Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

Gyana Yoga: Chapter 13 — excerpts



"O good looking one, you shine verily like a knower of Brahman. Who may it be that instructed you?" He confirmed saying, "Some ones other than human beings. But it is you, revered sir, who should instruct me to fulfil my wish."

–Chandogya Upanishad VIII.IV.ix.3


Gyana Yoga is the branch of Yoga that seeks to realize the absolute truth by meditating on our knowledge of the world. Gyana Yoga is the chief path to realization described in the Upanishads. Bhakti and Karma are occasionally mentioned briefly, but the main purport of the Upanishads is to acquire the mystical experience through Gyan (knowledge). Gyana Yoga is the path followed by the ancient rishis of India, and it is their prophetic insights acquired through this path that have given rise to Hindu philosophy.

Even today, it is the chief path followed by the ascetics of India. These ascetics are still extant throughout India, most particularly in the Himalayas, in schools or "Ashrams," where monks from throughout the country are drawn and initiated into what is virtually the most demanding quest for an ultimate answer to life. They are people from all walks of life, and their caste, language, or social status is immaterial. They are driven by a burning desire for that which is immortal, and for this search, they have given up their homes, families, wealth, and every aspect of a social life. The ancient drama that once drew the sages of the Upanishads continues to be played out in contemporary India as well, which still has its share of prophets and sages.

Gyana Yoga is traditionally considered to be the hardest and most demanding of the Yoga paths. It is the most unforgiving and demands a complete renunciation of everything that is maya. Maya, the enchanting and beguiling nature of the world, is the great enemy, and the Yogis in the Upanishads and other sacred texts of India speak harshly of all temporal attachments. Even qualities like love and kindness are harmful for the Gyan Yogi. They are seen to be equally oppressive and binding. Maya binds us not just by catering to our baser instincts but through our goodness as well. Our love for our dear ones, for our families and children, ties us up as effectively as our baser passions. Things like kindness and compassion for others do the same, as such emotions make us more involved in the world in an effort to help others. This in turn leads us into the arms of maya, and we are diverted from our spiritual quest. Hence Gyan Yogis have to abandon all social ties and bindings as they begin their quest.

Such an antisocial teaching is bound to lead to resentment and protests. Indian myths and folklore are often about this tension between the Yogis who have abandoned their all and society’s reaction against them. Such an action brings about no benefit to society. It is a lonely quest, and the only benefit the Yogis gain is for they themselves. It was decried as a selfish act, and Yogis were depicted as cold, heartless beings who caused intense suffering to their families and society in response to a sudden selfish whim. On the other hand, traditional Sanskrit dramas often idolized such Yogis, and it was the clinging nature of society that was depicted as detestable.

But all this has little meaning for the Yogis setting out on the quest. The impulse that drives them is the quest for the absolute truth, and this inner compulsion makes abandoning society seem a small sacrifice to find the truth. These are people driven by a desire that few of us can understand, let alone have, and such is the passion that it burns up all other desires that might drive the rest of us.

To the Yogi, all the calls of society are but the traps of maya. They are snares set out to keep us entranced forever in the web of relativity. No matter how strong the calls of society seem, they are still the calls of temporality only. None of our ties are permanent; it is an inevitable fact that we are all going to die. Those who believe in such ties are also deluded, and by remaining with them, we will only become trapped in the same delusion.

Similarly, we cannot make anyone less unhappy through compassion. The mass of suffering and happiness in the world remains constant. If we fulfill someone’s material needs, he or she develops new emotional needs that are subtler than before, and the end result is the same. Society has no need for us, and we cannot change anything for those who are trapped in maya. This whole web of maya is like a prison, and unless we can avoid each and every part of its charms, we will remain prisoners, and our desire for the immortal truth will never be fulfilled.

Such calls for sacrifice usually leave most of us unconvinced. It seems like nothing more than Puritanism, and in the modern age, it seems to be a retrograde step. But for the Gyan Yogi, renunciation is the most intelligent thing that can be done. In our everyday life, too, we find that a thinking person will always sacrifice temporary pleasures for a deeper pleasure, even though it may be further away. This is what makes a student concentrate on his books or an office employee work diligently rather than spend time at a bar; it is in expectation of a higher reward for a temporary sacrifice. To the Gyani, foregoing the temporal pleasures of a worldly life is only a preparation for the much greater bliss that he or she is driven to seek.

Normally, when we ask what we seek from life, we would answer with things like a loving family, good friends, money, cars, and so on. But for the Gyanis, the answer is simpler. They would say "happiness." Happiness is what we are all after when we seek these things. People seek wealth because they feel it will bring them happiness; they seek power, love, and more, all in search of this goal. The Upanishads say that there is a state of the human mind referred to as anada, bliss, or perhaps more accurately, ecstasy, which is the most natural condition of the human mind. It is to regain this state that all our efforts are directed. Because of differentiation into an individual identity, we have fallen away from it. We are struggling all the time to regain this state, but because of our misconceptions, we believe that it is through the attainment of such objects that we will achieve bliss. But the Upanishads say this is not so, as each desire fulfilled will give rise to a thousand others. Instead, it shows us a more direct way to achieve this state, and this is the path of Yoga.

