This is a second part of a series of posts
Congratulations to 2014 Graduates!
In the first part, I briefly talked about the philosophies of Jnana Yoga and Karma Yoga before describing simple but effective spiritual practices of the yogas. In this part, I would like to share with you briefly what I understood the practical major points of Raja Yoga.
One can learn more about Raja Yoga by reading the Bhagavad Gita (especially chapter 6), Swami Vivekananda’s book “Raja Yoga” and Swami Adiswaranandaji’s book “The Four Yogas”.
Raja Yoga: Raja Yoga is a path to realize the Ultimate Reality or Brahman or God that is lying within through self-control and focusing the mind. As sun-rays gathered by a magnifying-glass creates fire, similarly the mind, gathered by self-control and focused on our inner divine Self (Atman), reveals our true identity. This is God realization.
Raja Yoga logically and scientifically describes the stages of progress from the beginning to the last stage of realizing the Ultimate Reality. These steps are different states of our mind. Once we go through all of these stages, we understand all the aspects of our mind. These are the famous eight steps of Raja Yoga.
Seven Steps of Raja Yoga & Eighth step of Vedanta:
(1) Yama: Yama constitutes of five practices to help attain self-control:
(i) Ahimsa (Non-violence): One should not hurt anyone physically, verbally, and mentally. Any thought, or word, or an action which harms any person keeps our mind in an agitated or reactionary mood. With such a mood, a person cannot focus one’s mind completely. We can focus our mind partially on the Self along with harmful thoughts. But such partial focus cannot help us to attain the highest knowledge. A person with idea of revenge or harming others cannot be a decent human being, not to talk about a Yogi. Therefore, 100% focus of our mind is necessary.
(ii) Satya (Truthfulness): In order to be a Raja Yogi, one has to practice to be truthful in thoughts, speech, and actions. Hypocrites and dishonest people cannot progress in any Yoga. Being truthful prepares a ground to begin our journey to realize the highest knowledge.
(iii) Asteya (Not to Steal): Respecting the property of other people and not stealing builds up self-control. These properties of others could be in any form.
(iv) Brahmacharya (Practicing Celibacy): Sri Ramakrishna said that lust and greed tie mind of a human being to the lower planes and will not let it think anything higher. Brahmacharya is to control lustful thoughts, speech, and actions. There is a short story that encapsulates this point. Someone once had a mongoose as a pet and he had a small ground for it to go around. The ground was surrounded by a wall. To stop mongoose from running away, the owner tied a brick to its tail with a string. Each time mongoose tried to climb the wall to go away, the weight of the brick brought it down. Lust and greed are these weights.
Lust is a natural instinct in all beings to continue the creation of the universe. But, it is a small part of human life. Human beings are not born just to produce more human beings and die. There is much more to life. People forget this and orient their whole lives around this lust-oriented joy. Therefore, they miss a lot of uplifting joy of life which the scriptures describe. The Upanishads say that the sum total of all worldly joys is lesser than one-billionth of the bliss one gets by realizing Atman.
Those who try to fulfill lustful desires are either not aware of or forget the fact that these desires are like fire and attempts to fulfill them are like adding ghee into it. The more we put ghee into the fire, the more it intensifies. It is like the Myth of Sisyphus. Each time one rolls a stone up, it rolls down. Sri Shankaracharya says that trying to fulfill all worldly desires and simultaneously get the highest knowledge is like trying to cross a river holding a crocodile.
What can be done? Not all people can live a life of celibacy. It is true that only 1% of human beings truly renounce everything and fully dedicate their lives for God-realization and service to humanity. In Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna says, “All legitimate desires come from Me (God)” (Gita 7.11). That is why in the Hindu system there are four parts of life: Brahmacharya, Gruhastha, Vanprastha and Sanyas. In the younger ages (up to 25 years), students should practice celibacy and devote all their time and energy to acquire moral and spiritual knowledge, learning various skills to make a living in the future and to build their character. Then, there are two choices. One path is to renounce everything for God-realization and service to humanity. The second path is to get married, raise a family properly, and get control over lust and greed. And then, after having experienced the world, they can renounce everything for God-realization and service to humanity. This is Vanaprastha and Sanyasa. Sri Ramakrishna said that after one or two children, the husband and wife should live like brother and sister and should help each other in their spiritual progress. This is possible if they understand the importance of spiritual practices and the bliss, peace, knowledge, and fulfillment that follow. This has to be done very carefully without damaging an individual’s mind and his/her relationship with the spouse.
