Yoga Vashishtha – an Introduction

Swami Suryaprakash Saraswati

Yoga Vashishtha, written by Sage Valmiki, is the spiritual teaching imparted by Sage Vashishtha to Sri Rama. In Balakand of Ramayana there is also a reference that Rama received spiritual instructions and guidance from his guru Vashishtha. While the Ramayana relates Sri Rama's adventures and the meaning of the different stages of his life, Yoga Vashishtha relates the teachings which he received and describes the different chapters in his spiritual evolution. Yoga Vashishtha is also known as the Maha Ramayana, the Uttar Ramayana and the Vashishtha Ramayana. We can also call it the 'Behind the scenes Ramayana', because it describes how Rama's knowledge, wisdom and understanding evolved and progressed throughout the different stages of his life.

Yoga Vashishtha is an elaborate work, consisting of 32,000 verses and 64,000 lines. It has been divided into six main chapters, which are the different stages of spiritual evolution in the life of Sri Rama. The chapters are called prakaranas. The first chapter is Vairagya Prakarana, in which Sri Rama experiences a very deep and intense dispassion and distaste for all worldly objects and pleasures. Although in Sri Rama's case the desire for worldly objects was never described as being very intense, still it is the first stage of Sri Rama's spiritual evolution and the first requirement in spiritual life.

The second chapter is the Mumukshu Prakarana, which describes the intense desire for Self-realization that Sri Rama experiences. After achieving vairagya, after attaining the state of being different from the world, of not being involved but being more of an observer, then the next stage is changing the quality of the desires from worldly to spiritual. That is the second stage of Sri Rama's evolution.

The third chapter is the Utpatti Prakarana in which Sri Rama learns from his guru the origins of the world. It is deepening the understanding of why we get caught up and involved with worldly objects and pleasures, and how those outside objects are identified in the mind.

The fourth chapter is the Sthiti Ramayana in which, after having attained that firm understanding of the origin of the world process, Sri Rama sustains himself in the Self, in Brahman. That is the time of spiritual enlightenment. The fifth chapter is the Upasama Prakarana, which describes the deep peace that emerged from having attained that spiritual enlightenment. The sixth chapter is the Nirvana Prakarana, which is the final liberation.

Waking up from the dream

The main theme of Yoga Vashishtha is that the soul is undergoing a dream from which it must awake. This dream represents our association and identification with the world. The fact that it is described as being a dream means that whatever is in it has to be false. Nothing in a dream can be true. Waking up from that dream is the ultimate goal, Self-realization.

Yoga Vashishtha has been written, not as straight dialogue between Sage Vashishtha and Sri Rama, but in the form of a story within a story within a story. It is not a standard scriptural textbook. Our lives are also rather like a story within a story within a story. For example, a desire arises for a particular object. Then there is a pursuit to obtain that object. If the object is attained, there is an elation, a happiness, that doesn't last very long, as we know. Then there is a further desire for what we consider to be a better object. Again there is another pursuit after that object. But if the object is not obtained, there is frustration, anger, loss of mental balance, and then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere guilt arises - "Why was I pursuing this object in the first place?" But the desire for that object still remains along with the guilt. The mind that is feeling guilty for pursuing that object is the same mind that wants to obtain that object. So there is mental conflict, confusion and no clarity.

The first chapter has been called Vairagya Prakarana because until one cuts that identification with and desire for worldly objects, that fogginess will remain. Not until the fogginess disappears will mental clarity prevail and will one be able to evaluate, analyze and reflect on what the true aspiration is. While we are involved in that desire, we cannot see what the real aspirations are and what we really want to obtain, and there will be no real transformation in the quality of that desire. That is why Vairagya Prakarana has been described as the first chapter in Sri Rama's spiritual evolution, and of course it applies to all aspirants. Once there is clarity, then comes the second chapter, Mumukshu Prakarana, which is changing the quality of that desire to a higher nature, which is Self-realization.

Sri Rama describes this in a very beautiful and simple way. If you pour water into a basket made out of straw, what will happen? The water will not remain in the basket. All the water will permeate through and the basket will remain empty. The basket symbolizes the drive to indulge and involve oneself in worldly objects and pleasures because there is a need for happiness and peace, the desire to obtain something, to achieve something, and to be stable in that happiness and inner peace. The pouring of water into the basket represents the effort, the purushartha, that one makes in one's life to obtain that something. But what happens? The fact that the water permeates through the basket and leaves it empty means that no matter how much water you pour in, no matter how deep you go in that dream, the basket will always remain empty. That is the transitory, short term and temporary nature of the happiness and contentment derived from worldly objects.

