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Yoga as a Universal Science
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 11: Individual Disciplining of One's Own Self

We have been discussing the nature of the disciplines known as the yamas in the Yoga system of Patanjali, with a view to understanding, in a general way, their meaning and their practice. But, apart from the general information concerning the observance of these yamas, there are also particular details about it which vary from circumstance to circumstance, and from individual to individual. These details have to be gone into by each student or disciple with his teacher, who will offer personal guidance in the matter. The yamas are disciplines or restraints. ‘Yama' is a Sanskrit word which means control, restraint, discipline. The other discipline which comes next is called the ‘niyama', which means observance of certain principles. Inasmuch as these principles concern the practice of regimented details, they are similar to the yamas as far as their importance is concerned, but there is a difference here in that the niyamas have a greater connection with the individual personally than the yamas, which have a particular reference to one's attitude towards, or relationship with, the society outside. While one's conduct in the context of human society is the principal theme of the yamas, the discipline of one's own self individually in a different manner is the subject of the niyamas.

The first of the niyamas, or the observances mentioned by Patanjali, is what in Sanskrit is called saucha or purity. Here again, we are likely to associate purity with the usual meaning of it, its connotation as we are wont to understand in our life in human society. Just as the meaning of the yamas cannot be understood easily unless it is related to the great purpose of Yoga, the niyamas also cannot be grasped with their full meaning unless their relationship to the aim of Yoga is properly brought home to one's mind by self analysis. No discipline or practice has any sense or meaning unless it bears a connection with the purpose of Yoga. The aim that we are after, the great goal of life, should have some connection with our endeavour. We do nothing in this world unnecessarily. Everything has a connection with the purpose that we wish to achieve finally. So, if we are students of Yoga, the goal of Yoga should bear a connection or relevance to any practice we may engage in, whether it be yama or niyama.

The Deeper Significance of Saucha or Purity

What we call purity is a peculiar attitude of ours with respect to all things related to us in the light of the great goal of Yoga. It is difficult for an ordinary person to understand what is purity and what is impurity. We have no doubt a standard imposed upon our minds by our social routines, but this does not necessarily explain the deeper significance of saucha as understood in Yogic practice. Any entanglement of consciousness in things or circumstances which have no constructive relationship with the goal of Yoga is to be regarded as an impurity. This is the essential meaning behind the term saucha. If we do not take bath for several days, our body starts emanating a stink, and we feel that we are bodily impure, inasmuch as the stink or exudation of bad odour from the body on account of our not having bathed for several days is not in consonance with the principles of the maintenance of physical health; and health is regarded as the state of purity of the body. Inasmuch as health is considered as pure, anything that goes contrary to the maintenance of health is impure. Mostly, in orthodox circles, people understand by purity the cleanliness of the body. When we have taken bath and worn fresh clothes, we feel that we are pure. We feel that we can then enter a holy temple, and perform puja, and sit for our prayers, japa and meditation. This is a form of purity, and a necessary form of it.

By the word saucha or purity, however, the Yoga text does not signify taking bath, though it may include even that. Because, there can be, in us, impurities other than bodily impurities like perspiration and dirt. For, we are not merely the body. We are many other things besides. So, while it is necessary to keep the body clean, it is not enough to keep only that clean and keep other things unclean. While purity does mean cleanliness of the body, it does not mean only that, because of the fact that man is not merely the body, but other things also. And every aspect of his being should be kept clean, and not just the body. The analysis of the personality of man would reveal that, besides being the body, he is the pranas inside, the sense-organs, the mind, the intellect, and the various ramifications of these inner layers of his personality. Five koshas are mentioned in the Vedanta philosophy—the sheaths as they are called—the annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijnanamaya and anandamaya koshas. These are the coats or the shirts or the involucra that man's essential spirit is putting on. The personality of an individual consists, therefore, of layers of various densities, performing different functions, and entertaining different ideas and ideologies at different times, in the progress of evolution. So, while the body has to be kept pure, the pranas, the senses, the mind, the intellect—all these have to be kept pure too. Purity implies the freedom of oneself from everything which cannot be set in tune with, or set in harmony with, the ideal or the aim of Yoga.

