka, Janarloka, Taparloka, Satyaloka—we cannot understand anything about them. We may become giddy by thinking too much about these wondrous states of being which seem to reign supreme above even the realm of the angels, where it is said there is no death, and nectar is their food. Anything which a human being can aspire for is to be found in the celestial realm.

The greatest happiness that a human being can imagine is to be found in the celestial realm; but, the highest happiness that man can think of is the poorest compared to those realms which are transcendent even to the celestial realm. Great adepts, yogis, mahapurushas, masters, incarnations, and sages are supposed to be living in these realms. The highest realm is called Brahmaloka, identified with the realm of the Creator Himself, where individualities penetrate each other.

In Plotinus' great work called the Enneads, the great mystic of Alexandria describes this interpenetration of individualities in the state of that Universal vision. He does not call it Brahmaloka; his language is different, but the explanation is equivalent to what we hear of in the Mahabharata and the Puranas. Every individual enters into every other individual, as many mirrors facing each other may reflect each other so that everything is everywhere; this is Brahmaloka. One will find oneself everywhere, and everyone else will find himself everywhere, so that to know one thing is to know all things, and to know all things is to know any thing.

For us, descriptions of this kind make no sense. They are meaningless utterances, because we are not expected to understand them with our poor, physical brains. When we touch even the borderline of realms of this kind, we run into mad ecstasy. We heard of devotees dancing in a state of super-consciousness, which we mistake for unconsciousness, where they would not even be aware that they have a body or even whether they are wearing clothing or not. Such mystical masters existed even in the West, not merely in the East. These secrets are hidden within nature. Even a little contemplation on the possibilities of such experiences will shut our mouths forever. Such terrible, magnificent variety is hidden in the bosom of the universe.

These planes are within us, also. That is the reason why we can enter into their being, experience them and make them our own. As I mentioned just now, as we go deeper and deeper within ourselves, we also, simultaneously, plumb deeper and deeper into the depths of the cosmos. The movement or advance of the spirit further and further is a parallel movement objectively as well as subjectively and, therefore, there is no such thing as an individual's meditation or a private salvation of a person.

This, again, is a mystery which the human mind cannot understand. We are under the impression that each one independently goes to God, and others go to hell. This is not the case. But any amount of explanation of this mystery is not going to be a real explanation, because man is not supposed to enter into discussion of divine mysteries of this kind.

As the objective universe and the subjective individuality are correlated in every level of manifestation, every step in the advance made by the spirit in the direction of God-realisation is a parallel movement subjectively and objectively, so that when we reach God, the whole universe is absorbed into us—or, conversely, we are absorbed into the whole cosmos. Therefore, the world does not exist after we become one with the Universal Being. We will be terribly upset even to listen to this predicament. How is it possible? What happens to the world? What happens to other people? These atrocious doubts persist at the intellectual level when we are mere academicians, only professors of knowledge, but have not actually experienced anything. But these doubts get hushed in one second when we receive even a modicum of the touch of God, if we drink even a drop of this nectar of divine experience. Further discussion on this matter is futile. We will stop, and inquire into these mysteries further on.

However, what I wish to point out is that the world is a great mystery, and it is not as the materialists speak about it, or even as the scientists describe it. It is more grand and magnificent in its internal constitution than any human mind can understand, even with the farthest stretch of imagination. So is the mystery of each one of us. The whole heaven is moving with us, wherever we go. “The kingdom of heaven is within you,” is a great declaration. How can a kingdom be within a finite being? How can we carry a whole country in our hearts? But, this we do. And if there is any sense in this declaration that the kingdom of heaven is within, well, the whole cosmos is in every speck of space.

The Yoga Vasishtha dilates upon this theme in an infinite variety of ways by saying that the whole space is filled with universes. Every atom is a universe by itself, and this universe is, also, an atom. The Puranas say that there are many brahmandas, many universes, and it is not that God created only one pattern of the universe. Every pattern of the will of God is one universe. There are infinite patterns of His thinking, and therefore infinite brahmandas, or universes, are possible. In Indian parlance, God is called ananta koti brahmanda nayaka —the Lord of an infinite number of universes. So, it is not that only one world has been created by God.

Who can go into these mysteries? Our little knowledge of the world through this epistemological operation—sensorially, mentally, intellectually—is a poor, poor apology for what is possible as a potentiality within us. The yoga techniques bring these potentialities out and make them part of our conscious experience. We live in heaven, and not merely think and talk about it. This is the objective of yoga, the aim of every form of yoga—karma yoga, bhakti yoga, raja yoga, jnana yoga, whatever it be.

Whatever we have been considering up to this moment is a sort of philosophical analysis of deep mystical secrets. But, philosophical analysis alone is not sufficient. This analysis is essential to convince the mind that there are such great things which man cannot even dream of; but these mysteries have to become part of one's direct experience, or shatkara. The aim of yoga is to bring about this direct intuition into these mysteries of the universe—direct union with the Absolute itself, finally. Yoga is union with Reality—Reality in every level of its manifestation, in every degree of its expression. Even in the lowest degree of its manifestation, we have to be in communion with it. We have to be friendly with every level of the expression of Reality, in harmony with every form of the atmosphere in which we are placed—physically, socially, politically, psychologically, astrally, or in any sense of the term. Whatever be the environment in which we are living, with that environment we have to be in communion. This is yoga.

Yoga is union with God, the Almighty. Yes, it is true; this is yoga, in the end, but it also means that yoga is every stage of the ascent of the spirit in the direction of this supreme attainment. Though there may be millions of steps to be taken in the direction of God-realisation, each step is, also, yoga. Though we may require fifty morsels of food to appease our hunger completely, each morsel is a satisfaction by itself. Each grain of food that goes into the stomach appeases it in some measure, though complete satisfaction comes only when the meal is over.

