In this modern day and age even the latest scientific discoveries, technological progress and the well-organized social, political and economic institutions have failed to solve the individual’s mental and spiritual problems. In fact, the greater the progress our civilization makes the more our suffering seems to multiply. The more we get into the realm of matter, the more disquieted we become. Tranquillizers are used by increasingly large sections of societies, and suicidal cases and juvenile delinquencies are also showing a steep rise. We cannot even understand or face these horrible facts.
When the plain truth is spoken, modern life is too much for us; we do not possess sufficient mental power and strength. We may have enormously increased the stock of our intellectual knowledge and extended it to cover the invisible realms, yet we remain totally ignorant of ourselves. The time has come for us to make a concrete effort in the direction of self-knowledge. Only when we have learned the method of going within ourselves may the annihilation of suffering in toto be within our easy reach.
To combat sorrow, agony and suffering, we have to discover their root cause in our deeper level of consciousness. How can we do this? There is a definite method by which you can discover the cause and acquaint yourself with its contents. We know from our metaphysical studies that the root cause of all our problems, on any level, is avidya or ignorance. The great spiritual individuals, who had acquired and mastered the technique of penetrating into the deeper layers of the mind, also testify that ignorance is the main cause of our maladies.
Our rishis and munis experimented throughout their lives. In fact, during the entire history of Indian culture, there has been a long and unceasing effort to discover and popularize the method by which the endless and agonized sufferings of mankind may be annihilated, but man has, in the main, overlooked their dictates, often misunderstood their appeal.
You may have made some studies in Vedanta of the various categories such as the reality, homogeneous consciousness, maya, avidya, illusion and the so-called appearances, but surely it is far more important to know the method by which one gains first-hand knowledge of them. Is it enough to have mere intellectual comprehension of the truth as recorded in the Upanishads?
There are, broadly speaking, two ways of acquiring knowledge. One is indirect and mediate in which senses, mind and intellect act as media. The other type of knowledge is direct and immediate. It is transcendental in nature for it is knowing through being. Here, the services of the intermediary media such as mind are put aside and the subject has direct contact with the object.
For a long time, scholars of Vedanta have been following that path of Vedanta which consists of listening and contemplating, and they have confined themselves to the intellectual level only, their convictions regarding the identity of the Supreme never penetrating beyond the intellect. As such they were often victimized by their personal sufferings.
In spite of all the bold assertions I make about the divinity of the soul, when I look at the world with its difficulties, the odds and trials which have become an integral part of our life, I find them hard to come to terms with. There is light, but it is a flickering light. I shall illustrate this with a parable. It was a dark night and the disciple was afraid. The guru lit a match. There was light, and the disciple was calm and quiet. The match burnt out and again there was darkness. The disciple was again afraid and another was lit which brought him temporary light and he was calm, quiet and fearless while it lasted. Again darkness came and so it continued till morning when, in the sunlight, there was no fear of recurring darkness.
In the same way, our intellectual knowledge, the bold assertions we make give us flickering light like that of a match and bestow only momentary peace and calmness. It is the permanent source of light we have to discover so that we can understand the difficulties we face and make ourselves strong in society, in the family, in economic and political life, so that we can face adversity with dignity, courage and complete understanding.
To achieve this, it is yoga we must turn to. It is a practical method, not so much to be learned, as to become a way of life. Not to be practised for hours and hours together, for even a little yoga practice brings relief, but yoga must be understood fundamentally, and not just as the practice of asanas and pranayama. I am not against the asanas and pranayama. Please do not misunderstand me, they are very good. They help the body, they bring about calmness in the system and regulate the glandular secretions. They constitute a wonderful science that our ancestors discovered, but they are not the whole of yoga.
Also, yoga must not be misunderstood as solely the development of psychic faculties, where the subconscious mind is brought in contact with the conscious mind and the arts like telepathy, clairvoyance and clairaudience are acquired. I do not say these are not yoga, but they are only a part of yoga.
