Yoga: Knowing the Unknown

This article was written by Srivatsa Ramaswami and is published here with his kind permission:


There is an interesting saying in Indian philosophy to indicate that there is a purpose in every activity one deliberately undertakes. Samkhyas and some schools of Buddhism also use this saying, “prayojanam anuddhisya mando pi na pravartate” meaning that even a dimwit will not do anything without an idea of what benefit one would get out of the effort.

So what is the goal of all these systems like Yoga, Vedanta, Samkhya and others? Yes one may want to know the ultimate goal and also the intermediate goals before starting such endeavors. I heard the following story from my great aunt when I was young. Even as I read more authentic versions subsequently, I am sticking to my grandma’s tale:

The Lord created the Universe and decided to populate the Universe. He created four young “humen” beings and asked them to populate the Universe. He implied that the lives in the Universe would be happy provided one would stick to Dharma. The four mind-children of the Lord (manasa putras) did not move. They could not take their wide eyes off the bewitching form of the Lord. They could not tear themselves away from the immensely satisfying immediate presence of the Lord, the formless Brahman. Their countenance indicated that they were perfectly happy. Looking at the Lord, the ultimate reality, they were brimming with bliss. The Lord realized that neither the normal nocturnal pleasures nor the huge heavenly happiness would anymore interest these beings. They had Kaivalya or Moksha even before they could be in bondage. They came to be known as nitya suris or perennial enlightened ones.

The Lord still wanted to go ahead with his pet project of creating a Universe with different creatures and experiences. So he created the four-headed Brahma, one of the Indian Trinity, and bade him to create beings including human beings. But the Lord created Brahma this time with Brahma’s back to Him so that Brahma would not see Him and attain instant nirvana like the earlier ones. Brahma duly chanted “OM’, the pranava mantra, and created the universe and the creatures . All beings thereafter went about their life cycles feverishly looking for some crumbs of happiness here and there in the midst of widespread unhappiness. There was never a chance to escape this unending cycle of births and deaths.

Since everyone from Brahma downwards had never experienced the ultimate reality, people were looking outward for happiness. Thus even though the Lord is said to have entered every being and resided as pure consciousness in everyone, nobody knew what was “behind the back” as it were. Someone had to say “Look Inward”. The Lord decided that there should be an escape route (nivritti marga) for some of those who were earnestly looking for liberation. He then asked one of the Nitya suris, Sanatkumara to help the deserving human beings to achieve moksha or liberation. Sanatkumara then was born to Siva, the third of the Trinity, as Kumara or Skanda. Because he had the direct experience of the Lord, the ultimate reality, he was astonished at the complete ignorance of all the beings about the ultimate reality. He even went up to Brahma, the creator aspect of the Trinity, and asked about how he started creation and if he knew the ultimate reality. Brahma said that he did it after chanting “OM” as mentioned in the vedas. Then Kumara promptly asked him for the meaning of “OM”, the pranava mantra and Brahma fumbled. “No, I do not know that” said Brahma sheepishly. Kumara became angry and said that Brahma was incompetent. Promptly Kumara imprisoned Brahma and took over creation himself.

Soon enough all those he created were like him and quickly the original scheme of the Lord of sustainable creation was coming to naught. Siva, the third of the Trinity and father of Kumara, then went up to him and asked him to release Brahma and let him do his work. But Kumara refused and said that the person who does not know the meaning of OM, the name/mantra of the Ultimate Reality, Brahman, is incompetent to do such an important task as creation. Siva said that he himself did not know the meaning of OM and casually asked the enlightened son for the meaning of Pranava. Kumara said that he would teach him, provided his father would study under him following strictly all the rules of a student. Siva agreed and became a disciple of his own son. Skanda taught him the meaning of OM and Siva became enlightened.

Skanda then came to be known as ‘tahappan swami” (Tamil) or “lord/preceptor/guru of one’s own father”. Brahma also learnt it and was then released by Kumara to continue his work. Siva then devised a method of understanding the ultimate reality, the Brahman or Purusha. It came to be known as Yoga, a very arduous procedure which only a few were able or willing to undertake and they came to be called as Yogis. Siva then bade Patanjali to formulate the yogia system which became the source book for all those who would like to take the ‘spiritual’ path and realize the ultimate reality which according to the Upanishad is Brahman.

But the desire for liberation (mumukshatva) does not come about easily. It needs right information and a lot of persuasion and convincing.

Even the most cultured intellectual (vidusha) has a thick veil of avidya in so far as ‘spiritual’ goal is concerned, the old texts aver as in the case of even the four headed Brahma. So the old foundation texts like the Upanishads, the Bhagavat Gita, the Yoga Sutra, the Samkhya philosophy, several puranas like the Bhagavata Purana, try multiple methods to wean away the disgruntled from the mundane existence to the ‘spiritual’ path. One method is to lead them from the known to the unknown. We all know both happiness and unhappiness.

