The Spirit of Yoga: Impressions from Satsang with Swami Niranjan

Jignasu Madhumati (Australia)

The time has come to discover how far we have come with yoga, said Swami Niranjan at the beginning of his program in Mangrove Mountain Ashram, Australia, in April this year. The theme for the program was ‘The Spirit of Yoga’, and by explaining the ninefold path of bhakti yoga, Swamiji spoke of yoga as a continuous experience of life, a way of living and experiencing excellence and poornata, fulfilment or wholeness, in life.

The yogic journey

To find a tiny gold nugget buried in the ground, one has to dig through buckets of dirt. The gold nugget is the spirit, and the dirt is vasana, expectations and desires. Swamiji said that the time has come to assess how far we have undertaken this exercise. Each of us needs to assess our years of association with yoga and discover where we have come. We may associate with yoga through mantra, guru, asana or bhakti, but the question that needs to be asked is, have we learnt to manage the mind and the senses. In order to make an assessment, there are four levels to consider:

Physical: At the physical level, the aim of yoga is purification, removal of toxins from the body so that the body does not limit development at other levels. We use asana for releasing stress and feeling light, and this should indeed be done, said Swamiji, but it is not the aim of yoga. The aim is purification and the experience of harmony and balance at the physical level, leading to experience of harmony and balance at the mental level. To make an assessment on the physical level, we should observe how we are using asana and other physical practices. Are we looking in the mirror while performing our postures, or going quietly inside in tune with the aims of yoga?

Mental: We use meditation to manage the mind, but our meditation practice touches only the surface, said Swamiji. We are limited to the functioning of manas (rational mind), and do not deal with buddhi (discriminating mind), ahamkara (ego) or chitta (consciousness).

Emotional: Bhakti yoga is the system that can bring about emotional management, but most of us have limited it to a devotional process, said Swamiji. We have not understood it as a practice for developing emotions so that they act as a force to propel us forward in our spiritual life.

Spiritual: The experience of spirit is an outcome of balance and harmony at all other levels.

The process of manifestation

To understand the spirit of yoga, Swamiji said that we need to go back in time to the beginning before creation, where there was only space, and this space contained all the qualities necessary for creation, in unmanifest form.

Krishna consciousness: There is tranquillity and harmony in this unmanifest state, in this space. And it has a name: Krishna. The first essence is Krishna consciousness: the dormant, resting consciousness. The consciousness exists, though it is dormant and resting, just as in sleep we are not aware of the room, the environment or our body because the consciousness is dormant. In this Krishna consciousness, there is balance, peace and stillness.

Yogamaya: When there arises a slight movement in the Krishna consciousness, Yogamaya begins to emerge. Yogamaya is the energy, power, shakti of Krishna consciousness. Just as when we begin to awaken from sleep, the consciousness starts to move and we become aware of outer things as our consciousness takes cognition of a particular form, so too with Yogamaya. The eternal Krishna consciousness gives rise to the unlimited Yogamaya. These two are eternal principles.

The term ‘yogamaya’ consists of the words ‘yoga’ and ‘maya’. Yoga means union, merger, joining together, and maya means separation, disunion. Swamiji said that all ‘yoga’ practices are, in fact, viyoga (separation) practices. Pratyahara of raja yoga separates the awareness from the external world. In bhakti yoga we separate from maya (worldly attachments and associations) and join with something else. Viyoga, separation, always comes first, and yoga, merger, comes later. The Krishna consciousness contains the possibility of these two forces of yoga and maya. Yogamaya is the creative power of Krishna consciousness. It emerges from the motivation in God: “I am one, let me be many.”

Yogamaya and the movement from maya to yoga can be illustrated by the example of two electrical sockets. The first socket is maya, and the second yoga. We have to unplug from the involvement with maya, through the process of viyoga, in order to connect to the socket of yoga, the experience of merger. An electric socket has three aspects: the positive, the negative and the neutral. Similarly, the sockets of yogamaya have three aspects: the three gunas. In each socket (yoga and maya), the gunas operate at different levels.

