Vedanta is the highest philosophy ever conceived by the human mind. It is complete in itself. According to Vedanta, the individual is eternally liberated and ever united with Brahman. He has only to become aware of this unity through inner awareness and self-enquiry. Should it then be necessary to subject oneself to yogic discipline? This is the question some Vedantins are apt to pose to a yogi.
The yogi does not question the vedantic conclusions; however, being fully aware of man’s physical and intellectual limitations, he is convinced that, in order to reach the heightened state of inner awareness, to realize the vedantic conclusions, a physical, mental and spiritual discipline is essential. While Vedanta is the conclusion, yoga is the means to arrive at that conclusion.
In the following discussion, the vedantic and yogic viewpoints have been brought forward.
In my opinion, Vedanta is sufficient in itself – without yoga. Why is it necessary to subject oneself to yogic disciplines such as japa, asana, pranayama and so on?
‘Man is eternally liberated in Brahman; I am Brahman.’ Yes, this is the truth; it is the highest philosophy and it is the aim of human life. Yet, there is a great distance between our relative states of existence and awareness and the state of consciousness attained by the rishis, from where they revealed to mankind the truth of the Upanishads.
The path of evolution leads to a gradual conquest of body and mind. In Samkhya philosophy there is an analogy of two birds that live on the same tree of life: one is sitting in peace and is only aware of all the events, and the other is all the time active – it is flying, searching for food, eating, enjoying life, and so on. The natural law reigns supreme for this bird. To become conscious of this unity is what the human being is searching for. His whole history is a continuous struggle to reach this goal.
When people try to comprehend the truth with the intellect and do not become one with the inner self, the result is that one’s actual life is in contradiction with the assertion, ‘I am Brahman’, or ‘I am eternally liberated in Brahman’. It is something like the parrot who has been taught by the housewife to repeat, “Rama, Rama, Rama”. He keeps on repeating, “Rama, Rama, Rama” day and night, but when a cat appears and tries to bite him, the parrot forgets this mantra and shouts simply, “Pip, pip, pip.”
Similarly, there are two types of Vedantins: pseudo-Vedantins or Vedantins who repeat like a parrot ‘I am Brahman’ without having realized the meaning, and the others, the real ones, who actually practise it. The following story illustrates both kinds.
Indra, the god of gods, and Duryodhana, the god of demons, went to Brahman, the creator, and asked him for spiritual instructions. He said to both, “Tat Twam Asi – That Thou Art” – that is to say, ‘I am Brahman.’ Indra went to his heaven and Duryodhana to his land. They became full of this idea, but Duryodhana told himself, “I am Brahman, this moustache is Brahman, these cheeks are Brahman, Brahman has one thousand wives.” He went on this way repeating, “Thou art That – Brahman.”
But Indra said, “I know that Brahman is immortal and without form and that this body is mortal and perishable.” Through this kind of introspection of the senses and the mind, Indra became concentrated and one-pointed. Thus the real knowledge came to him, the realization of Brahman. It is for this type of person who is pure in heart, who can think deeply and is capable of introspection, that jnana yoga is suitable. For other people, raja yoga, bhakti yoga and karma yoga might be needed as a supplement. It means that before starting the higher practices of Vedanta, one must go through pranayama, pratyahara and so on, as it is written in the Brahma Sutras.
Yes, but you will admit that the aim of evolution is freedom, moksha, and this freedom is attained only by self-realization. How can a system of fixed, rigid practices give freedom? If freedom is the end, the means must also be free, but yogic exercises are, on the contrary, a mere mechanical formula which other people have been blindly practising for centuries. Why not take a pill instead? We cannot attain liberty by imitating!
As an answer to this I will give you a parable. Once, a king was annoyed with his prime minister and put him in prison. One evening the prisoner’s wife came to see him. He asked her to bring one beetle, one silken thread, one cotton thread and a rope. The next evening, she brought the beetle and the other articles. She tied the silken thread onto the beetle, which then climbed up to the prison cell. On the end of the silken thread she tied the cotton thread and on this was fastened the rope. Then the husband was able to pull up these different threads until he had the rope in his hands, which he tied inside the prison cell and ultimately climbed down, out of the prison.
The process of freedom is like this for every man. It is not possible to become free from the bondage of the body and from avidya, ignorance, without first having prepared the body and mind through asanas, pranayama, pratyahara, concentration and so on. Of course, we agree that moksha is the ultimate aim. Yoga is to be adopted as a means, not as an end. Veda means knowledge and anta means the end, or culmination; therefore, Vedanta means the culmination of knowledge.
