Yoga-practice: Twin Goals

In my article on yogābhyāsa the emphasis was on working with the mind to accomplish the twin-goals of steadiness of mind (cittanaiścalya) and purity of mind (cittaśuddhi). If the goal were to achieve material success, there is no need for the latter. Anyone dedicated to the goal of being the most accomplished in a field of choice is able to develop steadiness of mind without resorting to any spiritual practice.

On the other hand, purity of mind is a must for one who is interested in liberation-while-living (jīvanmukti), or hoping to be liberated after death (videhamukti) or in Heaven after death (svarga).  Thus, yoga-practice is a necessary adjunct to seekers of freedom or Heaven, irrespective of their chosen path.

The question: Is a steady and pure mind possible to achieve? For us living in a society with family, demands and aspirations, this goal of gaining a relative degree of mental equanimity and purity seems to be far fetched. From observing myself as well as others, I find that reaching this goal is not a quantum jump. It is more like a slow climb. If one goes on this path it helps the seeker towards the next aspect of practice. I remember two sayings from two different countries: “Even a ten thousand mile journey starts with the first step” and, “Even granite gets ground by crawling of ants”. This is what I have been doing and, the granite of the mind is getting ground!

Though this relatively pure and distraction-free mind one has by dedicated yoga-practice, it is only the necessary condition for freedom (or heaven) but is not sufficient.  A relatively calm and pure mind is the stepping stone leading to knowledge-practice (jnanabhyasa).  This is the focus of this article.

Yoga-practice and Knowledge-practice


The relationship between these two paths of yoga-practice and knowledge-practice, is traditionally considered to be one of cause and effect (hetu-hetumad-bhāva-sambabdha). That is, yoga-practice leads to knowledge-practice. One may think that once knowledge-practice starts, yoga-practice can be stopped! I would add that these two, yoga-practice and knowledge-practice form a positive feedback loop not just synergy. That is, yoga-practice helps knowledge-practice to continue with greater dedication to gain clarity. And, pursuing knowledge-practice results in a more consistent yoga-practice .

What is knowledge-practice, Jñānābhyāsa?

I mentioned in yogābhyāsa that the term yoga-practice, yogābhyāsa has a different connotation than practice of yoga. Likewise, the term knowledge-practice, Jñānābhyāsa also has a different connotation than the practice of knowledge even though the Sanskrit compound Jñābhyāsa can be resolved to mean both. 

By “practice of knowledge” I mean the application of any skill that one develops through a clear and error-free knowledge of his chosen field / profession through “knowledge-practice”. Thus “knowledge-practice’ is precondition for ‘practice of knowledge”. Note that both “practice-of-knowledge” and knowledge-practice take plenty of time and dedication, not unlike the process of gaining steadiness in yoga-practice. It is important to stress that knowledge-practice for secular ends does not necessitate purity of mind, that is freedom from habitual cravings and aversions which manifest in impeccable ethical behavior.

Knowledge-practice of the spiritual kind needs mental purity as well. In this I include something believed to be achievable after death, that is, it cannot be a perceptual cognition (pratyakṣa) here while living.  This is technically called parokṣa. This includes the belief in Heaven propounded by all religions and the concept of liberation after death (videhamukti) discussed in some liberation philosophies. This bring us to look at the three liberation philosophies I focus on. But my emphasis is not on a posthumous reward of liberation after death, which is not different from reaching Eternal Heaven after death. Rather it is living while liberated (jīvanmukti).

This, indeed is what the three liberation philosophies Advaita-vedānta, Sāṅkhya-yoga and Buddhism emphasize despite major philosophical (metaphysical and epistemological) differences among them. Ironically, in my experience I find that most scholars of these three systems seem to be more interested in discussing the differences than the unifying goal behind these seemingly disparate systems.

Yoga and knowledge-practices: Similarities

Yoga-practice and knowledge-practice are similar in only two ways.  The first is to gain steadiness in practice. This is best expressed by sage Patañjali in his Yogasūtras: “To be on a stable ground (steadiness), one has to practice for a long time without interruptions and with dedication (Yogasūtra, Samādhipāda 1:14).”  The second similarity is repetition which applies to just one aspect of knowledge-practice.  Repetition is necessary to master the chanting of scriptures or to focus on the teaching. These two similarities are centered on a belief system chosen by an adult, or learned from birth and upbringing. For example, in Vedic chanting, even to gain mastery for correct pronunciation with proper accents, takes more than a decade! It is true of Vedic chanting but is also necessary for the life-long study of the Bible, Quran or Torah.

Yoga and knowledge-practices: Differences

The goal of yoga is to gain something that one does not have (aprāptasya prāptiḥ). Thus, yoga-practice is a volitional action. In the most general way, any human activity used to gain or achieve something is yoga. One has a choice regarding actions:  do it, abandon it altogether or do it differently (kartum śakyam, akartum śakyam, anyathāvā kartum śkayam). The choice is left to the person (puruṣa), so it is called puruṣatantra. For example, a goal of yoga-practice—to gain steadiness of mind—can be achieved by any number of ways:  āsana practice, breathing exercises, distance-running, weight lifting or other activities. This choice applies even to the mental act of meditation since there is a choice to meditate, or to not meditate, or to use different techniques of meditation such as watching the breath (prāṇavīkṣaṇam), witnessing thoughts (sākṣībhāva), or repeating a sacred name (nāma-japa).  

On the other hand, types of cognition are not volitional since they are not subject to one’s choice!  For example, choicelessness is illustrated as following: if the eyes are open and if the mind is engaged when looking at a flower, one cannot choose not to see. One can choose to ignore or close one’s eyes but both are volitional actions. That is, knowledge, which is a cognition-centered “activity” is not really an activity since it is not left to human will / choice, but is dependent only the object, (vastu) – be it a flower or sound or taste or listening to some talk on “Schrodinger’s cat”. Tradition calls this vastutantra. Thus, gaining knowledge, which is really the removal of ignorance, the very foundation of any secular or spiritual knowledge, is not an action. 

One may object to this reasoning by citing the effort required to gain knowledge of the world, namely the sciences or knowledge of oneself. The response is simple. The volitional effort is only to create the conditions necessary to focus the mind.  This falls in the realm of practice that is discussed in detail in yogakṣema.

Foundational Paradigms of Liberation Philosophies

At this point it is necessary to relook at the foundational paradigm of all liberation philosophies to understand the critical need for knowledge-practice for a seeker of liberation. Irrespective of diversity among the three systems – Buddhism, Sānkhya-yoga and Vedānta – the foundational paradigm is the same, namely one is “already free by nature” and the sense of weariness one feels is due to ignorance of this simple fact. This sense of weariness is expressed as “sorrow” in one system, while the other two systems express this as “removal of three-fold afflictions”. This means that the only way to remove ignorance is not by action but by gaining knowledge centered on your self. This can be accomplished only by knowledge-practice.

The state of ignorance is common to all human beings. My teacher used to drive home this point. We are all born totally ignorant of oneself, of the world and of the Creator. World-centered ignorance becomes less as we study. Ignorance of the Creator becomes less as we study religion.  But for the ignorance of the nature of oneself, or the truth of world, all beings and God, there is nothing in secular or religious literature to help remove this ignorance. This is where liberation philosophies matter to any human being really interested in liberation.

