The Heart and Soul of Spiritual Practice
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 6: A Brief Survey of Spiritual Practices

It is necessary to note that religion, in the true sense of the term, is far above the usual concept of it that people have – for instance, as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc. You think that religion means only this much; and in order to be religious, you have to be either a Hindu, or a Buddhist, or a Jain, or a Christian, or a Muslim, and so on. The truth is quite different. Religion is actually what you feel when you stand before God Almighty; and you do not place yourself before God as a Hindu or a Christian. Perhaps you do not place yourself before God even as a man or a woman. This is sometimes called religious consciousness rather than religion in the ordinary sense of the term.

The spiritual import behind the denominational practice of religion is the religious consciousness. It is what you do when you are absolutely alone to yourself. Philosophers have defined religion as that which you do when you are absolutely alone to yourself. When nobody is around you and you do not talk to anybody, when nobody speaks to you and you are literally alone to yourself – what you feel at that time is your religion. You shed all the accretions that have grown around you in terms of family and social relations, and spiritually naked, as it were, you stand before the great Judge of the cosmos. It is said that Truth is naked; it has no dresses, coats and shirts, etc. You do not carry this body to God. Therefore you do not carry anything that is associated with this body either. You do not carry even your thoughts when you are face to face with the Almighty. How would you feel if you are face to face with the great Creator of the universe? You may ask me: "I have never seen this Creator of the universe; how will I place myself before Him?" Your mind has such a capacity that it can expand itself to an unending, limitless vision of a Total Power being there above this vast extended cosmos. It requires a little bit of imagination on your part, and a power of will to assert this feeling. The whole thing is in front of you. Inasmuch as bodily associations and kindred things do not go with you when you shed this body, you must know what it is that goes with you at the last moment.

In the Bhakti Shastras – scriptures of devotion, religious lore – different prescriptions are placed before us to conceive the presence of God for the purpose of meditation. The Vaishnava scriptures are particularly known for their classification of divine concepts into five categories, known in Sanskrit as para, vyuha, vibhava, archa and antaryami. Para is the transcendental concept of God, as God is uncontaminated by the evils of the world; He is above the world. This is one way of thinking of God. You cannot regard Him as involved in this world of defects and finitudes of every kind. To be untouched by every kind of evil characteristic of human life and the world here is transcendence. Many religions, or perhaps all the religions of the world, mostly regard God as transcendent perfection – far, far beyond even space and time. This places God far away from you in distance as well as in the time process. Where He is, you cannot know, and when He will come, you also do not know. You have to wait for His grace. Para is the word for this concept of the transcendence of the Absolute.

Vyuha is a concept which is novel, especially in Indian thought. I do not know if it is seen in other religious fields also. You visualise God in degrees. The well-known concept of degrees in Vaishnava theology goes by the nomenclature of Vasudeva, Sankarsana, Pradyumna and Aniruddha. This is pure Vaishnava theology. Vasudeva is Lord Sri Krishna, the Incarnation of God; Sankarsana is his brother, Balrama; Pradyumna is his eldest son; Aniruddha is his grandson. All these divine personalities are regarded as one group which represents the total power of the Almighty.

If we are to free this classification of degrees of the Vaishnava theological aspect and look at the same thing in a more philosophical form, we may compare this to the Vedantic classification of the Absolute known as Brahman, Ishvara, Hiranyagarbha and Virat. Brahman is the transcendent, all-pervading, immanent, total Absolute. Ishvara is the potential form of the Absolute tending towards creation, dark with the power of externalised projection – dark because the light of externalisation has not yet manifested. Hiranyagarbha is a faint outline of the possibility of future creation. Virat is what you see with your own eyes – the fully manifest concrete form.

In a work called Panchadasi, in its sixth chapter, the author gives an analogy of how you can conceive these gradations. Think of a painted picture. In order to paint a picture, you require a cloth as its background. You cannot paint on ordinary porous cloth so you have to stiffen this cloth with starch in order that it may become a suitable background. A hard surface, practically, is necessary. First is the cloth only, as it is – pure, unadulterated. Then there is a stiffened form of that cloth. In the third stage the artist draws an outline in pencil of what he pictures the completed painting to be. In the last stage he fills it with ink and colour. This colourful vision, which is the complete picture, is the Virat. The outline is Hiranyagarbha. The stiffened cloth is Ishvara. The pure cloth is Brahman itself. This is one way of looking at the degrees in the vision of God with reference to the concept of vyuha, or degrees. Para is the transcendent Almighty, above all things. Vyuha is this gradational concept.

