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.
Those who are “seekers after knowledge” are jnana yogis, spiritual seekers whose keen, discriminating intellects are more powerful than their emotions. Jnana yoga asserts that ignorance of our divine nature is the only obstacle to spiritual realization, and knowledge alone can remove this obstacle. “Knowledge” in this connection does not refer to an intellectual understanding, but to the direct experience of the Atman. Knowledge of the Atman is referred to as “Self-knowledge” in Vedanta since it means knowing the real “me”—knowing the reality underlying my existence. Since this reality and the reality underlying the world are not different, Self-knowledge and the knowledge of Brahman are one and the same.
As karma yogis use work and bhakti yogis use love, jnana yogis use the higher mind or intellect (buddhi)to carve their way through maya to freedom and perfection. While intellectual knowledge is not the goal, the intellect—when used wisely—can be an incisive instrument to tear the veil that obscures our vision of the Atman. “The Self, deep-hidden in the hearts of all beings, does not shine forth,” says the Katha Upanishad. “It is realized only by the sharp, refined intellects of those who can experience the subtle Reality.”
The “sharp, refined intellect”— essential for jnana yoga—is a direct consequence of purity of heart. Purity of heart means being freed from the pull of lower impulses; as long as impulses and desires pull the mind away from the Atman, the intellect isn’t free to cut the bonds of maya. Nor is there much of an inclination to do so. The intellect cannot become sharp if it’s pulled in two different directions. To sharpen a knife, one must carefully pull the knife again and again in the same direction. Change the direction, the blade is ruined. In the same way, the intellect is sharpened by not allowing it to be blunted by desires. “If you purify your soul of attachments and desires,” says St. John of the Cross, “you will understand things spiritually. If you deny your appetite for them, you will enjoy their truth, understanding what is certain in them.” Several millennia earlier, the Katha Upanishad said: “When all the desires clinging to the heart are destroyed, then a mortal becomes immortal and attains oneness with Brahman.”
Jnana yoga provides a fourfold method of sharpening the intellect’s blade. In Shankara’s Vivekacudamani we read: “The wise have spoken of four preliminary requisites. The experience of the Real is possible only if they exist and impossible in their absence.”
It is significant that the four requirements are given in an ascending order—each requisite allows the following requisite to be possible. The first and most fundamental requirement for jnana yoga is discrimination (viveka) between the real and the unreal, the everlasting and the transitory. Shankara has defined viveka as the deep conviction that Brahman is real and the world is illusory.
This needs a little explanation: Categorizing the world as illusory doesn’t mean that the world isn’t real. It is real, but its reality is conditional, dependent upon the unconditional reality of Brahman.
Vedanta explains our illusory world with the following classic metaphor: A man walking down a darkened road sees a snake and jumps back in fear. On closer inspection the “snake” turns out to be a piece of coiled rope; he sighs with relief. The next time he sees the rope, he won’t mistake it for a snake. The snake never was there; he superimposed it upon the rope. Similarly, we superimpose the world of multiplicity—and our identity as limited mortals—upon Brahman. Brahman is the only reality: if we see something other than Brahman, we are projecting an illusion upon what is genuinely real.
Without the coiled rope the man couldn’t have “seen” the snake; similarly, without the underlying reality of Brahman, we can’t see the world. Thus the world has a limited reality which is dependent upon Brahman. But once the delusion breaks, our world of multiplicity vanishes forever. Once our hunter-king had awakened from amnesia, he knew that he was a king and his illusion of being a hunter ceased forever. Once we are freed from the illusion of maya, we will realize our identity with Brahman. Then we’ll no longer see the world as the “world”; we will see Brahman everywhere and in everything.
In jnana yoga, discrimination between the real and the unreal is the foundation of every other spiritual practice. Before continuing with jnana yoga’s other sadhanas, the spiritual seeker must first be firmly convinced of the transitory nature of the world and its pleasures. The second requirement of jnana yoga is detachment or dispassion (vairagya)—a turning away of the mind from sense pleasures. And, as we have seen before, renouncing sense pleasures is synonymous with purity of heart. Discrimination is the source of detachment because discrimination creates an indifference for ephemeral pleasures which bring no lasting happiness. As discrimination produces detachment, so detachment empowers discrimination. It’s no use discriminating between the real and the illusory unless one has the will to shun the illusory; with detachment in place, the spiritual seeker shuns the illusory “as from the droppings of a crow.” St. John of the Cross mentions a dual process very similar to the one mentioned here: “A bird caught in birdlime has a twofold task: It must free itself and cleanse itself. And by satisfying their appetites, people suffer in a twofold way: They must detach themselves and, after being detached, clean themselves of what has clung to them.”