Hence, yoga is also a great social science. It is not merely metaphysics or mysticism. A yogi is a good man, a friendly person, a philanthropic individual, and also an ideal citizen of his country and of the world. A yogi is not an other-worldly dreamer, but a matter-of-fact individual who is an expert in dextrous execution of any duty that is entrusted to him, even if it be washing dishes or sweeping the floor. A yogi can sweep the floor better than an ordinary person. He can wash dishes better than a servant would. In any position in which he is, he is the best exemplar in that particular place.

A yogi is in union with whatever is around him—whether people, or things, or anything else. This removes conflict at every level. Yoga is the solution to conflicts of personality with the environment outside. Yoga resolves the psychical, psycho-physical, psychological and psychoanalytical conflicts within the individual, and resolves his conflicts with others—socially, politically, and even astronomically.

Thus, yoga is a universal science. It is not a religion of a particular creed, cult or nationality. It is a science of living. Therefore, the way in which we have to rightly live in this world is yoga. Yoga does not belong to the East or to the West, to white or to black, to men or to women, or to any class of people. It is for creation as a whole.

While yoga is union, we have to be cautious in establishing this union through every link in the chain of the development of our movement towards the ultimate ideal. We should not jump into God at one stroke, under the impression that it is so easy an affair. We should not be over-enthusiastic even in good things, because a good thing done in a bad manner ceases to be a good thing. We must know our strengths and our possibilities, and also our weaknesses. We have great abilities within us, no doubt. We can enter into God Himself; such is the strength and potentiality we have. But, at the same time, we have small weaknesses and vulnerable points in our bodies and in our minds. We should be very honest to ourselves. “To thine own self be true,” said the poet. There should be no deception of our own self while we are encountering the face of God in the forms of creation. Who can be deceptive before God? And, as anything that we encounter in our life is a face of God, deception is a misnomer, a falsity of approach, futile in the end, and it may lead to a total ruin of personality.

We hide our secrets even to our own minds, which is a malady to be gotten over. This requires leisurely hours of thinking and a dispassionate analysis of one's own desires, frustrations, feelings, emotions, and even of past memories which sometimes harass us. Past memories are terrible things; they will not leave us easily. That is why Patanjali, in one of his sutras, says that memory is an obstacle in yoga. Memory is a good thing; people would not like to lose their memory. They take tonics and elixirs to improve memory. It is a very good thing, indeed, but it is also undesirable when we go on remembering unpleasant experiences of the past that we would like to forget. But, these unpleasant things that are within us, the impulses which speak in an unethical manner, should be converted into the great ethicalness of spirituality.

Spirituality is above ethics and morals. It is not limited to the dos and don'ts of religion. Inasmuch as we are living in human society, these dos and don'ts persist; and we cannot get over them, because we have to adjust and adapt ourselves with people and things around us in such a way that the dos and don'ts cannot be escaped. They are there. They persist as long as we are not in a position to resolve the conflict that is between us and others on account of the cutting off of our personality from the being of other people. Morality and ethics are absolutely unavoidable as long as we are conditioned by the existence of separate, isolated individualities. The more we get united in spirit, the lesser is the need for these dos and don'ts. We become our own law, and nobody else need inject law into our veins.

Spirituality is above the laws and disciplines of human society. It is an acquiescence to the will of God in an integral manner, an art which has to be learned from a competent teacher because we are unacquainted with these difficulties. Every one of us has desires of one type or the other. Everyone has frustrated memories and unfulfilled ambitions which have been thrown into the limbo of the unconscious due to unfavourable circumstances for fructifying these desires. And, many a time, we substitute these unfulfilled desires with other activities like cricket, football games, clubs, newspapers, cinemas, and even drinking liquor. These are substitutes for emotional disturbances within the individual—emotions which have not been fulfilled, and which cannot be fulfilled under the existing conditions of human society.

But, throwing them into limbo is not the solution. These devils within us demand a solution. The immoral devil within us has to be brought to the surface and encountered as he is, and transformed into the angel that we are expected to become, finally. We cannot keep the devil chained in a prison and then go to God, individually. This is not possible. The devil ceases to be there when we are transformed into the angel that we are. Here again comes the point that the movement towards God is a parallel movement, inwardly and outwardly. It is not that we are angels and others are devils, or that the world will go to the dogs and we will be enjoying the paradise of God's being. That is not yoga.

These are super-individual, super-logical difficulties. Ancient masters insisted on less and less study but more and more service to the Guru, to the master, which enabled the student to wipe off these old memories—samskaras, vasanas —impressions of past experience. Studies will not be sufficient. Any amount of physical exercise is also not adequate. It requires a scrubbing of the whole personality by unselfish service and worship, adoration, by which the emotions get sublimated, as especially detailed in one of the systems of yoga called bhakti yoga. Love of God is the process of the transmutation of every affection with which man is acquainted.

The greatest mystery in life is love. The intellect is not our problem; our emotions are our difficulties. Where there is love, there is also hatred. We cannot love everything. For us, love is possible only towards certain individuals or certain items, or even groups of individuals or items. Those items and individuals which are excluded become objects of hatred. Hence, love and hatred are two sides of the same coin. They persist and trouble us because we do not know how to reconcile these two sides.

Yoga is not merely an intellectual exercise. It is not merely a philosophical discipline. Yoga is a spiritual transmutation of our whole being, which includes the sublimation of love and of emotion of every type, positive or negative, together with the activities of the reasoning faculty. In this process, intellect and feeling join together in a fraternal embrace. When understanding and feeling work conjointly in the knowledge of anything, we are said to have intuition of that thing. God-realisation is the intuition of the Ultimate Reality, which is the aim of the practice of yoga.