Yoga Vashishta is the name of one of the most ancient and famous scriptures of India. The name literally means "the Yoga of Sage Vashishta", Vashishta being the name of a great rishi or seer. He was the guru of Rama, a great emperor, and he was also the family guru (kula guru) of a ruling dynasty of ancient India called the solar dynasty.
The scripture takes the form of a dialogue between Rama and Vashishta in which the question is raised as to whether karma (duty and work) or renunciation is most conducive to spiritual illumination. Vashishta says that both duty and renunciation are necessary. A bird needs two wings in order to fly, and in the same way, for the spiritual flight, also the two wings of fulfilment of one's own duty and inner renunciation are required.
The dialogue concerns the dilemma of Rama in his relationship with life. When he was young he was sent to live with his guru for twelve years. When he returned he began to neglect his daily duties and did not participate in the family affairs. He became depressed and did not take interest in his family and friends. He used to sit in his room and brood, and led a very undisciplined life.
His father Dasharatha became perturbed and summoned Rama and confronted him. He said, 'My son, you have lived with your guru for twelve years and When you came back, we expected you to fulfil your commitments, obligations and responsibilities. What has happened to you that you are completely withdrawn and disinterested in life?'
Rama replied, 'I am not interested in this world because here everything is evanescent. Every pleasure is temporary. I see no fun in relating myself to the frivolities of life. Why should I participate in life when it is so transitory? What is the use of pursuing the affairs of life if they are to come to an end? Life is so short and uncertain that one doesn't know whether one will live for another second. The more one does karma, the more one develops samskaras (mental impressions); and the more one develops samskaras, the more one has pains; the more the pains, the greater the anxieties and worries, and the more one gets entangled in life and death, life and death. This endless circle will never come to an end. So I am withdrawing myself.'
His father got worried and requested Sage Vashishta to set his son's philosophy in order, and this dialogue is the text of the Yoga Vashishta. Vashishta tells of the secrets of spiritual life and the relationship between karma and realisation. He explains that it is not at all necessary to renounce karma and only do meditation. Many people are misguided and they think that they have to leave work because by work they accumulate more work and more samskaras. They think that by doing karma they become impure and contaminated. And for this reason they retire from the active arena of life. Vashishta makes it clear that this is not at all necessary. What is important is that one should aspire towards spiritual life, whilst continuing to live in the world.
Another point to be considered is that meditation without karma does not bear tangible and real results. Fulfilment of desire and ambition is necessary for spiritual growth. Karma is necessary for spiritual growth. Man is made up of desires, if he has no desires he cannot live. But we suffer from guilt. On account of this guilt, we often convince ourselves that desires are not present, and that if they exist they are not to be accepted.
What is karma? Karma is the rendering of desire into action; the expression, the external form of ambition is karma. You have desire and that makes you work. So a desire is translated into karma. Those who do not perform karma, do not give free expression to their desires and their desires remain suppressed.
Desires are threefold - desire for progeny and procreation, desire for wealth and desire for sensual pleasure. These are the three broad classifications of desires. You have to fulfil all of them. If you don't, then they will remain suppressed. If your desires are suppressed you cannot progress, no matter what meditation you do. Therefore, the karmas that you perform are a process of elimination of suppressed and unexpressed vasanas (latent desires). As such, renunciation of desires is not tenable.
A story is narrated in the Yoga Vashishta about a king who was overwhelmed by vairagya (the sense of dispassion). He renounced his kingdom and went away to practise meditation and penance in the jungles, far away from his kingdom. In his absence, his wife, Queen Chudala ruled the kingdom.
Though the king did not know, Chudala was already an enlightened yogini. One day, she realised that her husband was wasting his time and she decided that she would guide him. Psychically, she transported herself to where her husband was doing sadhana. He was sitting in meditation. The queen levitated in front of him and the king opened his eyes. 'What are you doing here?' he asked. She said, 'I am here to tell you that while ruling your kingdom I have attained siddhi, and that you, while, doing sadhana and meditation, are sleeping.' The king was thunderstruck, but also realised that his wife was telling the truth. He asked his wife to instruct him on spiritual life. She said, 'Material life can never contaminate spiritual life. Money and desires cannot touch the spirit because they are eternally different entities'. If you mix water and petrol, they will always remain separate. Likewise material life and spiritual life are totally different. Those people are misguided who think that worldly life can contaminate spiritual life.
When you identify yourself with karma, then you suffer. Karma is not the cause of suffering. Your identification with karma is the cause of suffering and this identification is a kind of neurosis.
There is also another story which illustrates this point, though it is not in the Yoga Vashishta. Once there was a swami who had an ashram where kirtan and bhajan used to continue day in and day out. Opposite the ashram there was the house of a prostitute, who was visited by men at all hours. The swami used to watch the continuous stream of clients going to visit her... nine, ten, eleven, twelve. In between kirtan, he used to come and watch from the ashram balcony. And the prostitute, when she was with her customers, used to listen to the sound of the kirtan... 'Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna' and become ecstatic. During intervals between her work, she would sit quietly and sing kirtan. During her work and during breaks she was aware only of kirtan and bhajan.