Shiva consciousness: Yogamaya contains within it Shiva consciousness: an unmanifest, benevolent, positive intention. Shiva means benevolent, auspicious, good. Shiva in turn gives rise to satyam (truth), shivam (auspiciousness), and sundaram (beauty). These represent the good intention of Shiva consciousness. God wants to create beauty and life, and does so in the form of these three aspects which are like seeds.

Brahma/Saraswati, Vishnu/Lakshmi, Shiva/Shakti: For a seed to sprout, the creative power of Brahma consciousness is needed. However, for any creative act, indeed any act, knowledge is also necessary. So with Brahma consciousness comes the shakti (power or energy) of Saraswati, the shakti of perception, learning and understanding.

Next comes Vishnu consciousness, the consciousness that sustains all that has been created. With it comes the shakti of Lakshmi, prosperity, to look after that which has been created. Lakshmi is the power that fills the lack that causes distress.

Next comes a second Shiva consciousness, a different one at this level. This is the consciousness of transformation, and its shakti or power is simply called Shakti. They are like fire and wood. Fire is contained in unmanifest form in wood, and when it manifests it changes the form of wood to ash.

Manifest creation and development of humans: From the interaction of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva consciousness, all of manifest creation comes into being. Before that, everything was unmanifest, including those three. We humans are a result of that interaction. The development from single cells to the complex form of humans represents perfection at one level. Humans are the only creature with buddhi. All life forms have ahamkara, without it, life is not possible. All creatures have chitta, in the form of memory, and all have manas, in instinctive form. Our manas functions at a level higher than the instinctive. It functions cognitively, because it is influenced by the presence of buddhi.

Buddhi

Buddhi is intellect, knowing, wisdom. Swamiji emphasized that we think we use our wisdom, but actually we do not. A decision made from wisdom will stay with us our entire life, because it is made with understanding and clarity. However, our decisions change frequently because we are influenced by desires, expectations, frustrations and passions.

Buddhi can function negatively as well as positively. It can lead to expansive and constructive ideas and behaviour, or it can lead to constricting, limiting and destructive ideas and behaviour (i.e. yoga or maya). Buddhi is under the influence of maya. The opposite of buddhi is atman, the transcendental self. Swamiji illustrated the false identification with maya with the example of looking at one’s reflection in the mirror. When we look in the mirror, we think we are looking at ourselves and identify with that image, but we are only looking at a reflection, a reversed image. Similarly, we falsely identify with maya, which is not a true image of the self, but is reversed.

Under the influence of maya, buddhi is subject to the three gunas. When it is influenced by tamas, we are subject to our conditionings and do not want to change. We are insecure and do not wish to open up to something new. Tamas is not negative, it is simply the conditioned state. When buddhi is under the influence of rajas, then dynamism, aggression, drive and ambition are experienced. Under the influence of sattwa, freedom and happiness are experienced.

First limb of bhakti yoga: satsang

After discussing the conditioned nature of buddhi, Swamiji introduced the first component of bhakti yoga: satsang. Satsang is the first limb of navanga yoga, the nine-limbed yoga, bhakti yoga. Bhakti yoga is beyond bhakti, beyond devotion. The word satsang comprises of sat meaning ‘true, real, unchanging’ and sang meaning ‘association with’.

To walk the path of bhakti we need to first review our associations. To do this, we should evaluate all the people we have known in our life and identify those who have uplifted us, expanded our perception and understanding. These are the people we should associate with. We also need to identify those who have denied us these opportunities or criticized the attempt, and “scrupulously avoid them” as Lord Rama instructs in the Ramayana. Understanding is necessary, we need to work with our buddhi, and ensure that we have good associations. This is satsang.

Swamiji offered himself as an example. He said, “I have many friends, some of whom are good to others and to me, and some who do funny things to others and to me, but I do not associate or identify with any of them. My hero is my guru Swami Satyananda, and his hero was his guru, Swami Sivananda. My guru is my only association.”

In response to a later question about how to avoid ‘negative people’, Swamiji emphasized that we should not go about dividing the world into good and bad people. Each of us has positive and negative qualities. Therefore, we should not make rigid divisions.

