By Swami Bhajanananda
Swami Bhajanananda was the editor of Prabuddha Bharata from 1979 through 1986, and has contributed many articles to various Vedanta journals. Swami Bhajanananda is an Assistant-Secretary and Trustee of the Ramakrishna Order. This article was published in the May, 1981 Prabuddha Bharata.
Before we begin the study of different types of meditation it is necessary to keep in mind two important points. One is that meditation is not just ordinary concentration but a special type of internal concentration.
The second point is that meditation is not an entirely independent discipline but a stage in concentration common to almost all spiritual paths. Each path of sadhana or spiritual discipline begins in a different way. But every path has a stage which corresponds to meditation. The name given to this common stage varies from path to path. But whatever be the name given, it means some form of meditative awareness.
Patanjali’s Yoga begins with purification of the mind, posture and breath control followed by withdrawal of the mind from external objects (pratyahara) and fixing the mind (dharana) at a particular center. Then comes meditation (dhyana). The path of jnana begins with hearing scripture (sravana) and reflection (manana). This leads to inquiry (nididhyasana) which corresponds to meditation. In the path of bhakti, the aspirant moves from prayer, singing of hymns and worship to meditation which is known under different names like abhyasa (Ramanuja), smarana and bhavana. Even in the path of karma one finds the need to maintain self-awareness in the midst of work. In fact the Zen masters speak of “action meditation,” “walking meditation,” etc. Buddhism gives more importance to meditation than any other religion does. In Christianity the main spiritual discipline is called prayer. It consists of several stages or “degrees.” First comes vocal prayer, then discursive prayer (which corresponds to manana or reflection in Vedanta), then affective prayer (prayer proper, done with intense longing). Then follows the fourth degree of prayer which is variously called prayer of simplicity, prayer of the heart, etc. This fourth degree corresponds to Hindu meditation or dhyana. In Islamic mysticism (Sufism) also meditation, known under different names, plays a central role.
In every path the aspirant begins with a large number of thoughts in the mind. These gradually become reduced, and the aspirant reaches a stage when there exists only a single pratyaya or thought in the mind. This is the state of meditative awareness. It is the common highway which every aspirant has to travel in order to realize God or the Supreme Self. Beyond this common path lies the luminous realm of the Spirit.
Then why are there so many different techniques of meditation? These are really techniques of dharana or fixing the mind. They are like different gates which open to the same highway. These techniques only teach you how to begin meditation, they only open different doors to meditative awareness. But they do not teach you how to maintain meditation, which is something you have to learn through practice.
This does not, however, mean that the goal of meditation is the same for all. The goal is determined by the beginning, that is by the dharana technique that you follow. Each technique of dharana leads you through meditation to a certain experience. The beginnings and ends of meditation are different. But the process of meditation itself is the same in so far as a single thought is maintained. The nature of this single thought (pratyaya or vritti) may also vary from person to person. For instance, one may meditate on Siva or Krishna or Jesus or an impersonal object like light or the sky or the sun. Nevertheless, the essential meditative process—the maintenance of a single pratyaya or vritti—is the same whatever be the object meditated upon.
Meditation thus acts as a great junction where all spiritual paths converge, meet, go together for a short distance—and then diverge again to their respective goals. Meditation may also be compared to a broad road having several tracks or “lanes” marked on them for the guidance of motorists. Each meditator keeps to his or her own “lane” but all the lanes are parts of one great highway.
Meditation is of two types: subjective and objective. Objective meditation is concentration of the mind on an object. The object may be the form of a deity, light, sky, etc. or some qualities like love, compassion, strength or one’s own self objectified. Consciousness is focussed on the object by an effort of will. Objective meditation is called upasana.
Subjective meditation is called nididhyasana or atma-vicara. Here there is no focussing of consciousness or effort of will. It is rather an attempt to seek the source of consciousness, to trace one’s “I” back to its roots. It is a process in which the ego, instead of rushing towards objects as it constantly does, withdraws into its own original source—the Atman.
