Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

Mysticism and the Four Yogas: Chapter 9 — excerpts

This plaint of the flute is fire, not mere air.
Let him who lacks this fire be accounted dead!
’Tis the fire of love that inspires the flute,
’Tis the ferment of love that possesses the wine.
Who hath seen a poison and an antidote like the flute?

Muhammad Rumi, Book 1.

All aspects of Hinduism ultimately boil down to mysticism, which is the goal of the religion. Mysticism means contact with the absolute within the living body (although the word is frequently used as a kind of synonym for any mystery connected with spiritual matters). This absolute may be understood in any form, from the personal god of dualism to the absolute Brahman of Advaita, but the defining moment is a contact with this higher truth.

Of course, mysticism is sought not just in Hinduism, but also in practically all religions, including Christianity and Islam. In other religions, though, the mystical experience is not the goal of the orthodox doctrines, and mystics are often considered rebels – that is, when they are not persecuted outright. The goal in such primarily dualistic religions is to live according to the book so as to ensure reaching heaven in the hereafter; true religion lies in living a good life as defined in the doctrines.

But in Hinduism, the goal of religion is solely this contact with the truth, and until this is achieved, the spiritual quest is considered incomplete. All other things are considered secondary to this supreme end, and no performance of religious duties can be a substitute. Hence the Upanishads declare, alone among all religious texts, that they are not the end of religion, and the truly religious must go beyond them in their spiritual quest. These strikingly daring words –where the religious texts themselves declare that true religion lies beyond them, and that they are only a pointer –have come to define the Hindu spiritual life, with its tolerance and broadmindedness.

The understanding of mystical experience flows logically from the Advaitic understanding of the nature of the world and Brahman.

In Advaitic metaphysics, there are two planes of existence, the absolute plane of Brahman and the relative plane of our world. At the base of relative existence is the absolute Brahman. But this relative world is an undefined state and it exists only because it has Brahman at the base. All existence ultimately flows from Brahman, and that which we see as discrete existence is shadowy and unformed. Hence the true essence of everything is Brahman, and if we shift away that which is untrue, we will come to Brahman. This was described by Ramakrishna as removing the green mossy layer of a pond to show up the clear water behind it.

The relative existence, the universe of our everyday experience, exists in three dimensions, the material dimension, consciousness dimension and bliss dimension. Our personal existence in the relative world is also in these three dimensions. When we consider what we mean by ‘I’, at first thought we may say, our body. This is the material dimension of our ‘I’. But on deeper thought, we would say, our individual consciousness. On further meditation, we can exist in the bliss dimension, when we will not know any individual consciousness but exist only in and as bliss.

The Upanishads define bliss to be our true identity. Bliss is the purest, the most natural state of our existence. It is when our consciousness is drawn outwards that we are diverted from this bliss. This definition of our true identity is the lynchpin of all Upanishadic mysticism and the goal of yoga is to stop the outward diversion and regain this natural state of supreme happiness. But even beyond this is the final experience of mysticism, when we will exist only as the absolute Brahman.

The individual consciousness in the Upanishads is considered to be a complex of ‘I’–ness–thoughts–sensations. The organ of mind is called the Antahkarna, and it is said to have three modes, the ego or ‘I’ness, the Buddhi or the deciding part and the Manas, or the mind, or the part that sends its sensations on to the buddhi. All these are said to be constituted by the mind–stuff, Citta, similar to the atoms of the material world. This is the psychological interpretation of individual consciousness in Hinduism, and it is accepted by all streams of thought.

It is important to note here that the ego or ‘I’ness is considered to be a part of the complex and there is no independent or separate ‘I’; the entire complex of ‘I’ness–thoughts–sensations stand together and constitutes the individual consciousness.

Again, this individual consciousness is considered to have only a shadowy, ill-defined existence, and it can exist only because there is the Brahman at the base. In Advaitism, we are not the ‘I’–thoughts–sensations, we are actually the unlimited Brahman and it is only because of our delusion that the ‘I’–thoughts–sensation appears to us to be our identity. Hence if we ‘clear’ away this individual consciousness, there will exist only the Brahman. This is the explanation of the mystical experience in Advaita. All mystical efforts are only an attempt to control and ‘clear’ away the individual consciousness; this will expose what lies at the root, the absolute Brahman.

Since individual consciousness consists of the complex of ‘I’–thoughts–sensations, what is needed is to control any or all of these factors and the whole complex will fall away by itself. This is how Advaita explains why there are so many different ways of attaining mystical experiences. They all ultimately lead to dissolution of the individual consciousness, and this exposes the absolute behind it. The same process at the heart of all mysticism explains the similarity of such experiences everywhere, while differences in the levels of achieving this dissolution explains the disparities.

Thus in Raja yoga, the suppression is attained by psychological methods alone through intense concentration and conscious attempts at suppressing thoughts. In Gyan Yoga, it is attained by meditation, in Karma Yoga by achieving a state of indifference and in Bhakti Yoga by intense absorption in the Beloved.

In modern knowledge, consciousness has often been understood as an information flux, an intense whirlpool of information being circulated in the brain as a result of which consciousness occurs. This explanation fits in very well with the metaphysical and psychological theories of Advaita.