Thus, the popular idea of “realization” variously called freedom, mokṣa, nibbāna, nirvāna, satori, nirvikalpasamâdhi, asṁprajñātasmâdhi, etc., is one of removal of ignorance centered on oneself (and the world). This is why “achieving liberation” is technically called “gaining of what is already gained” (prāptasya prāpti). This is because no one can “gain” what one already is! The example by my teacher, Swami Dayananda, explains the impossibility of gaining what you already have by any action including yoga-practice. He would say, “Even God cannot bless you with a head on your shoulders. He can give you one more head if you do the activity of prayer, but cannot give you the one you already have!” It is, thus, clear that this “gain” is outside the scope of yogakṣemabased activities.

Need for Knowledge-practice for “Liberation”

A natural objection can be “If knowledge takes place spontaneously, as it were, without my will, why do I not I “realize” after a reading of Dhammapāda or Sāṅkhyakārikā or Māṇḍūkya-upaniṣad?” The answer is simple:  the powers of belief, habit and perceptual cognition are all constantly contradicting the teaching that you are already free. So, one tends to dismiss these philosophies as mere intellectual exercises or “theoretical knowledge” or wishful thinking. This is not useful! This is where one has to note that irrespective of the type of knowledge (of things or of oneself), one has to know when learning is complete. Knowledge one acquires has to be free from error and doubt.

Thus, to “realize” this existing fact is to be able to “see” this fact despite agitations of the mind:  in short, not to “take the mind to be me”.  Total identification of me with my mind is called bondage, and complete disassociation of this ignorance-born identification is called freedom / realization / direct experience or any other name such as nibbāna.  The path from identification to dis-identification is, indeed, called knowledge-practice. The mind, coupled with taking perceptual experience as real is what is meant by the statement: “Mind, indeed, is the cause for bondage and freedom.” (mana eva manuṣyāṇām kāraṇam bandha-mokṣayoḥ)

A few readers well-versed in Vedānta may wonder what I really mean by jñānâbhyāsa, knowledge-practice. By this term I include the triple steps of listening, analysis, and not losing sight of what one has learned – śravaṇa-manananididhyāsanam.  Regarding why one does not spontaneously feel ‘“liberated” despite the study of liberation philosophical teaching, my Vedānta teacher, Swami Chinmayanda used to say, “It is not enough to go through the Upaniṣads, the Upaniṣads have to go through you!”  The same idea is expressed by Śaṅkarācārya by the expression avagataprajñah, meaning one who has understood the content of the teaching and not a śrutaprajñaḥ, one who had just listened to the teaching..


Yoga-practice (yogābhyāsa) and knowledge-practice (jñānābhyāsa) have different ends. Yoga-practice is a deliberate action with a goal to be achieved and is subject to choice. The goal can be reached in a number of ways or one could choose to abandon the goal. Yoga is defined as gaining of what is to be gained (aprāptasya prāpti). Thus, in yoga-practice one tries to achieve the twin goals of a relatively steady mind and to be relatively free from cravings and aversions.The role of Yoga-practice, yogābhyāsa, is to prepare a steady mind (cittanaiścalya) with minimal buffeting by cravings and aversions, known as purity of mind (cittaśuddhi). Secular pursuits need only a steady mind and not a pure mind to be successful. Knowledge-practice has the goal of not losing sight of the existing fact that one is free and never bound. This is not possible if there is still the underlying ignorance and ignorance-born identification with the mind. Still, there is a connection between the two practices, in that one helps the other towards “reaching the goal” of spiritual practice.

I thank Alice and Chris for editing this blog post.

This article In brief: This blog focuses on Practice, the second of the three words – Learn, Practice, Master series. Practice is of two types: yoga-practice (yogābhyāsa) and knowledge-practice (jñānābhyāsa). The first of these is described in this post. The second will follow. I use the term Yoga-practice to distinguish it from the expression ‘practice of yoga’, which is usually known as practice of physical postures or āsana-practice. Though the word yoga is derived from the verb yuj, which has several meanings, in yoga-practice the word ‘yoga’ has a technical definition, not widely known. It is defined as “any activity undertaken to gain something that one does not have.” Thus, it encompasses many different activities, including physical postures (practice of yoga), breath control, meditation, ethical behavior (such as telling the truth, non-injury by thought, word, or deed and others), and overcoming impulsive actions driven by attachments and aversions. The goal of all these activities is to gain a purer, distraction-free mind. In short, yoga-practice is a necessary step for any seeker, whether s/he follows the path of Patañjali’s Yoga, Advaita-Vedānta, or Buddhism, or simply wants to live as a devoutly religious person. The Sanskrit word for any type of practice is abhyāsa.

Two Types of Practice (abhyāsa)

The Sanskrit word for practice is abhyāsa

Sanskrit-English dictionaries often list more than one meaning for the same word, sometimes even diametrically opposite meanings. The word abhyāsa has ten different meanings in a dictionary to which I often refer1. In English the word is usually translated as practice, which is one of the  meanings listed, some others are repeat, exercise, study, and recite. I use the popular meaning practice in this post.

Yoga-practice and Knowledge-practice
(Yogābhyāsa and Jñānābhyāsa)

I’d like to introduce here what I consider to be two kinds of practice that are synergistic. They are yoga-practice (yogābhyāsa) and knowledge-practice (jñānābhyāsa). In Vedic and Vedānta traditions knowledge-practice is well-known. In this post I introduce and discuss yoga-practice. I use hyphenated words in this blog to clearly distinguish these two Sanskrit compounds2 from the commonly used expressions ‘practice of yoga’ and ‘practice of knowledge.’ 

Yoga-practice (Yogābhyāsa)

Technical meaning of  the word yoga in yoga-practice

Not unlike several meanings for the word abhyāsa, the dictionary I cited gives a list of more than 40 meanings for yoga. The usual meanings one sees in English translation in books describing āsana practices is yoking, while the same word means to have a mind in total focus (samādhi) in Patañjali’s Yogasūtras3. But those familiar with Bhagavadgītā understand the same word yoga as simply to mean a chapter / section / topic. Note however, in this blog I use a technical meaning of the same word yoga.

The technical meaning of yoga, albeit a rare one in common literature, is used in the well-known set of verses called Bhagavadgītā, in the fourth quarter of the following verse, where yoga is an integral part of the compound yoga-kṣema – “I take care of yoga-kṣema.” 4

This Sanskrit compound yoga-kṣema comprises two words. In this context, Yoga is defined as an action undertaken to gain something that is desired, but not already gained; and kṣema asan action to keep what one has already gained.5 Thus the word Yogābhyāsa in this post means “practice to achieve something that is not already attained.” The two actions of yoga and kṣema are observed in all living beings from plants to animal kingdom, driven by automatic response, instinct, or deliberate action. 

Meaning of yoga relevant to Vedānta and Yogasūtra students

Those of us who have studied both the Vedānta work Bhagavadgītā and Yogasūtra of Patañjali see a very important meaning of yoga that is not widely understood. That is, the word yoga is used to really mean viyoga, the very opposite of yoga! If one takes the most common meaning of yoga, yoking, the goal of both the books is really de-yoking, known as viyoga.