We get different types of pleasure from our worldly desires; the pleasure got from sex is different from that of wealth or love, etc. All these pleasures are in fact only temporary states of that undifferentiated bliss, which is the root of all these. If we can reach this state, we would get something far higher than the happiness from these worldly objects.

Hence by abandoning temporary desires, we are still ultimately going towards the same end as that of a materialistic person, only this time we are doing it in the right way, the more intelligent way. We are not running after the sparks from the fire but the fire itself. The happiness and bliss that we will achieve at the end of yoga will be incomparably more intense and fulfilling than anything that we can achieve in a worldly life.


Gyan yoga is unique in spiritual teachings in that it depends solely on the intellect to bring us to the truth. In the Upanishads, a logical system of reasoning leading to the ultimate truth is built up to support the intellectual conception of Brahman. Gyan yoga leads us along this path of logic, as by analysing the world as we see it, we come to the intellectual conception of the Advaitic Brahman.

The aim of gyan yoga is to get rid of the delusion in which maya has trapped us. This delusion is called Avidya in the Upanishads. The delusion consists of the belief that the world around us is real and existent, so that we do not seek for any higher truth beyond it. Normally we see the world around us as having a solid and real existence, and following regular laws of cause and effect with a harmonious flow of time and space. This is ‘classical’ world of Newtonian physics. But during meditation, the sages discovered that this was not true, the world instead was ill-defined and ‘fuzzy’, and the first impression was wrong. The sages also discovered simultaneously that there was an absolute beyond it all, and this was the base which gave the world its reality. Hence our first view of the world as real is said to be a delusion or Avidya.

Getting rid of the delusion, we come to the knowledge of the truth, that this world is unreal, and only the Brahman is real. This knowledge is called vidya. Vidya was characterized by Ramakrishna Paramahamsa as the intellectual realization of this truth. But this intellectual conception is not enough. This is as far as science or logic can lead us. But yoga says, there is a stage beyond this intellectual knowing of Brahman, a stage of consciousness when we leave reason and logic behind and come to a direct apprehension of Brahman, and this is the goal of religion.

Ramakrishna Paramahamsa gave the analogy of a thorn, vidya is a thorn with which we remove the thorn of avidya stuck in our flesh. But just as after removing the thorn, we do not need either thorn, so also after removing avidya, we go beyond intellectual concepts alone and try to achieve the mystical knowledge. Advaita emphasizes that knowing that Brahman is the true reality is simultaneous with the knowledge that the world is unreal, both are implicit in each other. This comes through arguments and logic in the intellectual conception, but in Samadhi the realization is simultaneous. Once we see Brahman, we do not see the world anymore as we realise its ill-defined state. So there are basically two ways of experiencing existence, first- when we experience the world and our individual identity as real, and second- that during Samadhi, when we experience Brahman as the sole reality, and everything else as unreal.

The analogy given to explain mystical knowledge is that of the rope and the snake. Initially we believe the rope to be the snake, which is like believing this world to be real. But once we have knowledge, we see that in fact it is the rope which is real, and simultaneously we realise that the snake is unreal. Similarly once we see Brahman, we realise that the world is unreal. Even after coming out of the meditative state, when we may not have direct contact with Brahman, this realization that the world is unreal stays with us and we are not lured by the world, just as having once known it as a rope we are not afraid of the snake again.

The Upanishads say, first hear, then think, then practice. Intellectual conviction is necessary for the path to mysticism. This is where the logic and rationality of the Upanishads come to the fore. For many, faith alone is sufficient for their spiritual efforts. But for many others, something more rigorous, an intellectual conviction, is needed to sustain spirituality. The metaphysical theories of Advaita provide such a basis as they rely on logic alone without any recourse to doctrines. A rational outlook would provide the strength of mind necessary in our spiritual efforts when doubts arise, as they inevitably must.




One exercise is to meditate on one’s own name. By repeating one’s name within the mind, we gradually come to see the ideas associated with the name, that is this identity that binds us to society and all our ties to society are bound up to this name. Our individual consciousness is bound up to our name. Then we gradually come to realise that our name alone surely cannot encompass us, we are not just the mass of individual consciousness alone but something higher than this, something which is above all this and that this consciousness, this name, is in fact a restriction of us. From this the stage of mystical realization can be reached.

Mediation on one’s reflection is also done. In this, we see our form as reflected in the mirror consisting of our face and bodies, and by thinking on it realise that it is this alone which others see and recognise as us. But this body cannot be the sole representation of ourselves, we are much more than what others see us as. By meditating in this way, we can reach mystical experience.







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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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