In the case of the modern explanation also the ‘information flux’ is not a part of the material world, although it is supported by it. It cannot be called simply a product of the physical structure that supports it because the same information can be transmitted in other ways with the same effect. Hence we may well say that the ‘information flux’ exists in a different dimension to the material world. This is the same as the Advaitic view of the different dimensions of existence of consciousness and the material world.

But in Advaitic terms, nothing in this world can exist in itself, it exists only because there is an Absolute at the base. It cannot be that one dimension of existence, the material aspect, exists because of Brahman while the other dimension, consciousness, exists by itself. Both are part of the same universe. Hence if ‘information flux’ exists, there must be an ‘Absolute information field’ to support it. In that case, we can understand mysticism as nothing more than the merger of each individual ‘information flux’ in this ‘Absolute information field’, or Brahman.

Advaita recognizes three states of our individual consciousness: the waking, dream, and dreamless sleep. Beyond this is the fourth stage, the stage of super–consciousness, also called Turiya. It is when the mind is in this state that it attains the bliss of Samadhi. Normally our minds are constantly moving outwards–that is, toward the objects of our thoughts and sensations, the world. This is called pravritti, like an enlarging circle of ripples in a pond. But when we can make the mind move in an inward movement, or nivritti, the mind becomes gradually stilled; ultimately, when it reaches a single point (that is, our individuality becomes suppressed to only a point of existence), it achieves the state of bliss. Bliss is not considered simply a part of individual consciousness but a different dimension of existence altogether. This is because what we understand by consciousness is the complex of "I-ness," our thoughts and sensations, and because the state of bliss exists only when this complex becomes infinitely small, it is not considered just another state of consciousness.

But even a higher state than this exists, the state of complete extermination of all individuality. This is the state of final Samadhi, Nirvikalpa Samadhi. This is beyond even bliss, and what is experienced in this state cannot be described. This is the goal of all Advaitism.

The absolute can be known not through one method only but by following many different ones. The four main methods set out in Hinduism are Jnana Yoga, Raja Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, and Karma Yoga. Besides these, there are many other paths, such as Tantricism and ascetic practices. But as Vivekananda pointed out, this did not mean that the four paths were exclusive to one another. Instead, he gave the analogy of the bird, whose head was Jnana Yoga, the two wings Bhakti and Karma, and Raja the tail. For the bird to fly, all these parts are equally necessary, and so also the Yogi must follow the precepts of all Yogas. But depending on their temperament, they may emphasize the practice that is most suitable for them. The absolute can be understood in many different aspects: as something to be known or realized, as something to be loved, as something to be united with through strength of will, and as something to be united with through tranquility. Seeing it as something to be known, the Gyan Yogi asks the central question of the Mundaka Upanishad, "What is that knowledge, by knowing which, all this can be known?" Taking it as something to be loved, the Bhakta asks, "what is that love, by having which all this love can be known?" The Raja Yogi again seeks to know infinite power, and the Karma Yogi infinite peace.

The basic aim of all these paths is to achieve one–pointedness of mind–that is, to make the thoughts concentrated so that only one thought remains, until even that becomes finer and finer before ultimately disappearing.

In Gyana Yoga, this is done by analyzing a particular thing then examining and rejecting each thought that comes about it, until one reaches the essence of that thing. In Bhakti, it is done by filling the mind with love for the ideal, until only the thought of love remains in the mind. In Karma, this is achieved through cultivating detachment from all tasks, so that our thoughts, which are associated with our daily life, die down. In Raja Yoga, it is done by conscious concentration on any particular object until the mind becomes filled with that object only.

Mystics in other religions like Christianity and Islam also described their paths in detail, and rich traditions of mysticism developed in all religions of the world. But in these religions, the path described was mainly the path of love and devotion, the Bhakti Yoga of Hinduism. We also find some descriptions of practices that are reminiscent of other forms of Yoga, such as some of the breathing exercises and "navel gazing" of Christianity and the dervishes in Islam. But it is only in Hinduism that we find so many diverse paths to the mystical experience, allowing us a much wider variety of methods to choose to follow.

In Hinduism not just the paths of Yoga but all paths, including the arts, can lead to a mystical experience. Arts like music and dance also have mysticism as their goal. The goal here is to immerse oneself in the music to such an extent that all things but the music are forgotten and the mind becomes focused. In the Indian ragas, for example, the singer concentrates on a particular aspect of the music so that both he or she and the listener are led deeper and deeper into it, and nothing else is felt. The mind then becomes focused, and both the singer and the listener become so immersed in the song that ultimately even the song is left behind and Samadhi is experienced. This is the goal of Indian classical music. In this way all other arts, such as dance, literature, and painting, also lead the way to mysticism.

Mysticism is enjoying a resurgence throughout the world. People everywhere are rediscovering the mystical traditions of their ancestors and that of others in the world, and using them for their spiritual quest. Perhaps this signifies a new age, where there will once again be a search into our internal world, and a desire to understand it, along with the desire to explore the external world. True religion such as this will be free from all political and social evils. It will not act as a divisive force, but will instead spread happiness throughout the world, both for the individual and for the whole of humanity.