The third is the vibhava concept. It is difficult for you to conceive the transcendent Absolute and these gradations, which are also of a cosmic nature. You require a more convenient form for your meditation. That is the Incarnation, vibhava – the glory. The glory of God is condensed in the Incarnation. It is before you in a visible form. It may be as Jesus Christ, or as Lord Krishna or Rama, as the case may be. Though these forms of the Incarnations are visible at a specific location, this does not mean that they are limited in their powers.

The whole energy of the Supreme Being gets concentrated in this localised form. The Almighty can speak through the Incarnation. These days, people extend this concept of the vibhava, or Incarnation, to the Guru also – to great people, mighty geniuses who are the representations of something supernormal in its nature. In the tenth chapter of the Bhagavadgita it is said that wherever there is the glory of excellence you must feel the presence of God. It may be a mighty mathematical brain, the mighty brain of a physicist, the mighty mind of an artist, the mighty mind of a musician – anything that is superb, beyond concept and expectation. Even if it comes in the form of a tornado which you cannot imagine in your mind, there is some unearthly power operating behind it.

Popularly, the Incarnation is the form God has taken according to your vision, in terms of the religion to which you belong. You worship the Incarnation. Even this is difficult for you. Transcendence is difficult. The conception of degree is difficult. The Incarnation concept also does not come to the mind easily, so you require a lesser concession for the purpose of concentration of the mind on God. That is archa, or the idol of worship – the form that you wish God to take, in the form of the visible thing that is in front of you. It can be an actual shape concretely presented before you as an image or an idol, or it may be a painting. It may be a diagram – any symbol whatsoever which inherits the power of the creative forces. Diagrams, which are known as yantras in Tantra Shastra, are supposed to represent the process of the creative act of the universe. They invoke the whole cosmos into this mandala, or the diagram, or the yantra.

Para is one concept; vyuha is another; vibhava is the third; archa is the fourth. The fifth is antaryami. There is something more about God than all these things that have been told. You cannot exhaust the glory of God by description. He is not merely transcendent. He is not merely capable of vision in degrees, not merely an Incarnation, not merely the idol that you worship, but an omnipresent, pervasive Being. That is antaryami. In every nook and corner, in every atom, you feel His presence.

These are some of the prescriptions before us for concentration on God. I would like you to close your eyes and meditate for a few minutes. Hari Om.

[Saying this, Swamiji leads the students through the chanting of Om.]

You will feel something entering into you if your concentration is good enough. You will feel some sensation on your skin and in the cells of your body. You will feel a vibration, a tickling sensation, in the beginning. When the concentration is strong, you may feel a jerk even – a tremor of the body. This tremor, this jerk, this sensation is due to the mind having an impact upon the flow of the prana. Usually the prana directs itself according to the desires of the mind. When you see a thing intently, the mind passes through the retina of the eyes in terms of an object, and the prana moves in the direction of the mind thinking of a particular object. If you are gazing at a thing with tremendous concentration of the eye, your prana gets charged automatically with the form of that object, and the object gets charged with the prana.

But in meditation, what happens is something different. You are not charging any particular object outside you; you are charging yourself only. When this happens, the normal activity of the prana gets reversed in an inwardised direction. It is like blocking the flow of a river or a stream and making the water go back rather than allowing it to move forward, which is its usual nature. This happens in meditation. The mind always thinks of something outside, some object. Therefore, the prana is accustomed to move in the direction of that which the mind thinks. Now you are not thinking of any object in meditation. You are centralising your mind in its own source, so the prana turns back. At that time, because of the unusual pressure that you are exerting upon the prana due to the unusual way of thinking in meditation, you feel a change taking place on the periphery of your skin, in the cells, and you feel a shaking up taking place. After some time the jerks will stop because the habit of the prana changes completely. Usually, its habit is to go out. When you make it move inward, it feels a difference, which is why it causes a tremor. But when it is your practice to think only in that manner and in no other way, it then becomes natural for the prana to rest in itself rather than to move outside. Then, after a long period of meditation, the tremors cease.

If pure, conceptual meditation is difficult due to the distractions of day-to-day life, you can take to japa of the mantra. You are generally told that mantra is a Sanskrit formula. It may be so, but it need not necessarily be that. It is a convenient formula that is adopted to allow the mind to concentrate on that which is beneficial in spiritual meditation. Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya. Om Namo Narayanaya. Om Sri Krishna Sharanamama. Om Sri Rama. Om Jesus. These are invocations of a type which will fill your personality with a larger quantum of energy and make you feel that you are in a level, a realm, which is lifted above the finitudes of ordinary life. But if you are intent purely on a spiritual way of living, God can be called in any way you like, in any language. Language is only an expression of your feeling, and, therefore, you can use your language of exclamation and intense yearning.