There came a time when both of them died. They were both brought before Yama, the divine judge of good and bad karma. He told his secretaries: 'Send this lady to heaven and consign this swami to hell'. The swami got furious. He said, 'What? In my ashram kirtans go on twenty four hours daily. I have never touched a woman. I have been a celibate in an ashram for eighty years. I have never seen anyone beyond a cloister. I haven't even seen a woman's shadow. How can you send me to hell?'
Yama smiled and said, 'You are right, Swamiji. I know you conducted kirtan continuously, held spiritual discourses, ate pure vegetarian food and never consumed spices. You did not talk to a woman, about a woman, or with a woman. But what were you thinking all the time? Were you not always thinking about the lady that lived opposite your ashram?'
The swami said, 'She was a prostitute. What have I got to do with her? I only knew that people were visiting her.' Yama said, 'Yes, what you say is true, but if you were so elevated, what business do you have with a prostitute, or anyone for that matter? It is not karma that is important, it is obsession and identification. You identified yourself with the life she was living; and, this lady, even though she was a prostitute, was always identifying herself with your ashram life and absorbed in the bhajan and kirtan. She always dreamed of how she could live your way of life some day. Her passions and monetary requirements did not allow her to live an ashram life. She was the daughter of a prostitute and had to continue that tradition. But year after year she ardently identified herself with the spiritual symphony of life. Her actions may have been un-virtuous, but that does not matter. Actions cannot touch the soul. Her soul was spiritually inclined and therefore I assigned her to heaven. Yours was the opposite and I have consigned you to hell'.
Therefore, according to the Yoga Vashishta, one must take care of one's innate identifications, rather than react obsessively for or against one's karma. Sage Vashishta explains to Rama about time, space, object, idea, imagination, emotion and their relationship to man's spiritual progress and also to man's bondage. How does a desire bind a man and how does it also make him free? You love and you also hate; where do they bind you and where do they make you free?
Sage Vashishta narrated another story about a king and his queen, who was called Lilawati. One day both of them were sitting and talking about politics and family affairs. The queen was sleepy and she dozed off. She had a dream in which she became old and died. She was reborn, became a child, became a young woman, got married, had children, became old again and died. Seven times she was reborn, went through a life process and died. And then she woke up. Hardly two minutes had passed and the king was still talking. In that short time she had the experience of seven lives and that experience was real to her because she enjoyed her childhood and youth, loved her different husbands and children and also suffered in old age. Everything was real in the dream from the point of view of experience. Of course, when her level of consciousness returned to the wakeful state, the experiences had no relevance, but nevertheless she had undergone them.
In the same way, if you change the level of your awareness, then what is happening to you now, the mental and emotional situations that you are confronting in your life, will be as irrelevant as the dream experiences of Lilawati. When Lilawati was undergoing the dream experiences, they were real for her. But when she changed the level of mind, then, and only then, did they become relative. In the same way, the experiences which we have now, whatever they are, the people we meet, our emotions, our actions seem to be real and have validity, but from a higher level of awareness, they will seem unreal. After all, the experiences which we are undergoing are not absolute. They are relative.
Sage Vashishta explains to Rama that there is not one, but many levels of experience. In each level, you have what appears to be real, but when you transcend that level then those experiences have no validity. Seemingly valid and real experience is that which the mind identifies with. Nothing more.
If you think that the way to gain spiritual knowledge is to renounce karma and duties, then you are misguided and have missed the essential point of spiritual life. Karma is relative and gyana (knowledge) is also relative because they are both experiences of the mind. And any experience which you have through the mind is not absolute, but limited. In order to have absolute experience, you must transcend the mind. And you cannot transcend the mind unless you transcend karma through doing karma.
Sage Vashishta told Rama, 'Look here, you are going to have to work, to become king, and rule your subjects. You are going to administer and create law and order. You will have to do so many things, and there is no harm. But you must remember one thing; that everything is an idea. Gyana is an idea and karma is an idea; renunciation is an idea as well as desire and passion. Even spiritual experience is an idea. After all, the whole world is maya, the conglomeration of ideas.'
Sage Vashishta closes his instructions to Rama by saying, 'Even if the world is unreal, participate, because even that participation is unreal. Even if everything that is happening is all stupidity, participate. Be stupid with the stupid, foolish with the fools.'
You can become an emperor, a general, a swami, an administrator, a housewife, a trader, a businessman, an artist, an engineer or even a prostitute. These are all an expression of your karma. 'Oh Rama, even though you will rule a kingdom, it does not stand in the way of spiritual life. Renunciation of objects and duties is not renunciation. It is renunciation of idea or identification that is important. One must fulfil obligations, the duties of nature. Then and only then, will they not come into direct confrontation with spiritual life.'