Thus, a study of the totality of Yogasūtras, however, shows Patañjali intends the word yoga to mean viyoga, de-yoking. This fact is not clear from the first few sūtras in the first chapter, so often a reader becomes stuck in the notion that if only we get to samādhi, all will be fine! Patañjali’s work is built upon the foundation of Kapila’s Sāṅkhya system; and Patañjali’s central thesis, like Kapila’s, is not just temporary cessation of unhappiness, but total elimination of of it. The core of this reasoning is centered on a premise common to the three liberation philosophies — Yoga, Vedānta and Buddhism. That is, human unhappiness is due to ignorance, and removal of the cause, ignorance, eliminates unhappiness. Thus any yoga-practice really is an attempt at removal, vi-yoga, of this yoking with unhappiness. Sage Patañjali summarized Kapila’s philosophy that the cause of unhappiness is ignorance in a few aphorisms in the second chapter of Yogasūtra. He indicates the goal of yoga as one of viyoga, removal of this ignorance. He states: The association (saṃyoga)  between the subject and objects is to be removed.6 Bhagavadgītā in the sixth chapter entitled Yoga of Meditation (dhyānayoga): Dissociation of this association with unhappiness is called yoga.7

Two critical components of ‘yoga-practice’

Mastery of the mind is a first and crucial step in all liberation philosophies, be it Vedānta, Buddhism or Yoga. Patañjali defines this as a definition of yoga in his second aphorism – Yoga is mastery of mind.8 But there is a second critical step in all of these philosophies as well. Vedānta and Yoga describe two necessary components of total transformation of the mind:  developing steadiness of mind, citta-naiścalya,  and achieving purity of mind, citta-śuddhi. Buddhism emphasises śīla,  which includes developing traits such as compassion, love, forgiveness towards oneself and all living beings. Accomplishing this is not possible unless one has a steady (citta-naiścalya) and pure mind (citta-śuddhi) respectively.

First critical component –  Steadiness of mind, citta-naiścalya

Steadiness of mind is the ability to focus on a task at hand without being distracted by one’s wandering mind or by external stimuli. In the religious and spiritual realms, repetition of sacred names, practice of āsana, breathing exercises and meditations develop in the seeker steadiness of mind, that is, a mind that is not distracted by any other thoughts.

Steadiness of mind is necessary for success in secular pursuits as well. Such a focused mind can even be similar to being in samādhi. Any person dedicated to what s/he is doing, any professional – artist, writer, architect, scientist – has developed this steadiness of mind without need for belief in any religion or spirituality. Even a trained assassin has his mind in samādhi in planning as well as executing his task!

But steadiness of mind alone does not guarantee that such persons can achieve liberation. It is possible that a person with extraordinary ability to focus on any pursuit may still be self-centered, hurtful to others, and deceitful. Even one who applies extraordinary time and effort to the study of spiritual works may remain neglectful or disinterested in the needs or well being of others. We might say that such a person has not been blessed by the teaching. A Sanskrit expression describes such a person to be like a ‘beast of burden carrying a load of sandal wood, unable to smell the fragrance’.  Why? This is where purity of mind, citta-śuddhi, the second critical component, comes in.

Second critical component – Purity of mind, citta-śuddhi 

The question is, “What is a pure mind?”  Both Yoga and Vedānta describe a number of qualities defining a pure mind. To put it in a nutshell, this means one has the ability to master the habituated patterns of thinking that result in impulsive actions that only strengthen the same habits.      

Why do these patterns of behavior arise in the mind? Human beings are generally full of desires or aversions, rāga or dveṣa, that result in clinging attachments to or aversions from things, beings, and situations. My teacher, Swami Dayananda, used to highlight the unreasonable nature of one’s aversions by narrating this imaginary conversation:

A young lad says, “Swamiji, I hate bananas!”
Swamiji asks, “What has banana done to you to hate it?”

One can replace bananas with brussel sprouts or okra or anything that one hates, to see that we all have inexplicable and perhaps habituated aversions! Gaining a handle on these drivers of actions is accomplished by practice of detachment, virāga or vairāgya.

Most of us spiritual seekers need to achieve a great degree of mental steadiness as well as mental purity. Thus, both these pursuits fall under the technical definition of yoga in the expression yogābhyāsa, yoga-practice. While modern life for most of us has made us develop a good degree of mental steadiness and focus, there is nothing in secular literature that stresses detachment, virāga/vairāgya. For this we need guidance from religious or spiritual books. They focus on both critical needs for the mind.

Purity of mind in Yogasūtras: For students of yoga, the first goal of steadiness of mind can be achieved by regular āsana-practice for a long time. I have seen that many of those who stick with āsana practice develop an interest in Patañjali’s work. Thus they try breathing practices, prāṇāyāma, and do some type of meditation. Āsana and prāṇāyāma comprise only the third and fourth limbs of the eight limbs, aṣṭāṇga, 8 while ethical conduct, yama, and personal observances, niyama, are the first and second limbs. Patanjali defines yama as: non-injury, truth, non-stealing, scriptural study, not accepting favors, and not holding on to things.He defines niyama as: cleanliness, contentment, performance of austeries, study of scriptures, keeping the Lord in focus.10 According to Patañjali, mastery of mind (nirodha) can be achieved only by having purity of mind as well:  Mastery of mind is achieved by practice (abhyāsa) and detachment (vairāgya).11 Purity of mind is definitely achievable, though it needs years of dedicated practice of both āsana etc;, practices and detachment to loosen the stranglehold of our encrusted patterns of impulsive behavior.

Purity of mind in Vedānta: The thirteenth chapter of the Bhagavadgītā contains a set of five verses elaborating the qualities that must be cultivated in order to gain the knowledge that is the primary teaching. This long list comprises more than 20 qualities one has to possess to be the right receptacle of the knowledge of the Upaniṣads, as described in the Gītā. A review of this list shows it to be a superset of yama and niyama defined by Patañjali. In addition it also defines dispassion and explains how to develop it. The traits to be developed by a seeker of liberation are: Absence of pride and vanity; non-injury; forgiveness; alignment of thought, word, and deed; service to the teacher; cleanliness; steadiness; self-control; dispassion towards sense objects; absence of ego; seeing the downsides of birth, death, old age, disease and unhappiness; non-attachment towards progeny, spouse, house etc.; being even-minded due to gain of desired or not desired things; unwavering devotion to Me with total focus (on essential identity of the core of your and my Being); resorting to a place free from distractions; lack of desire towards throngs of people; being steadfast in gaining self-knowledge and seeing the truth of oneself are the means of gaining knowledge.12

Purity of mind in Buddhism: Buddhist practitioners can see that most of the śīlas (Pāli, sīla)13, applicable to both lay-practitioners and monks, are included in these five verses in what is ostensibly considered to be a ‘Hindu theistic text’

Developing dispassion, vairāgya: the problem is the mind

Graduation from being impulsive to being deliberate in thought, word, and deed is the result of detachment. The Sanskrit word for detachment is vairāgya (synonyms: virāga in advaita-vedānta and vaśīkāra in Patañjali’s Yogasūtra). Both Yoga and Vedānta texts have clear definitions of what is meant by the word detachment. This detachment is not what one achieves by a blind giving up of objects or friends and those dear. Real detachment is born of a mature understanding of the limitations of any worldly accomplishments and of not being desirous of heaven after death. Patañjali defines detachment: Detachment is total lack of craving for sense objects perceived here or heard from scriptures.14 An introductory Vedānta text, Tattvabodha defines detachment in a similar manner:What is detachment, virāga? Absence of desire for enjoyment of pleasures here or in heaven.15

Simply defining detachment does not help the seeker!  Nor does it mean that one should give up everything and become a monk, thinking that such a lifestyle alone is real detachment. Unlike āsana or prāṇāyāma practices, there are no guidebooks or teachers available to tell you how to practice detachment. Our cravings for things of the world do pose serious problems in overcoming them. When the mind, due to habit, drags one towards objects of pleasure, one has to practice to counter those thoughts. This practice is to be done by the individual based on an analysis of his or her own life-experiences