Controlling and focusing the mind on God or Self is not an easy task for it needs tremendous will-power. This will-power comes from controlling the lustful thoughts and other desires through which our energy runs out. This is where spiritual practice becomes difficult and we need help from the All Mighty. We have to sincerely pray and try. If we are sincere, at right moment help comes from the All Mighty. Actually, devotees feel that only by God’s grace can we do spiritual practices.
(v) Aparigraha (Living with minimum belongings and not receiving any gift or favors from others): Those who have a higher goal of God realization or attaining the highest knowledge need all of the possible time and resources to make progress on achieving this goal. They cannot waste their time maintaining lots of unnecessary material things. That is why they select a “simple life,” meaning to live on minimum number of worldly things. For example, they question to themselves: How many minimum numbers of clothes, shoes, toiletries and other things are needed for me to live? They will find out what the minimum liabilities they should go into are. They chose bare necessities over luxury.
Receiving gifts or favors from others creates a sense of guilt to pay back in some form or other. The giver may have some form of expectation that may result in guilt if we cannot fulfill them. A question comes: “In house-holders life how can we avoid not receiving gift or favors?” The answer is, “We should receive gifts or favors only in unavoidable situations. And whenever we receive any gift or favor, we must try to give back more than what we have received. This way no guilt will be left and mind remains free.”
(2) Niyama: Niyama constitutes the following five observances:
(i) Saucha(External and internal purity): Cleanliness of the body and mind is very important. Cleanliness of body is easy to maintain, but cleanliness of mind takes a long time. When mind is clean, only then does the divinity manifest from within. Thus, cleanliness of mind is the ultimate goal. A Raja Yogi should have this goal of purification in mind and constantly work for it. As mind gets purified, one advances towards one’s true identity, The Divine Self or Atman. One develops a sense of purity, and consequently impurity will make one uncomfortable. We have to remember that whatever takes us away from our divine Self is impure.
(ii) Santosh(Contentment): A student of Raja Yoga develops a sense of contentment. Being in the world, it is natural that we have desires. We need to fulfill legitimate desires. But, we have to realize the following facts: (1) We cannot fully satisfy all the worldly desires. The more we try to fulfill these desires, the more they grow in intensity. (2) The fulfillment of worldly desires gives us little pleasure initially, but then we have to pay a high price for our energy, time, and resources. At the end, the consequences make us suffer more than the pleasure. (3) Worldly desires make us slaves of worldly objects and people. We cannot think and act independently. (4) It is always good to have desires which help us grow spiritually and give us better understanding of our lives. Thus, we have to keep our legitimate desires minimum, be happy with what we have and what we get, and continue striving for spiritual development. Scriptures say that “contentment is the greatest wealth one can have.”
(iii) Tapas(Austerity): We have to learn to bear the pain that comes when we make efforts for spiritual development. People suffer so much to attain a worldly thing which eventually gives them very little joy and still they do not complain. Why then should a spiritual seeker complain in bearing a little suffering which will give infinite joy? If we are forced to remain hungry, it is painful. But, if we willingly fast, then it is an austerity.
(iv) Swadhyaya (Study of Scriptures): A study of the scriptures is important. In the beginning, it is good to listen to the experts who had practiced what the scriptures say and had developed spiritually. Listening to intellectuals who do not practice the essence of scriptures will not help much. Through the God-realized people, we can learn essence of scriptures and practice them. This way we avoid spending our time understanding useless and unnecessary things. We will also avoid misinterpretations of the scriptures. Furthermore, we have to learn what is applicable to us at this given point. Many inessential things of the scriptures are necessary to preserve the essential things. For example, a banana skin is necessary to have banana. But, we have to remove the skin and eat only the banana.
(v) Ishwar Pranidhana (Worship of God): Some form of worship of God is necessary to develop love for God. Also, for a person with body-consciousness, it is important to think God with a form. It will be easier to focus on God with form than God without form.
