Yoga Vashishtha contains the spiritual teachings that Sri Rama received from his guru, Sage Vashishtha, when he was only a teenager. The main theme of these teachings is that the world is a dream of the soul from which we must awake. Throughout its six chapters Yoga Vashishtha helps us identify why the world is a dream and how we can proceed from a state of sleep to a state of wakefulness, and how we can overcome the restricting factors of our personality and gain greater appreciation, awareness, understanding, contentment and peace in life.
The first chapter is Vairagya Prakarana, which deals with the subject of dispassion. The story begins in the kingdom of Ayodhya, ruled by King Dasharatha, when peace and prosperity prevailed amongst the people. Sri Rama and his brothers, the sons of Dasharatha, had just returned home from the gurukul. After spending a few calm and joyous weeks in Ayodhya, they had the desire to visit all the holy places, so Sri Rama asked his father for permission to go on an all India pilgrimage, a teertha. Eventually, one evening when the stars were shining bright and the wind was blowing light, Dasharatha granted his approval and the following day Sri Rama and his brothers, Lakshmana and Shatrughna, departed from Ayodhya. The third brother, Bharata, was unfortunately unable to accompany them due to other commitments.
The three brothers bathed in all the holy rivers of Satya yuga - the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati. They visited Prayag, Kedarnath, Pushkar, Gaya, Manasarovar, and had darshan of all the saints and sages who crossed their path. They did intense austerities and japa, and eventually, having completed their pilgrimage, they returned home to the joy of the people of Ayodhya.
This story can be also understood from another perspective, because stories in the scriptures tend to convey a meaning on two levels: a superficial level, which is the story itself, and a symbolic level, in which the characters and events symbolize spiritual concepts and processes. The pilgrimage on which Sri Rama and his brothers went represents the purification of mind that is necessary before any movement towards self-realization can take place. If you sow a seed with the intention that it will sprout and eventually become a massive healthy tree, first you need to prepare the land and create a suitable environment for its growth. In the same way, for the tree of wisdom and spirituality, which is already inherent within us, to grow in our lives, we need to purity our mind first. This pilgrimage is symbolic of that purification.
If we are expecting a very important visitor, we clean every inch of our home and put in much preparation and effort to ensure the visit is a success. Similarly, if we want to invite or invoke a noble quality or virtue in our life, we also have to pass through a process of mental cleansing and purification. Otherwise even if vairagya does come to us, it will take a look and say, "Gee, who wants to stay here?" The place has to be clean before you invite the noble qualities and virtues. So, the pilgrimage of Sri Rama and his brothers was symbolic of that mental cleansing and purification.
When Sri Rama and his brothers returned to Ayodhya, they spent some time in sunshine and happiness telling stories about the teertha to their family and friends. But that happiness didn't last very long, as they were suddenly overcome by anxiety and grief and stopped eating, drinking, speaking and all their other activities. Dasharatha asked his sons what the matter was, but since they were observing mouna he couldn't get an answer. So he waited, thinking it would pass, but one week, two weeks, three weeks, passed and still nothing changed. He became very worried and he went to the guru, Sage Vashishtha, to enquire about the cause of the boys' suffering, grief and anxiety. When Vashishtha heard the story he became very happy. Seeing Dasharatha's confusion, he told him not to worry, explaining that when the mind becomes purified it loses its longing for sensual pleasures and is no longer pleased by sensual objects. Due to an integrated mind, dispassion arises. Therefore, although grief may be experienced at first, it is actually a very important stage before one can advance onto the spiritual path heading towards self-realization.
Meanwhile an unexpected visitor arrived at the gates of the kingdom, who was none other than Sage Vishwamitra, a very important and highly realized saint. The moment he walked in the energy changed and everyone felt his spiritual aura. Dasharatha offered his respects, prostrated before him and, feeling privileged by the presence of such a highly evolved saint, promised to fulfil the purpose of his visit.
Vishwamitra explained that he had been performing some yajnas, some fire ceremonies, and practising some high sadhanas for the attainment of spiritual perfection and siddhis. In the process, however, demons, rakshasas, were pouring human blood, flesh and other impurities over the yajna, and interrupting his sadhana. Although he could destroy these demons himself easily, he did not want to use his spiritual power in the destruction of these demons, because he needed it for his spiritual sadhana. Therefore, he had come so that Sri Rama and Lakshmana could accompany him and guard the fire ceremony while he performed his sadhanas and yajna. This was the purpose of his visit.
Now that was not exactly what Dasharatha had in mind when he made his promise, because he then started pleading with Vishwamitra, saying, "Oh holy one, I value these two boys more than anything else in life. They are precious to me, they are only teenagers, illiterate about war, and also very weak because they have been fasting, as well as being in an unhappy state of mind. How can you expect me to allow them to fight demons? I will send you my entire army, I will even fight myself if needed, but please don't ask for Sri Rama and Lakshmana."
Vishwamitra became furious, and said, "How dare you, a member of Raghu's race, fail to keep your word?" He became so angry that a storm began to form in the sky. There was thunder and lightning, the earth began to tremble and the gods began to fear for the earth's safety. Sage Vashishtha, who was observing this confrontation and wanted to avoid trouble, said to Dasharatha, "It is because of your adherence to dharma that you have become what you are today. Therefore, don't be foolish. Keep your word as befits a member of Raghu's race." Dasharatha was finally convinced and sent for Sri Rama and Lakshmana.