A technique for this reflection is called pratipakṣabhāvanā, a kind of intentional cognitive therapy, by which one actively chooses to focus on the downside of letting the habituated mind drag one towards objects of pleasure with resultant actions only strengthening the habit. This is quite different from a ‘sour-grapes’ attitude born of incompetence or failure-based giving up. Only an intelligent examination of life’s accomplishments and experiences results in real detachment. This is the first step in seeking the means for liberation according to Muṇdakopaniṣad: ‘Having examined all experiences gained by actions, the seeker of Truth gains detachment.’16

This rather cryptic Upaniṣadic statement appears to be elaborated by Patañjali in the second chapter of Yogasūtra on practice called sādhanapāda. He describes how to do the reflection called pratipakṣabhāvana in his very long aphorism: ‘Inflicting harm, etc., to others can be done either by oneself, or at the behest of, or persuaded by another person. These (actions) are backed by greed, anger and delusion. Such actions may be of mild, moderate, or severe intensity.  These actions result only in sorrow, thus keeping one ignorant.’ 17

In Vedānta, development of detachment is the second of four qualifications for a student. They are: (1) ability to discriminate between what is ephemeral and permanent, viveka; (2) detachment, vairāgya; (3) six-fold wealth of control of sense organs etc., śamādi- ṣatkasampatti; and (4) desire for liberation, mumukṣutvam.

The second qualification, detachment, vairāgya, is of such importance that an 8th century master of advaita-vedānta, Śaṅkarācārya, felt the need to create a set of 31 verses describing how to gain a degree of detachment from the world of objects and people. This work is called Mohamudgara, Remover of Delusion. Another name of these verses is Bhajagovindam, Serve the Lord Govinda, the refrain for the verses. This text provides ample ways to reflect on the facts of life in order to increase one’s level of detachment. Here are  two typical verses:  ‘Water on a lotus leaf is quite tremulous; life is just as unsteady. Know the world to be possessed by pride, disease and sorrow.Be not conceited by youth, wealth, or retinue: time can take them away in a minute. The wealthy are afraid of even their  progeny. This is the way it is for all (of us).’18, 19

How can one gain steadiness in mastery of the mind by Yogābhāsa?

Sage Patañjali describes how one can gain steadiness in pursuit of nirodha, complete mastery of one’s mental modes.  He calls this steadiness dṛḍhabhūmi, a termusually translated as “firm ground” saying: ‘For steadiness in that (abhyāsa and vairāgya) is (called) effort.20It (control of mental modes, nirodha) becomes steady by pursuing for a long time, uninterrupted, with dedication and reverence.21


The word yoga in yogābhyāsa is used in a sense not familiar to many. I use this to mean “that which allows one to gain what one does not have.” Yogābhyāsa for a seeker of liberation includes both prescribed practices in the sacred books / paths one follows and the practice of detachment. This process is elaborated in the Yogasūtras of Patañjali, in Bhagavadgītā, and in Buddhist scriptures. Whether one’s chosen path is Yoga, Vedānta, Buddhistic practices such as Zen or Mindfulness, or dedicated devotion of any religious persuasion, yoga-practice, yogābyāsa is a necessary first step.

An equally important second step is the repeated study of sacred books of one’s chosen path, which I call jñānābhyāsa, knowledge-practice. While yogābhyāsa helps the seeker move from being impulsive to being deliberate in thought, word and deed, knowledge-practice transforms the person to be spontaneous in all actions, though the two extremes of impulsiveness and spontaneity may look similar. Another more popular way to understand the role of knowledge-practice, jñānābhyāsa, is to make the seeker own up / realize / experience the goal of teaching. Knowledge-practice forms the subject matter for a subsequent post.   


1 The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Prin. Vaman Shivaram Apte, Rinsen Book Company, Kyoto, 1966, p. 194

2 in Sanskrit many individual words can be combined to form compounds called samāsa-s. There is more than one way to resolve such compounds yielding very different meanings, the best meaning is determined by how such compounds are formed. Thus the common ones such as practice of yoga, practice of knowledge comprise one of the ways of resolving these two compounds yogābhyāsa and jñānābhyāsa respectively.  But I am using a different way of forming the same compounds and a resolution that needs to be translated as hyphenated words.

3 In Sanskrit all words are derived from a set of about 2,200 verbs. Yoga is derived from the verb yuj. One meaning of the verb is to yoke, to connect, to join. Vyāsa, the first commentator to the Yogasūtras, defines the word yoga in this sutra to mean samādhi, based on the second meaning of the same verb yuj given earlierto be in samādhi: युज समाधौ (माधवीया धातुवृत्तिः पृ. ४२६) yuja samādau, Mādhavīyā dhātuvṛttiḥ, p.426, Prācyabhārati, Series 1, 1964

4 अनन्याश्चिन्तयन्तोमामं ये जना: पर्युपासते । 
तेषां नित्याभियुक्तानां योगक्षेमं वहाम्यहम् ॥(भगवद्गीता ९-२२)
  Ananyāścintayanto mām ye janāh paryupāsare
  Teshām nityābhiyuktānām Yogakṣemaṃ vahāmyaham. (Bhagavadgītā 9-22)
The fourth quarter of the verse is in bold, the meaning is cited in the text

These are technical meanings found in Sanskrit-Sanskrit dictionaries, which are more
  like encyclopedias. This definition is based on such a 19th century six-volume
  dictionary. अनागतानयनागतरक्षणे योगक्षेमम् | (शब्दकल्पद्रुमः) Gaining what is not gained and
  protecting what is gained is yogakṣema. (Śabdakalpadruma)
Also, in Śaṇkara’s commentary to this verse, he states: योगः – अप्राप्तस्य प्रापणम् | क्षेमः –
  तद्रक्षणम् | Yogaḥ – Aprāptasa prāpṇam, Kṣemaḥ – Tadrakṣaṇam. (Ānandāśrama
  Pub. # 34, Śrīmadbhagavadgītā, 1936, p.391, This book is in Devanāgarī script only)
  Meaning: Yoga gets what is not gained, Kṣema protects what is gained.

6 दृग्दृश्ययोस्संयोगो हेयहेतु:।(योगयूत्रम् २-१७)
Drgdrśyayossamyogo heya hetuh. (Yogasūtra 2-17)

7 तं विद्याद्दुःखसंयोगवियोगं योगसंज्ञिदतम् | स निश्चयेन योक्तव्य: योगोनिर्विण्ण चेतसा॥(भगवद्गीता ६-२३)
  Tam vidyāt duḥkhasaṃyogaviyogam yogasamjñitam. Sa niścayena yoktavyah yogo’nirvinna
  cetasā. (Bhagavadgītā 6-23) ‘May you know that the removal (viyoga) of association
  (saṃyoga) with unhappiness is called yoga. This yoga has to be practiced with perseverance
  and an undistracted mind.’ (Bhagavadgītā  6-23)

8 योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोध:।(योगसूत्रम् १-२) Yogaścittavrttinirodhah (Yogasūtra 1-2) mastery of
  mind is Yoga (Yogasūtra 1-2). Though the word nirodha is often translated as control,
  I prefer the word ‘mastery’. Cittavṛtti is translated as mental modes in many books.

8 यमनियमप्राणायामप्रत्याहारधारणाध्यानसमाधयोsष्टावड़गानि | (योगसूत्रम् २-२९)
  Yamaniyamaprāṇāyāmapratyāhāradhāraṇasamādhayo’ṣṭāvaṅgāni. (Yogasūtra 2-29)
Eight limbs are yama, niyama, āsana, prāṇāyāma, pratyāhārā, dhāraṇā, dhyāna and samādhi.