Our problem is human suffering, and here we must make a plain statement, for unless we realize our own self, not the lower self but the Supreme Self, in the depth of meditation, by withdrawing our awareness temporarily from all forms of the outer dimensions and external experiences, it is not possible for us to go beyond suffering. And it is yoga that lifts you right from the conscious, subconscious and unconscious, and leads you to the realm of super-consciousness. You may call it samadhi, or God realization, or nirvana or whatever you like, but there is an individual, personal state of awareness which is all-expansive.
A certain problem has been in my mind lately which I have spent much time thinking about. Animals move on an instinctive plane; they react instinctively and they are not aware of what they are doing. However, the human being has the faculty of awareness, which he does not use, for like the animals, he generally lives on the instinctive plane. We move, but we do not know we are moving. We must leave the instinctive plane and make use of the faculty of awareness which is the special gift to the human being. We must learn to live on the plane of awareness.
This awareness, which manifests itself the moment we are born as human beings, is termed ‘jnanam’. Jnanam is not mere knowledge, but awareness. We are aware of what we are doing, what we are thinking what we did and what we shall do. We are aware of the fact that we are alive. If I had the time, and if this were the mode of my sadhana, of my spiritual practice, then I might sit the whole day and sing the fact that ‘I am’, and be aware that I am. We should intensify this awareness which has just evolved in the human being and the duration of this awareness must increase. Whatever we do, we should do it with complete awareness. Yoga is a method by which we can develop this type of awareness to such a degree that eventually this awareness is completely separated from body awareness.
Now I am aware that I am talking about yoga. I am aware that this awareness is united with body awareness, with mind awareness and sense awareness. When I know that I am, I am also aware that I have a body. The awareness is not purified, it is not non-sensory awareness. It is awareness, but sense awareness. It is awareness, but physical awareness. It is awareness, there is no doubt about it. Now, this awareness should be separated from gross consciousness step by step, stage by stage, point by point. And this awareness should remain intact and keep on expanding. All these elements – physical, sensory, mental and psychic, must be removed from the body. In this, yoga is a process of purification. It is an act of separation by which we separate the non-self elements from this atman. This awareness is atman – it is unaggravated, it is always homogeneous, it is always true, it is always eternal, it is always unchanging, and it is in me, in you and in all things.
Switch your awareness for a moment from me to yourself and think, “I am aware that I am listening to a discourse.” Now separate this fraction of awareness, which is not complete in itself, and which is not pure, but is tainted and mixed with mental awareness, from other forms of awareness and from other disturbances. We can keep on eliminating all those foreign elements which have, through habit, become part and parcel of our pure awareness by practising viveka, or discrimination, yama and niyama, or regulations and self-disciplines, pratyahara or withdrawal, by dharana and dhyana or by any yogic practice. Stage by stage the mind becomes intensified and is made introverted through concentration and meditation.
There are different techniques for achieving this, like repetition of a mantra, concentration on a symbol, devotion, prayers, serving humanity with absolute unselfishness, serving a guru or following the path of knowledge. You may choose any path, raja yoga, bhakti yoga, karma yoga or jnana yoga. They all help to free this atman from the lower turmoils, but unless the personality is purified and made free from its burdens and tensions, it is not possible to go into deep meditation. Lately there have been different spiritual movements which claim that meditation is very easy, but yoga is not as easy as is generally thought.
Through karma yoga we purify the heart and this brings mental peace. By bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, we bring about a spontaneous state of consciousness which is otherwise very difficult to acquire for the lay practitioner. With that concentration we move on to raja yoga. In raja yoga you penetrate deeper and deeper, and become free from physical awareness and sense experience, and finally merge with your own self, but all this is not as easy as people think.
When we sit for meditation we find it very difficult because the spinal cord does not remain erect. The lotus posture becomes difficult to maintain. We want to practise meditation in an easy chair and, when we do, sleep overtakes us. We also want to do meditation on a chair with our legs down, but this obstructs the flow of magnetic currents which are created through yogic practices, the flow of blood decreases in the spinal area and the centres of gravity are shifted. One can meditate on a chair, but then these obstructions will inevitably arise and they will have to be removed though hatha yoga, asanas and pranayama.