Falling ill physically is not in consonance with the purpose of Yoga; the ill-health of the body affects every other thing that one aspires for in Yoga. Similarly, there can be illness of other vestures of our personality on account of toxic matters of different types growing like mushrooms. The velocity of the senses, in their movement towards objects of their own satisfaction, is also a toxic matter in the astral body. Patanjali does not go into all these minute details when he describes saucha. While we need not rack our heads too much in the analysis of all the minutiae involved in the observance of purity through the various vestures of the personality, we may in broad outline conclude that purity means the cleanliness of the body, the speech and the mind. In body, in speech and in mind, we have to be pure. People generally understand, by physical purity, not only a clean body, but also clean clothing, and a clean atmosphere. This physical purity is comparatively easy to maintain. Verbal purity is difficult, and more difficult still is mental purity or psychological purity. Mental purity is almost impossible for ordinary persons. While one can be very clean in the physical body, one can be very ugly in one's speech, and very anti-social in one's utterances—something of a very hurtful and pain-giving toxin in human society. One can behave badly in human society in spite of being a very clean person physically and in household surroundings. Any kind of injury inflicted upon another by harsh speech is not called for in the context of the observance of saucha through speech.

Ahimsa is the supreme virtue, finally speaking. Everything comes under that. All other principles of yama and niyama fall under the shelter of this vast, comprehensive principle called ahimsa, a thing which is very hard to understand, but which is the most important of all canons or prescriptions or standards of behaviour. The words that we utter, the way in which we express ourselves verbally, should be positive, constructive, helpful, healthy, and absorbent rather than repellent. The Bhagavad Gita has some verses, in one of its chapters, which make a reference to physical purity, verbal purity and mental purity.

It is a little more difficult to understand what is mental purity. That is the final crown on the whole system of the practice of saucha. When there is mental purity, the other purities automatically follow. A clean thought is a virtue, nay, more than a virtue. It is a great treasure, a great possession, a great solace, a great strength and a source of energy to one's own self. But what is a clean thought? While we have made some sort of an analysis in regard to physical purity, physical cleanliness and verbal cleanliness, it will be a little more difficult to understand what is meant by mental cleanliness. But, there should be no difficulty if we are able to judge the value of a thought in the light of the goal of Yoga. Is the thought consonant with the purpose of Yoga practice? Is it helpful, or contributory in some way, to the purpose or the fulfilment of Yoga, or is it a force that distracts attention and draws one's energy in unwanted directions? The greatest purity of the mind is reflected in its capacity to entertain the thought of the goal of Yoga. When one is deeply concentrating his mind on the great ideal of Yoga to the exclusion of every other thought, he has attained the highest mental purity, and any other extraneous thought would be a distraction from it, a deviation from the highest norm of psychological purity. But, this is the final definition of psychological purity. There are lesser definitions of it, all of which are equally important. Any contemplation mentally of an object or a situation, which is likely to draw the energy of the mind in a direction other than that of Yoga, may be regarded as an impure thought.

Usually, people regard mental impurity as a thought of desire. Any desire is regarded as mental impurity, generally speaking. But, this is a sweeping statement, and it is difficult to understand its real significance. Because, there are desires and desires of umpteen types. Some of them may be positive and helpful, some of them may be of a different nature. Here, one's discretion has to be used with an independent judgement of the whole circumstance, or the guidance of a teacher has to be obtained, where one's own judgement is very difficult to form. However, in essence, we may say that mental purity is that condition of the mind where it is able to associate itself only with those conditions of living, which positively pave the way to the realisation of the goal gradually, step by step, stage by stage. And therefore there are stages of mental purity, which cannot be defined outright in bare logical terms, without reference to the circumstances through which one has to pass. There may be hundreds of stages of mental purity, and a higher stage will appear as a state of greater purity than a lesser one, the lower one will look impure in the light of the higher, the higher will look purer in the light of the lower. But, every stage may look impure, or every stage may look pure, from the way in which we look at it or the standpoint from which we judge it. Here again, we have a matter which is purely personal and individual, a matter which varies from circumstance to circumstance. A Guru's guidance is necessary here also for us to understand where we stand.