The third requirement is a collection of six virtues which begins with tranquility(shama). Once we have detached the mind from sense-pleasures by continually being aware of their inherent defects, tranquillity comes. The mind, pulled back from the senses, is then free to abide in Brahman. Self-control (dama), the second virtue, is controlling the sense organs. Without controlling the mind—shama—there’s little point in controlling the sense organs—dama. It only leads to frustration. Unless both are present, real concentration is impossible.
Mental poise (uparati) is the third virtue, and it means not allowing the mind to be swayed by anything external. St. John of the Cross offers the same instruction: “Strive to preserve your heart in peace; let no event of this world disturb it; reflect that all must come to an end.” Forbearance (titiksha), the fourth virtue, means enduring all afflictions without anxiety or complaint. This obviously means externally as well as internally: One can’t be said to be practicing forbearance if irritation and resentment are felt but not expressed. With mental poise and forbearance, the jnana yogi is immune to external provocations as well as mental anxieties. Faith (shraddha), the fifth virtue, is the unwavering conviction that the words of the scriptures and the words of the guru are true and lead to the realization of Brahman. Again, without practicing the previous virtues, one can’t gain the conviction that one’s spiritual life is authentic and that the words of the scriptures and the teacher are true. This isn’t blind acceptance: it’s a deep conviction based on one’s own experience of spiritual life. Unless one develops this deep conviction, spiritual progress isn’t possible. As long as one’s conviction wavers, the mind won’t have the necessary strength to practice serious spiritual disciplines. The final virtue, concentration (samadhana), means keeping the higher portion of the mind (buddhi) fixed in Brahman. This, Shankara says, does not mean babying the mind with idle thoughts and “relaxing.” It means always having the buddhi established in Brahman.
With these six virtues firmly in place, we can reach the fourth requirement of jnana yoga, which is longing for liberation (mumukshutva). Liberation (mukti) means freedom from the bondage of ignorance which engenders egotism and identification with the body. Once ignorance is removed, Brahman is revealed. The bondage of ignorance is so powerful, however, that only the most intense desire for freedom will sever its cords. Longing for liberation is a burning desire for freedom—a desire so intense that Vedanta literature compares it to a man whose hair is on fire desperately seeking water to quench the flames. He has no other interest, no other desire, no other thought in his mind.
Every one of the four spiritual requirements becomes strengthened by the vigorous cultivation of the other three. Even if one begins the practice of jnana yoga with a feeble desire for liberation, through the grace of the teacher and through cultivating the other spiritual requisites, a weak desire for liberation can become intense. The more intense a person’s desire for liberation, the sooner that individual will attain freedom and perfection; the weaker a person’s longing for liberation, the further that person is away from achieving the goal of human life. Therefore, until freedom is attained, one can never relax one’s efforts. “Anyone who does things lukewarmly is close to falling,” said St. John of the Cross.
Cultivating the four spiritual requirements makes the student fit for the fundamental practices of jnana yoga—the classic triad of hearing the truth, reflecting on the truth, and having unbroken meditation on the truth of Brahman. First, one must hear (shravana) the truth of the scriptures from a qualified teacher. Second, one needs to reflect (manana)—think of Brahman constantly and through that, gain a deep conviction about the truth of Brahman. Finally, one must meditate (nididhyasana)—which means having a constant, unbroken stream of meditation upon Brahman.Unbroken meditation, practiced for a long period of time, brings samadhi.
Each of the four yogas has samadhi—union with the divine—as its goal. What is this experience? It’s impossible to say since the experience has been defined by the Upanishads as “that from which all speech with the mind turns away.” What Shankara describes in the Vivekacudamani, however, is worth repeating here. The disciple, having earnestly followed the instructions of his teacher, goes into deep samadhi. Returning to a normal plane of consciousness, he says “out of the fullness of his joy”:
The ego has disappeared. I have realized my identity with Brahman and so all my desires have melted away. . . . What is this joy that I feel? Who shall measure it? I know nothing but joy, limitless, unbounded!…
My mind fell like a hailstone into that vast expanse of Brahman’s ocean. Touching one drop of it, I melted away and became one with Brahman. And now, though I return to human consciousness, I abide in the joy of the Atman.
Where is this universe? Who took it away?…Here is the ocean of Brahman, full of endless joy. . . . Is there anything apart or distinct from Brahman?
Now, finally and clearly, I know that I am the Atman, whose nature is eternal joy.
This experience is the goal of human life, the highest attainment. Attaining that divine kingdom within our own hearts, we will realize that the kingdom had been waiting for us the whole time. As Meister Eckhart said, “When the Kingdom appears to the soul and it is recognized, there is no further need for preaching or instruction: it is learnéd enough and has at once secured eternal life. To know and see how near God’s Kingdom is, is to say with Jacob: ‘God is in this place and I did not know it.'” Once we realize that kingdom is in our possession, we—like the king who now knows his true identity—will live in perfect bliss, freedom and joy.