Types of Meditation – Part 2

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 first published in the June, 1981 Prabuddha Bharata.

Read Part 1.

Upasana and Dhyana

Concentration can be practiced on any object. In fact, in our daily life we are concentrating on something or other most of the time. This kind of concentration is more or less unconscious and is done under the compulsion of desires. True meditation differs from it in being a conscious process involving the detachment of the will from lower desires and its focussing at a higher center of consciousness.

We have seen that meditation is a stage in concentration common to all spiritual paths. We have also seen that meditation is of two types: subjective and objective. Subjective meditation is of the nature of an inquiry into the Atman and is called nididhyasana. Objective meditation is concentrating the mind on an object. Objective meditation is known under different names. Patanjali calls it dhyana. In Vedanta a more common term is upasana. Both these terms are, however, met with in the Upanisads.

In ancient India meditation was a subject of deep study, research and experiment. The followers of the Samkhya philosophy developed it into an independent science of mental life. When properly concentrated on an object, the mind undergoes certain changes. These changes are the same for a particular degree of concentration whatever be the object chosen. In other words, concentration follows certain universal laws. These laws were discovered by the great yogis of ancient India. Patanjali codified and compiled them in his famous Yoga Aphorisms. These laws form the basis of upasana also. So Sankaracarya defines meditation as “a process of unwavering application of the same thought on some object, such as a deity prescribed by the scriptures, without being interrupted by any alien thought.”1 However, there are some important differences between Yogic meditation and Vedantic meditation.

The immediate aim of Yogic dhyana is to discover the functions of mind at higher levels of consciousness. Its ultimate aim is the separation or isolation of Purusa from prakriti. As Bhoja points out, Yoga is really viyoga, disunion.2 On the contrary, upasana aims at union. Its immediate aim may be to unite the meditator with a deity. But its ultimate aim is to unite the individual self (jivatman) with the Supreme Self (Paramatman).

Another difference is that in Yogic meditation the choice of God is optional. According to Patanjali, meditation can be practiced on any object one likes.3 Bhoja in his commentary points out that in Yoga the object of meditation (bhavyam) is of two types: God and the tattvas [elements of the differentiated universe–ed.]. The tattvas again are of two types: Purusa and the twenty-four categories of prakriti.4Dhyana may be practiced on any of the tattvas. But in upasana God alone is the object of meditation, and not the tattvas.

The third difference is that in order to practice yogic meditation it is not necessary to have any preconceived ideas about Reality. But upasanais based on the Vedantic conception of Reality and operates within a definite conceptual framework. What upasana does is to convert the conceptual or indirect (paroksa) knowledge into intuition or direct (aparoksa) experience.

Development of Upasana in the Post-Vedic Period

These two types of meditation–Yogic dhyana and Vedantic upasana–became united in the post-Vedic period. It was shown last month [see “Types of Meditation” archived here] how upasana evolved in the Vedicperiodfrom ritual-bound meditations(angavabaddha) into substitution meditations and finally into the vidyas. In the meantime the Yoga system was getting perfected. It was then that the Tantras arose, probably a few centuries after the Vedic period had ended.

The Tantras combined the monism of the Upanisads with the theism of the puranas. Secondly, they united Yogic meditation with Vedantic upasana. Apart from this, the Tantras made independent discoveries about mantras, kundalini, etc. The all-round harmony and synthesis effected by the Tantras opened a new era in the history of spirituality in India. This continues to this day. The meditation techniques now prevalent show the strong influence of the Tantras.

Form, Name and the Self

One of the important changes that the Tantras introduced was in the field of symbols. The images of different gods and goddesses have completely replaced the Vedic images of fire, sun, air, etc. In the Vedic period the approach to ultimate Reality was direct. The Tantras made it indirect: the aspirant first attains the vision of a god or goddess and then through him or her realizes the ultimate Reality. Again, in the Vedic period words were used primarily for their meaning (abhidhana). The Tantras have, however, shown that certain mystic words have an intrinsic power to produce changes in consciousness.

Symbols play an important part in human life. Other than pure consciousness, all our thinking is based on symbols. These symbols can be divided into two groups: rupa (form) and nama (name). These, along with the self, constitute the knowing process. Emotions are also of course a part of mental life. But they are not essential to knowledge. In fact, they very often distort the knowing process. A person overcome by anger, envy, fear and other emotions has a distorted view of other people. That is why Patanjali regards emotions as “false knowledge” (viparyaya).5 They are great obstacles in spiritual life, and the aspirant is advised to rid himself or herself of them before attempting real meditation. True knowledge arises only when the mind is freed from emotional disturbances. It is, however, important to note here that bhakti, love of God, which is a great help in upasana, is not an emotion and is therefore never regarded as an obstacle. True devotion is a property of the self, its longing for union with the Supreme Self.