Shiva, the representative of cosmic transformation, is the creator of yoga. He created the postures called asanas. They include all the natural gestures of man. Everything that exists is always in a posture of some kind. The yogic postures signify a moment of tranquility, an awareness of existence. It is the awareness that ‘I am the cosmic dancer and the creator of my own history’.
Do you know the nature of your mind, its divine and its demonical tendencies? Do you know how the stream of the mind runs towards freedom and knowledge? It is said that it flows towards the goal, but when it flows in the whirl of existence downwards towards indiscrimination, it is said to be flowing towards evil. Man becomes that with which he identifies himself. From this point of view, belief and faith are most important in human life. How can the ordinary man living in the family, society, the modern atomic age, attain the higher state of self-realization and create peace without the practices of yoga?
Nevertheless, the fact remains that the direct way to the self is through jnana, viveka and vichara. So why waste people’s time with asanas and pratyahara, which give only relative results, when you can put them directly on the path of self-realization by teaching them self-enquiry and how to discriminate?
Even a Vedantin has a body with physical limitations. He can also catch a cold, get stomach ache, and his kidneys might secrete a lot of uric acid. His body is governed by physical laws, and this body has to be kept in good condition.
I still hold that it is not possible to free man from his psychological problems, fears and complexes by using a fixed system of techniques. On the contrary, routine exercises only enslave man’s mind, we cling to our exercises for security and for fear of losing our little personality. As such, these yogic disciplines are rather an obstacle towards peace, freedom and self-knowledge.
By practising asanas, one maintains good health and exterminates the fear of disease. This point of view is very significant as far as education is concerned. For spiritual realization a perfectly healthy body is indispensable. Self-awareness, self-observation, is the end of the way. Before this victory, we must conquer our body and mind. A confused mind creates confused thoughts, and the actions are likewise confused. It is said in a Buddhist scripture, “As clear water when poured into clear water does not change, so also the self or the seer of truth does not change, oh Gautam!”
The ultimate truth is that ‘I am not the body or the mind, but the Supreme Being’. However, the practice of asanas, mudras, bandhas and kriyas only serve to exaggerate the awareness of the mind and body. What, then, is the use of practising them?
Awareness of the body is only maintained while the practices are actually going on. After that, you can be sure the body is functioning perfectly by itself, and you can contemplate your mental or spiritual activities. It is when you neglect your physical body that you are in constant danger of falling ill, in which case even the most wise and illuminated person is disturbed and unable to think of anything but his body.
Yogis talk of controlling the senses by means of pranayama and pratyahara, but this is impossible because it is the very nature of the senses to be restless. It is also unnecessary, because Brahman can be worshipped everywhere and at all times, in the world and in the domain of the senses. He is infinite.
This is a good argument. It is certainly the dharma of the indriyas, the senses, to see, hear, taste, smell and so on, but the Supreme Being within you is different from this dharma. By the practice of pratyahara you do not withdraw your senses, but you separate yourself from them. It is like pouring clear water into a yellow-coloured or green-coloured jug. The water appears to be yellow or green, but if you wish to know the real nature of the water you will have to pour it into a colourless jug. In the same manner, the practice of pratyahara is not meant to control the senses, but rather to separate the self from the senses. The senses continue their activities. Even after jivanmukti, liberation, the eyes continue to see, the ears go on hearing and the mind continues to think.
But if Brahman is transcendental, both in the universe and beyond it, what is the use of worshipping idols, symbols, or a shivalingam? God is not limited to these things, but is in the heart of all.
Yes, you are right, but always remember that yoga is an absolute science. The exponent of Samkhya philosophy was Sage Kapila, who was an atheist and agnostic. He did not believe in God. Patanjali has written in his Yoga Sutras that idol worship only serves as a basis for the mind to become more and more subtle. Ultimately, it is not the form which is important, but the consciousness.
Vedanta is not different from yoga, and yoga is not different from Vedanta. They are only two different approaches to the same problem. A person, intellectual by temperament, takes to Vedanta, while another, mystical by temperament, practises raja yoga. The predominantly emotional person chooses bhakti yoga, and the active person, dynamic by temperament, should practise karma yoga.
It is true that all Vedantins cannot tread this path without the help of yoga because for most people physical, mental and spiritual discipline is necessary. They cannot assert that Vedanta is the only way, nor can a yogi affirm that yoga is the end of everything. Yoga is the means, while Vedanta is the culmination. Through the path of yoga one can attain Vedanta.
—first published 1968 in Yoga Discussed in Relation to Other Thoughts & A Dialogue on Practical Yoga