Chapter 4 - Shankaracharya's Gnana Yoga

Great Systems of Yoga

by Ernest Wood

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THIS Teacher, who founded monasteries in India for the study of Vedānta philosophy, is believed by many of his followers to have lived several centuries before Christ, though other scholars place him much later. The date does not matter to us today, but his philosophy does, for it is regarded by some millions of people, and especially by the intellectuals, as the very pinnacle of Aryan thought. It was not that he originated a new philosophy, though he did propound a self-culture or discipline necessary to the understanding of it.

Shankarāchārya expounded with great clarity and completeness the already existing philosophy of the Upanishads—a section of the Vedas often called the Vedānta, or end of the Veda, containing the "last word" or highest teaching about the nature of Brahman (God), man and the world. This teaching summed up its conclusions in a number of Great Sayings, including "There is one reality, but the intellectual persons speak of it variously," "All this certainly is Brahman," "That is the reality," "That, thou art" and other similar sentences to be (r) listened to, (2) thought about and (3) meditated upon, for the attainment of knowledge of the deepest truth, the very secret of life, the discovery which reveals the unalloyed freedom and happiness of our true self, when false ideas are put aside.

Gnyāna or Jnāna is knowledge. The central doctrine of this philosophy is that everything is one, and it can be known. But that knowing is only by being. We know ourselves not by words but by being ourselves, do we not? And this is happiness, for it seems that though this consciousness of self that we find ourselves to be is troubled, we always ascribe that trouble to something else—something outside—which restricts or annoys us. Who is there who blames himself for his sorrow? Even the thoughtful person who calls himself imperfect ascribes his troubles and sorrows to the imperfections, and says that if he could be without them he would be happy. Generally he tries to get rid of them. So it is by the study of the self that this philosophy proceeds to disclose the occult or secret truth which removes the imperfections and leaves the self free and joyous.

Shankarāchārya says in one word what all these imperfections are, what it is that we suffer from—it is ignorance, avidyā. It will be, then, the very height of practical occultism to dispel that ignorance. Because of wrong assumptions we make mistakes, even with the best of intentions—even the intentions are imperfect because of ignorance. So thoughts, intentions and actions are all clouded by ignorance. Finally, even actions are tremendously confused, and without power, because of ignorance.

This is true occultism, then—the dissolution of ignorance at its source, not any small potterings for the gaining of petty pleasures or for the removal of petty pains, but to look behind the veil and find the pure self and no longer play about in the fields of ignorance. This is the real business of life, the Upanishads assert, which can be done, and has been done by successful human beings, who have seen the error and mastered it. At the very least it is better not to walk into new trouble than to busy oneself merely with removing the old.

First of all, Shankarāchārya makes a distinction between people who want to have and those who want to know. To have is connected with external things. The whole world consists of things to have. Shankara does not deny the infinity of worlds or the existence of "higher planes," containing lofty and glorious beings or gods, or that by desiring things of higher planes or heavens and by worshipping the gods people may obtain centuries and even millennia of delight in various lofty heavens; but he affirms that all those things are the playthings of children or the tinsel of fools, who are making them all for themselves because they have not thought about the eternal realities.

He therefore draws a decided distinction between dharma-jignāsa (the desire to know what should be done in order to obtain better conditions on earth and in heaven) and Brahma-jignāsa (the desire to know that which is eternal). This is discussed very decisively in Shankara's commentary on the first of the Brahma-Sūtras or aphorisms. The desire for the "heavens" must be preceded by sense-experience, and confidence in the Vedas, which declare that the heavens exist; but the desire for Brahman must be preceded by thought, thought and more thought (vichāra), especially with reference to an understanding of the distinction (viveka) between the eternal (nitya) and temporary (anitya) realities. In emphasizing thought, however, Shankara does not leave out study of the Vedānta, which contains much information and advice about seeking the eternal. Shankara's emphasis on thinking is very clear in his Aparokshānubhūti: "Thinking should be done for the sake of attaining knowledge of the Self. Knowledge is not attained by any means other than thinking, just as objects are never seen without light. 'Who am I?' 'How is this world produced?' 'Who made it?' and 'What is the material?'—such is the enquiry." 1

It is well known that we do not see things as they really are, because of our limited point of view, and yet there is in us the craving for greater understanding, because the human soul is one with the divine or universal soul. Each one of us reflects that, just as the disc of the sun may be reflected in many little pools of water. We have thus a dual nature, and though the lower may be satisfied, still the higher makes its claim in a ceaseless desire to understand. If human power and love were to grow so great, as to make our life on earth a perfect paradise of peace and plenty for all, still men would say, "Now, we want to know why all this is so." There are the needs of the personality—food, clothing and shelter, amusement and education, exercise and rest—but beyond these there are spiritual needs, and among them is the real hunger for understanding.