When the mind is freed from the hold of instincts and emotions, there remain in it only three elements of pure cognition: form, name and the self. These are the only factors that constitute the meditative act. Spiritual aspirants show great variation in their ability to manipulate these three factors.

When we speak of differences among people we usually mean their emotional make-up. Some people are more loving and kind, some cruel and harsh. Some are arrogant, some humble. And so on. One of the important tasks in spiritual life is to level up these differences and make every aspirant pure, virtuous, calm.

However, these are not the only differences among aspirants. The very structure of the mind and the way names, forms and the self influence it vary from person to person. Some people find visualization of images very easy but find it difficult to manipulate abstract ideas, especially mathematics. Their thinking is a kind of inner seeing and they have what is called a “photographic memory.” The minds of these people are form-oriented. Some others find it difficult or even impossible to visualize forms and do their thinking mostly through sound symbols. These are the people who benefit most from listening to talks and lectures. Their minds are name-oriented. There are yet others who find both names and forms a great botheration and prefer to hold on to the self without any visual or ideational support. Their minds are self-oriented.

To meet the needs of these three different mental types, three kinds of upasana have been developed: pratikopasana (meditation on visual images), namopasana (meditation on sound symbols) and ahamgrahopasana (meditation on the self). Each aspirant should know which type of mind his or hers is: form-oriented, name-oriented or self-oriented. This the aspirant can easily find out by a little self-analysis and practice in meditation. The aspirant must then choose that type of upasana which suits him or her most.

It may be surprising to know that there are some people who are totally incapable of visualizing forms. Such people find it very difficult to meditate on the image of a deity. When they close their eyes they only feel a blank with various ideas moving somewhere inside. It is like listening to the gurgling of a stream in the dark. They, however, find repetition of a mantra very easy and producing great harmony in them. Whereas there are others who find such repetition difficult, distracting and unrelated to their basic spiritual urge.

Fortunately, however, most people have a mixed type of mind. They can make their minds form-oriented, name-oriented or self-oriented as they wish. So they can easily combine all the three types of upasana in their practice. Nevertheless, during the early stages of spiritual life even they may find it easier and more beneficial to give more emphasis on one type of upasana according to their individual temperaments, while not neglecting the other two. Meditation is a difficult task for beginners but they can make it a bit easier by following the line of least resistance, their own natural orientation of mind. Once the aspirant acquires proficiency in any one method, he or she will find it easy to practice all the other methods.

Pratika Upasana

Pratika means a symbol–literally, “going towards,” something upon which the mind is focussed. Though words are also symbols, pratika is generally used to mean visual symbols–images, pictures and natural objects used as symbols. During the Vedic period fire, the sun, the air, the mind, etc. were treated as pratikas to represent Brahman. How were the pratikas related to Brahman? There were two ways of doing this, and accordingly Vedic pratikopasana was of two types: sampad and adhyasa.

In sampadupasana an inferior object is used as a symbol to represent superior Reality.6 The symbol is unimportant, the attributes of the higher reality dominate the meditative field. (To give a modern example, when a stone idol or salagrama is worshipped as Visnu, the worshipper forgets the stone and thinks only of the luminous splendor of Visnu. This may be regarded as a modern form of sampadupasana.

In adhyasaupasana the symbol chosen is itself a superior object and dominates the meditative field. Upon this symbol the attributes of the Reality are superimposed, but the symbol is as important as the attributes. Meditation on the sun (one of the most beautiful meditations ever conceived) is an instance of this. The Upanisad teaches, “The sun is Brahman, this is the instruction.”7 The sun with its dazzling brightness has a striking resemblance to Brahman and can itself be directly meditated upon as Brahman. All that one has to do is to superimpose upon the sun the attributes of Brahman like infinity, consciousness, bliss, ultimate causality, etc.8

With the disappearance of the Vedic tradition these ancient pratika meditations are no longer in vogue. There is at present a great need to revive them.

In modern times the images of various deities and the symbols connected with them have almost wholly replaced the Vedicpratikas. Not only that. The conception of the connection between the symbols and the Reality has also changed. Vedic symbols directly connect the meditator with the ultimate Reality. But in Tantric symbols this connection is indirect. First of all, the deity behind the symbol is to be realized, and then through the deity the ultimate Reality is to be attained.

Pratikas used in modern times may be divided into two groups: aniconic and iconic. The former group includes yantras (mystic diagrams), mandalas (psychic diagrams), salagrama, siva linga, water pot, etc. These are used more in ritualistic worship than in meditation. The lotus symbolizing a chakra or center of consciousness, the flame symbolizing the self, the sky symbolizing space and similar impersonal symbols which are often used in meditation may also be included in this group.