The majority of spiritual aspirants find nididhyasana, subjective meditation, difficult to practice. They succeed in tracing their “I” back only up to a certain point. To penetrate further backward is possible only for a mind which is properly sharpened through training and strengthened by the observance of continence. Upasana or objective meditation gives the mind the necessary training. After practicing upasana for some time it becomes easier to practice nididhyasana. In fact, Madhusudana Sarasvati in his Advaita Siddhi classifies aspirants for jnana into two groups: kritopasti (those who have attained proficiency in upasana) and akritopasti (those who go directly to inquiry without practicing upasana).
According to Mandana and some of the earlier schools of Advaitins, upasana can give rise to direct realization of Nirguna Brahman (the Absolute without attributes). But Sri Sankara and his followers hold the view that upasana will lead only to the realization of Saguna Brahman (Reality with attributes). Sankara states that the benefit derived from upasana is either worldly prosperity (abhyudaya) or “gradual liberation” (krama-mukti). In other words, upasana is only a preparation for nididhyasana. On the other hand, Sri Ramanuja holds the view that upasana can lead to full liberation. He even identifies it with bhakti.
The difference between upasana and nididhyasana as two different disciplines has also been clearly pointed out by Ramatirtha in his well-known commentary on the Vedanta Sara.1 Vidyaranya too has made this distinction by describing upasana as vastu-tantra (object-oriented) and nididhyasana as kartri-tantra (subject-oriented).2
A similar distinction is found in Buddhism. Buddhist meditations are of two types: One is samatha (samadhi in Sanskrit) or mental concentration of various kinds leading to different mystic experiences. Tibetan Buddhists are specialists in this kind of meditation. These meditation techniques existed even before Buddha who himself practiced them. But he was not satisfied with them because they did not lead to total liberation. He regarded these mystic states only as “happy living in this existence” (dittha-dhamma-sukha-vihara) and nothing more. According to him mystic experiences are created or conditioned by the mind. He therefore went further and discovered the other form of meditation known as vipassana (vipasyanam in Sanskrit) or “insight.” It is an analytic method which involves constant mindfulness and awareness of all experiences, good and bad. It is not a withdrawal from life but an attempt to understand life and thus enlarge one’s self-awareness. The most authoritative scripture for vipassana is the Satipatthana-Sutta included in the Buddhist Tripitaka. (The “choiceless awareness” technique of the well-known contemporary teacher J. Krishnamurthy comes close to this method.) It was more or less a similar distinction between objective and subjective meditations that gave rise to the two schools of Japanese Zen: Soto and Rinzai.
What is common to both subjective and objective meditation is a distinct awareness of a higher center of consciousness, the higher Self. In both, awareness is not allowed to move too far away from this center. But whereas in objective meditation a circle of consciousness is created around the center and there is a struggle to shut out distracting thoughts from this inner circle, in subjective meditation there is no such struggle: the aspirant just holds on to the “I” center. Strictly speaking, nididhyasana is not meditation though it is translated that way. It is more correctly called “self-inquiry” and belongs to the path of knowledge (jnana marga). Here we are concerned only with upasana.
It is, however, important to keep in mind that these two types of meditation are not mutually contradictory. They actually complement each other and can be practiced together.
Most of the meditation techniques taught to aspirants are upasanas. Spiritual initiation (diksa or upadesa) usually means initiation into some form of upasana. In the path of bhakti this is the only type of meditation practiced. Even those who study books on Advaita seldom attempt self-inquiry in practice and remain satisfied with objective meditations. But though nididhyasana is mainly followed in the path of jnana, there is nothing wrong in following it in the path of bhakti also. Indeed it is better or even necessary to combine self-inquiry with upasana.
One of the aims of upasana is to establish a living relationship with God, “an eternal relationship between the eternal soul and the eternal God,” as Swami Vivekananda puts it. The ordinary ego of which we are all so painfully aware is not eternal but is constantly undergoing change. Only the Atman, our true higher self, is unchanging and eternal. This means that, in order to establish a truly loving relationship with God, it is necessary to be aware of one’s higher self. Self-inquiry leads the aspirant away from the ego towards the true self.