When you intensely yearn for something, what do you tell yourself? You call the name of that thing which you like, whatever that be. "Oh, my dear (this particular thing) I want you to come. Come!" If nothing is possible, just recite: "God, please come! Almighty God, please come! Almighty God, please come! Almighty God, please come!" Don't chant any Sanskrit mantra. In your own language – Hindi, English, Sanskrit, Kannada, Tamil, let it be anything – say this: "Almighty God, please come!" You will see Him in your imagination, before your eyes. "Almighty God, please come! I am yearning for you! I want you! Almighty God, please come!"

This is how the saints and sages live the life of divine contemplation. The lives of saints also are to be regarded as regular scriptures. One of the thrilling, enthralling, ecstatic pieces of joyous invocation of God as one's own beloved is in Tiruvaymoli, a Tamil poem composed by a mastermind, a Vaishnava saint known as Nammalvar. It is also called Dravida Vedam – a Veda by itself. It is in Tamil, of a tremendously complicated style. But now one great stalwart in Sanskrit as well as Tamil has instituted a body to translate into the Hindi language these wonderful poems of the Alvars – Narayana Prabhandam – some of which have been printed. Of course, the Hindi translation cannot bring the vivacity and the emphasis that you will find in the original language itself. Shakespeare should be read in only Shakespeare's language, Homer in Homer's language, Dante in Dante's language, and Nammalvar in Nammalvar's language. Anyway, this will give you an idea.

So, japa sadhana, mantra japa, is one of the ways. Svadhyaya, study of scripture, is another because when you read a scripture like the Veda, the Upanishad, the Bhagavata Purana or the Bible, you are en rapport with the authors who are great divine beings. Their blessings are upon you.

You must believe that when you think something, it is before you – in some measure at least, though it may be a modicum; but, if it is intensely summoned, it will be there. The world is rich and abundant in all potentialities everywhere, in every inch and corner of creation, and you can summon them by intense thinking. This is the significance behind mantra japa – the calling of the Name again and again. The Sanskrit mantras, especially, are supposed to have a special power of their own apart from the power of the feeling that is behind the chanting of the mantra, because these mantras are composed in a wonderful way due to which the letters, when they are joined together, produce a kind of interaction among themselves – a chemical action, as it were – and a force is generated, like something suddenly emerging when chemical components of a similar nature are brought together. This is the shakti of the mantra. And attached to it is the shakti of the sadhaka also. Your power of thought is another assisting factor in japa sadhana. The mantra itself is powerful, plus your thought is also powerful and adds to its power. Then your thought of the divinity, the devata shakti, also gets added to it. Repeat the mantra, think deeply in your own mind with devotion, and summon the divinity. So a third factor also comes in, in the mantra japa.

Also, there is the rishi, or the seer of the mantra, whose blessings are also upon you. Whenever you recite the mantra, the rishi, or the seer of the mantra, is remembered, and it is said that you should not recite any mantra without remembering the rishi. The copyright, as it were, must be taken care of. The author is important; his great mind has produced the great work. All these combinations, the blessings, join together in mantra japa. Svadhyaya is study of scripture, where also the thoughts of the great ones are there, and in addition to that, the thought embedded in the scripture from the author himself also is there. Japa, svadhyaya and meditation – these three are the three prongs of the trisule, as it were, of spiritual practice.

Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj's prescription is to keep a spiritual diary. You cannot easily know whether or not you are really progressing. Sometimes there is a dull contemplation, a mechanical recitation and a disinterested practice; you are agitated with something. So a spiritual diary is maintained. A specimen of it is given by Sri Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj, but you can have your own questions and answers. "How have I fared this day? What is my difficulty, and how will I get over it? How far have I succeeded?" and so on. You can put various questions to your own self.

In addition to japa, svadhyaya, meditation and a spiritual diary, there is the company of good people. There are plenty of good people in the world; not all are bad. There are seekers of your type. You can frequent them. If you cannot find them nearby, go to a distant place and attend the satsanga of these great ones, wherever these satsangas are conducted. Sometimes a long pilgrimage is also very helpful. Life is boring, often. You cannot sit in the same place and do the same work always; a change is necessary. You can go on a long yatra to holy places. It not only rejuvenates you from the point of view of physical health, but also blesses you in a spiritual way because these holy places are charged with the presence of certain mighty things – a holy river, or even the sages and saints who lived there. Somebody lived there, in that holy place. Jnaneshwar Maharaj lived in Alandi. Tukaram lived there. Jesus lived there. Rama lived there. Krishna lived there. Ganga is here. Yamuna is there. So, all these places become holy due to the presence and impact of all these great divinities.