The second group of pratikas includes the anthropomorphic images of gods and goddesses which are called pratimas. A pratima may be a picture drawn on paper or cloth (pata) or a three-dimensional idol (vigraha) made of stone or metal. The Brahma-Sutra clearly teaches that the pratika is to be looked upon only as a symbol of Brahman. God should not be lowered to symbols, but symbols are to be exalted to God.9 In other words, the purpose of a pratima is to serve only as a visual aid (dristi saukaryam) to concentration. This may be true in the case of meditation but not necessarily so in the case of worship. The widely accepted belief is that a properly consecrated pratima which is daily worshipped, acquires a special sanctity and power and becomes a center of divine grace. According to Sri Ramanuja there is a special manifestation of God known as arca in the idol.

In this context two points are to be kept in mind. The statement that pratikas are only symbols of God does not imply that the gods and goddesses of Hinduism are only symbols. Hundreds of illumined souls have directly realized these divinities. Even the great Sankaracarya has not denied their existence. Each deity represents a particular aspect of Saguna Brahman, the Personal God, and is at least as real as a human being, if not more.

The other point to note is that though pratikas are mainly used as aids to concentration, the purpose of upasana is not mere concentration of mind but the direct vision of the deity represented by the pratika. The pratika may be a picture or idol made by an artist. Upasana does not mean simply transferring the artist’s imagination to our own minds. It is not merely an exercise in memory, trying to remember the picture we have seen outside. Upasana is an attempt to go beyond the symbol and meet the real god or goddess in the depths of consciousness. It is a search for the soul’s eternal Beloved. For this a living image must first of all be implanted deep inside the heart. It is the continuous interior gazing at this living image in the depths of consciousness that really deserves to be called pratikopasana. As concentration deepens, the image sinks into consciousness drawing the mind with it deeper, deeper… until it touches the undercurrent of pure consciousness and bursts into ethereal phosphorescence.

True pratikopasana, then, is a process of converting imagination into Reality. It is a technique for the transformation of consciousness. How does this transformation take place? Three principles are involved in it: the principle of khyati [knowledge–ed.], the yatha-kratu principle [“As is one’s will, so does one become.” Chandogya Upanisad–ed.] and the theory of mantra.

Nama Upasana

If in pratikopasana meditation is practiced on a visual symbol, in namopasana it is done on a sound symbol–the name of a deity or a mantra. This, however, is not the only difference between the two. There are much deeper differences based on certain basic properties of the human mind.

Here we wish to mention only two or three points. The repetition of a mantra or a name of God is called japa. When the words used are many, it may take the form of stuti (hymnody), bhajan (singing of songs set to music) or samkirtana (group singing). These are better regarded as forms of worship though, when properly done, they produce a meditative effect.

It should be kept in mind that mere mechanical repetition of a mantra hardly deserves to be called upasana. As true pratikopasana is visualizing a “living image,” so true namopasana is the repetition of an “awakened mantra.” The mantra becomes awakened (chetana) when it becomes connected to the basic rhythm of consciousness in the depths of the heart.

Another point should be noted here. In popular usage only pratikopasana is known as meditation, while namopasana is known as japa. As a matter of fact, both come under meditation. To make the distinction between these two types of meditation more clear it is better to describe pratikopasana as bhavana (visualization), a term more commonly used in the Tantras and Buddhist scriptures. As a general rule japais accompanied by bhavana (visualization) of a god or goddess. But several sects in Hinduism and especially the Sikhs practice japa without visualizing the form of any deity. They are pure namopasakas. In their case japa itself becomes meditation.

Ahamgraha Upasana

Ahamgraha literally means “self-grasping,” that is “self-identification.” Unlike the two types of meditation described above which are purely objective techniques, ahamgraha-upsana is a subjective-objective meditation technique. It is a meditation on the self as the object. But it is not mere concentration of mind on the object as the other two meditations are. It means the “grasping” of a vaster whole by the Self. It is an attempt of the self to identify itself with the Supreme Self.

Since the pure Atman cannot be an “object” of meditation, various symbols are used to enable the self to “grasp” the supreme Self. Thus like the other two upasanas described above, ahamgrahopasana is also a kind of symbolic meditation.

Objectivity and the use of symbols, these are precisely the two points which distinguish ahamgrahopasana and nididhyasana or subjective meditation. In nididhyasana no symbols are used, nor is the self objectified. It is a negative process of neti, neti (“not this, not this”) by which the self cuts asunder all identifications and withdraws into its own locus. The distinction between these two techniques is important though it may not be so obvious to an untrained mind.

The simplest form of ahamgrahopasana is to visualize the Atman as a point of light and meditate on it thinking “I am this light.” However, as the individual self is part of the infinite Supreme Self, ahamgrahopasana usually means meditationon the union of the individual self with the supreme Self. Again, as the Supreme Self is all-pervading, this meditation necessarily involves an awareness of divine immanence in creation. Thus ahamgrahopasana actually takes the form of double meditation: meditation on the self as a part of God and meditation on God as present in all beings.