9 अहिंसासत्यास्तेयब्रह्मचर्यापरिग्रहा यमाः | (योगसूत्रम् २-३०)
    Ahiṃsā-satyā-asteya-brahmacarya-aprigrahā yamāḥ. (Yogastra 2-30)

10 शौचसन्तोषतपस्वाध्यायेश्वरप्रणिधानानि नियमाः | (योगसूत्रम् २-३२)
  Śauca-santoṣa-tapas-svādhyāya-īsvarapraṇidhānāni niyamāḥ. (Yogastra 2-32)

11 अभ्यासवैराग्याभ्यां तन्निरोधः | (योगसूत्रम् १-१२)
    Abhyāsavairāgyābhyām tannirodhaḥ. (Yogasūtra 1-12)

12 अमानित्वमदम्भित्वमहिंसाक्षान्तिरार्जवम् |
    आचार्योपासनं शौचं स्थैर्यमात्मविनिग्रहः || (भगवद्गीता १३-७)
   ācāyopāsanam śaucam sthairamāmavinigrahaḥ. (Bhagavadgītā 13-7)

इन्द्रियार्थेषु वैराग्यमनहङ्कार एव च |
    जन्ममृत्युजराव्याधिदुःखदोषानुदर्शनम् || (भगवद्गीता १३-८)
    Indriyārtheṣu vairāgyamanahaṅāra eva ca:
    janamamṛtyujarāvyādhiduḥkhadoṣānudarśanam. (Bhagavadgītā 13-8)

असक्तिरनभिष्वङः पुत्रदारगृङादिषु |
    नित्यञ्च समचित्तत्वमिष्टानिष्टोपपत्तिषु || (भगवद्गीता १३-९)
    Asaktiranabhiṣvaṅgaḥ putradārāgṛhādiṣu:
    nityañca samacittatvamiṣṭāniṣṭopapattiṣu. (Bhagavadgītā 13-9)
मयि चानन्ययोगेन भक्तिरव्यभिचारिणी |
  विविक्तदेशसेवित्वसरतिर्जनसंसदि || (भगवद्गीता १३-१०)
  Mayi cānanyayogena bhaktiravyabhicāriṇī:
  viviktadeśasevitvmaratirjana saṁsadi. (Bhagavadgītā 13-10)
अध्यात्मज्ञाननित्यत्वं तत्त्वज्ञानार्थदर्शनम् |
  एतज्ज्ञानमिति प्रोक्तमज्ञानं यदतोन्यथा || (भगवद्गीता १३-११)
  Adhyārmajñananityatvam tattvajñārthadarśanam:
  etajñānamitiproktamajñām yadatomyathā. (Bhagavadgītā 13-11)

13 The Shambala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, Shambala, Boston, 1991, p.197,
  Also, Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Volumes 1 and 2, Macmillan Publishing Company, Reprint
  Edition, 1972:  Buddhism, p. 417

14 दृष्टानुश्रवितविषयवितृष्णस्य वशीकारसंज्ञा वैराग्यम् | (योगसूत्रम् २-२५)
  Dṛṣṭānuśravikaviṣayavitṛṣṇasya vaśīkārasamjñā vairāgyam (Yogasūtra, 1-15)

15  विरागः कः | इहामुत्रार्थफलभोग विरागः | (तत्वबोधः ९, १०)
Virāgaḥ kaḥ? Ihasvargabhogeṣu ichhārāhityam. (Tattvabodha, 9,10)

16  परीक्ष्य लोकान् कर्मचितान्निर्वेदमायाद्ब्राह्मणः | (मुण्डकोपनिषत् १-२-१२)
    Parīkṣya locān karmacitān nirvedamāyād brāhmaṇaḥ (1-2-12)

17  वितर्का हिंसादयः कृतकारिकानुमोदिता लोभक्रोधमोहपूर्वका
  मृदुमध्याधिमात्रा दुःखाज्ञानान्तफला इति प्रतिपक्षभावनम् | (योगसूत्रम् २-३४)
  Vitarkā himsādayaḥ kṛtakārikānumoditā lobhakrodhamohapūrvakā
  mṛdumahyādhimātra duḥkhājñānānantaphalā iti pratipakṣabhāvanam (Yogasūtra, 2-34)

18  नलिनीदलगतमतिचलचपलं तद्वजीवितमतिशयचपलम्
  विद्धिव्याध्यभिमानग्रस्तं लोकं शोकहतञ्च समस्तम् || (मोहमुद्गरः ४)
  Nalinīdalagatajalamatitaralam tadvajjvitamatiśayacapalam
  Viddhi vyādhyabhimānagrastam lokam śokahatam ca samastam.
(Mohamudgara, 4)

19  मा कुरु धनजनयौवनगर्वं हरति निमेषात्कालस्सर्वम् |
  पुत्रादपि धनभाजां भीतिः सर्वत्रैषा विहिता रीतिः ||  (मोहमुद्गरः १३)
  Mā kuru dhanajanayauvanagarvam harati nimeṣāt kālassarvam
  Putrādapi dhanabhājām bhītiḥ sarvasyaiṣā vihitā rītiḥ.
(Mohamudgara, 11)

20  तत्र स्थितौ यतेनोSभ्यासः | (योगसूत्रम् २-२३)
  Tatra sthitau yatno’bhyāyasaḥ. (Yogasūtra 1-13)

21  स तु दीर्घकालनैरन्तर्यसत्कारासेवितो दृढभूमिः | (योगसूत्रम् २-२४)
  Sa (nirodhaḥ) tu dīrghakāla-nairantarya-satkāya-āsevito dṛḍhabhūmiḥ (Yogasūtra 1-14)

I thank Alice, Candace, Chris and Philippe 
for their valuable comments and edits.

Many of you may know that I have been using a guided meditation app called Headspace by Andy Puddicombe for a few years. Those unfamiliar with this person can refer
Andy sometimes uses three sets of ten meditations each. The first set of ten sessions he calls “Learn,” the second “Practice” and the third  “Master”.

Whether the learning sought is secular or spiritual, the need for this sequence – Learn, Practice and Master – is the same. This is best illustrated by a story narrated by one of my Vedānta teachers, Swami Chinmayananda. He was an expert in driving home a point through an unforgettable story. Here is one just right for this topic.

A story by Swami Chinmayananda

A person was fixated on the notion that he was a chicken, so would not go out of his house for years due to fear of dogs chasing to kill him. At the recommendation of his friends and well-wishers a psychotherapist started working with him. His sessions went on for years.
After a long time, one day, at the end of a session, he told his therapist “I now know that I am not a chicken.” The therapist replied “Great! Why don’t you just go round the block and come back. I will be happy to conclude the session today.” 
Barely a few minutes had passed when the therapist heard some barking dogs and someone pounding on his doors, he rushed to open the door.  His patient barged in panting and plopped himself in a chair. After he calmed down, the therapist asked, “What happened?  Why were you panting when you rushed in? Are you alright?” He replied, “Doctor, I know I am not a chicken, but do the dogs know I am not a chicken?


Two factors necessary to learn any subject, sacred or secular are desire to learn and readiness to learn. The first one presupposes that one is aware of being ignorant of a subject. 