It is not supposed by Shankara that the average or ordinary man can think straight in these matters. He prescribes a course of what may be called purification as a preparation. This is called the sādhanachatushtayam, the "group of four accomplishments." They present three departments of self-training, and a concluding condition of mind, as will be seen in the following table:

In Sanskrit In English
1. Viveka Discrimination Thought
2. Vairāgya Uncoloredness Feelings
3. Shatsampatti 6 Successes The Will
4. Mumukshatwa The State of Longing for Liberation

Viveka is the practice of discrimination between the fleeting and the permanent. This is the first of three preliminary yogas in this school. It is here that the thinking, thinking, thinking, begins. It is to be applied to oneself, to others and to the whole business of life. It is an inspection of the contents of one's ordinary self, to discriminate between the relatively temporary and permanent. First one may dwell upon the body and realize that it is only an instrument for the conscious self to play upon. Then, one may dwell on the habits of feeling and emotion which have been accumulated during the present lifetime (or, strictly, bodytime), and realize these also to be part of the instrument—"I am surely not my feelings and emotions towards things and people." Thirdly, one must meditate upon the fact that the lower mind, the collection of information, ideas and opinions that one has acquired up to this period, is also not the self, but merely an internal library more or less imperfectly indexed, in which the books have a tendency to open at certain places because they have been opened there many times before.

This meditation may then be applied to other people, so that one comes to think of them as the consciousness beyond the personality, and in dealing with them to assist and further the higher purposes of the Self within them rather than the desires rising from the personality. Being a material thing, even up to the mental plane, that personality has its own quality of inertia, and dislikes the discomfort involved in new thinking and willing and feeling, until it is well trained and learns to rejoice in the sharing of a life more than its own. But we must also help to bring the day of triumph nearer for all whom we contact, as Shrī Shankarāchārya did, for he was one of the world's busiest men.

This meditation must be extended still further to all the business of life, to the family, the shop, the field, the office, society. All these things must be considered as of importance not as they minister to the laziness, selfishness or thoughtlessness of the personality, but as they bear on the advancement in power of will, love and thought of the evolving consciousness in all concerned. It will be seen that works and their objects pass away, but the faculty and ability gained by them remains in the man.

Fifteen to thirty minutes of this kind of meditation each day is sufficient to establish very soon an entirely new outlook in the personality. Emerson speaks of something of the same kind in his essay on "Inspiration," as the way to an altogether richer life than any of us can possibly reach without it. It can often be practiced to some extent under unfavorable conditions, as for example in the railway train, if one makes up one's mind to take the various disturbances of it with a sweet temper, and lend oneself to the rhythm of its noise.

The second requirement is vairāgya, an emotional condition in which one does not respond at once to impressions coming from the outer world, but first submits the matter to the discriminative power rising from viveka. If you strike an ordinary man, he will get hot and strike back, or run away, or do something else spontaneous and scarcely rational; but a man having vairāgya would use his spiritual intelligence before responding. The literal meaning of the word vairāgya is "absence of color," and in this connection it means absence of passion. Rāga is coloring, especially redness. People everywhere take their emotional coloring from their environment, according to well known psychological laws; like pieces of glass placed on blue or red or green paper, they change their color. Likes and dislikes rise up in them without reason, at the mere sight of various objects, and the appearance of different persons calls up pride, anger, fear and other personal emotions.

They are constantly judging things not with their intelligence but by their feelings and emotional habits. "This is good, that is bad," means generally nothing more than, "I like this; I do not like that." A man dislikes a thing because it disturbs his physical or emotional convenience or his comfortable convictions, "I thought I had done with thinking about that—take it away, confound you," grumbles the man comfortably settled in his opinions, as in a big armchair.

Vairāgya is the absence of agitation due to things outside. A mistaken idea which is sometimes associated with this word is that it implies absence of emotion. That is not so. The purified personality responds to the higher emotions, the love emotions that belong to the real self. Those emotions come from that aspect of the indwelling consciousness which feels other lives to be as interesting as one's own. This is the root of all the love emotions—admiration, kindness, friendship, devotion and others—which must not be confused with any sort of passion, which is personal or bodily desire. If a man has vairāgya and he is still at all emotional, his emotion must express some form of love.

