A renowned philosopher bridges the confusion between seemingly disparate Eastern ideologies, and charts a course for realizing our ultimate spiritual goals.
By Natalya Podgorny
As spiritual seekers, we are avid explorers of the inner realm. The scriptures provide us with an intricate map, and many of us carry a compass in the form of a meditative object. Even so, it sometimes feels like the deeper we delve into the study and practice of Yoga, the more undiscovered terrain still lies beyond the next ridge. We might encounter new and complex philosophies, an overwhelming plethora of practices, or apparently contradictory teachings. Or we might stagger around in circles, crossing and recrossing familiar tracks, bumping into the same fundamental questions and challenges.
In these circumstances it is helpful to seek guidance from someone who, as Pandit Rajmani Tigunait wrote in a Yoga International Inner Quest column 18 years ago, “has traveled the path and has integrated the wisdom he or she has gleaned along the way.” To mark the magazine’s return to its roots and its original title, we turn again to a teacher who exudes the boundless joy we read about in the scriptures; a teacher who—despite two doctorates in Sanskrit and a mastery, both scholarly and experiential, of the tradition’s teachings—remains a humble student and an ardent practitioner; a teacher who doesn’t promise to deliver us to the final destination, but who graciously empowers our own exploration. Here, we talk with Panditji about how to orient ourselves among the various spiritual paths, and how to keep our bearings along the inner quest.
How does the study of Yoga philosophy help us in our spiritual practice?
Philosophy is the backbone for practice. Yoga philosophy helps us understand our unique nature and our goal and purpose of life. It enables us to find answers to fundamental questions: What is a human being? What is the meaning and purpose of life? How do my body, breath, mind, and consciousness relate to each other? How do I relate to myself? How do I relate to my family, my society? Is there a way of living in this world happily and joyfully without becoming caught by worldly snares?
You expand your expectations of your practice in proportion to your knowledge of Yoga. When your expectations are substantiated by the philosophy and these expectations are not met, you begin to wonder, “Is something wrong with my practice? Am I making a mistake?”
Then you correct it. You look for a prepared, more qualified teacher. You look for more preparation within yourself. You do everything possible to meet your expectations because you know the practice is able to give you a specific result. When your expectations are substantiated by Yoga philosophy, you don’t take your practice lightly. But if you have not studied the philosophy, then you are doing the practice without knowing what you are doing and why.
The lack of a grounding Yoga philosophy has shrunk Yoga practices to asana. People who regard asana practice as a beautiful set of exercises are definitely benefiting, but only in proportion to what they think asana is all about. They are benefiting on a physical level, but they are not able to apply asana for higher benefits because they don’t know that there are higher benefits. When they have problems related to anger, grief, or depression, it never comes to their mind that Yoga can help, so they look for a cure somewhere else, and the application of their Yoga asana remains confined.
But if they know Yoga philosophy, which tells them that a human being is not body alone, not mind alone, but body and mind together and that our core is pure consciousness—and if they know Yoga practices are designed to lead us to that core—then they will ask, “I’m doing my asanas, so why am I still suffering? Why am I still a person with a negative mind?” Normally, with asana practice, people don’t even think of that. So the philosophy is very important. Without it you are sitting on a pile of gold without knowing it and you go on begging for pennies. When you are grounded in Yoga philosophy you can look for empowerment of your body, breath, mind, and consciousness and everything that constitutes your very existence.
Once our interest in Yoga moves beyond asana practice, we are likely to encounter three systems of philosophy: Yoga, Vedanta, and Tantra. Is there a significant difference among them in terms of the ultimate goal of practice?
These are three different ways of approaching the same goal. They all take you to the summit, but the way of taking you there differs. These paths are starting points for three different kinds of people.
For someone who regards this world as very real—pleasure and pain, success and failure, body and mind are all very real—Yoga is the starting point. At face value Yoga philosophy appears dualistic: We are souls but God is a very special soul. We are in bondage and God is not. We are subject to birth and death and God is not. If this understanding—that I am separate from God, that I am separate from you and you are separate from me—has become ingrained, Yoga is the starting point. If, despite the fact we try our best to think that God is everywhere—God is in me, God is in my friend, God is in my enemy—these remain empty words, Yoga is a wonderful starting point. There’s no need to deny the experience gripping your consciousness. Instead, learn the techniques for using your body to serve the purpose of your mind, and vice versa. Here is asana, here is pranayama, here are the principles of diet and nutrition. Learn the techniques to unite the forces of body and mind and, with this united force, conquer your adverse conditions and circumstances. With the combined force of your body, breath, mind, and consciousness, learn about the deeper dimension of life and figure out how to create a bridge between the material world and inner reality. By doing so, you complete a good amount of your journey.