The experiences of the mystical state, the sense of oneness, knowing, bliss, etc. are sometimes mimicked by various other experiences like drugs, fasting, asphyxiation, physical ordeal like high fever and torture, etc. This seems to show that mystical experiences also are only a quirk of the brain, and not any experience of a higher truth. Also, it would contradict the mystical experience as a spiritual goal, since it is not only spiritualism but all these other paths which can give us virtually the same experience.

The answer really lies in what we consider ourselves to be, whether we consider our individual consciousness to be a stand-alone entity or having Brahman at its root. It really depends on our philosophical position with regard to consciousness. If we accept that there is an absolute consciousness at the base of our individual consciousness, then we are led by logic to accept that once our individual consciousness dies out, the absolute alone will remain, and hence mystical experience is the experience of this absolute field.

But if we do not accept such an entity, then there can be no true mysticism and mystical experience can be seen to be nothing more than any other state of the mind. We will know the ultimate truth only when we are finally able to know scientifically the mystery of consciousness and of existence in general, and whether the Advaitic explanation is the true one. At present, the final question, whether there is an absolute beyond this world or not, can only be answered through logic and rational arguments. Accepting the mystical experience as true would depend on whether we accept the Advaitic philosophy or not. Once we accept the Advaitic metaphysical explanation of the world, we would be required to accept the mystical experience also as a true one when we follow its deductions to their logical end.

A close understanding of the Advaitic explanation for mysticism shows us that these experiences with drugs, etc. can be explained within the Advaitic position. In Advaita, the state of mystical experience or Samadhi is also a natural state which is not discontinuous from the other states of our consciousness. It is not something that comes form outside, it is not a state that our consciousness changes into, it is a state of consciousness itself and is continuous with our other states like dreamless sleep, dreams and waking state. It is the purest state of our consciousness and all other states are merely a derivation from it. In fact all the states of our individual consciousness may be considered to be a mystical experience, the difference is only in how far they are from the absolute state of consciousness.

The differentiation from this pure state is brought about by our thoughts and feelings, that is, by the brain itself which produces these thoughts. Once this differentiation is suppressed by any means, we regain what is already potential in us. Hence we may say that the experience of Samadhi is not fundamentally different from these other experiences of our mind. This is the supreme naturalism of the Advaita, which rejects all non natural causes of the world, including for mysticism.

Based on such an understanding of the mystical experience, we can account for the experiences of drugs, etc.

Drugs have always been used to duplicate the mystical experience since time immemorial. The most common drug is alcohol, which has been known since the Vedic ages, where the juice of a plant called soma was much extolled. Another drug that is famous in India is bhang, or marijuana. It is particularly connected to Shiva worship, and is a constant accessory for the ascetics of India. In modern times, drugs like LSD and other hallucinatory substances are claimed from time to time to give a mystical experience.

The effect of all these agents can be understood as the decreasing of the control of thoughts, etc, on our awareness. They cause a state of passivity in the brain, much like sleep, and decrease its thought content. Our thoughts, feelings, etc. are modulated by our brain activity, and hence it is perfectly possible that a modulation in a particular way of the physical and chemical states of the brain will lead to a change in the state of our thoughts and feelings. Once we accept that the Brahman consciousness lies at the base of our individual consciousness, then we can accept logically that any state which leads to a weakening of our thoughts-awareness could also give an experience similar to Samadhi.

So the effect of drugs, etc. can be seen to simply lead to a decrease in the thought-sensations content of the brain, a decrease in its ripples, in much the same way as yoga. But Advaita rejects these practices because they give a false view of the same truth and do not lead to realization. The Samadhi brought about in yoga is not of a fundamentally different nature than the state brought about through drugs, etc, but it differs in the quality of the mental state which it reaches.

These other experiences like drugs, etc. do not reach that pure freedom but instead gives only a distorted view of that supreme experience. These practises do not give true Samadhi because rather than controlling our thoughts, they deform them and hence they are considered to be Tamasic. The experiences that they bring about are not that of Samadhi but only a mimicry. In yogic Samadhi, the mind becomes pure and tranquil, and because of this tranquillity the true nature of our individuality manifests itself.

But in practices like drugs, the mind is subdued by forces outside it and becomes weak, and this may at times lead to experiences, which duplicate mysticism. But instead of the freedom that the mind remains in Samadhi, here the mind is further trapped in by forces outside its control. Hence such experiences cannot give us the true freedom experienced in Samadhi and do not lead to any meaningful insight or wisdom. Rather than strengthening us, it makes us weak and powerless.

However, they are still important in one way, since they show us that the mystical experience is in fact possible and is not just a myth. These distorted visions only serve to show the strength and power that can be received from a true mystical experience.

Advaita, it must be remembered, is a search for truth, not a search for a God. It does not reject any practise which would give us the experience of the absolute. But these ‘shortcuts’, on close examination, do not lead us to a true mystical experience but in fact lead us away from the path, weakening and eventually destroying us.

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Index / Introduction / Chapters 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Biblio

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