Yoga and Self-Realization – Part 1

By Devadatta Kali (David Nelson)

This two-part article is a lecture given at the Ramakrishna Monastery in Trabuco on June 4, 2006, and the Vedanta Temple in Hollywood on August 13, 2006.


In the 1920s, when archeologists were excavating a ruined city near the Indus River, they discovered a huge chapter of Indian cultural history that had been long forgotten. Four and a half thousand years earlier, Mohenjo-daro had been one of the largest cities of the Bronze Age world, with broad avenues, marketplaces and residential districts, a municipal sanitation system, and impressive public buildings.

Among the ruins a startling discovery was made—a small, finely engraved stone seal, bearing on its flat surface the image of a male figure seated in yogic posture. The figure appears to have three faces, looking left, right, and ahead, and is crowned with a headdress of long, curving buffalo horns. Bangles cover his arms, and a series of necklaces adorns his chest.

Because of the longstanding connection in Indian religious history between the great god Shiva and the practice of yoga, the archeologist Sir John Marshall believed that the figure on the seal was the earliest known image of Shiva. Since the discovery of this first “proto-Shiva” seal, two more have come to light, along with several molded terracotta tablets depicting the same figure in the same yogic posture. Scholars are still divided over whether this figure represents Shiva, but in any case, the evidence of these images indicates that the practice of meditation and yoga in India is very, very ancient.

The Vedas

We do not know the name of the Indus Valley god, nor do we know the connection between the people who built India’s most ancient cities and the people who composed India’s oldest texts, the Vedas. But in the hymns of the Rigveda we find a god matching Shiva’s description, and he is called Rudra. The name means “the howler,” because Rudra is the impetuous god of storms—a powerful, destructive deity. But that is only part of the story. The Vedic seers connected Rudra not only to the awesome fury of the tempest but also to the beneficent powers of fertility, healing, and welfare. His name may possibly be related to the adjective rudhira, meaning “red” or “bloody.” That would connect Rudra to the English words red and ruddy and would support a positive view of divine power, associated with health, vigor, and well-being.

The Rigveda consistently celebrates Rudra as the lord of healing, the “best of all physicians,” whose gracious hand bestows health and comfort. He is the blissful god of all created beings, the mightiest of the mighty, resting in his own divine glory. Rudra is asked to transport us across trouble to well-being, so that by his grace we may be unharmed, as one who finds shade in blazing sunlight.

As for Rudra’s destructive power, he is nevertheless wise and compassionate. Armed with a firm bow and swift arrows, he wards off evil and guards against malevolent forces; he chastens the unrighteous. Even when wrathful, he upholds the moral order and is a force for good, who protects his devotees.

The Vedas often express Rudra’s auspicious side by the epithet shiva, which was not a name, but an adjective meaning “auspicious,“ “propitious,” “benevolent,” or “gracious.” In the later age of the Puranas, an interesting reversal took place: rudra became the epithet while Shiva be­came the primary name of this great god who is more than a personal god with attributes. Shiva is also the philosophical principle of disintegration and reintegration. Moreover, this great, benevo­lent-destructive deity is one of the most ancient Indian conceptions of the divine reality.

One Rigvedic hymn describes Rudra’s devotee as an ascetic—a long-haired, silent, semi-naked, ochre-clad wanderer who is a “sweet and most delightful friend,” engaged “in the holy work of every god.” The appearance of that ancient sadhu is remarkably close to that of present-day Shaiva sannyasins.

By the time of the Upanishads, communities of monk-like ascetics, known as shramanas, had grown numerous, and practices involving discipline of body and mind were widespread. The earlier Upanishads speak of such practices as an interiorization of the Vedic rituals. The word yoga and associated terms do not appear until the later Upanishads, such as the Shvetashvatara, where the treatment of yogic practice is fairly well developed.

The Shvetashvataropanishad

When we Vedantins think of yoga today, we are most likely to think of the system described by Patanjali in his Yogasutra. Some centuries earlier we find a more rudimentary formulation in the Shvetashvataropanishad. This Upanishad dates from around the sixth century BCE and is unique among the major Upanishads; while most are concerned with the impersonal Brahman, the Shvetashvatara also has a theological flavor and presents the supreme reality in more personal terms as Rudra.

Owing to the age-old connection between Rudra-Shiva and yoga, it is not surprising that the seer Shvetashvatara devotes his entire second chapter to an exposition of yogic practice. Interestingly, in this chapter the seer quotes extensively from earlier Vedic texts. The first seven verses are couched in the older mythological language, and we need to interpret the symbolism in order to understand the teaching. We are taught that in everyone there is an indwelling God, a power of consciousness, and when this power is used to join the mind to holy thoughts, it can reveal the inner light which is the true Self, the atman. We must first control the senses and the mind and then meditate on the light of consciousness in the heart as distinct from the fire of ordinary awareness in the intellect.

