Yoga: The Path to Universal Being

Dr Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati

AUM TAT SAT is declared to be the threefold designation of the absolute . . . Acts of sacrifice, charity and austerity as enjoined by the sacred texts are always commenced with the utterance of the word AUM by those noble souls who are given to reciting the vedic chants. With the idea that everything belongs to Him (TAT), the various acts of sacrifice, penance and gift are performed by seekers of liberation without desiring any fruit in return. The divine name SAT is employed in the sense of truth and goodness; even so, Arjuna, the term SAT is used in the sense of a praiseworthy act. Steadiness in sacrifice, penance and giving is also designated as SAT, and truthfully, action for the sake of Him is termed as SAT’.

(Bhagavad Gita 17: 23–27)

One of the best ways we can cultivate higher awareness and link the little self to the higher Self is through the use of mantra. Mantras have the power to awaken consciousness. One of the great mantras used to achieve this is often used as a greeting in India. Instead of just saying ‘hello’ or ‘how are you?’ yogis will often say Hari Om or Hari Om Tat Sat.

Hari means ‘the manifest cosmos’, AUM ‘the unmanifest invisible realm’, Tat means ‘that’ and Sat means ‘the ultimate reality’. Therefore, this greeting helps awaken us to our true nature. We remind ourselves and others that we are much more than just a body and mind. We hold in our awareness the truth that we are both an individual being and also a higher consciousness; that there is a vast absolute consciousness that is both invisible and at the heart of all manifested forms. We should never forget this; it is the essence of yoga.

Yoga teaches us to develop ourselves as individual beings and as universal beings. This article will help us develop a clearer view of the difference between individual consciousness and existence and universal consciousness and existence. It is only when we hold this understanding in our awareness that we can aim our yoga practice so as to really connect these two parts of ourself.

The journey from individual to universal consciousness

The individual personality is composed of a body-mind and an individual, localised consciousness. The individual consciousness is localised to one fragment of time and space, one little identity. Its true nature is non-localized consciousness, but only a fragment of our consciousness is awakened. The rest is asleep or unconscious. This is why we experience ourselves as individuals – our consciousness is like a small candle flame in a moonless night. It does not yet have the power of a sun which can illumine all of space. And so we cannot experience the vast transcendent part of ourselves which, according to the Upanishads, shines like a million suns.

Because our awareness is limited, we can only feel a small part of ourselves. Therefore, we develop a little personality which identifies with that small part of ourselves. We feel separate from the world around us and seek 'yoga': union with life, with something greater than what we think and feel we are. What we aim to unite with is the universal consciousness, with our true Self. We are like fish swimming in an ocean, yet are unaware that vast waters surround them. In the same way, we are a limited consciousness in a vast universal consciousness but we are unaware of its existence; we cannot feel or experience it.

The universal consciousness is the totality of our being. It is non-localized consciousness. Universal consciousness is not stuck in one place but is both contained within and also transcends space and time. The mantra which signifies universal consciousness is AUM.

Yogic and tantric philosophies teach us that the universal consciousness has dual aspects of cosmic consciousness and cosmic energy/matter. These aspects of energy/matter and consciousness interpenetrate each other and cannot be separated in the same way that light and heat cannot be separated form the sun. There is a world of form which is manifest existence and there is a world which of formlessness, a realm of pure consciousness. The process of studying these two poles of our being is a truly powerful, joyful and awe-inspiring journey as it is an enquiry into our essence and the essence of the universe.

The yogic path

The yogic journey begins with the individual personality seeking to understand and cultivate itself. We learn how to have a healthy body and a strong calm mind, and how to relate to the world with greater skill and awareness. This first stage of yogic exploration is aimed at developing a balanced, healthy and integrated individual personality.

The second stage of yogic study develops our relationship and connection with the higher and more universal aspects of ourself. This process can only really come about in an embodied and experiential sense when we have completed some preliminary work on the little body-mind. Prior to this, the universal self is just an intellectual concept rather than a lived presence.

The third stage of yogic study leads us to the final goal of yoga, in which we merge with the absolute, unlimited part of ourselves and realise that we are both the fish and the ocean. This is the ultimate attainment in yoga and only comes after we have done a great deal of work on ourselves. However, it is important to remember that this goal exists.

Consciousness – awareness and energy

The individual human personality has two fundamental aspects: awareness and energy. Awareness is synonymous with consciousness. It is the eternal, unchanging, immaterial, invisible aspect of being. It has no personality or characteristics and is our true nature and essence. It is that with which the yogi wishes to unite.

Energy, on the other hand, is the eternally changing aspect which has infinite characteristics and forms. It is energy which creates, shapes, and drives our body-mind – the visible and tangible part of ourselves. Energy is equivalent with matter and is the source of all manifestation. From the unmanifest invisible universe comes the visible universe, the universe of names and forms. Living forms are vehicles which carry individual consciousness. Individual consciousness is either awake, dreaming, or asleep.

Yoga has two main divisions of study. The first division is the cultivation of awareness, and the second is the development of inner skills, strength, and creative intelligence that allows us to manipulate and master the body-mind. The more aware we are, the more we can access our own innate intelligence and intuition. The more aware and intelligent we are, the more skilfully we can perform the various yogic techniques so as to make positive, powerful, creative and lasting changes; changes which improve our lives and the lives of others.

From a practical point of view, yoga is the system that allows us to place our awareness into the energetic systems of the body-mind so that we can feel parts of ourselves that have become unconscious, that have been cut off from feeling. Awareness allows us to feel more and to feel connected. The less awareness we have, the more cut off and disconnected we feel. This whole process creates health and mental strength as a by-product. As yoga practitioners, one of the best things we can do is to continually reinforce the awareness of what we are doing rather than the idealised and perfected technique. By reinforcing awareness, we can better apply our own creative intelligence and intuition to yoga practice. This cultivates skill, creativity and joy.

Seeing ourselves

Yoga trains our body, mind and spirit, transforming our nervous system and mind so that we can attain, maintain, and sustain higher awareness. It is not easy to become a more conscious being; there are parts of us we would prefer not to see. However, one of the aims of yoga is to reconnect to that which is invisible within us, and as we become more conscious we will definitely see, feel, and experience more of ourselves, including the ‘good bits’ and the ‘bad bits’; dark and light coexist within.

The more awareness we have, the greater the light we shine into our being, illuminating that which has been kept in darkness. If we do not deal with these aspects of ourselves, they remain unconscious but continue to act. If left in the dark, these forces become ‘demonic’, turning against us and making us do things we would rather not do and feel things we would rather not feel. For example, we might develop dependencies and addictions to food, drugs, or people.

Yoga provides the tools to develop our body-mind, to manage our energy and life-force, and to cultivate awareness. It gives us the tools to awaken awareness so that we can feel more of ourselves and also gives us the tools to manage any weakness we find. In this way, we do not feel helpless and unable to manage the internal forces of the body-mind, the unruly thoughts and emotions. The philosophical side of yoga also gives us tools in the form of higher goals and higher principles that can guide our lives so that we can develop a deep and abiding relationship with higher forces and higher consciousness. We just need to know how to apply these tools. Ultimately, these tools are the path to self-realization.