(3) Asana: We have to master a sitting posture that is comfortable and will help us focus our minds on God. We have mastered a posture if by sitting in that posture we can forget our body and comfortably think of God for an hour or more. Usually, this posture consists of sitting on the floor with crossed legs. For a normal healthy person, the mastery of this posture can be developed through regular spiritual practice. Those who have been advanced in the spiritual path say that sitting crossed-legged while keeping the spinal column, neck and head in straight line, helps focus our minds on God or our spiritual ideal. The Bhagavad Gita also describes the same posture in the shlokas 6.13.
(4) Pranayama: Our breathing is connected with our state of mind. If we are calm, then our breathing is slow, smooth, even from both the nostrils, and has fewer inhale-exhale units per minute. If our mind is excited, agitated, angry, or scared, then our breathing will be faster, shorter, and will have more units of inhale-exhale per minute. Also, we do not need to breathe from both of our nostrils all the time. This depends on our state of mind. Naturally our mind is calm when night meets day and in the evening when day meets night. These are the best times to pray, do japa, or meditate.
Raja Yoga also teaches how to do the opposite – to control the mind by controlling breathing. This has to be done systematically and in the presence of an expert. Otherwise, one may damage one’s mind. Along with this breathing exercise (Pranayama), one has to do all the practices described above for self-control.
(5) Pratyahara: We must get control over the mind’s power of attaching and detaching to our sense-organs. This can be done with 3 things. (1) One must observe how various thoughts come and how the mind gets attached or detached from the sense-organs and their objects. Mostly, the mind gets attached to the sense-organs and their objects through desires, causing the mind to wander around. By observing the mind and having desire to get control over the mind, the desires and thoughts get reduced over a period of time. (2) One must have the will-power to withdraw the mind from the sense-organs and their useless desires. Using too much force is not good. This has to be done cleverly without breaking the mind’s ability to function. (3) One must explain to his/her mind how useless it is to run after every desire that comes to the mind. By discrimination, from all desires, we have to separate the favorable and legitimate desires and the harmful illegitimate desires. Then, tell the mind to get rid of the latter desires and focus on the favorable and legitimate desires.
(6) Dharana: Practice to focus the mind on God or Self (Atman; our True Identity) and keep it focused as long as possible. The mind has to be focused and must remain steady like the flame of an oil-lamp or the candle in a windless environment. If we can focus our mind continuously on God or Self for twelve seconds then it is called Dharana. Imagine, we have to focus continuously for only twelve seconds! But, the mind’s activities are very fast and can in fact be measured in nanoseconds. However, yogis can still control and focus their mind on God or Self. Many people focus their mind unconsciously on the worldly object they love. We have to use this ability in the spiritual path in order to obtain the unlimited bliss, deeper knowledge of ourselves, unselfish love for all, and fulfillment of life.
(7) Dhyana (Meditation): When the focus of our mind becomes steady, then we can go into meditation. Twelve seconds of continuous focus of our mind on God or Self makes one unit of Dharana and twelve such units of Dharana makes one unit of Dhyana or meditation. When people say that they are meditating, then they are actually NOT meditating. Because, when one is aware that ‘I am meditating,’ that is a distraction of the mind. In meditation, there is no awareness of anything except the form of God or Self. One only becomes aware of the meditation after the actual meditation happened. Trying to meditate is different than meditation. In meditation, there is no awareness of body, time and space.
(8) Samadhi: This is the final stage of consciousness in which the meditator, the object of meditation, and the meditation become one. Twelve units of meditation lead one into Samadhi. It is very difficult to attain Samadhi. However, it is not impossible. People have witnessed Sri Ramakrishna attaining Samadhi often. Any thought of God or any uplifting thought would take his mind to either God (Mother Kali) or further into Infinite Atman or Brahman. Doctors have even checked his physical state during Samadhi and found that all the activities of body have stopped, though his face continued beaming with divine bliss. In Samadhi, Sri Ramakrishna was oblivious of the space, time, and environment. Only towards the end of his Samadhi would his mind slowly become aware of space, time, and environment. Regaining consciousness, his words would become very powerful, filled with inspiration and wisdom. Being one with the Universal Mother in Samadhi, he used to say, “The Universal Mother speaks through me.” By a mere look and touch, he transformed many people’s lives for good. These people (his direct disciples) inspired millions of people all over the world. Following Sri Ramakrishna’s guidance, they uplifted themselves, removed their sufferings, experienced infinite bliss, and served humanity with their unselfish service. This is the outcome of Samadhi. A person experiencing Samadhi can improve lives of millions of people.
Six Centers of Spiritual Consciousness: Raja Yoga also includes six centers of consciousness.
These centers are in the spinal column and match with the nervous-system of a human being. According to Raja Yoga, the consciousness of a person moves along three subtle nerve channels called Ida, Pingala, and Sushumna. If we take a horizontal figure eight ( or the infinity symbol and pile up several of these symbols one on top of the other, that would resemble what prepares the nerve channels of Ida, Pingala, and Sushumna. The left circle represents Ida, the right circle represents Pingala, and the middle hollow part is Sushumna. This column goes from sacral plexus to the top of the brain. The different plexuses that have centers in the spinal column do match with the centers of Raja Yoga. Usually, the messages between brain and other nerve centers travel through Ida and Pingala. Yet, a Raja Yogi, through control on the senses and mind, develops a faster communication between brain and the senses through Sushumna. The signals travel through air like wireless communication. It is amazing that when Swami Vivekananda explained the work of Sushumna, the wireless communication was not even invented.
These six centers of Raja Yoga range from the lowest plane of gross impulses to the highest plane of pure bliss.
(i) Muladhara (Center symbolized with a four-petal lotus): This is the first state of consciousness. When mind is at this level, a person thinks only of food, guided by gross subconscious desires.
(ii) Swadhisthan (symbolized with a six-petal lotus): At this level of consciousness, a person is constantly swayed by gross impulses, imaginations, and animalistic propensities.
(iii) Manipur (symbolized with a ten-petal lotus): This is situated at the naval level of an individual. At this level, one feels that as clouds obstruct the vision of sun, the clouds of gross urges and impulses are obstructing the Truth.
(iv) Anahata (symbolized with a twelve-petal lotus): This is situated at the level of heart. When consciousness rises at this level, an individual starts getting a glimpse of the Ultimate Truth or God or Self. Every now and then the clouds of the gross urges go away and one has spiritual vision of God or Self.
(v) Vishuddha (symbolized with a sixteen-petal lotus): When mind rises to this level of consciousness and stays there most of the time, then all impurities of the mind goes away.
(vi) Ajna (symbolized with a two-petal lotus): This center lies between eyebrows. At this level of consciousness, one has clear vision of God or Self. However, it is as if an extremely clear and thin glass surrounds this God or Self. This clear glass is the thin ego of a person who wants to enjoy the vision of God or Self.
Vedanta talks about seventh stage of consciousness.
(vii) Sahastrara (symbolized with a thousand-petal lotus): It is located at the crown of the head. When the consciousness rises to this level, an individual becomes one with God or Self. All the ideas of identification of an individual with body and mind vanish. An individual’s consciousness merges with the Universal Consciousness. Now a person feels Oneness with all. One feels that everything is manifestation of consciousness (Brahman). One directly sees that consciousness (Brahman) has become everything. There is no matter.
With above mentioned practices of Raja Yoga, one can raise one’s consciousness from the lowest level to the highest level.
(1) Usually people think that Yoga refers to just a few physical exercises to live a healthy life and get some mental peace. This wrong impression prevents them to get something higher. It is like people seeing few pictures of Himalayas and thinking that they have seen Himalayas. By just seeing a picture, they cannot get thrilling experience of the grandeur and beauty of Himalayas.
(2) People look at the requirements to be a Raja Yogi and become afraid that they can never be such a yogi. The steps of Raja Yoga are so clearly described that people get overwhelmed. But, with determination and practice, one can become a true Raja Yogi.
(3) In Raja Yoga, “Laya” is a great obstacle. When people travel in a car or a train or a plane, they fall in sleep by the rhythm. Similarly, in Raja Yoga when people try to meditate, most of the time “Laya” comes and people cannot separate this lazy state of mind from the actual meditative state. People spend years remaining at this stage believing that they have attained meditative state. A highly meditative state and a state of inertness look alike. Swami Vivekananda clearly stated the difference between a person in Samadhi and a person in deep sleep. He said that an ignorant person feels physically good after falling in deep sleep, but remains ignorant. On the other hand, when an ignorant person goes into Samadhi, he becomes wise.
(Thanks to Ronak Parikh for editing this post.)