Jnana Yoga, discussed in Vedanta, is the discipline of philosophical discrimination by which jnana, or the knowledge of Brahman (the Supreme Reality) is attained.
A Hindu philosopher once said about Vedanta: “I shall state in half a couplet what has been described in a million books: Brahman alone is real; the phenomenal universe is unreal; the living being is none other than Brahman.”
Jnana Yoga establishes the sole reality of Brahman.
The ultimate openness of the Godhead, living beings, and the universe is emphasised by Sankaracharya as the essence and conclusion of Vedanta as expounded in the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Brahma-Sutras. Sankaracharya, popularly called Sankara, was born, according to modern scholars, during the eighth century after Christ. The year of his birth is given as A.D. 788 and that of his death as 820. He belonged to a sect of austere, scholarly, and industrious Brahmins of Malabar in South India. After completing the study of the Vedas, he embraced the monastic life at an early age, devoted himself to the practice of spiritual disciplines, and was soon recognised as the leading philosopher and mystic of India, and a reformer of Hinduism.
Before his death at Kedarnath in the Himalayas, at the age of thirty-two, he had travelled the length and breadth of India and established monasteries at the four corners of the country. Sankara lived during the decadent period of Buddhism when India was torn with sectarianism and religious conflict, causing bewilderment to earnest seekers of truth. In open debate and through his now well-known commentaries on the scriptures he refuted the views of his opponents and established non-dualism as the ultimate teaching of the Vedas. It is refreshing to contemplate the serenity and unshakable assurance of Sankara’s philosophy amidst the polemics of his time.
It may be safely stated that Sankara’s interpretation of Hinduism is, even today, India’s original and unsurpassed contribution to the philosophical thought of the world. He established the fact that ultimate reality, though supra mental, need not remain a dogma of religion or the private vision of mysticism, but that it is a philosophical truth which may be demonstrated by reason and which is supported by universal experience. Despite ceaseless activity, he found time to write, in addition to his more famous works, several small philosophical treatises and to compose hymns in praise of the Hindu deities. In Sankara one finds the unusual combination of a philosopher and a poet, an astute thinker and a clear writer, a savant and a saint, a mystic and a religious reformer, a debater of rare forensic power and a passionate lover of God. He is one of the brightest stars in the philosophical and religious firmament of India.
The knowledge of Vedanta, like all other forms of genuine spiritual knowledge, has been transmitted through a succession of teachers. Books may give information or even mental stimulation, but the guru, or teacher, helps to awaken spiritual consciousness. Naturally, a high degree of perfection is expected of the teacher, who must be properly qualified.
A teacher must be properly qualified and should possess knowledge of the scriptures in order to dispel students’ doubts. He must have direct experience of God, the most important qualification. Free from sinfulness and selfish motives, he must be’ like an ocean of mercy which knows no reason’. With infinite patience and infinite love he unfolds the disciple’s heart, as the breeze opens the buds at the advent of spring. The father provides one with the physical birth, but the teacher with the spiritual birth. The student should approach the teacher with respect, in a spirit of service, and ask him intelligent questions. The meeting of a qualified student with a God-like teacher – as when Peter met Christ, or Vivekananda met Ramakrishna- is a wonderful event in the spiritual world. The ideal teacher here described is indeed rare. But one may also derive benefit from a less perfect guide. As the mind of the pupil becomes purer, he finds that God- who dwells in everyone’s heart- is guiding him on his spiritual path.
An aspirant, pure in thought, word and deed, seeks the help of a spiritual teacher. God no doubt dwells in all men and is their inner guide. But since at the outset a man’s impure thoughts usually distort the divine voice, he needs a guide to show him the right path. The teacher quickens the spiritual awakening; a candle is lighted from another lighted candle. Religious history shows that even the greatest saints and mystics have taken help from a qualified teacher. The mere study of books is not enough.
The disciple approaches the benign guru and says to him, in the words of Sankara: ‘Save me from death, afflicted as I am by the unquenchable fire of the forest of the world, a fire which blazes violently on account of the wind of the wicked deeds performed by me in my previous lives. Save me, who am terrified and who seeks refuge in thee; for I know of no other with whom to take shelter. How I shall cross the ocean of phenomenal existence, what is to be my fate, and what means I should adopt- as to these I know nothing. Condescend to save me, and describe at length how to put an end to repeated births and deaths, fraught with suffering and frustration.’