The Glory of Contentment

When one is pure in mind, pure in speech and pure in body, there is a contentment arising from oneself. There is santosha. It is very essential that one should be happy under any circumstance. This is very important. If a person is weighed down heavily with some grief or sorrow, and he becomes melancholy and moody, and gets into a state of weeping and crying, and is not able to sleep because of the sorrow that is eating into his vitals, how could he do any meditation? How is it possible for him to practise asana, pranayama, pratyahara? Though it is well said and easily said that one has to be happy, it is not easy for people to be always happy. It is a very difficult thing. And we know very well the reason why we cannot be happy always. The world is a terrible ogress. And, hard it is to live in this world; very problematic is the situation in which we find ourselves every day. How could we always smile, even when we are thrown into the hell or the pit of sorrow in life's mill which grinds relentlessly? But, there is a way whereby we can keep ourselves happy. That way is to keep the goal before our eyes. Finally, in the end, in the last resort, we shall succeed. We may now appear to be suffering, sorrow-ridden, and feeling helpless in every manner, but a day must come in the life of every one of us when we must succeed. Failure is not the goal of any person. The ultimate goal of life is success only. The whole universe is moving towards a great Cosmic Success. Any individual is a part of this cosmos, and therefore, he is also moving towards the achievement of a success par excellence, though it may appear that he may have to bear the brunt of tentatively confronting sorrows, and those sorrows have to be taken in their true spirit and judged against their true worth.

“Even this will pass away”: many of us have read a poem of this kind in our younger days. A king of Persia wrote on the signet of his ring: “Even this will pass away.” It is not a mere story-poem, but a great teaching to every one of us. Even the worst of things will pass away, and no one will always be in the same condition. One may be downtrodden, and may feel about to be crushed under the weight of this grinding mill of the world. Yet, no one can be ground completely. There is something in everyone which is imperishable. All these sorrows, whatever be the intensity of them, will pass away one day or the other. Even if they are not likely to pass away in this life, they will pass away in another life. Why should anyone think that he is bound to achieve every blessed thing in this little span of physical existence which is nothing but a second, as it were, or even less than that, in the large expanse of the time process? The universe does not think as we think. Its time calculation is something very vast, and our little span of a hundred years or even less, is something which is almost a zero before the vast astronomical cosmic perspectives of time.