Second limb of bhakti yoga: sadvichara

Karo raksha vipatti se, na aisee praarthana meree;
Vipat se bhay nahee paaon prabhu yaha praarthna meree.

That You protect me from adversities is not my prayer, that I do not become afraid of adversities is my only prayer, O Lord. (From the bhajan sung daily throughout the program.)

When we experience any difficulty or suffering, we pray to God to help us overcome the problem, but all prayers amount to prayer for strength, said Swamiji. We could, however, take another approach: we could try to realize the strength that we have within. This is not easy because we tend to dwell on our negativities, they become our obsession and obscure the connection with the positive.

Remaining positive in all situations and connecting with our strengths is the second stage of bhakti yoga.

To bring about this stage of bhakti, Swamiji explained the SWAN principle: identify your strengths, weaknesses, ambitions and needs, and see your true self. Such an analysis allows us to accept our weaknesses and work to cultivate our strengths. Humility is necessary for this process to be effective. Humility, along with non-reactivity, leads to positivity, balance and acceptance.

To bring about positivity and an improvement in life, Swamiji said that we must understand the six stages of life:

  1. Asti – “I am That.” This is the true, unlimited self.
  2. Coming into being, birth
  3. Growth
  4. Transformation
  5. Decay
  6. Death

We are not responsible for the first two or the last two stages of life. Yoga is aimed only at the third and fourth stages where improvement can come about. Here, we can sow the seeds of sattwa to overcome tamas, but this is a gradual process.

Growth and transformation also come about by trying to live within the four walls of dharma, the walls being satyam (truth), shuddhata (purity), karuna (compassion) and daan (giving), and its ceiling being transcendental consciousness. Swamiji said there are two ways to live: to struggle or surrender (“Thy will be done.”) Once we learn how to surrender, we will find that all arrangements have already been made for us.

Swamiji told the story of the demons, the devas and the humans, who early on in creation realized they needed a mandate from their maker, God, about how to live. On their way to God, there came a thunderstorm. In the sound of the thunder, da, da, da, they all thought they heard the voice of God giving them a mandate.

The demon representative thought he heard the command, “Daya” – be compassionate. The demons within us are three: kama (negative desire), krodha (anger) and lobha (greed). The message ‘be compassionate’ is the antidote to these demons, the antidote to tamas. The nature of devas is sensuality, to love pleasure and enjoyment. The message they heard was “Daman” – learn restraint. This is the antidote for rajas. The human representative also heard a message in the sound of thunder. Human nature is acquisitive. We accumulate things in our houses. The human representative heard the mandate “Daan” – give, share. This is what we need to learn. The tendency of accumulation is what we need to work on bit by bit. Sharing increases sattwa and acquiring obscures sattwa.

Third limb of bhakti yoga: seva with humility

Seva is service, being fully involved in action, with humility. Seva is like karma yoga. Karma yoga is action without expectation. In the Bhagavad Gita (2:48), Krishna says, “Perform action, O Arjuna, being steadfast in yoga, abandoning attachment and balanced in success and failure. Evenness of mind is called yoga.” Seva at this stage of bhakti yoga takes this concept of karma yoga forward. Seva is selfless action with humility and compassion.

Fourth stage of bhakti yoga: non-deviousness

The fourth stage of bhakti yoga is non-deviousness, having a mind that is innocent and free from perversion. The first three limbs or stages of bhakti yoga involve buddhi, the fourth goes beyond that. Innocence is not an idiotic state of mind, it indicates a pure, untainted mind. Such a mind is capable of seeing everything at once, clearly. It is an illumined and awakened mind. This state, Swamiji said, is cultivated by meditation, introspection and reflection, which remove arrogance and bring about humility. Pratyahara purifies the head, dharana purifies the heart, leading to a purified and awakened mind.

Fifth stage of bhakti yoga: mantra sadhana

The fifth stage of bhakti yoga is sadhana, specifically mantra sadhana. It can be in any form: japa (aloud or silent), kirtan, etc. The nature of mantra is vibration, which alters and pacifies the waves or vrittis of the mind. Thoughts are like the little waves that continuously lap the shore, while emotions are like the tsunami – they overwhelm us totally. Mantra modifies the linear and logical functioning of the mind and allows intuition to emerge. It also leads to the development of faith, as we connect with the source of our inner strength.