The distressed disciple is reassured by the guru: ‘Fear not, O blessed one. There is no death for you. There is no means of crossing the ocean of apparently interminable births and deaths in this transitory world. The very way the sages have trod heretofore, I shall point out to you. It is through the touch of ignorance that you, who are the Supreme Self, find yourself under the bondage of the non-self, whence alone proceeds the round of births and deaths. The fire of knowledge, kindled by discrimination between the Self and the non-self, consumes ignorance with its effects.’
The successful study of Vedanta presupposes a sort of intuitive knowledge of the limitations and misery inevitable in the life of the embodied soul: there is suffering in birth, disease, old age, and in death. One believing in progress and ultimate perfection in the phenomenal world will not be able to grasp the essence of non-dualistic Vedanta. Furthermore, the student of non-dualism must be equipped with proper qualifications. True knowledge does not consist of mere information; it must transform a man’s character and inspire the activities of his daily life. An objective attitude, faithful adherence to facts, an intellectual honesty may be adequate for scientific knowledge, but Vedanta requires much more.
1.Discrimination between the real and the unreal
3. A group of six virtues
4. Longing for freedom.
Discrimination between the real and the unreal. This discrimination springs from the intuitive conviction that the eternal and unchanging Brahman alone is real, and all other objects are transitory and unreal. The student is born, as it were, with this conviction on account of his having been previously disillusioned, by experiences in previous lives, about the reality of the happiness one may expect on earth and in the heavenly worlds. Discrimination is the first and the foremost discipline; without it the next discipline cannot be practised.
Renunciation.This means non-attachment to all pleasures, ranging from the enjoyment of the tangible objects found on earth to that of the happiness a virtuous soul experiences in heaven. All actions are by nature finite; therefore, their results, too, are finite. Such impermanent factors of an action as the doer, his body and sense organs, and the physical accessories he employs, cannot produce a permanent result. A student of Vedanta must be endowed not only with a keen power of intellect in order to discriminate between the real and the unreal but also with a stern power of will to give up the unreal. Too often the unreal appears to us in the guise of the real, and too often we lack the power to renounce even what we know to be unreal.
Next comes a group of six virtues: (i)control of the body and the senses, (ii)control of the mind, (iii)prevention of the sense-organs, once they are controlled, from drifting back to their respective objects, (iv)forbearance, (v)complete concentration, (vi)faith.
Self-control must not be confused with torture or mortification of the body. The sense organs, which are ordinarily inclined toward material objects and employed to seek only the pleasant, should be controlled in order to create that inner calmness without which profound spiritual truths cannot be grasped. But self-control does not mean the weakening of the organs, as is explained in the Katha Upanishad by the illustration of the chariot. The body is compared to the chariot, the embodied soul to its master, the intellect or discriminative faculty to the driver, the mind to the reins, the senses to the horses, and sense-objects to the roads. The chariot can serve its purpose of taking the master to his destination if it is well built, if the driver can discriminate between the right and the wrong road, if the reins are strong, if the horses are firmly controlled, and if the roads are well chosen.
Likewise, the spiritual seeker should possess a healthy body and vigorous organs, unerring discrimination, and a strong mind. His discrimination should guide his senses to choose only those objects, which are helpful to the realisation of his spiritual ideal. If the body, the mind, or any of his faculties is injured or weakened, he cannot attain the goal, just as the rider cannot reach his destination if the chariot and its accessories are not in the right condition. Thus the two important elements emphasised in the practice of self-control are discrimination and will power.
The middle path, which makes a man ‘temperate in his food and recreation, temperate in his exertion in work, temperate in sleep and waking’ has been extolled by the Bhagavad Gita and also by Buddha.
Through the practice of forbearance, the student remains unruffled by heat and cold, pleasure and pain, and the other pairs of opposites. By means of concentration, he keeps his mind on the ideal. Faith enables him to listen, with respect to the instruction of the teacher and the injunctions of the scriptures. This faith is not mechanical belief, but an affirmative attitude of mind regarding the existence of reality, as opposed to a negative and cynical attitude. The man who always doubts comes to a grief.