There is a story recounted by Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa in a humorous way. Narada was passing one day by the side of a garden, and the gardener asked the sage Narada: “Master, where are you going?” The great sage said, “I am going to Vaikuntha, the Lord's Heaven, to have His Darshan.” “Oh! You are going to have Darshan of the Lord! Please ask Him when I shall attain liberation.” He was a gardener planting various fruit trees. Narada said, “I shall certainly ask the Lord, and when I come back, I shall let you know what His answer is.” So, Narada proceeded further and on the way, he met a farmer. The farmer put the same question: “Lord, O great sage, master, where are you going?” The sage said, “I am going to Vaikuntha, the Lord's abode.” And the farmer also made a request similar to the gardener's: “Please ask the Lord when I shall attain liberation.” Narada gave the same reply as before: “Yes. I shall come back to you with the Lord's answer.” So, after several days or so Narada returned from Vaikuntha and he met this farmer. Immediately, the farmer asked very eagerly. “Did you meet the Lord?” “Yes, I met the Lord,” replied Narada. “Did you ask Him about my liberation?” “Yes, I asked.” “Did He give you the reply?” “Yes, He gave the reply.” “What was the reply?” “You will take another fifty years to attain liberation.” The farmer was very sorry to hear this. “I have been chanting God's Name, I have been doing prayer, I have been meditating, I have been practising Yoga, day and night I am absorbed in God's thought. Still I have to wait for fifty years! What a wretched thing!” He cursed himself. Narada passed on and met the gardener. The gardener asked, “What is the reply from the Lord?” “You will take as many thousands of years to reach God as there are leaves in this tree.” And Narada pointed to a nearby tree. The gardener's joy knew no bounds. He was so happy. He jumped in ecstasy. “So, after all, I am fit!” His way of thinking was quite different from that of the farmer's. The farmer cried because he had to wait for fifty years more, and this gardener was in joy, in ecstasy, was bursting with the love of God, because he got the reply from the great Master, the Supreme Being, that he was after all fit to gain salvation even if that salvation was to come after as many thousands of years as there were leaves in the nearby tree. The story goes that his ecstasy of joy was such that it burnt all his sins in an instant, and he had divine vision at that very moment, whereas that poor farmer with fifty years' sorrows had no experience of the kind.

This is just an illustration given by Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa to explain the human situation in general in regard to the love of God, practice of Yoga, and the way in which one can be contented even under conditions which may appear to be very poor, unsatisfying and terrific. Truth triumphs—Satyameva jayate. And if we tread the path of truth even in a minute measure, to the extent that we do so, we are bound to succeed in this world. And if there be anyone who has a little bit of honest devotion directed to God-realisation, and the practice of Yoga in its essentiality, surely he is treading the path of truth, and therefore, he is bound to succeed to that extent. Nobody is destined to go to hell for ever and ever. Everybody is destined to reach the Supreme Absolute finally. The little sorrows, the pinpricks, the skirmishes through which we pass in life, are the effects of our previous actions. We have done something in the past, and the reactions come as thorns under our feet when we walk on the ground today. So, we should not be unnecessarily worrying over the little difficulties that we have in our life. They shall pass away, because they are reactions to our own actions. And when they exhaust themselves in their momentum, we will be free. So, we have reason to be happy, to be content, to be satisfied. Yadrischa-labha-santushtah, as the Bhagavad Gita puts it. Let us be satisfied with whatever circumstances we are in. Let us be happy under any condition. Otherwise, we will be brooding over unnecessary things; the mind will be distracted, and we cannot concentrate. Yoga will not be for us afterwards. Inasmuch as one is a student of Yoga, contentment is necessary; one must be satisfied inside and one should not be a complaint-master. The Yoga student must not complain about anything. This is another niyama or discipline, an observance which is enjoined upon all students of Yoga, by Patanjali in his system.

Tapas—Austerity of the Whole Personality

The third niyama is tapas or austerity. This is something very interesting to think of and to understand in its real significance. Austerity or tapas is, generally speaking, a kind of self-restraint. The Self, in any of its expressions, has the tendency, in its individual location, to move towards an object outside. We think of the things of senses. The mind contemplates objects. And for all practical purposes of our daily existence, we are only minds. When our mind is thinking of something outside, ‘we' are thinking of something outside. So, the Self is drawn towards that object which is the object of contemplation of the mind. Now, energy leaks out in this way. Every thought of an object, as a reality external to oneself, is a channelisation of force or energy in that direction. The mind becomes weak, the personality is famished, gradually, by contemplating on objects outside. The more we think of the objects outside us, the weaker we become in our personality. And the more we are able to restrain the urge of the senses and the mind from contemplating outside things, the more is the energy that we conserve, the greater is the strength that we have, physically and mentally. Tapas is restraint of the senses and the mind essentially.