Sixth stage of bhakti yoga: sanyam

Sanyam is often termed as self-control or restraint. Sanyam comes from the root yama, meaning ‘holding’, so sanyam means ‘holding together’. Sanyam is about balance and harmony at all levels, said Swamiji.

Sanyam sadhana begins from the external and moves to the internal, including all levels of senses, speech, mind and emotion. At the level of the senses, meditation is used to develop sanyam, and at the level of vaani, speech, sanyam is cultivated through the practice of mouna. Mouna means ‘silence’ and comes from the root ‘ma’, meaning ‘to measure’. Mouna helps us to measure and regulate our speech and thoughts. In response to a question about whether half an hour of music practice was equivalent to the practice of mouna, Swamiji said that no music can beat the experience of inner silence, when you can also hear the inner music.

Eighth stage of bhakti yoga: santosha

The eighth stage of bhakti yoga is santosha, contentment. Santosha means accepting the realities of the situation in which we find ourselves, leaving the critical mind behind. If we observe ourselves, we will discover that whenever we are critical, we are discontent.

Seventh and ninth stages: atmabhava, sayujya and creative participation

In presenting the seventh and ninth stages of bhakti yoga, Swamiji spoke about atmabhava, the consciousness of ‘I am That’, the feeling that I am part of you and you are part of me. Atmabhava is the only way to achieve sayujya, oneness, union, identification or merger. It is the only way to progress in spiritual life. We need to move from the selfish attitude where the focus is me and mine, to the selfless approach where you are a part of me. This is attitudinal yoga.

Atmabhava is experienced at different levels. Swamiji related an incident during Paramahamsaji’s panchagni sadhana when he emerged from the sadhana and asked Swami Satsangi to search and help a widow whose house had been burnt down. Swamiji said that even though Paramahamsaji was performing his sadhana in total isolation, he realized what had happened because he was connected with the cosmic consciousness. Some time after this event, Paramahamsaji was asked, “Does God hear our prayers?” He answered, “Yes, God hears our prayers. But he does not take direct action himself, he inspires and motivates someone else to go and help that person.”

Swamiji explained another level of atmabhava with an experience of his own. Once, he was a passenger in a car driving through a forest in Tasmania. He passed a tree on the edge of a pond, and spontaneously his awareness became that of the tree. He could feel everything the tree was feeling as if he was the tree: the water lapping at its base, the roots in the ground, the birds sitting on the branches, the leaves falling off. He said, “It is not a pleasant experience. When you are used to the consciousness of a human, to suddenly have the consciousness of something else, is not at all pleasant. It took me some time to come out of that experience.” Such an experience can be considered atmabhava, but it is at a grosser level than the experience of oneness with the cosmic consciousness. After all, said Swamiji, if you are aiming to connect with the whole of existence, why not start with a tree?

At our level, the experience of atmabhava can be cultivated by developing compassion. Without compassion, atmabhava and sayujya are not possible. To develop compassion, we must develop a deep inner feeling for others, which is much more powerful than any intellectual idea or concept.

The experience of merger is not the end of bhakti yoga. Creative participation in the world, with positive and constructive interactions and implicit faith, is the expression and fulfilment of what has been experienced in bhakti yoga.

The sadhana and process of bhakti yoga

Bhakti yoga is a process, a sadhana, something that one practises all the time. It is a process of inner transformation, of a change in thinking, behaviour and performance. Swamiji said this is the way to excellence, and the only worthwhile goal in life. The purpose of life is not self-realization, because self-realization is too abstract a concept. A non-transcendental mind cannot understand the transcendental reality. Therefore, our effort has to be towards transforming the non-transcendental mind into a transcendental mind. Self-realization will be a natural outcome of this; there is no need to aim for it. Our effort has to be to improve the quality of our thinking, behaviour and performance.

Swamiji said the nine limbs of bhakti yoga are stages, but it is enough to work with even one of them. We can select one sadhana and that will suffice to perfect bhakti yoga.