No spiritual practice can be done without first setting ourselves to the task, and to begin, the mind must be joined, or yoked, to our intention. The Sanskrit word is yukta, cognate with English yoked and related also to yoga. The ancient verse that Shvetashvatara quotes makes another, very important, point. It begins with the phrase, “With mind intent,” but ends with the phrase “through his power.” “With mind intent” points out the need for self-effort. “Through his power,” the power of the indwelling God, means that our attainment of spiritual knowledge and bliss ultimately rests on divine grace. In other words, spiritual life begins with self-effort and ends in self-surrender.

The indwelling spirit will impel us heavenward. This does not mean that we will go to some place of eternal reward in the sky. It means that we will be inspired in our efforts to turn the naturally outgoing senses inward. We will be inspired to withdraw our awareness from the materiality of the ever-moving world and to direct it toward the unchanging, ever-blissful oneness within. Here the sky or heaven—a visible, shining symbol of infinity—is internalized as our own inner sky of consciousness (chidgagana), the infinity of the Self.

Using the sacrificial fire as a metaphor for interior spiritual practice, the next verse urges us to kindle the fire of asceticism (tapas) through one-pointedness of mind. This metaphorical fire burns away ignorance and its effects from our consciousness. One way to focus the mind is to meditate on the sacred syllable Om. When we attain concentration, the result is a certain level of blissful absorption. Unlike ordinary activities, which entangle us in the web of karma, the practice of yoga leads eventually to the unique fulfillment of liberation.

In these seven quoted verses, Shvetashvatara places before us a broad overview of yoga, from its preliminaries to the realization of ultimate freedom and bliss. Beginning with the eighth verse, in his own words he lays out a step-by-step procedure for the practice of yoga. He speaks of posture, breath-control, and other matters, but not in the same order or in the fully systematized way as Patanjali does some centuries later.

Shvetashvatara says, “Holding the body steady with chest, neck, and head aligned, then mentally directing the senses into the heart, one who is wise may cross over every fear-laden current on the raft of Brahman.” After describing the proper posture for meditation (asana), he speaks of “mentally directing the senses into the heart.” This is what Patanjali calls pratyahara, the withdrawal of the mind from the objects of the senses. As the naturally outgoing senses are pulled back from the distractions of the outer world, the light of consciousness turns back upon itself.

“One who is wise may cross over every fear-laden current on the raft of Brahman.” One who is wise is one who knows the meaning of Om and the means of meditating on it. This practice includes mental repetition (japa). The imagery here suggests that our worldly existence is a tumultuous river of consciousness propelled by the ignorance and bondage-creating desire of the unenlightened mind. By means of the raft of Brahman—the constant awareness of the divine reality—we can safely navigate the treacherous current.

Next Shvetashvatara says, “One who holds the movements of the limbs in check and controls the vital forces in the body should breath gently through the nostrils. The wise one, always attentive, should restrain his mind as he would a chariot yoked to unruly horses.” After settling comfortably into a posture that does not draw the mind’s attention to the body, the meditator is to sit motionless. In this quiet state the metabolic processes governed by the five aspects of the vital force (prana) naturally slow down. The prana, outwardly visible as the breath, encompasses a living being’s entire range of vital functions. Although these can be regulated through various exercises involving the physical breath, such breath-control (pranayama) poses potential danger to the nervous system and should never be undertaken without proper guidance. It is much safer to let nature take its course. When the body is still, the volume of breath automatically lessens and a mental state conducive to deeper contemplation should naturally arise.

Of course, that is not always the case! All too often, sitting quietly only brings up the internal chatter of the mind. Such mental activity can be relentless, and Shvetashvatara has compared the mind to a chariot yoked to unruly horses, which are controlled only by the charioteer’s determined and unwavering attention. The mental wandering often begins with the random surfacing of long-buried memories or impressions, which initiate a chain of free association. After some time the meditator becomes aware of how far the mind has strayed. This will happen countless times and should remind us to be ever vigilant so that at the first sign of wandering, we can bring the attention back.

This is exactly what Sri Krishna taught later in the Bhagavadgita: “When the mind is completely controlled and rests in the Self alone, then one who is free from longing and all desires is called steadfast. As the light of a lamp does not flicker in a windless place, so is [the mind of] the yogin of controlled thought, meditating on the Self.” And then he counsels, “Whenever the unsteady mind goes astray, from here to there, it should be brought back to rest in the Self.” This waywardness of mind is a universal and persistent phenomenon. Even in light of Sri Krishna’s wise counsel, Arjuna complains: “Restless indeed is this mind, O Krishna, troubling, powerful, unyielding—as difficult to tame, I think, as the wind.” And so we need to practice continually.

Next Shvetashvatara describes an environment that is conducive to meditation. “In a clean and level place, free of pebbles, fire, and dust, free of noise and dampness, calming to the mind, and not displeasing to the eye—here, sheltered from the wind and retiring into solitude, one should concentrate the mind.” The floor must be level in order to provide a firm base. It should be free of pebbles, gravel, dampness, and any other distracting irritant. In the same way the air must be unpolluted and free of dust and smoke. Nothing should offer visual distraction either, and no sounds should intrude, nor should the wind make itself felt.