Desire to learn: Realizing that one is ignorant leads to a desire to learn. In Sanskrit there is a single word for “desire to learn”:  jijñāsā. We all know that a strong desire remains till the object of desire is gained unless eliminated by mature dispassion, vairāgya. But this does not apply to desire to know who you are, the result of analyzing all the fulfilled desires one had and finding that this did not lead to any lasting sense of contentment. This is why in many sūtra texts, jijñāsā is in the opening aphorism. For example, the analytical text of the ritual portion of the Vedas, the sūtra attributed to Jamini starts:

अथातो धर्मजिज्ञासा।   ॥१.१॥
Athāto dharmajijñāsā (1:1)
Now, therefore, may one entertain a desire to know dharma (1:1)

Another well known sūtra work by Bādarāyaṇa, the analysis of Upaniṣads, starts:

अथातो ब्रह्मजिज्ञासा।  ॥१.१॥
Athāto brahmajijñāsā (1:1)
Now,  therefore, may one entertain a desire to know Brahman (1:1)

Many students of Patañjali are aware of the work Sāṅkhyakārikā of Īśvarakṛṣṇa. His book starts with:

तापत्रयाभिघाताज्जिज्ञासा ।   ॥१.१॥
Tāpatrayābhighātājjijñāsā (1:1)
For cessation of the anguish triad, may one entertain a desire to know. (1:1)(No attempt is made here to explain these aphorisms from three disparate fields of learning since it is not the objective of this article.)

Readiness to learn: When it comes to ancient teachings on the life goal, to be free while living, called mokṣa, the readiness to learn is critical. It means having the ability to learn by setting aside intellectual and emotional roadblocks, based on one’s current perspective, convictions and past experiences. This type of readiness to learn is called śraddhā in Sanskrit, poorly translated as “faith”. This word faith, especially in modern times, may be looked down upon, sometimes equating to blind faith if not also being irrational, superstitious ideas. But faith is particularly relevant to any scriptural study. The best definition of śraddhā was stated by an advaita master, Śaṅkarācārya in Vivekacūdāmaṇi.

शास्त्रस्य गुरुवाक्यस्य सत्यबुद्ध्यवधारणम्।
सा श्रद्धा कथिता सद्भिर्यया वस्तूपलभ्यते। ॥२७॥
Śāśtrasya guruvākyasya satyabuddhyavdhāraṇām
Sā śraddhā kathitā sadbhiryayā vastūpalabhyate. (27)
Conviction that the words of the teacher and of the sacred work is true:
This is defined as śraddhā (‘faith’) by the wise,
With this one gains the object (of one’s quest) – (Vivekacūḍāmaṇi, verse 27)

Difference between secular and spiritual learning

The first big difference between secular and spiritual knowledge was highlighted to us at the āśrama by our teacher, Swami Dayananda Sarasvati,  “If you study microbiology, you do not want to be a microbe! If you study geology, you do not want to become a rock! But when you study Vedānta, you want to be what Vedānta says you already are.” This is succinctly stated by “Tat tvam asi”, namely you are what you seek! Thus, what you want to be is not different from yourself–the truth of yourself–not what you take yourself to be.’

The second major difference is the effect of such a study on the student. Accomplishments in the study of secular  subjects do not usually transform the student. They will often continue to lead to feelings of wanting, needing, dissatisfaction and emptiness. Having spent my life as a scientist, I can say that there is an acute sense of not knowing everything concerning even a small area of scientific endeavour. This sense of being left unfulfilled and wanting to transcend this grief is highlighted in the following story about Narmada in Chāndogya-Upaniṣad in the seventh chapter.

Story of Nārada approaching his teacher Sanatkumāra

The celestial sage Nārada approached Sanatkumāra and asked him to teach, to which Sanatkumāra replied, “First tell me what all you have studied, then I will teach you.”  Nårada described his scholastic accomplishments in more than twenty different fields of study and concluded, “Despite all this knowledge, I still feel sorrowful. O Lord, may you teach me the way to transcend this sorrow.” The teaching that follows is about self-knowledge; that is, the true nature of oneself.  (Chāndogya Ch. 7, Section 1, Verses 1-3).

Spiritual study transforms the person, while expertise in any branch of secular knowledge leaves the personality of the learner untouched. More often than not one remains the same, perhaps becoming more haughty, looking down on others, be hurtful, unforgiving, lacking compassion and so on.

Learning – When it is complete

More than two millennia ago, a Tamil poet known as Tiruvalluvar in his well-known work Kuraḷ succinctly expressed two aspects of learning: thoroughness and behavior of the student toward fellow beings:

கற்க கசடற கற்பவை கற்ற பின்
நிற்க அதற்குத்தக. (குறள்: 391)
Karka kaśaḍara karpavai kaṭrapin
Nirka adarkuttaha. (Kuraḷ: 391)
Learn without any shadow doubt or confusion.
Having learned what all has to be learned,
May your life reflect what you have learned. (Kural Verse 391)

The word kaśaḍara defines when one’s learning is complete.This word means free of defects. That is, whatever one has learned must be free of doubts, confusion and error. One may have a feeling that the knowledge gained is free of any doubt, but it could still be totally erroneous!

That it is quite possible to have erroneous understanding of what the teacher says is illustrated by another story in the same Chāndogya-Upaniṣad in the eighth chapter. 

Story of Indra and Virocana learning from their teacher Bṛhaspati

Two students, Indra, the king of gods, and Virocana, the king of demons, approached their teacher, Bṛhaspati, seeking knowledge of the self known as puruṣa in Sāṇkhya/yoga and ātman in Vedānta. Both had heard how this ātman is free of birth, death or other limitations known to living beings, be they humans, demons or gods. They stayed with the teacher for years. They were asked at the end of the study to look at themselves in a well to “see ātman.” They both saw their own reflections. The king of demons, Virocana, realized clearly that the body is, indeed, the self and left for his kingdom. He told his subjects to take care of the body and enjoy life!

Indra, on the other hand, started thinking how this is not the case, since what he saw was just a reflection of the physical body. So he went back to the teacher, and he was asked to stay for a few more years. Finally, the teacher explained how the self is enshrined in the body but not limited by the body, and that the truth of one’s being is, indeed, ātman.

Thus, taking oneself to be just the body and its three states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep is not true knowledge. True knowledge is seeing that there is one Being witnessing all these three states. This witness, as it were, is the imperishable, limitless self, the true nature of any living being. Thus, blessed by correct learning, Indra finally left the teacher and went back to rule his kingdom. He imparted this knowledge to his subjects. This story also highlights how expressing and trying to resolve doubts during the learning process is an important step in gaining clear understanding of any teaching.

While I was in school I studied Sanskrit as the third language. In those days it was mandatory to memorize and “regurgitate” in the exams to get a high score. The incidental benefit of this focus on rote memorization is that one remembers things decades after school! One verse I remember talks about how and when learning is complete:

आचार्यात्पादमादत्ते पादं शिष्यस्स्वमेधया।
पादं सब्रह्मचारिभ्यः पादम् कालक्रमेण वै।।
Ācāryātpādamādatte pādaṃ śiṣyassvamedhayā
Pādaṃ sabrahmacāribhyaḥ pādam kālakrameṇa vai.
One learns a quarter from the teacher,
the second quarter using the learner’s reasoning,
Another quarter from co-students and the last, only with passage of time.

Learning – Mark of the learned

The last part of Kural’s verse – nirka adarkuttaha, May your life reflect what you have learned – tells the real mark of learning. This is relevant to any spiritual study. This is what is popularly called “Walk the talk”. This means one’s learning is reflected in his/her behavior towards all living beings.