But for some people the only problem is that they are confused about the purpose and meaning of life. They are healthy in body and clear in mind. They may live a disorganized life, but intellectually they are very sharp. Their problem is this constant confusion regarding, Who am I? What am I doing here? What’s the purpose of being here? Do I have any duties or responsibilities? If so, what are they? Such people are able to observe the conflict between what they feel in their heart and what they reason in their mind.
For these people Vedanta—the path of self-reflection—is wonderful. Vedanta philosophy begins with a simple, powerful assumption: There is one reality and only one. Advaita. No duality. Everything in the world has come from one reality and exists in that reality. Some people call that reality God. Vedanta doesn’t use that term but calls it Brahman, all-pervading, non-dual pure consciousness.
This philosophy tells us to first cultivate an understanding that there is a non-dual, all-pervading, omniscient, omnipotent Absolute Reality. That reality is sacred. Use your logic and reason to look into this all-pervading force that runs throughout all the diversities, keeps all these diversities in place, and provides nourishment to them all. You must have a well-trained, purified, and still mind for this Vedantic contemplation, so you can maintain a train of logic for a longer time. Due to the purity and stability of your mind, you continue leading it to inquire: What is that which exists everywhere? What is that which gives life to everything and everyone? Who am I in relation to That?
Once you begin to comprehend—and later to see or experience—that one single reality, you will be filled with a powerful desire to experience your oneness with that all-pervading eternal reality. This will change your entire worldview. You will find yourself fully content with what you are, but at the same time, you will become an active benevolent contributor to everyone and everything around you. You will become an active friend of everybody, but without any attachment, complaint, or anger. You will remain grounded in yourself, content with what you are, and, at the same time, deeply concerned about the well-being of everything and everyone else, because at some level you know that everything is an integral part of you, just as you are an integral part of that Absolute Reality.
This sounds like complete spiritual fulfillment. Where does Tantra come in?
When you come to understand and feel that this world is an integral part of you and you know that this world is a manifestation of Absolute Divinity, then you begin to find freedom here in this world. And once you gain a little experience of the freedom already available in this world, in this very lifetime, you will want to experience it and express it in a more detailed and elaborate manner. That is where the philosophy of Tantra begins. You will want to see how so many currents and crosscurrents are beautifully interwoven in this fabric of life. You will automatically be inclined to see yourself as a beautiful person—a person with a beautiful body and a beautiful mind, a person with beautiful emotions and a beautiful soul, a person with beautiful relations with everybody else.
How far you succeed in seeing and experiencing beauty within and without is totally irrelevant, because the moment you start making the effort to see the beauty in everything and in everyone, including yourself, this effort itself will awaken the joy of your soul. This Tantric philosophy of experiencing life as a wave of beauty and bliss becomes your goal in life.
Now the experience that is the Vedantic understanding of life becomes the foundation for working toward experiencing yourself as a wave of beauty and a wave of bliss. This automatically fills your mind and heart with joy and you are automatically inclined to experience that wave of beauty and wave of joy within and without: The person seeing through your Tantric eyes is a wonderful and beautiful person. And that’s the experience you are trying to gain.
So to return to your question about the goal of Yoga, Vedanta, and Tantra, the only difference is in the degree of the goal. When you are caught in your day-to-day turmoil, finding solace within and joining your body and mind together is a great goal. That’s what makes you a healthy and happy person.
When you are not so much caught in that daily turmoil, but rather in the turmoil of your own intellectual confusion, then overcoming that confusion is a great goal because it makes you healthy and happy. That’s the goal of Vedanta.
And once you have attained freedom from confusion and have understood that you are connected to everybody and everything, that everything and every-one is connected to you, and that in this grand tapestry of life there is only one consciousness pervading everything, and that’s what you are—tat tvam asi—then you are automatically inspired to find another level of freedom. This level of freedom comes from knowing the beauty of the Divinity that is in you, the beauty of the Divinity that is within everything and everyone. And the moment you start making an effort to experience that, you find yourself a joyful person. That’s what makes you healthy and happy.
So you are raising the bar of your health and happiness. That’s the only difference.
In terms of our personal sadhana, is there a progression from Yoga to Vedanta to Tantra, or can they support each other?
It’s both. It’s definitely a progression. People may not feel comfortable with that idea because people get attached to their path, their tradition, and their culture. Lots of people are attached to their Yoga and some people are attached to their Vedanta or their Tantra. This attachment is a clear sign of ignorance.
The three paths are also supportive. Even when you are fully grounded in the experience of Tantra, for example, there might be a time when you are having a physical problem or a mental problem. At that time, there’s a need for a Yoga practice. When you are practicing Yoga, there is room for sharpening your intellect with the knowledge of non-dual reality. Even when you are simply practicing your asana, there is room for understanding, “Who is it that is so beautiful in me? Who is that beloved in me?”