Three perspectives of bhakti yoga: jnanakanda, upasana and karmakanda

Three aspects or perspectives of bhakti yoga can be found in every treatise on the subject, said Swamiji. They are: jnanakanda, upasana and karmakanda.

Jnanakanda (the aspect of wisdom and understanding) is aimed at knowing and understanding the aim and theory of bhakti yoga. The nine limbs of bhakti yoga are a part of this.

The second aspect of bhakti yoga is upasana. Asana means ‘seat or place’, and up means ‘coming closer to’, therefore upasana means ‘come closer and sit down’, or ‘coming closer to the seat’; coming closer to oneself, one’s true nature, the self within. Upasana is an internal process.

There are two methods of upasana, nirakara (without form) and sakara (with form). There are different views on what is nirakara and what is sakara. Some say that concentration on an abstract symbol such as a star is nirakara upasana, and worship of forms such as Devi, Christ, Shiva, etc. is sakara upasana. A star is a remote object and creates very few associations. However, even an abstract symbol as that will form some association in the mind, related to the idea we hold of a star as a distant object, a source of light, etc. Therefore, it must be considered as sakara. In fact, all symbols are sakara because the mind needs an object to rest on. Swamiji also said that the practices of mantra yoga, nada yoga, kundalini yoga and kriya yoga can all be considered part of upasana.

Karmakanda is the third aspect of bhakti yoga. It is an external process, involving external ritual to connect oneself with nature and the transcendental reality. Karmakanda connects jiva, the individual consciousness, maya or prakriti (nature) and the transcendental reality. Karmakanda is represented by ceremonies such as havan, the fire ritual which celebrates the awakening of consciousness, the moment when humankind discovered fire.

Yogic perspective on bhakti yoga: inner purification

Yoga says that bhakti is an inner process of purification, transformation and connection with the inner self. It is not about devotion. The concept of devotion came in when religions developed, after the spiritual discoveries were made by the ancients. The ancient spiritual texts that give us the spirit and methods of bhakti yoga all predate the introduction of organized religion.

Bhakti yoga and its relationship with raja yoga

Raja yoga prepares us for bhakti yoga. The first limb of raja yoga is yama, and the first yama is satya, truth, which relates to the non-deviousness aspect in bhakti yoga. Niyama, the second limb of raja yoga, includes the practice of santosha, contentment, and ishwara pranidhana, surrender, also indicating a connection with the nine limbs of bhakti yoga.

Raja yoga is predominantly a mental process. In pratyahara, we are attempting to purify the mind, in dharana and dhyana also we are purifying the mind. In samadhi we are still purifying the mind, as indicated by the stages of samadhi such as sabija, with seed, and savichara, with reason. While raja yoga works with the upper levels of the mind, thoughts and mental experiences, bhakti yoga works at a deeper, more subtle and powerful level of emotions.

Bhakti yoga sadhana

Swamiji gave a three-part bhakti yoga sadhana that can be practised at home.

Mantra: Swamiji reiterated the need for practising the three mantras: Mahamrityunjaya, Gayatri and the thirty-two names of Durga first thing on waking up in the morning. Mahamrityunjaya is a healing mantra and should be done with the sankalpa, intention, of healing, well-being and wholeness. Gayatri mantra should be chanted with the sankalpa of wisdom and luminosity, while the Durga mantra should be chanted with the sankalpa of experiencing happiness by removing distress from life. Swamiji said that if we have a guru mantra, it can be practised in the evening as a meditation, and if we are alone it can also be practised aloud in the morning after the first three mantras.

Special space: Another bhakti yoga sadhana that can be practised at home is to create a special space incorporating symbols that will uplift us. Swamiji said how we arrange this space is up to us – whether we place forms such as Ganesha there, or objects from nature. Such a space will create an uplifting vibration. Whenever we enter that space we will feel peaceful, relaxed and quiet within. The mind will associate these feelings and experiences with that space.

Weekly havan: The third bhakti yoga sadhana that can be practised at home is havan. Every week, using some wood and samagri, we could make a fire and chant the Mahamrityunjaya mantra. Fire intensifies the effect of the mantra.