Unfortunately, we generally are very good at learning once we set our minds to it but fall by the wayside when it comes to living an exemplary life and being a shining example of what the teaching is all about: being free of impulsiveness, cravings, hurtfulness to others in thought, word and deed, and other baser instincts that propel a person to act based on “ends justify the means”’ type of reasoning. The hallmarks of a learned person, jñânin, wise one, are described in the Gītā in the second chapter (Chapter 2:55-72). I will elaborate on the mark of wisdom in a later post, entitled Master.

Here I do not mean only actions motivated by the theological concepts of God, Heaven and Hell or the need to be good in life (not sinning etc.), these result in a person leading an ethical life. My focus here is what is called “liberation / freedom theology,” though I prefer the term liberation-centered philosophies. One can include in this category Buddhist, Sāṅkhya /Yoga  and Vedānta philosophies.

The primary thrust of these systems is living-liberated; that is, freedom here and now, not as a posthumous reward of heaven as described in Abrahamic religions or the different heavens described in the ritual section of the Vedas. Even in Vedānta, in the Upaniṣads there is mention of liberation after death, videhamukti. Liberation after death is more like a response to the polemical question, “If I am really liberated, how come I still am bound to this body”  and not the real intent of Vedānta.

Though the word liberation sounds almost mystical, it is synonymous with the word freedom, which is easy to understand. The question then is “What is this freedom?”  No one is free from aging, illness and death. Also, freedom implies the idea of being in bondage from which one gains freedom! The freedom one talks about in these philosophies is not something to be gained. Anything gained can be lost as well, so a liberated person can be bound again. The freedom discussed in these philosophies is not a two-way street because liberation is not an event in time.

In reality, one is free and the sense of bondage is due to total identification with the mind.  If the mind is agitated, “I am agitated.” If the mind experiences an emotion of sorrow, joy or hurt, then “I am sad, joyful, hurt”. I remember at the end of one of our Vedānta residential courses, Swami Dayananda encapsulated the essence of the Vedāntic vision of living-liberated thus:  “You are free from the moment you no longer take yourself to be an existing emotion in your mind.”  This freedom is described by the famous analogy of sculpting an elephant out of a big boulder. One does not make the elephant but only chips away the non-elephant until only the elephant remains. What is being chipped away in the life of a seeker is just his or her  identification with the mind and its emotions.

Thus, the focus of liberation philosophies is to make seekers realize that they are already free and only have to free themselves from identification with the mind. In a mind that is besieged by regrets, cravings, hate, anger and similar emotions, the philosophies do not work. The transformation of the person to manifest the understanding of the core of these philosophies is not possible. The philosophies remain at best at the level of intellectual appreciation of a lofty concept.

This leads us to the second word of the triad Learn, Practice, Master.  What Practice is and why it is critical for the student of philosophy forms the subject of the next post.

I thank Alice, Candace, Chris and Philippe
for their valuable comments and edits.


For the last several years I have been participating in a Yoga Sūtra a group-discussion that led me to study the Yoga Sutra (YS) with Vyāsa’s commentary, with the vivraṇa b by Saṇkarācārya, with the ṭīkā c by Vācaspati Miśra, and with an independent commentary by a 20th century yogin, Sadāśivabrhamendra. 1-6

The Bhagavadgītā (BG) 7, 8 is a set of about 800 verses in 18 chapters written by Vyāsa. I studied this text at the āśrama-s dedicated to Vedānta d in India and California. Now I am intrigued by its similaritiesto the YS on many levels. This made me wonder if the BG was intended to be an elaboration of the YS. However, I found no publication comparing these two well-known works.

I follow the traditional belief that the author of the commentary to the YS 9 and the BG are one and the same. I am well aware of the debate as to whether the YS commentator Vyāsa and the author of the BG are two different persons living at different times but having the same name. Some even believe Patañjali himself wrote this YS commentary though it bears Vyāsa’s name. 

Differences between the two works, the YS and the BG  

Patañjali’s work is known by its title Yogasūtra (YS). It is technically classified as Yogadarśana e, yoga philosophy, in contrast to the rarely available and scarcely known philosophySāṇkhyadarśna of Kapila 10 and the more widely known summarization of this system by Īśvarakṛṣṇa in the Sāṇkhyakārikā 11 Though the YS has its moorings in the more ancient Sāṇkhya system, it is treated as a separate philosophical system since the concept of Īśvara is found in the YS by Patañjali but not mentioned in the earlier Sāṇkhya philosophy.  The concept of Īśvara f is Patanjali’s own.

Note that the ritual section of the Vedas g also does not have an Īśvara, “God” since it is assumed that karma h, actions themselves produce the results here and hereafter. From the modern idea of God, one can say that that both Sāṇkhya and vedic ritualism are “Godless!” According to Patañjali, however, Īśvara is just another Puruṣa, like most of us, Puruṣas. The uniqueness or what makes this Īśvara special is that He h is free from any action or the result of an action; in short one who has no karma-bound limitations (YS 1:24). But, there is no description of who this special puruṣa is, not his qualities and abilities, as is commonly understood in theologies.

Vyāsa’s BG, on the other hand, is not considered an independent darśana but is folded into Vedāntadarśana, vedānta philosophy. Unlike Patañjali, he did not strike an independent path propounding any new system of thought. He used the pretext of writing an account of his descendants’ families engaging in a fratricidal war in a book of 100,000 verses called Mahābhārataa in which the BG is a subsection. His work is called a smṛti j in contrast to vedas, the śruti k. The tradition considers the smṛti to be an elaboration of the rather terse śruti.

Typically, due to the fact that the foundation of the yoga system is the Sankhya, the Sāṇkhya-Yoga is considered as one integrated philosophical system.  This system is grounded on the fundamental duality of prakṛti l, matter, and puruṣa m, the sentience, the former is the one undergoing changes to form the phenomenal world while the latter can be many. Patañjali’s new idea is that one of these innumerable puruṣa-s is Īśvara, a special one (YS 1:24). He simply states that by mere repetition of his name, praṇava, Om and reflecting on its meaning one can gain samādhi (YS 1:23).

In contrast, the vedānta idea of Īśvara with qualities such as omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, has powers as the giver of the results of actions as well as having over lordship of the results; Patañjali has no such clear postulations. Vyāsa, on the other hand, follows the vedānta tradition – Īśvara with qualities, devoting an entire chapter in BG describing the cosmic form of Īśvara (BG, Ch. 11). The BG has been interpreted by three great propounders of vedānta philosophies – advaita, viśiṣṭhādvaita and dvaita n.

At this point I have to point out my bias, both as a scientist schooled in hard sciences and as one who is immersed in advaita philosophy. It is hard for me to subscribe to the validity of absolute demarcation, namely maintaining duality of prakṛti and puruṣa as fundamental realities. In science, since the last century, what was once considered to be fundamentally different – wave-particle duality, matter-energy duality, nuclear particles duality – all only led to an existing fundamental non-duality. So, from the advaita-vedānta view of the BG there is a big conceptual, perhaps irreconcilable difference with the Sāṇkhya-Yoga system. But, if I look at the same BG with the lens of the Yogasūtras, I do find that many portions of this text appear to be an elaboration of the cryptic sūtra style work of Patañjali.

There is but one more major difference between YS and BG. Since Patañjali’s philosophy is built on the foundation of the Sāṇkhya system, he does not dwell into the “vision” of the latter, namely ‘“you, the seeker, are, indeed, the puruṣa”, but he states that ignorance of this is responsible for your present condition. So, the solution is not “doing something” but knowing who you are. This is stated at a few places in the YS, but this message is not even appreciated by many a serious student of Patañjali! 