Vairāgya may be developed by a form of meditation in which the aspirant should picture and turn over in mind the various things that have been causing him agitation, or the disturbing emotions of pride, anger and fear. Having made a picture of the cat spilling the ink on the best tablecloth, or of your enemy putting in a bad word for you with your employer or superior behind your back, you calmly look at it, meditate on it, and the light of your own intelligence will see the real value of the experience and this removal of ignorance will also remove the agitating emotion. This is a question of feeling, not of action. Do not here substitute the deadly coldness that some people sometimes feel instead of anger, and imagine that to be the calm state.

The calmness obtained in this way will soon make all the other meditation far more effective than before, because meditation best opens the door to the inner world and all its inspiration when the body is quiet, the emotions are calm, and the attention is turned to the subject of thought without any muscular or nervous strain or physical sensation whatever. Incidentally it should be said that meditation with physical sensation or strain may prove injurious to health, but meditation rightly done in this way can never do the least harm.

The third requirement is called shatsampatti, which may be translated "the six forms of success." The will is now used to make all conditions favorable for the further development of viveka. To understand the function of the will, it is necessary to realize that it is the faculty with which we change ourselves. Thought is kriyashakti, the power of mind that acts upon matter; but it is the will with which we change our thoughts and other inward conditions. Now will-power is to be used to bring the whole life of the man within the purpose of jnāna-yoga. This work is the equivalent of the tapas of Patanjali and the sevā of Shrī Krishna.

The six forms of success are: (1) shama, control of mind, (2) dama, control of body; (3) uparati, which means cessation from eagerness to have certain persons and things around one, and therefore a willing acceptance of what the world offers—contentment with regard to things and tolerance with regard to persons, a glad acceptance of the material available for a life's work. The fourth is titikshā, patience, the cheerful endurance of trying conditions and the sequence of karma. The fifth is shraddhā, fidelity and sincerity, and therefore confidence in oneself and others. The sixth is samādhāna, steadiness, with all the forces gathered together and turned to the definite purpose in hand.

Every one of these six practices shows the will at work producing that calm strength which is its own special characteristic. This is necessary for yoga, and anything in the nature of fuss or push, or excitement is against it. In no case does this calmness mean the reduction of activity or work, but always that the work is done with greater strength but less noise. Success is marked by quietness, the best indication of power. Thus the mind and body will be active but calm; and there will be contentment, patience, sincerity and steadiness.

The three branches of training already mentioned make the entire personality exceedingly sensitive to the higher self, so that a great longing arises for a fuller measure of realization. This is called mumukshatwa, eagerness for liberation.

To complete this occult knowledge one must combine the māyā doctrine with the self-realization doctrine. It is, of course, the self-realization of itself that is the full achievement. And since māyā does not mean something unreal but something outside the categories of both the real and unreal, and is in fact nothing but error, we shall have to say that the power of māyā is a power of the self itself, and that all that is not unreal in the māyā is beyond time and space, a part of the self itself, whatever "parts" may mean-in the indivisible. The general dictum of all the yogas is fulfilled here—that never will the yogī find something that could be anticipated, but only something

unknown before, which, however, by universal testimony, is true being, pure consciousness and incredible joy. All the explanations given in this chapter and much more will be found in my book on Vedānta entitled The Glorious Presence. 2

It will be useful now to see that the same three means of self-guidance are employed in all the three schools we have studied so far—of Patanjali, of Shrī Krishna and of Shankarāchārya. It becomes obvious when we thus compare them that all are aiming at maturity of mind, the ripening of the three functions of will, love and thought. They put these three in different order, however, indicating the different temperaments of those who take to the different schools of occult practice and thought. The following table will make the comparison clear.

When the student has followed this preliminary training with some success he will be ready for two things (1) the understanding of the doctrine of māyā, and (2) the direct visioning of the Self.

Māyā has often been translated "illusion," whence it has been thought that Shankara teaches that all this world does not exist, and people only imagine that it does so—that there is nothing there. That is not so. He does not deny the existence of objects, but affirms that we see them wrongly—just as a man may see a piece of rope on the ground and mistake it for a snake, or as he may see a post in the distance and think it to be a man.