Let us now view this scene from a different perspective, because it is one of the most important scenes, not only in this chapter, but in the entire Yoga Vashishtha. Sri Rama represents the ideal aspirant who is on the way to self-realization. Dasharatha is Sri Rama's father. The word Dasharatha is composed of two words, das, meaning 'ten' and rath, meaning 'chariot'. 'Chariot' refers to the embodied soul and 'ten' to the ten horses by which the embodied soul is being driven. Those ten horses are the ten senses, the five jnanendriyas, or organs of knowledge, and the five karmendriyas, or organs of action. So Sri Rama represents the divine self and Dasharatha represents the ego self. In this scene we have Dasharatha, the ego self, not allowing Sri Rama, the divine self, to progress on its spiritual journey, thus describing a spiritual process.
The word Vishwamitra is also composed of two words: vishwa, meaning world, and mitra, meaning friend. Vishwamitra is the universal friend. Although he may not have seemed too friendly in the last scene, he is the true universal friend. He is the one who asks the ego-self, Dasharatha, to allow the divine self, Sri Rama, to progress on his spiritual path by allowing him to destroy the demons, the rakshasas, which are symbols of the forces of ignorance - hatred, jealousy, pride, etc. So what appears to be a simple scene is actually illustrating the intricacies of spiritual life.
There is one more implication. Who is the main character in this scene? Sri Rama and his brothers are locked in their room, so it cannot be them. Vishwamitra has only come on a short visit and Vashishtha is just in the background, so it cannot be them either. The main character in this scene is Dasharatha, Sri Rama's father. We are all Dasharatha, because each of us is being pulled by ten horses - the ten senses. These horses are not just blind but also have their own egos. Just as a bank has its headquarters in one city and regional branches in other cities which report on their pluses and minuses, in the same way our ego also has its 'head-quarters' and its branches of sight, hearing, taste and so on, which inform the headquarters of the likes and dislikes. The headquarters then receives that message and, according to its understanding, sends back a message to take the appropriate action.
Dasharatha being Sri Rama's father, and all of us being Dasharatha, is implying that we can also give birth to Sri Rama in our life. How? Well how did Dasharatha manage to have Sri Rama as his son? Two factors played an important role in this event. The first was the grace and blessings of a sannyasin. When Dasharatha had that longing for a son, he was an old man, and he had to seek that grace and blessing of a sannyasin, who performed a yajna which led to the birth of Sri Rama. The second important factor was his association with sattwa, of which his wife, Kaushalya, was a symbol.
The first requirement we already have. Whether we call it divine grace, Swami Sivananda, Swami Satyananda or Swami Niranjan, it is because of that grace that the ashram exists and that we are an integral part of it, whether as sannyasins, students or devotees, striving to make yoga a part of our lives today.
It is the second requirement, association with sattwa, which we have to firmly establish in our life. How? On the physical plane, if you want to attract somebody as your girlfriend or boyfriend, you make yourself physically clean and handsome. In the same way when we want to associate with a quality in life, sattwa, we need to make ourselves clean and handsome on the internal plane. In order to become internally clean and handsome we need to awaken and develop wisdom so as to attain to the state of vairagya. Wisdom is the main requirement for establishment in vairagya. Being established in wisdom is having the understanding that "I am not the body, I am not the senses, not the slave of the senses, the thoughts, the feelings or the emotions but rather I am a truth far beyond that. I am the master and I am the one who directs the senses. I am the charioteer and master of my life."
The first step in developing wisdom is to strengthen the willpower, because willpower gives us the endurance to direct all of these, even while under the influence of other currents. However, due to deeply rooted mental conditionings and lack of mental discipline, our willpower has become weak and we identify with the senses, the body, the thoughts, the emotions. When we are identifying with these, there is undirected mental activity because we are allowing all those regional egos to take the lead in our life.
How can willpower be strengthened? Willpower is strengthened by adopting sanyam in daily life. Samyam has been translated as self-restraint, holding back, but that is not the real meaning, as it defeats the entire purpose of the word. The word sanyam is composed of two roots - sam, meaning 'balance', and yam, meaning 'attitude'. Having a balanced attitude and a balanced approach in life is sanyam. If we analyze what makes us lose our balance, it is the attraction and repulsion between likes and dislikes, between pleasure and pain, between positivity and negativity. This attraction and repulsion makes us swing from side to side like a pendulum, and this swinging becomes the story of our life. It indicates that we are identified with the thoughts, the desires, the emotions, the ambitions, the weaknesses and limitations, and that the mental activities are not guided. Where there is an absence of attraction and repulsion, where there is equipoise, where there aren't two poles between which we swing constantly, where there is steadiness, that is vairagya.
So, we have gone from vairagya to wisdom, from wisdom to willpower, from willpower to sanyam, and from sanyam to vairagya. When the focus in life becomes to develop and attain sanyam, to maintain our balance even in the most difficult of situations and in the strongest of currents, to maintain that inner peace and serenity and to witness our thoughts, desires and senses as indications of the quality of our mind and responses, then we can say that we are starting to become the drashta, the witness, the charioteer and master of our life.
So, to give birth to Sri Rama the first step is learning to guide the activities of the mind by adopting sanyam. There is a potential Sri Rama within all of us and we can joyously celebrate that birth by adopting sanyam at every moment and step of our lives as a vehicle of vairagya.