Shvetashvatara advises retiring to a solitary place; he uses the word guha, which literally means “cave.” Since not everyone has that option, guha can also be taken in a figurative sense to refer to the heart. Here, heart does not mean the physical organ in the chest; we must penetrate another layer of symbolism to discover that heart signifies the deepest consciousness which is the heart, or center, of reality. Retiring to such a “place” is both the means and the goal of meditation.

How do we know if we are making progress? Shvetashvatara says, “Mist, smoke, the sun, wind, fire, fireflies, lightning, crystals, and the moon—these apparitions precede the revelation of Brahman in yoga.” During meditation, with eyes closed, we may “see” certain forms. These are not the same as physical objects seen with the eyes. These are “seen” with the mind and are manifestations of the light of consciousness. Such experiences are common to mystics of every tradition the world over. They may be taken as signs of progress, but they are only signs. Not everyone will have such visions, and a truer and better indicator of spiritual progress is the change that takes place in the aspirant’s character.

Nevertheless, as we progress in yoga, our perceptions become ever more refined. Shvetashvatara explains, “When the subtle essences of the fivefold manifest elements—earth, water, fire, air, and space—are revealed in the perception of yoga, then one attains a body made of the fire of divine union; for him there is neither sickness, old age, nor death.” The breakthrough in perception to a subtler state of awareness is rarefied and difficult to describe. But it comes about naturally and spontaneously. We need to keep in mind that the process of creation is the well-ordered movement of divine consciousness from its own essential unity to the expression of difference, from pure oneness to the prodigal diversity of all things mental and material. In the process of meditation we harness the mind’s own power in order to reverse this outward flow. Consciously and purposefully we dissolve the gross into the subtle, the material into the nonmaterial, the outer onto the inner. In doing so we retrace the steps through which the cosmos has evolved.

Along the way, various experiences may arise as the mind breaks through the barriers of ordinary sensory knowledge and enters into subtler realms. We may experience powers or states of awareness unlike anything in our everyday existence. We must caution ourselves that it is all too easy to mistake the experience of something out of the ordinary for something greater than it is. We must also remember that attachment to such experiences will impede further advancement. Any sign of progress should not be an invitation to stay contentedly in one place or an enticement to repeat the same experience; instead, it should be an encouragement to press on. The real value of subtle yogic perception is that it gives the mind a sense of its own strength and ability, and that the mind will be less and less attracted to outward objects. This mental breakthrough is called the “fruit of conquest over the physical elements” (bhutajayaphala). It is described as the burning away of bodily imperfections in the metaphorical fire of yoga. With this comes the understanding that the Self is separate from the body and will not be affected by sickness, old age, or death.

At this stage we begin to intuit the true Self, or atman. Here Shvetashvatara explains, “Just as a mirror, coated with dirt, again gleams brightly when well cleaned, so the embodied soul, perceiving its own true nature, becomes one—completely fulfilled and free from sorrow.” The atman and a mirror are alike in the sense that both have the inherent capacity to shine. Still, the light of either can be obscured. The physical light of the mirror can be hidden by a layer of dirt or dust, and the spiritual light of the atman may be concealed by the impurity of primal ignorance, the sense that “I am a small, separate being.”

Exploring the idea of light, we should consider both its nature and its function. The nature of light is to shine of its own accord; if it did not shine, it would not be light. The function of light is to illuminate, to shine on something else and reveal it. Physical light shining on an object makes it visible and knowable. The light of consciousness shining through the mind illuminates our perceptions and thoughts and brings understanding to our experience.

When we clean a mirror, we do not create its shining quality; we merely reveal it, because the capacity to shine was there all along, hidden beneath the dirt. Of course, the example of the mirror barely hints at the boundless brilliance of consciousness itself, shining in full glory. The radiance (prakasha) that is the Self shines eternally, even if hidden in our present state of unknowing.

Once the impurity of ignorance is removed, all distinction of “I” and “other” has vanished. The soul that formerly regarded itself as separate and individual, realizes its own true nature as the unity of consciousness beyond all difference. It rests in the perfection of divine fullness (purnatva), and those who attain this realization are freed from all sorrow.

Shvetashvatara says, “Through the reality of the atman itself, radiant as a lamp within the heart, the one who is established in meditation knows the reality of Brahman as existing from all eternity, constant, and untouched by anything within the creation; by knowing that divine being a yogin is released from all fetters.” The key to enlightenment is not found in anything external but is within the spiritual seeker. The reality of atman and the reality of Brahman are the same self-luminous consciousness. On the way to this ultimate identity, our fetters fall away one by one—all the external circumstances and internal attitudes that have perpetuated the appearance of difference and separation and have kept the soul in bondage to worldly existence.

To quote the Mundakopanishad, “The one who knows the supreme Brahman indeed becomes Brahman.” Perfection in yoga is that knowledge of Brahman.

Read Part 2

The Hindu Tradition
January 1, 2007
Yoga and Self-Realization – Part 2
March 1, 2007
Show all

Yoga and Self-Realization – Part 1