Or when we sit for meditation, inertia or lethargy (tamoguna) overpowers us. The moment we reach the point of concentration, unification of thoughts, either we land in the realm of visions or we sleep, which is often mistaken for samadhi. Or if you are asked to hold a form or an image in the mind, you begin to disagree on a religious basis, but let us not talk about these things. During meditation the light within will be your proper guide. It will carry your consciousness further and further and it will indicate whether you have slipped into tamoguna, or inertia, or whether you are going in the right direction.
In raja yoga, the yoga of meditation for finding the source of atman, your deepest and highest and eternal being, you will have to first shake off the temptation of psychic powers. You must not mind when I say this in all sincerity and with a little experience at my command. You must set them aside for they represent your greatest temptation and often they can bring you much suffering. This is what happens to most yoga aspirants, from fire to frying pan and again from frying pan to fire. It is true that most people take to yoga solely to achieve psychic powers and they become a medium or practise telepathy and other arts. This is all right, but Rishi Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras considers that psychic powers are hindrances in the path of God-realization for they make the mind restless. So, one must put aside desire for these psychic powers.
Yoga is similar to hypnotism until it reaches the point of dharana. An aspirant of hypnotism undergoes a process whereby his consciousness diminishes until it is completely overtaken by a state of hypnotism, but the aspirant of yoga widens his frontiers of consciousness. His consciousness assumes the form of a symbol of a deity, a mantra of sound; these are known as ishta devata. Whatever the symbol, essentially there is consciousness only. This consciousness keeps on expanding spontaneously.
Theoretically speaking, you cannot expand your consciousness because it is eternal and infinite, and I am only using the expression to try to help you understand. Rather, it is an act of unveiling avidya, which was covering the consciousness. Then the clouds disperse, the sun begins to shine. This does not mean the sun was not shining before when it was covered by cloud. Exactly in the same way, your consciousness, atman, universal self, Brahman, or however you call it, is infinite. It has ever been infinite. Like the sun, its infinitude was temporarily veiled by the clouds of avidya and, when avidya disappears, the infinitude of atman manifests.
Meditation is only an act of eliminating the layers upon layers of avidya. It is only an act of lifting – this is how you proceed along the path of dharana. In dharana you retain a form of consciousness within you and do not allow that form of consciousness to disappear from your mind. So, eventually, by this act of holding the consciousness, all other dissimilar forms fall away, whilst the original form always remains. Then it shines in all its infinite glory and the infinite state of samadhi dawns. This is possible through the practice of yogic techniques.
Once this state of samadhi has been reached, through the systematic methods of an integral yoga, and the layers of avidya are completely eliminated, you can still lead a practical life. You can be a family man, you can remain a technician or an industrialist; you may not possess miraculous powers or be a healer, but you will personally be the happiest man on the face of the earth. At the same time, your personality, your rents and your blessings will enable other people to overcome suffering and achieve everlasting happiness.
It is a state of nectar, it is a state of immortality, but from the point of utility, we must understand that God-realization is a necessity of our life. We are born with the purpose to realize God, and unless God-realization becomes our aim, our sufferings have no end and the health of society will not improve, even if it has great prosperity or the most highly developed political order.
In this great country yoga is coming with terrific speed, with the same speed with which prosperity came. When I came to America I immediately felt the thirst, the aspiration, the craving and I was especially conscious of how much the spiritual nature of man, which is eternal, is suffering from the instinctive greed for prosperity and materialism. It is not that Americans are becoming less spiritual. No, they are rediscovering their spirituality. It was there before, it is there in the present and it shall continue to exist. Once prosperity comes and man lives in abundance, his thirst for spirituality begins to make itself felt, and now is the right time in your country for the spiritual movement to grow. The industrial movement is now giving way to a spiritual movement and this spiritual movement will bring an era of enlightenment and supreme knowledge.
1968, Vedanta Society, Chicago, USA, published in Yoga from Shore to Shore