Continuous practice, without remission of effort, every day – even if it be for a specific period of time only – is important. You should not cut off the practice. If you find there is no time due to some occupation, then reduce it to a few minutes only, but let it be there in the memory. Do not forget it. Lives of Saints written by Sri Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj is a big book, and it is available here. You can go through it. And there is another wonderful Tamil book, called Periapuranam, which gives the life story of the Nayanars, some parts of which have been translated into English, but not the whole thing. You can find the lives of saints published in different places, and study them. Choose a particular saint for your purpose.

Have you anything to ask me? I have been unilaterally pouring something on you. Are you receiving it?

Student: Swamiji, what is the best way to court realisation?

Swamiji: You are a wonderful student. [laughter] And you are a good student, also. You are a wonderful student because you have asked a question on the very same thing which I have been telling you for so many days. [laughter] But you are a very good student because you are honest in your question.

What is the best way of reaching God? The best way of reaching God is wanting God. Tell God: "I want You!" Like a child, you cry. "Almighty God, I want You!" Get up in the morning and tell this: "Almighty God, I want You! Please come! I WANT YOU! COME!" If your heart is open, it will take place. Some miracle will take place in your life. It is very difficult to understand the mystery of these lives. That's why I said to read the lives of saints. Lives of Saints. When the heart is pure, it comes. Impure hearts cannot bring anything.

There was a schoolmaster. In villages, the schoolmaster wants his birthday to be observed by the students. He asks, "What will you give me? What will you give me?" And the children are simpletons. They go and tell the parent, "My teacher's birthday is tomorrow. What shall I give?" They bring something – a cucumber, a kilo of rice, or something, whatever it is – as a token.

There was one child, from a poor house. He asked, "Mummy, tomorrow I have to give something."

"What can you give? I have nothing to give," his mother replied. "Go ask Gopal Baba. He will give you something."

"Where is Gopal Baba?" asked the child.

"He is in the forest. Call him," his mother said.

The simple child, with honest feelings, went to the forest on the way to the school and cried out, "Gopal Baba, give me something for my teacher!"

A boy came and gave him a little kheer in a mud pot. "Give it to your teacher," he said.

The child went and gave it. People laughed. All the children were laughing at the mud pot. Even the teacher was smiling in contempt.

"Oh, this boy has brought some mud pot. Put it there," the teacher said. But the child insisted. "Please taste, please taste!"

The teacher tasted it. It was so wonderful. So delicious! "From where have you brought it?" he asked.

"Oh, Gopal Bhaiya gave it to me," the boy replied.

"Gopal Bhaiya? Who is that Gopal Bhaiya?" asked the teacher.

"He is a friend. He is in the forest," replied the boy.

"Let me see who has given such a wonderful thing. Take me there," said the teacher.

"I'll take you there," said the boy.

When they reached the forest, the boy called, "Gopal Bhaiya, my teacher wants to see you."

And he came, and the boy was seeing Gopal Bhaiya. "Here he is," he said.

But the teacher saw nothing. "Hey, stupid," he said. "You are playing jokes with me. Don't talk nonsense."

"No, no. He is here," said the boy.

The teacher thrashed him. Immediately a voice came. "Foolish man, don't thrash this boy. Your evil nature will not permit you to see me in this birth."

There was a potter saint. He was not a learned man. When Jnandev, Ekanath and all these people went for a religious congregation, this simple man used to tap the head of each person with his stick to see whether or not the pot was ripe. For one of them, he said it was not ripe fully. I think it was either Ekanath or Jnandev.

So, read the lives of saints. Read the life of Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj. There is a little book, written by some devotee. And there is something called Atmakatha, or Autobiography of Swami Sivananda. But nothing will describe to you what he really was. Only those who have seen him personally can know what he was. He was a giant. Physically also he looked like a giant, and he was a big personality and a veritable incarnation of generosity, goodness, divinity. There is a book available here: Man to God-man. Read that book. It is a compilation by one of the devotees in the ashram. It gives you a succinct picture of the great life of the Master, Swami Sivananda. There are also many other books. Read the lives of saints! Read the lives of saints! Read the lives of saints! God bless you!