So the upanishads start from known happiness and compare it to the bliss of ‘spiritual’ knowledge/experience, the unknown at the present. We all experience limited happiness. Who is the happiest human being? The upanishad talks of a perfect human being. Take the case of a young person, a noble soul -a dharmic person, an exceptional scholar, a great leader with an excellent physique, perfect and strong limbs and senses, very rich and propertied, like an emperor. Such a person would be the happiest human being. Let us mark it as one unit of human happiness, the limit of human happiness. All other human beings will have less than one unit of human happiness. Is there more than one unit or measure of happiness? Yes, says the upanishad. One hundred times happier will be the Gandharvas. So also those human beings who have known the scriptures (and the Pranava) and who have given up all desires, say the upanishads.

Gandharvas are considered to be the lowest in the hierarchy of gods and are basically excellent singers. But then the leader of this divine tribe, a deva gandharva, the celestial singer is capable of one hundred times more happiness than the ordinary Manushya Gandharvas. So is the one who has mastered the scriptures (and the Pranava or OM) and is absolutely not tormented by desires. One hundred times happier than the deva Gandharvas are the pitrus (manes), so also the ones who have mastered the scriptures (and OM) and are absolutely free of all desires. One hundred times happier are the ajana devas and the ones who have mastered the scriptures (and OM) and are free from all desires. Then there are the gods like the fire, wind, water, etc., who are propitiated by vedic sacrifices and who are a hundred times happier than the previous lot; and those who are well versed in the scriptures and free from all desires Indra, the boss of the gods is said to be one hundred times happier than the gods, so also those who are proficient in the vedas and pranava and are absolute Vairagis.

Brihaspati the preceptor of the devas is said to enjoy hundred times more happiness than Indra himself, so also those who have mastered the vedas and remain absolutely desireless. Prajapati, a son of Brahma, is said to be a hundred times happier than Brihaspati along with those who have mastered the vedas and are untouched by any kind of desire. A hundred times happier is Brahma, the four faced creator aspect of the Trinity, the one who we came across earlier in the story. Those who are well versed in the scriptures and absolutely desireless with respect to the entire creation are also as happy as Brahma. Then the one who is able to see the in-dweller of all beings and the one in the sun yonder as one and the same Brahman-the ultimate reality- is happier than even four faced Brahma (catur mukha), like the Nitya suris referred to earlier. His/Her bliss, the bliss of the enlightened one like the nitya suris we came across in the beginning is unsurpassed, eternal and infinite.

The Upanishad from the known facts about happiness, skillfully leads to the unsurpassed bliss of the Brahman awareness. It emphatically states that the one who knows the Brahman, the ultimate reality, the pure consciousness unaffected by space (akasa) and time (avakasa), attains the highest state (brahmavit aapnoti param).

How does Patanjali handle this, leading the yogabhyasi from what is known to what is unknown and superior? He refers to five states or five activities of the mind or chitta, five states we are all familiar with. All our lives we move through these five chitta vrittis. Some times the chitta is engaged in collecting information and sifting the facts from that, which is known as pramana vritti. More often the chitta from the information received misses the facts and comes to wrong conclusions, known to yogis as viparyaya vrithis. A lot of times the chitta imagines a number of things without any solid base called vikalpa vrittis. Our dreams including day dreams will come under this category. Then a lot of time is spent in deep sleep when one forgets everything including oneself due to the dominance of Tamas. Then there are occasions when we ruminate over the past, remember facts stored in the mind called smriti vrittis. Our vrittis fall into one group or the other.

But the Yogi’s vritti nirodha is a state of the chitta which is none of the above. Patanjali refers to this state of the mind called nirodha state which is none of the five vrittis we are all familiar with. The sixth state of the mind, the vritti nirodha state, according to Patanjali is one every chitta potentially has, but has never experienced. It is a state of absolute peace or irrevocable and complete satisfaction.

Again here the Sutras lead the yogi from known states to a state unknown but within everyone’s reach through Yoga. In that state of Kaivalya or chitta vritti Nirodha the mind is in a state of absolute objectless samadhi and the three gunas are in a state of equilibrium.. Patanjali again mentions this state as something beyond the seven motives/ stimuli that drive us to act variously. They are the desire to possess (prepsa), desire to rid (jihasa), desire to know (jignyasa), desire for action (chikirsha), fear (bhaya), depression (soka) and distraction (vikshepa). We are familiar with these states of mind, but the state of Kaivalya/nirodha is beyond these known states.

But how can we trust the upanishads or philosophies like Samkhya or Yoga? Yes that is the main problem for many. These thought systems are called Agamas or traditional authentic systems indicating that they are given to human beings for the general good and the prima facie view is that they are valid. The first information is gotten from these works and that knowledge is known as paroksha or indirect, usually highly academic. Many stop at that and excel in that intellectual indirect experience. Then one contemplates and then possibly gets convinced about the correctness when it is known as anumana or inferential knowledge. And finally by deep meditation, one pointedness (ekeagrata chitta), and Samadhi one is able to directly experience the state that was not there to start with which these works talk about. It is then known as pratyaksha or yougika pratyaksha or direct perception through Yoga.

Thus the old texts lead us, slowly but surely, from the known to the superior unknown .



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