Imagine you are having a nightmare in which people are chasing you and you are running away. Suddenly the road splits into two. On one side people are still chasing you, so you say, "I'd better not go in that direction and I cannot go back." So what do you do? You either turn to the right and continue running in the same circle, or you simply wake up and put an end to the dream. This waking up from the dream, which is described in Yoga Vashishtha, is the opening of the third eye. The third eye is a symbol which represents discrimination, wisdom. It is that discrimination and wisdom which ultimately leads one to the experience of vairagya, of dispassion.

Discrimination means knowing what is right and what is wrong, being able to differentiate and to guide one's life and efforts towards something everlasting, not something temporary which will disappear the moment you touch it. Applying that discrimination then becomes dispassion. Dispassion is not something that can be applied as an intellectual concept, rather it is a gradual process of transformation of the mind and of the nature of the mind, transformation of the desires and the quality of these desires. So, Yoga Vashishtha describes the spiritual aim as being the waking up from that dream that we are going through.

Sutikshna and Agastya

The first story in the Vairagya Prakarana does not begin with Sage Vashishtha speaking to Sri Rama, but with a very humble and modest Brahmin named Sutikshna who has gone to his guru, Sage Agastya, for spiritual guidance. When Agastya, knowing his disciple very well, asked him the cause of his confusion and grief, Sutikshna said, "Tell me, is it the performance of one's duty that will lead one to liberation, to nirvana, to moksha, or is it the renunciation of everything, going to the Himalayas and forgetting everybody and everything?"

Sage Agastya replied, "Just as a bird flies on two wings, in the same way the aspirant flies up to the goal of self-realization, to liberation, on the two wings of karma and wisdom. So it is neither one nor the other but the blending of the two. That is the art which one has to learn to evolve in spiritual life." Seeing that Sutikshna was still confused, Agastya said, "I will tell you another story to help you understand better."

Agnivesya and Karunya

The second story is about Karunya and his father Agnivesya. Once upon a time there was a boy named Karunya who went to the gurukul at an early age and mastered the Vedas and the Puranas and became a very knowledgeable person. After finishing his training, he returned to his father's home. Suddenly, one day he too became depressed and fell into a state of grief. Agnivesya went to him and said, "Tell me the cause of your grief." Karunya replied, "I have been studying all this time, but still I have one question. It is mentioned in the scriptures that one will attain liberation, that one will free oneself from the cycle of births and deaths, through the performance of one's duties. But at the same time it says that only through renunciation will one attain this freedom. So what should one do?" Agnivesya replied, "I will tell you a story which will help you to understand this point perfectly."

Suruchi and Devadutta

So here is the third story, and the dialogue between Sage Vashishtha and Sri Rama has still not yet begun. Agnivesya began, "Once upon a time a beautiful damsel named Suruchi was sitting on a mountain peak in the Himalayas, reflecting on life. All of a sudden she saw a messenger of Lord Indra's flying by, so she called him and asked, "Where are you going?" He replied, "That is a very good question, let me tell you a story."

Devadutta and Arishtanemi

Once upon a time there was a king named Arishtanemi. After having performed his kingly duties and having ruled the kingdom with authority, according to the scriptures, he had retired and passed on his kingdom to his son. For hundreds and hundreds of years he had practised severe austerities and meditations in the forest. Lord Indra was so impressed that he sent his messenger Devadutta to invite Arishtanemi to the heavens. So Devadutta went off in a chariot full of the most beautiful damsels and the most learned scholars to invite King Arishtanemi on a first class flight to the heavens.

Devadutta arrived in the forest where Arishtanemi was practising his meditation, and passed on Lord Indra's invitation. Arishtanemi understood that he was being offered a reward for his good deeds, the fruits of his karmas. He said, "Tell me what kind of fruits I will enjoy from these karmas in the heavens?" Devadatta replied, "According to the karmas one has performed in one's life, the quality of the fruit will vary. Due to this variety, there is jealousy amongst the enjoyers of the fruits. Therefore, once the bonus is consumed, you have to go back and pass through another stage of birth."

King Arishtanemi said very firmly, "No, I am not going with you. I am performing these austerities to experience everlasting happiness and peace within, and to know that source, not to go through the same thing. Therefore, I'm not going with you."

Arishtanemi and Valmiki

So Devadutta returned in an empty flight, first class, and told Lord Indra what Arishtanemi had said. Lord Indra said, "Go back and take him to Sage Valmiki. Tell Sage Valmiki to instruct Arishtanemi in spiritual knowledge, to guide him and lead him towards liberation, which is the reason why he is here."

Devadutta took King Arishtanemi to Sage Valmiki and when Arishtanemi saw Valmiki, he understood that he had come to the right place. He said, "I wish you to instruct and guide me, so that I can become free from these sorrows and miseries which I am unable to separate myself from alone." At this point, Sage Valmiki begins to tell King Arishtanemi the story of Yoga Vashishtha, the dialogue between Sage Vashishtha and Sri Rama.