In order to help the control of the senses and the mind, we are sometimes asked to observe even physical austerities. Why do people resort to ashrams and monasteries? Why not stay in Delhi or in Hollywood? What is the point in going to a monastery? It is a physical means that one adopts towards the control of the senses and the mind, because the physical atmosphere also plays a part in the matter of self control, though self-control does not mean merely a physical isolation of oneself. Physical isolation helps to a large extent, in many ways, in the control of oneself through the senses and the mind. The physical surroundings tell upon the mind. What we see with our eyes, what we hear with our ears—these have an impact upon what we think and how we think. So, while physical surroundings are not the only things that matter here, while they are not the most important things, they have something to contribute to the restraint of the senses and the mind. Therefore, physical austerity or tapas may include living in isolated places, free from unnecessary sensory distractions. And positively, it may mean being in the company of wise people, sages and saints, as far as it is possible, as a contribution towards a higher form of austerity or tapas by way of sensory withdrawal and mental restraint.

The checking of the urge of the mind in the direction of the senses is tapas or austerity. Tapas is a Sanskrit word which means heat. The heat of strength or power or energy is generated and increased in our system by the restraint of the senses and the mind. We become cold when energy is leaked out. When a man is about to die, his legs become cold, his hands become cold, his body becomes chill, the bloodstream is withdrawn, and the pranas retract inwardly because of the power of the mind moving in a different way. Energy, when it is absent in the physical body, makes it feel chill. We become cold in every way when we lack the heat of tapas. The heat of tapas is something like electric energy. It cannot be said that electric current is hot, though the same current can produce heat when channelised in a particular manner. Electric energy, by itself, is neither hot nor cold. It has no such characteristics. But, it is an energy which can become anything. It can heat, it can move, it can lift, it can do almost everything. So, the heat or energy which we conserve by the practice of tapas or austerity is such an impersonal energy which cannot be equated with heat or cold or any characteristic, though this energy can be utilised for the purposes of life which are variegated in their nature. Above all things, this energy becomes necessary for the concentration of the mind, because Yoga is nothing but concentration of mind and meditation of consciousness. The whole being of a person, the whole of his mind, intellect, feeling and spirit has to be channelised towards this supreme goal of Yoga.

Now, if there is a leakage of current at some point in the electric circuit, the voltage will fall. The electrical engineer will say, “There is a leakage somewhere, and so, there is a fall in the voltage.” That can happen to us also. The voltage of our energy falls, when there is a leakage of energy in some direction, through some avenue of the senses. So, by physical, verbal, sensory and mental abstraction of oneself from external objects, one can conserve his energy. And by doing so, a person not only becomes healthy physically and mentally, but also becomes strong. A person who practises tapas has greater strength than the one who does not so practise and who wastes his strength by way of indulgence in multitudinous activities of life. Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj used to say: “Tapas is nothing but burning like fire with the heat of energy by the control of the senses.” One who performs tapas has a glow in his face, a lustre in his eyes, an aura around his personality, a strength in his speech, and a capacity in his body on account of the austerity that he performs. Every word that he speaks will have a tremendous force and will carry conviction. But for his tapas, the same word will be a cold word which may not fall into the ears of any person. Tapas is austerity of the whole personality-body, speech, senses and the mind. Tapas is one of the observances, or niyamas.

Svadhyaya or Sacred Study

Now, these three principles of niyama mentioned already, namely, saucha, santosha, and tapas—purity, contentment and austerity—are difficult of practice unless they are accompanied by certain easier practices. The principal items of niyama that we have already mentioned are difficult things. And as they are difficult, they have to be accompanied by certain other contributory practices, such as the study of sacred scriptures. When everything is impossible of practice, we can at least study a scripture. We can go on reciting loudly certain chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, we will feel inspired. We can read loudly certain chapters of the Dhammapada or the Sermon on the Mount or “The Imitation of Christ.” We can recite aloud the great songs of the Alvars and the Nayanars, the saints and the sages, the bhaktas and the devotees. There are the writings of the Masters, the Yogis, and the adepts. We can study their inspired expositions and ourselves feel inspired. We can do parayana of the Srimad Bhagavata, the Vishnu Purana, the Mahabharata. We will be stimulated from within in a superior way. That itself will be tapas. Svadhyaya itself is a great austerity, a great devotion, a worship, a meditation.