It is now clear that some of the vidyas, if not all, discussed in the Upanisads are really ahamgraha meditations. In fact this is the only way contemporary humanity can understand and practice the vidyas, for their original esoteric tradition has been lost. One of the most famous of these meditations is the antaryami vidya. Uddalaka, the son of Aruna asks the sage Yajnavalkya about the Inner Controller. In reply the latter describes the immanence of Brahman in the earth, in the sky, in the sun etc.

He who dwells in the earth, but is within it, whom the earth does not know, whose body is the earth, and who controls the earth from within, is the Inner Ruler, your own immortal self.

He who dwells in water …
He who dwells in fire …
He who dwells in the sky …
He who dwells in the sun …. etc.10

Another important meditation is Sandilya Vidya, which runs as follows:

These passages are not meant to be understood theoretically. They are meant for actual practice. It is not possible to have the experience of Advaita all of a sudden. For this our consciousness must be gradually expanded. These meditations are meant to expand our consciousness. It is only when we try to practice them shall we understand how difficult they are. Those who have reduced Advaita to talking and writing will find these meditations a lesson in humility.

Apart from the vidyas there are many other splendid passages in the Upanisads which may be used in meditation. The four mahavakyas, “That thou art,” “I am Brahman,” etc. (which are supposed to produce direct intuition of Brahman in highly qualified aspirants) may also be used for this purpose. It should be noted that these mahavakyas are not meant for repetition, for that would be a kind of namopasana. They are actually meant for the practice of ahamgrahopasana. Some of the great sannyasa mantras into which Hindu monastics are initiated also belong to this category. Apart from these, some of the well-known verses of Sankaracarya like the “Morning Remembrance Hymn,”12 “Six Stanzas on Nirvana,” etc. may also be used for the practice of ahamgrahopasana for which they are really intended.

Need for Synthesis

The three types of upasana discussed above could be practiced independently. But they are not contradictory to one another. Each stands for a particular aspect of cognition and develops a particular faculty of the mind. A combination of the three types of meditation will lead to all-round development of consciousness.

There is especially a great need to include ahamgrahopasana in our daily spiritual practice. It reminds us of our real nature as the Atman. It is only when we understand that we are potentially divine can we establish a loving spiritual relationship with the Deity. Moreover, awareness of our higher self enables us to remain unaffected by the external influences and maintain constant remembrance of our chosen Deity and mantra. Even a devotee who worships an idol can practice ahamgrahopasana. He or she may think that the Deity dwelling in the idol dwells also in his or her own self and meditate on the union of the two. In fact, this kind of meditation is an essential part of Tantric worship.

To conclude: all preliminary spiritual disciplines end in some form of meditative awareness, and all meditation paths lead to spiritual illumination of some kind or other.


1. Dhyanam nama sastrokta devatadyalambanesu acalo
Bhinnajatiyairanantaritah pratyayasantanah ||
Sankara, Commentary on Chandogya Upanisad 7. 6. 1.
2. Patanjalamuneruktih kapyapurvat jayatyasau |
Pumprakrtyorviyogo’pi yoga ityudito yaya ||
3. Yatha’bhimatadhyanad va | Yoga Sutra 1. 39.
4. Bhavyam ca dvividham–isvarah tattvani ca |
Tanyapi dvividhani jadajadabhedat |
Jadani caturvimsatih | Ajadah purusah |
Bhoja, Vritti on Yoga-Sutra 1. 17.
5. Yoga-Sutra 1.8 and Vyasa’s commentary on it.
6. Cf. Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 3. 1. 6 and Sankara’s commentary on it.
7. Adityo brahma ityadesah | Chandogya Upanisad 3. 19. 1.
8. Cf. Swami Gambhirananda. “Upanisadic Meditation” in The Cultural Heritage of India (Calcutta: the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, 1970). Vol. 1, pp. 379-80.
9. Brahma-Sutra 4. 1. 4 and 5. See also Swami Vivekananda’s comments in his “Bhakti Yoga.”The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1973), Vol. 3, pp. 59-61.
10. Brhadarayanaka Upanisad 3. 7. 1-23.
11. Chandogya Upanisad 3. 14. 2-3.
12. Pratah smarami hrdi samsphuradatmatattvam
Saccitsukham paramahamsagatim turiyam |
Yatsvapnajagarasusuptamavaiti nityam
Tad brahma niskalamaham na ca bhutasamghah || etc. Sankara, Pratahsmarana Stotra

Types of Meditation – Part 1
May 1, 2000
Harmony of Religions
July 1, 2000
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Types of Meditation – Part 2