From intellect to intuition

So the introduction to Vairagya Prakarana contains many stories within stories. These stories have a two fold meaning. There is always a superficial meaning and at another level a more spiritual and deeper understanding.

In the first story Sutikshna approaches Agastya for spiritual guidance. Sutikshna means subtle, sharp, and Agastya means the effulgent sun. The movement of Sutikshna towards Sage Agastya represents the move of the intellect towards intuition. An aspirant with the ability to move from intellect to intuition is considered to be the highest type of aspirant. The scriptures say that intellect is considered to be a barrier in spiritual life, but this has to be understood properly. As the absence of intellect is not the key to overcoming this barrier, the key has to be something associated with intellect.

Intellect begins with the letter 'I'. The purpose of intellect is also to serve 'I', so if intellect is not the barrier directly, it is this 'I-ness' associated with the intellect which becomes the barrier. Intellect and ego, 'I-ness', have a very intimate relationship, even more intimate than the relationship between a husband and wife. The way to transcend this barrier is therefore not to create an absence of intellect, but to change the purpose and application of intellect. Instead of applying the intellect for ourselves, we apply the intellect for others.

The guru-disciple relationship is described as the way to transcend this barrier. In all these stories there is a guru and a disciple. In the guru-disciple relationship there is acceptance, faith and surrender: one is undergoing training, one is 'in-tuition'. This ability to move from intellect to intuition is considered to be a quality of the highest type of aspirant, because while letting go of family and possessions is not considered so difficult, letting go of that 'I-ness' is considered to be one of the toughest and rarest abilities.

Purification of the mind

The second story is between Karunya and Agnivesya. Karunya means one who is full of grief, confusion, and Agnivesya means an embodiment of fire. The movement of Agnivesya towards Karunya represents the need of the chitta to be purified by the superconsciousness, the need of the mind to be purified through raja yoga. Karunya is considered to be the second best type of aspirant on the spiritual path. In the first story Sutikshna approached Agastya for spiritual guidance, but here Agnivesya had to approach Karunya in order to relieve him of his grief and confusion.

Spiritual inclination

The third story is between Suruchi, a damsel, and Devadutta, Lord Indra's divine messenger. Suruchi means good taste. Her calling out to Devadatta is a sign of spiritual inclination, because even though it may have been a mental diversion initially, it becomes the source of her being led to spiritual heights, as Devadutta then tells the story which eventually leads to the dialogue between Sage Vashishtha and Sri Rama. Suruchi also represents the integration of sentiments required in an aspirant on the path of bhakti. She is considered to be the third best type of aspirant on the spiritual path.

From rajas to sattwa

In the next story, Arishtanemi approaches Sage Valmiki, not directly, but after having refused a first class invitation to the heavens. The movement of Arishtanemi towards Valmiki therefore symbolizes the movement of rajas towards sattwa, Arishtanemi representing rajas, the destroyer of evil, and Valmiki representing divine purity, sattwa.

Sri Rama and Sage Vashishtha

In the next story revealed by Sage Valmiki to Arishtanemi, Sri Rama represents the embodied divine Self and Sage Vashishtha represents the Self in the highest state of liberation. This depicts the movement of the soul towards Self-realization. It is the waking up of the soul from the world, which is the theme of Yoga Vashishtha. Sri Rama is the ideal disciple, the best that one can find.

In this teaching, Sage Valmiki expands on each and every aspect of spiritual evolution. These stories, therefore, are not only stepping stones leading into Yoga Vashishtha, but also describe the different types of aspirants on the spiritual path and the internal processes and movements they undergo as the personality is transformed. They also emphasize the need for a guru-disciple relationship.

Before beginning the story between Sri Rama and Sage Vashishtha, Valmiki explains that he had composed the Poorva Ramayana. Yoga Vashishtha is known as the Uttar Ramayana and the Ramacharitamanas is considered to be the Poorva Ramayana. Valmiki says that he offered the Poorva Ramayana to his disciple Bharadvaja, who became so enlightened and so happy from reading it that he revealed the story to Brahma, the creator. Brahma also became so happy after hearing it that he offered Bharadvaja any boon he wanted. Bharadvaja asked for a way by which everyone could escape from and transcend the miseries of the world, and become liberated. Brahma then sent him to ask Sage Valmiki to write the Uttar Ramayana, which would be in the form of a dialogue between Sri Rama and his guru Sage Vashishtha. As a result, everyone who comes into contact with that spiritual teaching and who studies it with devotion will become liberated. It is from this point that the dialogue between Sri Rama and Sage Vashishtha begins.