There is a second reason why a combination of objective and subjective forms of meditation is desirable. Meditation is usually done at a definite center of consciousness, by which is meant the point where the aspirant is able to feel the higher self or Atman. It is there that the mind is to be fixed first, and it is there that the chosen deity is to be worshipped. What most aspirants attempt is to visualize a point of light or a lotus in the region of the heart or the head. But many people find this too unreal or abstract. A little nididhyasana or self-inquiry will, however, greatly help in locating the center of the true self and make the lotus or light meaningful and real. Before the aspirant starts actual meditation, if he or she spends a few minutes in tracing the “I” back to its source, the aspirant will find it easier to fix the mind at the right center of consciousness. And every time the mind wanders away from this center, the aspirant may apply the same method. Once the mind is tied down to the true center of consciousness, meditation on one’s chosen deity becomes easy. This is a much better form of mind control than the conventional ones. Those who do not feel intense devotion will find this combination of nididhyasana and upasana helpful.
Then there is a third point in favor of such a combination. Upasana increases one’s power of concentration but does not necessarily increase one’s power of self-control to an equal degree. As a result the aspirant may find it difficult to remain unaffected by the contact of other people and the cares and distractions of daily work. Nididhyasana enables the aspirant to abide in the real abode within and remain calm and unaffected by the environment.
Further, it prevents the aspirant from mistaking strong imaginations and hallucinations for genuine spiritual experience, as often happens in those who practice only objective meditation. A true spiritual experience transforms one’s consciousness and produces some knowledge of the higher self. Self-inquiry is necessary to recognize this. Lastly, combining nididhyasana and upasana satisfies both the head and the heart.
It is possible that even during the early Vedic period there were independent thinkers and groups of people who practiced meditation as their chief spiritual discipline. That was perhaps how the Samkhya and Yoga systems developed independently of the Vedas.
In Vedic literature upasana first appears as a part of rituals in the Brahmanas (the part of the Veda which deals with rituals). The emphasis then was on sacrificial rites (yajna). In the Brahmanas we find a few meditations prescribed along with these rites. The sacrifice was regarded as most important and sufficient in itself to produce the desired results. The meditation that was practiced along with it was only an auxiliary part of it and had no independent existence. The purpose of such meditations was to gain some additional merit and their omission in no way affected the sacrifices. This kind of upasana was called angavabaddha meaning “connected to parts (of the sacrifice).”3
Gradually, upasana became separated from the rituals. In the Aranyakas we find meditations replacing actual sacrifices. But the meditations still resembled the sacrifices. They were mostly symbolic representations of external rituals. The whole external rite was, as it were, transferred to the mind. These upasanas may therefore be called “substitution-meditations.” A well-known example is found in the very beginning of the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad which is an Aranyaka as well as an Upanisad. Here the sacrificial horse is to be meditated upon as identified with the Cosmic Being (Virat or Prajapati), the horse’s head standing for the dawn, its eye for the sun, its prana for the air and so on.4
The next stage in the evolution of upasana is found in the Upanisads. Here meditations are in no way connected to rituals nor even symbolically resemble them. They directly deal with Brahman, the ultimate Reality. But Brahman is a transcendent principle which cannot be known through the ordinary senses and mind. So the great sages of the Upanisads used various familiar objects of the phenomenal universe like the sun, akasa (space), vayu (air), water, prana (the vital energy), manas (mind), words, etc. to represent Brahman.5 However, what the sages attempted was not mere concentration of mind on one of these symbols. In that case it would have become only a form of the yogic exercise known as dharana. What they actually did was to connect each symbol to a certain framework of meaning—a spiritual formula. Upasana in the Upanisads are meditations on these spiritual formulas. These formulas are devices to guide the mind from the symbol to Reality. When a mind which is sufficiently purified meditates on such a formula, its true meaning—the ultimate Reality—will be revealed to it. These meditation formulas were called vidyas.