These different levels of experiences find their expressions in different grades and degrees. Sometimes our consciousness is more trapped in our body, sometimes our consciousness is more trapped in our mind, sometimes our consciousness is free from the needs and demands and cravings of our body, senses, and mind. So, it’s a progression, as well as a fully integrated path.
You spoke about the goal of these practices in terms of health and happiness here in this world, but many practitioners aspire to find freedom from the world.
Seekers who try to reach their goal by isolating themselves from the world are constantly struggling. And I can guarantee that they will never attain freedom from the world, because no matter how fast you run, you cannot run away from yourself. There is no such thing as finding freedom from the world. Those who understand that freedom means to reach the core being and become established in one’s Self—and that freedom does not mean running away from something—only such people attain the goal.
What are the greatest challenges facing practitioners today?
Sloth, carelessness, and the conviction that they don’t have time. They aren’t willing to work for spiritual attainment, but instead just sit there and hope somebody else will give it to them.
People want the highest, and they want it now. And that’s very good. But you always have to pay attention to the foundation. If you try to build a big structure without the proper foundation, the structure will collapse. People want to attain samadhi, but they don’t understand the value of attaining freedom from anger, hatred, jealousy, fear, and greed. Whatever they have, they don’t want to lose, and yet they want to have something very lofty—samadhi. These things don’t go together.
We all know the value of taking courses and doing lab work in order to become proficient in a field of knowledge. We also understand the value of experience. Whenever there’s an opening in a corporation for a particular job, one of the main qualifications is experience. But somehow many so-called spiritual seekers do not understand the value of taking the required courses, doing lab work, or gaining experience before applying for samadhi. They immediately want to become a spiritual CEO and sit on a powerful chair called samadhi. And they want to do this without completing any basic courses, without any knowledge, understanding, or experience. The wisdom of common sense is missing here—everything requires some basic qualifications.
Sadhana, methodical systematic practice, supplies these basic qualifications. Every day, study a little bit, practice a little, be inspired to achieve samadhi, and keep preparing the foundation by learning how to draw the mind inward.
We sit down to meditate, intending to turn our attention inward with one-pointed focus, but the mind keeps wandering around. We bring the mind back and it wanders off again. How can we make the mind steady?
First, make a strong resolution that you are going to do it. You can do it. You will do it. This is called sankalpa, firm resolve. Then nurture your resolve by reminding yourself how precious life is and how carelessly you have been wasting it. You have already aimlessly wasted 30, 40 years of your life. Whatever time is remaining must be used mindfully and wisely. Remind yourself: “The objects of the world about which I worry so much are simply means; they are not goals in themselves. Therefore, let me turn my mind inward and find and experience my own core being. And I’m going to do it!” This is called nurturing your sankalpa, nurturing your resolve.
Next, prioritize your life. What is really important? You have to remind yourself that meditation is important. This is normally missing—we have not yet understood that meditation is really something important. Because the mind has become extremely materially oriented, students often say things to me like: “I spend one hour working and I get $30. I sit in meditation and what do I get out of it? Just peace? It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Unless you realize that being peaceful is good for you, you will not be inspired to become a peaceful person. You have to remind yourself how important it is to be peaceful. Do you want to live a life of fear? Anxiety? Insecurity? Do you want to be dependent on your sleeping pills? Do you want to be dependent on your therapist? Do you want to be dependent on your priests, pandits, churches, swamis, rabbis, and mosques? Or do you want to experience the freedom inside yourself that comes only from having a peaceful mind? Do you want to be a crazy person who is good at making a few bucks but who, before and after work, walks blindly without any purpose and meaning? You have to ask these questions in order to nurture your resolve. And once you do that, your resolution becomes quite strong and powerful.
Then, you have to find a living object on which to concentrate your mind. If the object of concentration is alive, that object will fill your meditation with life. Then when you withdraw your mind from the external world, immediately the mind finds this living focus to reside in.
Selecting an object for meditation is even more important than the process of meditation. If the object is not a spiritually enlivened, spiritually joyful object, then definitely the mind will slip away. That is why you need an experienced guide, one who knows which object is right and which is not right. The object of meditation cannot be selected randomly. An experienced teacher is one who is fully connected to the tradition; the tradition has been working for thousands of years to keep that object of meditation fully alive, so when it is passed on to a new meditator it begins to fill that meditator’s mind and heart with its own intrinsic joy and beauty. When the mind becomes focused on that object, the mind has less reason to run here and there.
So make your resolve, nurture your resolve, and then find the right object of meditation. The practice of meditation requires that you do it every day without interruption for a long period of time and with respect. You will not be able to do this un-less the object has its own inherent virtue and beauty. A living object can breathe life into the process of meditation. The rest comes from your effort to complete the process of meditation.
Natalya Podgorny is the editor of Yoga International.
Photo by Kathryn LeSoine