Without giving the right context it is difficult to talk about spiritual traditions of India. That is also the difficulty one faces when planning to write any short article on spirituality. First of all spirituality and religion are not the same thing. As Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says, ‘Religion is the banana peel and spirituality is the pulp”. One can be religious without being spiritual. Religion refers to all the outer rituals one does that distinguished one from the practitioners of other religions. On the other hand to be spiritual is to live the philosophies that lead to a higher consciousness, or that makes one realize the zenith of human potential.
As I have mentioned in a number of previous posts, many spiritual paths in India ignored the concept of God altogether. In Patanjali’s Yogasutras, concept of God is a method to be used for reaching Samadhi. Concepts like ‘God Realization’, ‘Reaching God,’ or ‘Achieving the status of Godhood’ etc. became popular perhaps after the puranas were written. Subsequently, this gained momentum as the Bhakti movement prevailed all over India.
The difference between religion and spirituality can be explored in terms of Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha which are the four pursuits (purusharthas) recommended by our ancients so to have a balanced life. In my post about Kamasutra, the definition of the first three have been given. Vatsyayana defines Dharma as the act of following the injunctions of Shastras so that, even though it may not be apparent immediately, you get good results in this life as well as the next. But, moksha is all about getting rid of this vicious cycle of doing good and bad things and its consequences. This vicious cycle is called the cycle of karma.
For the sake of simplicity let us understand that Moksha is living life with the sense of ultimate freedom, not effected by the vicissitudes and vagaries of life. King Janaka is said to have lived such a life even though he remained a householder. It is akin to the state of Samadhi described in Yogasutras, or the state of Sthitaprajna described in Bhagavad Gita. If moksha means the ultimate freedom, mumukshu means an intense desire to be free. A genuine spiritual seeker must have an intense desire to be free.
Well you have an intense desire to be free. Now what? The options available for a spiritual seeker in India are endless – crores of gods, lakhs of scriptures and thousands of spiritual gurus.
Such an intense desire to be free dawned on young Ram after he was back from a pilgrimage tour of the whole of India. Luckily for him Maharishi Vashistha, the guru of their clan (Kulaguru), himself was an enlightened master.
Yogavashistha contains the discourses of Guru Vashistha to address the afflictions of a distraught Ram. Unlike the Bhagavad Gita it is not a one ton one dialogue. It takes place in the royal court of Ayodhya and all the courtiers of King Dasaratha including celestial beings like Narada gather to listen to the discourses.
As the name suggests it is the yoga as expounded by Sage Vashistha. Here yoga is taken in its broader sense of achieving the state of higher consciousness. The book in the middle of the picture above says ‘Sankhipta Yogavashistha’ to mean ‘the abridged version of Yogavashistha’. Its pages are of A4 size and it has 700 pages. So if the abridged version is so big, what about the original version?
The original version has about 30, 000 verses. In size it is perhaps next to Mahabharata that has about 1,00,000 verses. The entire discourse was given in eighteen days. This concept of eighteen seems to be interesting. Perhaps it has some esoteric connotation. Bhagavad Gita has eighteen chapters. Mahabharata has eighteen sections (parvas) and the Mahabharata war lasted eighteen days. I don’t know whether it is a coincidence or an inspiration, the ideal duration of a TED talk is about eighteen minutes.
Even though the text has contents about hatha yoga and bhakti, the underlying emphasis is on jnana. The principles enunciated have close relationship with advaita vedanta. Interestingly this text predates Adi Shankara who is regarded as the proponent of advaita.
Yogavashistha does not go into high philosophical debates or tries to probe things from the perspectives of intellectuals who are capable of understating the jargons of any field. Rather it enunciates the ultimate knowledge through stories and examples. There are lots of repetitions and the format is such that one does not need commentaries about its texts. This is unlike the Upanishads and other spiritual texts that require elaborate commentaries.
The two English versions shown in the picture above are composed by Swami Venkateshananda – a disciple of Swami Sivananda. He has condensed the Yogavashistha into two volumes with each volume having 365 pages of primary content – a page for each day of the year. It can be taken as a daily ritual of spiritual practice to read one page every day. As the composer of the original Yogavashistha claims, one can get enlightened just by its regular study. By the way, for the first time in this series I am using pictures of books which are part of my personal library.
Even though there seem to be so many paths of spirituality, I feel primarily there are four broad paths – Jnana, Yoga, Karma, and Bhakti. They are not mutually exclusive. That is the reason a text on bhakti also talks about jnana, a text on jnana talks on bhakti and yoga, and so on. Bhagavad Gita talks about all four. By Yoga here I mean the philosophy of yoga as given in Patanjali’s Yogasutras and the physical practices as given in Hathayoga Pradipika.
Even though some propagate Bhagavad Gita as primarily as text of Bhakti marga, I feel that the underlying emphasis of Bhagavad Gita is on Karma. Perhaps Bhagavad Gita is the only text that talks of Karmayoga – doing one’s duty selflessly as a spiritual path. Narada Bhakti Sutra and Shandilya Bhakti Sutra probe into the principles of Bhakti. Coming to the path of Jnana, there are perhaps thousands of texts. However for the honest seeker who does not want to get into debates with other scholars but to experience it and live it, there is nothing to beat Yogavashistha.
Perhaps that is the reason when I requested a number of advanced seekers and masters to recommend me that one book, supposing that I had no other choice but to read only one book as part of my spiritual journey, the anonymous response was – Yogavashistha.
This is the alphabet Y post of Blogchatter AtoZ Challenge 2021. My theme this year is ‘The beauty of Sanskrit and Sanskrit texts’, where in I explore selected compositions in Sanskrit and also some unique aspects of Sanskrit language and texts. Join with me in my journey to understand India’s spiritual and intellectual heritage. All the posts of AtoZ Challenge 2021 can be accessed here.