Longing for freedom.
A serious student of Vedanta relies through rational investigation and actual experience that a man attached to the world is a bound creature and never really happy. Thus a genuine aspirant longs for freedom; but this longing must not be confused with the momentary yearning created by frustration or worldly loss. True renunciation and longing for freedom are the two vital disciplines through which the other disciplines bear fruit. Without these, even ethical virtues create only a mirage of spirituality. The Upanishads state that the knowledge of the self reveals itself only to one who longs for it intensely.
Sankaracharya lays emphasis on bhakti as a means to the realisation of freedom, and defines it as a single-minded longing for truth. Without this emotional urge the aspirant often becomes lost in the wilderness of philosophical speculation or seeks satisfaction in intellectual gymnastics.
The path of knowledge is steep and austere, and the search for impersonal reality is extremely difficult for those who are constantly aware of their duties to the world. This path, therefore, is usually pursued by monks, who have renounced the world. The monastic ideal of India is as ancient as the Hindu spiritual culture itself, though it received added impetus at the time of Buddha. Sankaracharya, in his commentaries on the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Brahma-Sutras, emphatically asserts the incompatibility of the unitive knowledge of Brahman with any kind of activity, ritualistic or philanthropic, because the latter cannot be dissociated from the triple factors of the doer, the instrument of action, and the result of action. Thus he is convinced that the non-dual Brahman can be realised only by all-renouncing sannyasins (monks), and not by householders, if the latter are true to their dharma.
To the qualified pupil who has properly approached the preceptor, the latter gives instruction so that he may overcome ignorance and realise the oneness of existence. It is explained to the pupil that on account of Maya, or nescience, Brahman, that is to say, Pure Consciousness, appears as the conditioned Brahman or the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer of the universe. From the conditioned Brahman evolve the five subtle elements of akasa (space), air, fire, water, and earth, which, becoming gross, produce the universe and all the physical objects contained in it. Under the influence of the same nescience, Brahman appears as the individual soul, who is endowed with a mind, a body, sense organs, vital breaths, and is a victim of birth and death. All this is called in Vedanta the illusory superimposition of the unreal upon the real.
This superimposition does not change in the least the nature of pure consciousness, just as the illusory water of the mirage does not affect the desert. From the relative standpoint, however, the conditioned Brahman is the cause of the universe: Maya is the material cause, and pure intelligence the efficient cause.
Next, the teacher explains the refutation or negation of this illusory superimposition. As a snake perceived in a rope is found, after proper investigation, to be nothing but the rope, so also the world of unreal entities beginning with ignorance and ending in the material universe and physical bodies and the conditioned Brahman- all superimposed upon Reality through ignorance- is finally realised to be nothing but pure Brahman. Causality itself, as also time and space, belong to the realm of phenomena and cannot affect Brahman. Brahman alone exists; the universe apart from Brahman is non-existent. Vedanta is neither pantheism, which would tacitly admit of Brahman’s becoming the universe, nor is it illusionism, which would accept the reality of a Maya under whose influence Brahman projects the universe. From the ultimate standpoint there is neither projection nor becoming. Pure consciousness is immutable.
According to non-dualists, the true nature of Brahman is realised through the method of negation. Every act of negation leaves behind a positive residuum. Thus, when the snake is negated, there remains the rope, and when the rope is negated something else remains. After all the changing superimpositions have been negated, there remains Being, or Sat, which is pure consciousness.
It may be contended, as certain of the Buddhist philosophers have argued, that when the process of negation is carried to its logical conclusion, what remains is a void; thus ultimate reality is a void, or non-existence. In reply it is said that there must be a perceiving consciousness, which is aware of the void. And this consciousness is Brahman. He who doubts or denies this fact is himself Brahman.
What is the process by which a student realises his oneness with Brahman? The teacher instructs him about the four great Vedic statements asserting this unity directly experienced by the Vedic seers and subsequently explained by philosophers:
‘That thou art,’ ‘I am Brahman’, ‘This self is Brahman’, and ‘Brahman is consciousness.’
Let us try to understand the meaning of the first statement, ‘That thou art’ (tattvamasi), with which many people in the West have now become familiar. The direct meaning of the word That comprises the conditioned Brahman (associated with the upadhis, or limiting adjuncts of creation, preservation, and destruction, and endowed with omniscience, lordship, omnipotence, and similar attributes) and pure consciousness, which is its unrelated substratum.
Likewise the direct meaning of the word Thou comprises the jiva or individualised soul (associated with the limiting adjuncts of the body, mind, and the sense-organs and endowed with such traits as little knowledge, little power, and dependency) and pure consciousness, which is its unrelated substratum. But there is also an implied meaning of the words That and Thou, namely, pure consciousness itself, unassociated with any limiting adjuncts. It is common practice to explain a statement through its implied meaning when the direct meaning contradicts actual experience: When we see that a red hot iron ball burns something, we say that the direct agent of burning is the iron; but the implied, though real, agent is fire, unassociated with iron. Again, in the statement ‘He spent the night on a sleepless pillow,’ the word sleepless does not refer to the pillow but to the person, who used the pillow.
Similarly, in the Vedic statement ‘That thou art,’ the word Art denotes the identity of That and Thou, which directly refer to the conditioned Brahman and the embodied soul respectively. But this identity is obviously absurd, since they are poles asunder. Therefore we must explain the statement by its implied meaning. The identity is really based upon the pure consciousness, which is the unrelated substratum of both. The limiting adjuncts in both cases are the creation of ignorance and therefore unreal: so these must be discarded. Therefore the statement ‘That thou art’ really conveys a transcendental experience of oneness which is beyond the body, mind, senses, and ego and the sensations associated with them. When a person realises his oneness with Brahman, he is oblivious of the idea that he is an embodied being.
Next, the teacher exhorts the disciple to meditate on his real nature:
‘That which is beyond caste, and creed, family and lineage, which is devoid of name and form, merit and demerit, that which transcends space, time, and sense-objects- that Brahman art thou. Meditate on this in thy mind.
‘That which is free from birth, growth, maturity, decline, infirmity, and death; that which is indestructible; that which is the cause of projection, maintenance, and dissolution of the universe- that Brahman art thou. Meditate on this in thy mind.
‘That which is free from duality; that which is infinite and indestructible; that which is supreme, eternal and undying; that which is taintless- that Brahman art thou. Meditate on this in thy mind.
‘That beyond which there is nothing; which shines above maya and is infinitely greater than the universe; the innermost self of all; the One without a second; existence-knowledge-bliss absolute; infinite and immutable- that Brahman art thou. Meditate on this in thy mind.’
As the disciple reflects deeply on the teacher’s instruction, he gradually frees himself from the superimpositions, which, like chains, bind one to the world. Vedanta speaks of three strong chains, namely, the observance of social formalities, over-engrossment in the scriptures, and undue attention to the physical body. The more the mind is established in Brahman, the less it feels attached to the physical world. The discipline must be practised, without interruption, as long as even a dream-like perception of the phenomenal universe and the physical body remains.
Even after the truth has been known, there often lingers the strong, primordial, and stubborn notion of ego, which can be destroyed only by living for some time in a state of constant communion with Brahman. Sloth and inadvertence are great enemies of the spiritual life, more harmful than many notorious sins. Inadvertence, delusion, egotism, bondage, and suffering are the successive links in the chain of the worldly life.
Having reflected, by means of suitable reasoning, on the instruction of the teacher, the student next devotes himself to meditation on Brahman, which means that his mind constantly dwells on a stream of ideas identical with the conception of the non-dual Brahman, to the exclusion of such foreign ideas as body, senses, mind, and ego. As he meditates on his oneness with Brahman, there arises within him a mental state, which makes him feel that he is Brahman- ever free, ever blissful, and ever illumined. This mental state gradually destroys his ignorance and doubts about Brahman. Yet even now for him Brahman is only a mental state or wave in the mind.
With the deepening of meditation, the mind, which is a manifestation of ignorance and a form of matter, is destroyed, and in the absence of the reflecting medium, the Brahman reflected in the mind is absorbed in the Supreme Brahman, which shines alone; it is like the reverting to the sun of its reflection in a dish of water when the dish is destroyed. Thus the subject and the object, pure consciousness and the individualised consciousness, become one. This unity, indescribable in words, is known only to him who has experienced it.
Later Vedantists have recommended the practice of the disciplines prescribed by Patanjali in the Yoga-sutras for the attainment of the knowledge of Brahman through samadhi, or total absorption. There are two kinds of samadhi. The experience of the one, in which the aspirant retains the distinction of the knower, knowledge, and the object of knowledge, may be likened to looking at a clay elephant and remaining conscious of the clay that permeates the figure. In this samadhi one retains consciousness of the individual soul, the body, and the world, and at the same time sees them all as permeated by Brahman, or pure consciousness.
In the other samadhi, the I-consciousness is totally obliterated, and there no longer remains any distinction between knower, knowledge, and the object of knowledge. This experience may be likened to the dissolving of a lump of salt in the water of the ocean, from which it was originally extracted; the salt cannot be separated any more from the water.
The need of vigilance is imperative at every step of the spiritual life. The obstacles which beset the path until the goal is reached are generally created by the mind’s inability to rest in Brahman, though it has become somewhat detached from the world. The four main obstacles are torpidity, distraction, attachment, and enjoyment of bliss. Often the student, while practising meditation, falls into a state of sleep because his mind is without a support either in Brahman or in the world. The remedy for this is devotional music, study of the scriptures, a visit to holy places, or some such stimulating spiritual exercise.
Second, the mind, while practising meditation, feels distracted by ideas, for the most part petty and inconsequential, which flit through the mind like the dust particles dancing in a sunbeam coming through a chink in the door or the wall into a dark room. They are often the result of the aspirant’s futile talk and physical movements when not engaged in meditation. The remedy is in the pacification of the mind through patience and perseverance.
Third, the mind may suddenly be seizes by a violent attachment to a long forgotten experience lying nestled in the subconscious mind. This can be overcome by means of stern discrimination and will power.
And last, one may feel quite satisfied with the enjoyment of an inferior bliss or a foretaste of the joy of Brahman, and be unwilling to make any further effort to reach the ultimate goal. This is explained by the illustration of a man who has heard of a treasure box hidden under a stone. As he approaches the place, he is challenged by a powerful dragon. A life and death struggle follows and at last the dragon is killed. But the man feels so exhilarated by the destruction of his enemy that he dances about in joy, forgetting all about the treasure. A spiritual seeker, too, becomes extremely delighted when, after a stubborn fight, he suppresses certain passions and attachments, and forgets to go further in order to realise his freedom. Sometimes the enjoyment of the delight arising from supra physical experiences makes the aspirant forget his goal.
The remedy for this obstacle is that the aspirant should not permit his mind to dwell long on any transient experience. He must detach himself from all forms of reflected bliss, however alluring they may appear, and not stop till the goal is reached. With sincerity and zeal, earnestness and perseverance, patience and love for the ideal, the devotee finally overcomes all obstacles, great and small, through the blessings of his teacher and the grace of God: he realises his oneness with Brahman.
Now the imprisoned lion is freed from its cage and can roam again in the forest, its natural habitat; the bound soul has attained freedom while dwelling in the body. The characteristics of a free soul have already been described (Read Page ‘The soul and its destiny’). Himself released from fear, he gives the assurance of fearlessness to all. Himself free from worry, he does not cause worry to anyone. He lives, works, and dies under the spell of the soul’s immortality, non-duality, and divinity. But whether endowed with a physical body or not, he has entered into a realm of new consciousness, from which he redirects his activities for the welfare of all. By the birth of such a person, as a Hindu poet has said, his family becomes purified, his mother blessed among women, and the earth sanctified for having nourished a worthy soul.
By swami Nikhilananda Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore
[Note: In this article, the use of the word ‘Vedanta’ is limited to apply to the philosophy of non-dualism. There are two other interpretations of Vedanta, namely, qualified non-dualism and dualism, whose chief exponents are respectively Ramanuja and Madhava.]