It is necessary to know that māyā has two functions: "covering-up" (āvarana) and "throwing-out" (vikshepa). 3 The first is declared to be the effect of tamas, which hides or obstructs the life, and the second the result of rajas, or energy. 4 "Covering-up" implies that although we are—every one—universal in our essential nature, our attention is now given to less than the whole. Most of the reality is covered up, and since we see only the remainder, it must necessarily become unsatisfying and stupid and even painful, when we have played with it long enough to exhaust its lessons for us. When we have read a book and absorbed the ideas in it, we do not want to read it again. If it is forced upon us, the experience will be painful. We may laugh at a good joke told by a friend to-day, but if he persists in telling us the same story again and again it will be far from a joke. Our life must be moving on, and overcoming the āvarana; there is no long-lasting pleasure or gain in standing still on any platform of knowledge that we may have gained at any time or stage.

"Covering-up" does not mean that objects of experience lack reality. The māyā or illusion is that we do not see their full reality; we see too little, not too much. So far as they go they have an excellent flavor of reality, but their incompleteness is unsatisfying.

The second function of māyā, "throwing-out" (vikshepa), means that we put forth our thought and energy in reference to that part of reality which for us individually has not been covered up, and thereby we produce the world of māyā or created things, which are only temporary (anitya).

The power of "throwing-out" is not merely of the mind, but is actually creative, and this it is which produces all the forms around us, the world of manifestation. The objects therein are very much like pictures painted by an artist. They represent his expression of such part of the reality as is not covered up. As he looks at the picture and realizes how defective and even nonsensical it is, the hunger arises in him for something more satisfying, which then works at removing the "covering-up." Thereby arises what is called intuition, which always comes as the result of a complete study of any fact or group of facts in the world of experience. It is in this manner that experience is educative. It gives us nothing from the outside, but enables us to introduce ourselves to a fuller part of reality. So āvarana resembles concentration, and the result of experience can be compared to contemplation. Thus māyā, while not reality, is also not unreality.

Shankara speaks in very strong language about the effect of āvarana and vikshepa in practical life: "The function of āvarana, made of tamas, covers up the shining Self, which has unlimited faculties, just as the shadow of the moon hides the disc of the sun. When there is thus the obscuration of a man's real and stainlessly radiant Self, he thinks he is the body, which is not the Self. Then the great power of rajas called vikshepa afflicts him by the binding qualities of passion, anger, etc., so that this unintelligent man, deprived of real knowledge of the Self, through being swallowed by the crocodile of the great delusion, wanders about, rising and falling in the ocean of limited existence. As clouds produced by the sun obscure the sun as they develop, so does egotism arising from the Self obscure the Self as it flourishes. And as on a bad day when thick clouds swallow the sun, and they also are afflicted by sharp cold winds, so does the power of acute vikshepa annoy the man of confused intelligence with many troubles. By these two powers the man is bound; deluded by them he wanders about, thinking the body to be himself." 5

Then comes the question how to remove these two: "Unless the āvarana function ceases completely, vikshepa cannot be conquered. When subject and object are separated, like milk from water, then āvarana disappears on its own account in the Self. Perfect discrimination, arising from clear perception, having distinguished the subject and the object, cuts away the bondage of delusion made by māyā, and then for the free man there is no more wandering about." 6

The substance of material things is called sat, or being. Consciousness, with its powers of will, love and thought, is called chit. Beyond those three aspects of consciousness is ānanda, the true life that is sheer happiness. The being of true life is happiness. First a man must get over the delusion that he is the body, and realize that he is consciousness using the body. He has a body. Then, later on, he must realize that he is not the powers of consciousness, but that he simply uses these. Then he will be his own true self, ānanda, happiness, which is the nature of our pure being. But that happiness is one with consciousness (chit) and being (sat), as the man will find on reaching illumination; so the world of sat is real, part of his own true life, and not illusion. Māyā was the practical effect of the mistake (avidyā) by which he confused together, first consciousness and external being, and then consciousness and his psychological or internal being.

The analogy of dreaming is employed to illustrate these points. Just as on waking we realize that our dream was irrational, so on waking from the dream that we now call waking we shall realize the truth that will make our present outlook appear irrational. Not that it is irrational, but that the true vision has the correct data or perception. Even our present knowledge, it is said, is ignorance, or better unwisdom, because we are always looking at things with the eyes of the flesh, while we ought to look at them with the eyes of the spirit, that is, from the standpoint of the imperishable consciousness.