Svadhyaya is a religion by itself. There are some people who spend their whole life in parayana only. They neither know nor do any Yoga practice other than parayana. The spiritual seeker should go on reciting a sacred scripture every day, concentrating his mind on its meaning, absorbing his mind in it and becoming that almost. Because, when he cannot summon sublime thoughts to his mind independently by himself, he has to take the aid of the thoughts of the great people which are recorded in the scriptures. When he cannot think for himself, he can at least acquiesce in the nature of the thinking of other persons who are superior to him, thinking which can be communicated to him by their words, discourses and writings. Svadhyaya is not going to a library and reading anything that is there. That is a different thing altogether. svadhyaya is sacred study, a study of one's own self, ‘sva-adhyaya', or rather, a study of anything that is connected with the nature of one's own self, that is connected with the practice of austerity, connected with the goal of life, the aim of Yoga or God-realisation. It is sacred study that we call svadhyaya and not the reading of any book for the purpose of information merely. If one reads the Encyclopedia Britannica, it is not svadhyaya, though one may gather a lot of information from it. Svadhyaya is sacred study of a holy scripture imbued with and charged with divinity, because such a scripture is a record of the words of great incarnations, mighty sages. The chanting of mantras is also regarded as a part of svadhyaya. Japa of Om, or of one's own Ishta-mantra into which one has been initiated by his Guru, is also regarded as a part of svadhyaya, in addition to the study of a scripture or a holy text. So, japa of a mantra or study of a holy scripture is svadhyaya, which one can resort to with benefit.

Isvara Pranidhana or Self-surrender to God

Isvara-pranidhana is the fifth item mentioned under the niyamas. A daily prayer to God is a great tapas by itself. When we get up in the morning, we must offer a prayer from the bottom of our heart, from the depth of our soul, weeping and crying for God. It is a great meditation; it is a complete Yoga by itself. More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of. Prayer is a tremendous power. It is an independent Yoga by itself and it does not require any other accessory to it. By mere prayer we can reach God, we can attain the great goal of Yoga, provided the heart prays and not merely the lips. Our prayers do not always come from the heart. The mass that is performed in the church, or the puja that is performed in the temple, is but a mere mechanical routine. People have to complete a routine, and they have to go to temple and church, but their mind is not there. Their heart does not melt, and when they pray, they neither cry nor weep. Therefore, their prayer cannot be called prayer. God listens to the prayer that comes from the soul of man and not to the prayer that emanates merely from his lips in so many words. So, Isvara-pranidhana or self-surrender to God, implying prayer, worship, dedication, and various other forms of worship, is regarded as one of the niyamas.

The observances—saucha, santosha, tapas, svadhyaya and Isvara-pranidhana—are personal practices of a religious nature, in the true sense of the term, and they have to go hand in hand with the niyamasahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya and aparigraha—already mentioned. Thus, yama and niyama form the rock-bottom of the other stages of Yoga, and in this way, are the central forte, as it were, of Yoga practice. These yamas and niyamas are not moral or ethical sermons that are given by the Yoga teachers. They are scientific disciplines, unavoidable and inviolable under all circumstances. The stages of our attunement to the various evolutionary stages of prakriti are the stages of the practice of Yoga. Patanjali's system of samyama—concentration, meditation and samadhi—is nothing but the systematised technique of setting the various levels of individuality in tune with the various levels of the cosmos. That is why we say that Samkhya is the base of Yoga, and that a knowledge of the nature of purusha and prakriti is necessary for an understanding of the nature of the various stages of discipline in the system of Patanjali known as yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi.