By Pravrajika Vrajaprana
Pravrajika Vrajaprana is a nun at the Sarada Convent at the Vedanta Society in Santa Barbara. This essay appeared in the book Purity of Heart and Contemplation. The essay is posted in five parts.
For readings from Swami Vivekananda, go to Vivekananda.org.
Long ago in ancient India there lived a king who ruled over the magnificent city of Smritinagar, which in Sanskrit means “the city of memory.” One day the king—an avid and excellent hunter—left his kingdom before dawn to go hunting alone. He rode through his extensive lands and, crossing the borders of his kingdom, entered into a dense forest. As he rode through the forest, a snake suddenly slithered across the path; the horse reared and the king was thrown violently to the ground. The king lay unconscious for many hours; the horse returned riderless to the kingdom.
When the king finally awoke, he had no idea who he was or where he was. Since he was dressed in hunter’s attire he assumed he must be a hunter who had lost his way. He made himself a rough dwelling and lived for some time as a hunter. Yet despite his excellence in hunting, he was dissatisfied. He somehow didn’t feel he was a hunter. He was also troubled by a recurring dream: in this dream he lived in a magnificent palace surrounded by riches, attended by his royal retinue and cherished by his loving queen and children. But then he’d wake and find himself lying on the floor of his hovel.
One day the hunter met a merchant in the forest and decided to tell him of his recurring dream. The merchant said, “Ah, I see you want to be rich! You should become a merchant—then you can be rich and live like a king!” The king thought the advice was sound. He went to the city and bought some cloth to sell in the market. Unfortunately, the king was an abysmal merchant and soon became bankrupt. The recurring dream continued.
Returning to the forest, the hunter met a soldier. Hearing his dream, the soldier told him that he should become a soldier: with martial skills he could take a kingdom by force. But when the hunter tried to enlist as a soldier, he was told that he was too old and flabby to join an army.
Disheartened, the hunter finally encountered a sadhu—a holy man—in the forest. “Where have you been, your majesty?” the sadhu exclaimed. “The entire kingdom has been praying for your return!” The hunter was baffled by these words and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about but I am having this strange dream!” When he recounted his dream, the sadhu understood what had happened.
“Have no fear, my child,” said the sadhu, “I can make your dream come true! All you need to do is to hire a white horse with a silver saddle. Ride into the neighboring kingdom of Smritinagar and proclaim yourself the lost king of Smritinagar.” The hunter looked doubtful, so the sadhu added, “My austerities have given me the power to confer hypnotic speech. By my will, everyone who hears your words will believe you.”
The king was a pious man and had faith in the sadhu’s words. He hired a horse with a silver saddle and rode into the kingdom. He was apprehensive when he ran into a contingent of soldiers, but nevertheless said, “I am the lost king of Smritinagar!” To his astonishment, the soldiers dismounted and bowed low before him. His faith in the sadhu’s words considerably increased. As he rode into the city proclaiming his identity, the king was greeted everywhere with jubilation. Soon he saw the palace looming ahead of him and then his memory returned. He realized that he really was the lost king of Smritinagar. Regaining his kingdom, the king lived happily and reigned wisely for a long, long time.
Every religious tradition has its teaching stories, and this one nicely illustrates two of Hinduism’s primary tenets: first, that we are heirs to a glorious kingdom and second, that we are suffering from a spiritual amnesia which prevents us from claiming it. In this paper I’ll examine the means by which we can regain this kingdom: first, by examining the kingdom itself; second, by examining the crucial role that purity and meditation play in seeking the kingdom; and finally, by examining the four major yogas as the practical method of regaining the kingdom.
Hinduism, like Christianity, affirms that the kingdom of God is within. Hinduism further asserts that it lies within our power to lay claim to that kingdom, and much of Hinduism’s sacred literature deals with this very process.
How was the kingdom lost in the first place and how can it be regained? Hinduism will say that the kingdom was lost due to maya, that is, ignorance of our true nature. Ignorance is removed through knowledge, and knowledge comes through meditation. Hinduism will also contend that without purification of the heart, meditation is a lost cause and spiritual attainment is impossible. “The essential thing in religion is making the heart pure,” Swami Vivekananda said. “The Kingdom is Heaven is within us, but only the pure in heart can see the King.”
There are many schools of Hinduism and giving them adequate representation within this short space isn’t feasible. The views I present here will lean heavily toward the Vedanta school—that is, the nondualistic philosophy of the Upanishads, Hinduism’s most ancient and sacred texts. In the Hindu context, nondualism or monism means the philosophy which affirms the oneness of the individual soul, God, and the universe.
According to Vedanta we can never truly lose our kingdom. Just as the king never really lost his kingdom—it was waiting for him all the time—our spiritual kingdom, which lies in the depths of our hearts, awaits our arrival. Like the king, most human beings try doing the wrong things in order to regain what we instinctively sense we’ve lost. As Huston Smith once said, “Everyone possesses a God-shaped hole in the heart.” Unfortunately, the human modus operandi is to try to fill that hole with the wrong shape—whether a healthy shape in the form of satisfying relationships, cultural and intellectual achievements and social activism, or an unhealthly shape in the form of addictive behaviors and injurious human relationships.
Why, if God’s kingdom lies within us, are we unaware of its existence? Vedanta says that because of maya, the inscrutable power of delusion, we suffer from a spiritual amnesia that clouds our understanding and prevents us from knowing who we really are. Maya’s deluding power has two aspects—veiling and projecting. Maya’s veiling power conceals our divine nature while maya’s projecting power puts in its place the idea of a limited individual. Similarly, maya’s veiling power conceals the one infinite, existence of Brahman, and in its place maya projects a universe of multiplicity.
According to Vedanta and all other schools of Hinduism, we live, move, and have our being in Brahman, the divine ground of being. Brahman is the infinite, transcendent reality, the all-pervading, eternal existence-absolute, beyond the reach of speech and intellect, beyond the confines of time and space. Vedanta further states—to translate into the Western idiom—that God is not only transcendent but immanent as well: the very core of our being—the Atman—is divine and one with Brahman. The Atman isn’t a little chunk of Brahman; the Atman is Brahman. The infinite Brahman cannot be divided. Brahman-within-the-creature is called Atman out of semantic necessity, but there is no essential difference between God transcendent and God immanent. To illustrate, Vedanta gives the analogy of a jar: the space inside the jar—which represents the Atman—is not intrinsically different from the space that is outside the jar—Brahman. What artificially separates these two spaces is the jar—the individual body-mind complex.
It is the power of maya that causes us to identify ourselves with the jar—the psychophysical complex—rather than identifying ourselves with the space—our true nature which is pure, perfect, blissful, and ever-free. Our true nature, the Atman, is untouched by birth and death, untainted by sorrow and delusion, clean of aversion, attachment, and the myriad other imperfections to which the body and mind are subject.
Maya, like the king’s amnesia, makes us forgetful of the divine treasure already in our possession. “The Lord created the senses to turn outward,” the Katha Upanishad says, “hence we look outside instead of seeing the Atman within. Rare is the person who, longing for immortality, turns away from externals and beholds the Atman within.” When a Hindu reads John 1.5.—“The light shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehended it not”—he or she will identify this as the veiling power of maya obscuring the divine light of the Atman.
According to Vedanta, the world that we see around us is truly nothing but Brahman, but it is Brahman seen through the prism of maya. The world that we see is limited by time, space, and causality and by the nature of the mind that experiences it. We can only see a distorted version of reality—like an image in a fun house mirror—which is vastly different from the ineffable reality of Brahman. “Nothing hinders the soul’s knowledge of God as much as time and space,” Meister Eckhart said, “for time and space are fragments whereas God is one! And therefore, if the soul is to know God, it must know him above time and outside of space.”
Why does maya exist? The question itself is problematic because it presupposes that maya exists. But this assumption is open to question since in order for maya to exist, it must be real. But maya’s reality is only conditional. Only Brahman has an absolute existence because Brahman alone is not subject to change or modification. It’s like asking whether the dog chasing me in my dream was real. So long as I was dreaming, the dog was very real to me. But when I awoke, I realized the dog wasn’t real, he wasn’t chasing me, it was just a dream. The dog and my fear were no longer a reality for me. Similarly, when we awake from this dream of finitude, this dream of being subject to birth and death, pain and pleasure, hope and despair, then we’ll see that this world was only an appearance, a dream; it had no independent reality.
When did maya begin? Hinduism says that maya is beginningless—we don’t know when it began. Every kind of ignorance is without a particular starting point. I don’t know Norwegian, for example. When did my ignorance begin? I’ve always been ignorant of Norwegian. But if I take it upon myself to enroll in a class to learn Norwegian, my ignorance will come to an end. Similarly, while maya is beginningless, it has, for the individual, a very definite end. When knowledge arises, ignorance ends and the dream breaks. Then we regain our kingdom: we shed our identification with both the body-mind complex as well as the world surrounding it and we realize our true identity as the Atman, the divine, majestic Self.
Maya, like a dream, may not be ultimately real, but it is nevertheless real enough in our everyday experience. I can’t pretend that if I stub my toe it doesn’t hurt; I can’t pretend that if someone speaks to me with hatred or anger I don’t react. If we are to progress on our spiritual journey, we need to deal with our immediate reality with care, intelligence, and the quality that Cassian so greatly prized, discernment. Only then will we have access to higher levels of reality; only then will we be able to escape maya’s clutches so that we can inherit the kingdom that is rightfully ours. And that is where the practices of purification and meditation come in.
In Cassian’s first conference, Abbot Moses says that while our ultimate goal is the kingdom of God, our attention must be placed on the immediate direction which will bring us to our goal. The farmer’s goal, for example, is a good, rich harvest, and “in order to reach that end he sets himself to clearing the brambles and the useless grasses from his land.” Similarly, Abbot Moses continues, “The aim of our profession is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. But our point of reference, our objective, is a clean heart, without which it is impossible for anyone to reach our target.” A short while later he again says: “Our objective is purity of heart … for without this the goal cannot be reached. . . . you have purity of heart for an objective and eternal life as the goal.”
For Hindus who take spiritual life seriously, this advice rings sound and true. Purity is an absolute prerequisite in Hindu spirituality. It doesn’t matter whether one is a dualist or nondualist, it doesn’t matter to which philosophical school one belongs, purity is seen as the basic requirement for an authentic spiritual life. In Hinduism purity and meditation are inextricably linked—either they go together or they don’t go at all. It’s truly a pity that in the West the practice of meditation, which is strongly associated with Hinduism, is known and popular while its necessary complement, purity, is given precious little attention.
How, then, does a Hindu define purity? The Atman is pure, perfect and free, unaffected by desires and free from the vagaries of the body and mind. The more we identify with the Atman, the purer we are; the more we identify with the urges of the body and moods of the mind, the less pure we are.
For this reason Hinduism has always placed great importance on sexual restraint or brahmacharya, which literally means “the state of dwelling in Brahman”—that is, living in such a way that one’s mind remains identified with Brahman/Atman. Sexual desire intrudes powerfully on the body and mind: one who is in the grip of sexual passion becomes completely identified with the body and the mind becomes a helpless hostage to its demands. Self-restraint—particularly sexual self-restraint—strengthens the body, mind, and, naturally, character. The more one faces down desires, the more control one gains over the body-mind complex and the more peaceful one’s mind becomes. As the Bhagavad Gita says: “Those whose senses are not restrained have neither spiritual understanding nor the capacity for meditation. There is no peace for those who cannot meditate, and without peace, where is happiness?”
I’ve singled out sexual desire since it’s the most powerful, but in fact all desires and all attraction to sense pleasures make us identify ourselves as psychophysical beings rather than Spirit. Our senses, unless consciously restrained, will go out toward sense objects, “carrying away the mind,” says the Gita, “as a gale tosses about a ship at sea.”
It should be obvious that self-restraint involves not only the body but the mind as well. It does little good to restrain the body while allowing the mind to run rampant; it’s not only counterproductive, it’s psychologically damaging as well. About this the Bhagavad Gita says: “The person who restrains the body’s actions while allowing the mind to brood on the objects of desire is deluded. Such a person can only be called a hypocrite.” If we sincerely want to make spiritual progress, we must be honest with ourselves and be aware of our own motivations.
Since the senses and mind continually move outward and pick up dirt as a dustmop skims a floor, Hinduism cautions us not only to keep the senses restrained but also to watch what we allow into the body and mind. A celebrated verse from the Chandogya Upanishad declares: “When the nourishment is pure, one’s mind becomes pure. When the mind is pure, the memory becomes strong. When the memory becomes strong, the knots of the heart are loosed.” Only when these knots are undone can we clearly see the light of the Atman shining within.
What constitutes pure “nourishment,” then, becomes a matter of great import since it provides the requisite pure mind. To dualistic thinkers such as Ramanuja, for example, pure nourishment consists of material food: the food should be clean and fresh, eaten in pure conditions following religious regulations. To nondualistic thinkers such as Shankara, “nourishment” consists of anything that we take into the body and mind. Food, in Shankara’s view, is just the beginning of what we ingest: we take in sounds, sights, smells, ideas. What we read is food; what we subject ourselves to when we watch television is food; memories upon which the mind lingers is also food. All these gross and subtle factors take the mind away from our divine nature. This bondage to flesh and senses, accompanied by the mind’s attachment to and identification with them, is what we call impurity.
Developing purity is one of the central objectives of Hindu spiritual practice and every major yoga puts great emphasis on its attainment. We will see how each yoga has a different approach to gaining purity while consistently stressing its indispensability in spiritual practice.
Hinduism has traditionally recognized the need to provide various spiritual paths for differing psychological temperaments. Some people are predominantly emotional while others are intellectual. Some are active while others are contemplative. Rather than trying to cram various psychological dispositions into a one-size-fits-all religious approach, Hinduism has provided a spiritual path or “yoga” for each predominant temperament. While these paths of attainment have existed and have been practiced since ancient times, it was only in the nineteenth century that Swami Vivekananda formally systematized them into the four major yogas.
Contrary to the popular Western assumption, “yoga” is not what one does at the gym. The word “yoga” comes from two different Sanskrit verb roots and has two different but complementary meanings: one is “concentration” and the other is “joining” or “yoking”—that is, yoking oneself to the divine. What Westerners refer to as “yoga” is usually hatha yoga, a technique of strengthening the body and increasing its longevity which has little to do with traditional meditation practices.
We can think of Hinduism’s four primary yogas as spiritual thoroughfares—each yoga having its own purification techniques and sadhanas, spiritual practices, which join the limited individual to the limitless divine. Those who are predominantly emotional are well suited for the path of devotion or bhakti yoga. Those who are led by the head rather than the heart and possess a powerful, discriminating intellect are qualified for the path of jnana yoga, the path of knowledge. Karma yoga, the path of selfless action, is suited for those with an active temperament, and those who are naturally contemplative are fit for the path of raja yoga, the royal path of meditation.
An examination of Hinduism’s four major yogas shows that each yoga results in regaining the divine kingdom. It’s important to remember that each yoga, while approaching the goal from a different angle, is complementary to every other yoga. These yogas are not airtight compartments: they are meant to strengthen one another and build upon one another. No human being is exclusively intellectual, exclusively emotional, exclusively active or exclusively meditative. While each individual has certain predispositions, the yogas are meant to be balanced by one another so that the individual’s entire personality can be drawn into spiritual life.
Apart from purity and meditation, every yoga follows two basic steps of withdrawing the mind from whatever is finite and relative, then focusing it on what is infinite, real and absolute. These two steps call for two qualities which are indispensable in spiritual life: detachment (from the finite) and yearning (for God or for the Infinite).
Detachment is not indifference or coldness. These characteristics spring from egotism and self-centeredness, not spirituality. Real detachment is freedom from desires, freedom from our lower impulses. Hand in hand with detachment comes attachment to God or to the divine Self. Unless we feel drawn to something higher, we won’t be able to push away lower impulses. And unless we make an effort to subdue lower impulses, we won’t succeed in drawing close to the divine.
Since every Hindu spiritual path utilizes meditation to a greater or lesser degree, we’ll begin with raja yoga, the path of meditation. It is also in raja yoga that the issues of purity and its effect on meditation come into focus most clearly.