The question then arises—what is the best practical way to attain reality. To this two answers may be given: (1) Realize the infinite possibilities of every finite experience, and (2) do not mix yourself with your objects of experience. As to the first, it means simply that we can learn from one thing what we can learn from many things. For example, a man has one mother. If he has learnt to love that mother, then he is predisposed to love any mother whom he may meet. He does not need to learn the lesson all over again in connection with those other mothers. As instructed in the Gītā, by attending to his own experience a man reaches perfection.

Another instance of the same principle is the use of the human body. If we had to attain some kind of perfection which involved knowledge of all things which people are making for themselves by their "throwing-out," this body would not be enough. In such a case we should need seven-league boots and a hundred or a thousand arms and legs instead of only two of each. But this is not the way of the evolution of life. It can reach its perfection through an ordinary body with two arms and two legs. It need not have the muscular system of a professional athlete or the mental capacity of a German chemist or lexicographer. Realize the infinite possibilities of the moment's experience, cease to resent any of the experience, and immediately most of the pain and sorrow that it may contain is emptied out of it, and it becomes immensely fruitful.

There are two ways in which we may live our lives amidst events of the world, without retiring at all from that world. In both cases the mixing with the world will be the same, but in one there is real confusion (that is, fusing together) and in the other merely mixing. For example, if milk and water are put together it is very difficult to separate them, but if oil and water are mixed together, although they are together they retain their individuality. So in relation to the world we are to be like oil in water, not milk in water. We must distinguish between "the world," "my world" and "myself"—three things, not two. It is like a person playing a game of chess. The board is there—my world. The pieces have been moved into a certain position. A good player does not become excited and flustered, whether he is winning or losing. He cannot, in fact, really in himself either win or lose. Even if his pieces are captured one by one, if he has played the game to the best of his ability he has developed his faculties, and on the whole he is a little more likely to profit by a lost than by a won game.

These facts being established, people sometimes raise the academic question: "Whence comes this ignorance which hides the full reality?" With regard to this Buddha's advice was: "Sink not the string of thought into the fathomless." The fact is that we have to begin our reasoning and our activity from the place in which we find ourselves. We are apparently on a ladder, which goes upwards out of sight. The important thing is that it goes upwards. But one would not avoid the ultimate question. The answer to it is that space and time are a creation of ignorance—they come into being through the "covering-up," and disappear for us when the covering is removed. How, then, can the questions, "where" and "whence," which ask for an answer in terms of time and space, be applied to this matter? Evidently there is some sort of evolution or unfoldment, but it is not a change in time and space. That this is so is indicated by the unchanging character of our feeling of "I" which is the same point of reference in youth and age, and whether we be here or there, and standing on our heads or on our feet.

The meditations of Shankara are practical, because they are not merely thoughts about things, considered as objects, dwelt upon in the third grammatical person. First, the student must say to himself, "I am not it"—"it" being the personality, physical and psychological, composed of body, personal emotions and fixed ideas. This means not simply the set of "vehicles" as they stand, but also their habits of action, emotion and thought—the entire personality. He must put that outside himself. Secondly, he must say, "I am not you," referring now to that in himself which he would call "you" in another person—the collection of thinkings, lovings and willings or powers of consciousness. The personality is something that you use—not something that you are. So also the conscious powers are something that you use, not something that you are. Thirdly, he must say, "I am I. I can take up and put down these powers of consciousness. I can enlarge or reduce them." But in the second stage he must take care to think of his own ordinary consciousness always as you, never as it, nor as I, otherwise he will remain in the you, and not reach the I.

All happiness in life is beyond the limited consciousness and is experienced when that activity is forgotten. All the delight that comes from response to beauty, love and truth in the world, and from the powers of will, love and thought in consciousness, lie in the Self beyond, when the world and the limited self are forgotten, and time and space have been swallowed up in something greater, beyond their limitations. Beyond common consciousness, in a state better than that limited consciousness, we are, and all clinging to mental ideas about oneself, pleasurable or not, bars the realization of that truth. That unchanging I is ānanda, happiness, the one reality. To know this directly, not by logic, is the high purpose of the Vedānta.

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Source: Reproduced from the Great Systems of Yoga, by Ernest Wood, 1954. This text is in the public domain in the United States because it was not renewed at the US Copyright Office in a timely fashion. These files may be used for any non-commercial purpose provided this Notice of Attribution is left intact in all copies.