So then, angavabaddhas (in the Brahmanas), substitution-meditations (in the Aranyakas) and vidyas (in the Upanisads): these were the three stages in the evolution of upasana during the Vedic period. Sri Sankara says that lower upasanas do not deserve to be called vidyas.6
Therefore, vidyas represent the highest forms of upasana. The entire knowledge of the Upanisads came out of the meditations of the great rishis on these vidyas. It was through these meditations that they discovered the great truths that underlie the phenomenal universe. A scientist tries to understand the ultimate truth through a series of steps, meticulously analyzing each step. But in ancient India the sages went straight to the Reality with the help of certain mental paradigms. Says Deussen: “That India more than any other country is the land of symbols is owing to the nature of Indian thought, which applied itself to the most abstruse problems before it was even remotely in a position to treat them intelligently.”7
Vidyas are paradigms of Brahman. In ancient India each teacher developed his or her own concept model of Brahman and taught it as a meditation technique to his or her disciples. That was how so many vidyas came into existence. Some of the Upanisads, especially the Brihadaranyaka, Chandogya and Taittiriya, are a rich storehouse of these vidyas. The importance attached to the vidyas was so great that the Brahma-Sutra has a whole section dealing exclusively with them.8 The vidyas really hold the key to the Upanisads, and no one can properly understand the Upanisads without understanding the vidyas.
The vidyas are said to be thirty-two in number,9 but many more must have been known to the ancient sages. Among these gayatri-vidya, antaraditya-vidya, madhu-vidya, sandilya-vidya and dahara-vidya are well known. It is beyond the scope of the present article to deal with these vidyas in detail. They are to be learnt directly from competent teachers who have attained illumination through them. But long before the beginning of the Christian era the lineage of Vedic rishis had ended. And in the absence of a living tradition, the vidyas ceased to be practiced and their true inner meaning was soon forgotten.
One major cause for the neglect of the vidyas was the rise of Buddhism and its influence on Hindu thought. A second reason was the crystallization of Hindu philosophy into six schools or darsanas and the triumph of the Advaita system. Nondual experience was originally sought through a gradual expansion of consciousness attained by the practice of vidyas. But gradually the goal became more important than the means. Vedanta neglected its mystical roots, became more speculative and polemical, and thus moved farther away from life and experience. A third reason for the neglect of the vidyas was the popularity of Yoga and, later on, of the Tantras.
Under the influence of Yoga and Tantra new techniques of meditation were developed during the Middle Ages which survive to this day. Meditation techniques in modern times are strongly influenced by Yoga and Tantra. We are now witnessing a great revival of mysticism, and ancient methods are being adjusted to suit the needs of modern aspirants. Some enterprising people are experimenting with new techniques of meditation.
We shall next discuss the traditional methods of meditation which are still surviving and are suitable for modern times.
1. Upasananam jnanad bhedam darsayati manasavyapararupaniti / Nididhyasanad bhedamaha saguneti. Vidvanmanoranjani on Vedanta Sara 1. 12.
2. Vastutantro bhaved bodhah kartutantramupasanam. Pancadasi 9. 74.
3. Cf. Brahma-Sutra 3. 3. 55.
4. Om usa va asvasya medhyasya sirah . . . Brihadaranyaka Upanisad 1.1.1.
5. See Paul Deussen, The Philosophy of the Upanisads (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1966), pp. 99-125.
6. Sankara, commentary on Brahma-Sutra 3. 4. 52.
7. The Philosophy of the Upanisads, p.120.
8. Brahma-Sutra 3. 3.
9. Cf. K. Narayanaswami Aiyar, The Thirty-two Vidyas (Madras: The Adyar Library and Research Centre, 1962). Also cf. Swami Gambhirananda, “Upanisadic Meditation,” in The Cultural Heritage of India (Calcutta: Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, 1965), Vol.1.