One can understand this since almost all those who come to study the YS are serious āsana practitioners having practiced for years. Being born and raised in the current culture of “don’t just sit there, do something”, they think that doing something is meditation, and that this would give them kaivalya which yogins would call samadhi. Sadly, as we will see later in this post, the explicit statements in the YS about ignorance being the cause for the current human condition is missed.  Any amount of practice of meditation, postures and other actions cannot remove this ignorance. No ignorance can be removed by a physical or mental action; it is only removed by knowing one’s true nature. I am reminded of my vedānta teacher’s comment, ‘apne āp kaisa hoga – by itself how can it happen (meaning removal of ignorance).’

The prime focus of the YS is how to fix up the mind. Thus, it is rightly called a “practice manual”, that is, a book which completely deals with the “way” never explicitly discussing the “vision”. As I mentioned, no amount of practice can grind out avidyā, ignorance. This is clearly stated by Patañjali himself in Sādhanapāda, the second chapter on practice.

For those students of the YS 9 who may look at askance, one just has to examinethe foundation of Sāṇkhya on which Patañjali builds the structure of yoga. The well-known Sāṇkhya work, Sāṇkhyakārikā by Īśvarakṛṣṇa starts his work with the opening statement:

For total elimination of three-fold pain (have a) desire to know. (Sāṇkhyakārikā1:1)

Thus despite Patañjali’s primary focus, as mentioned earlier is yoga, he clearly states the need for gaining this knowledge to remove ignorance, the cause of the seeker’s present condition. In short the ‘way’ is necessary but not sufficient, one has to know, that is one has to gain a clear unshakable ‘vision’.

Thus in this second chapter of YS, called Practice, he lists the five afflictions starting with avidyā, ignorance:

Five afflictions are ignorance, ego, likes, dislikes and clinging to life (YS 2:3)

He adds the fact that this ignorance (of the true nature of the seeker to be none other than puruṣa) is the root cause, the ground on which the remaining four afflictions manifest to varying degrees:

Avidyākketramuttareām prasuptatanuvicchinnodārānam
Ignorance is the place for the rest (of afflictions) to be dormant, weak, intermittent or fully manifest (YS 2:4)

Later, in the same chapter he states that the prime cause is ignorance and the need for clear unshakable knowledge as the cause for its removal. This is what I call ‘Vision’.

Tasya heturavidyā
The cause for this is ignorance (YS 2:24)
Vivekakhyātiraviplavā hānopāyaḥ
The way of destruction of this (ignorance) is clear discriminative knowledge
(between prakṛti and puruṣa ) (YS 2:26).

Now to similarities between YS and the BG

Though this is the primary focus for a series of posts, here are the similarities between the two works:

  • As a sūtra text, the YS has to fulfill the criteria of a sūtra – short, clear, pithy and multidimensional. This is true of many a classic sūtra work, such as those by Pāṇini, Jaimini and Vyâsa.
  • Thus, any sūtra work needs a commentator as well as sub-commentators. 
  • Independent works centered on sūtra works also are necessary and many such works do exist and not just for Patañjali’s YS.
  • Based on my understanding of both Patañjali’s YS and the BG, I think that many of the words used in the YS gain immediacy to the seeker by the study of the BG.
  • Some typical examples are Īśvara, abhyāsa, the manifestation of the three guṇas of sattva, rajas and tamas, prakṛti and puruṣa and the marks of a yogin who has gained this “vision” and is able to maintain this “vision’”of the Sāṅkya by following yoga practice. These are all elaborated in detail in the BG.

We will focus on similarities between the two works in future posts, especially those that appear to be an elaboration of the YS as well as Vyāsa’s own commentary to the YS of Patañjali. 

Please refer to my previous post for “way’” and ‘“vision’’, terms
originally used in a few books on Vajrayana buddhism,
but I have used these words in my blog post

My grateful thanks to my friend, Chris Washburn, a Yoga teacher with good    knowledge of both Sanskrit and advaita-vedanta for her valuable suggestions and editing the material.

Glossary of some Sanskrit terms used in this post.

(Note: I added the glossary to explain some Sanskrit terms that may not be familiar to many who do not know Sanskrit. I used to tell my vedanta students, “Sanskrit is a foreign language to most Indians as well”! Also, the etymological meaning and common meanings are some times different. The former gives one better insight into language structure. I hope readers find this useful. I am using what is called the substantive form of the word in this blog as is customary in writing using many languages. The grammatically correct forms are used in actual quotes in the blog such as the sūtras.)

a Sūtra: derived from the verb sūtr meaning to tie, to thread by adding a
suffix a to form the noun. The word, thus, means a thread, that which ties
things together. It means ‘a short, concise technical sentence’ translated
as aphorism. This style of writing is usually short, clear, pithy and
multidimensional. Because of this, one needs commentaries to explain
the intent of the author. Incidentally, the Sanskrit word for commentary
is bhāṣya, derived from the verb bhāṣ, to talk about, to describe formed
by adding the suffix ya yielding the word meaning ‘that which needs to
be explained – an explanation.

b Vivaraṇa: derived from the verb vṛ with prefix vi, meaning to explain
formed by adding the suffix ‘ana’ to make the noun. The word, thus
means an explanation. Typically the commentary explains an aphorism.
  Even this commentary needs further elaboration which is usually done
by a different author. sSuch works are called vivaraṇa, tīkā, tippaṇi, vṛtti,
vārttika etc.,

c Tīkā: derived from the verb īk meaning to resort to formed by adding the
suffixes a and ā to make the noun. This word also means an explanation.
Though all these terms mean explanation in English, there are many
subtle differences. They are too technical to explain and, thus, not
germane to this post.

d  Vedānta: this is a compound of two words, veda and anta. Veda, derived
from the verb vid, to know with suffix a to form the noun meaning
knowledge. In context, this also means a book of knowledge which
applies here to the scriptures called the four vedas – ṛk, yajus, sāma and
  atharvaṇa. Anta means end, thus, the compound means end portion of
the vedas. These are also known as Upaniṣads.

e darśana: from the verb dṛś to see with the suffix ana (ref. Vivaraṇa), the
noun form meaning vision. This word is usually translated as philosophy.
Thus, one has the compounds Sāṅkhyadarśana, yogadarśana, vedānta-
darśana, advaitadarśana and so on.

Īśvara: from the verb īś to rule, have overlordship with the suffix vara
forming the noun meaning One who has overlordship, equivalent to the
word The Lord referring to God in English.

g Veda: Refer to vedānta defined earlier.

h Gender in Sanskrit: From the foregoing it is clear that words are formed
by addition of suffixes to verbs. These suffixes define the gender of the
word, hence it is said that the gender is formal in Sanskrit. It is thus more
akin to languages other than English. Some of the suffixes define the
gender of the noun formed, still it need not be factual, namely denoting
the sex of the object. Thus words like Īśvara, puruṣa are masculine while
prkṛti, śakti, śruti, ahimsā are feminine.

i Upaniṣad: Refer vedānta defined earlier.

Śruti: derived from the verb śru to hear with the suffix ti to form the noun
meaning ‘that which is heard’. In the tradition this applies to the four
vedas, also known as scriptures.

k Smṛti: similar to śruti, this is derived from the verb smṛ to remember.
Traditionally this refers toany sacred work written by a person. Well
known examples are manusmṛti, epics such as  Rāmāyaṇa, Mahābhārata
and mythologies as Bhāgavatam.

Prakṛti: derived from the verb kṛ to do with the prefix pra and suffix ti. In
Sāṅkhya-yoga as well as in vedānta this refers to unmodified, also called
primordial matter in the unmanifest stage, that is, before creation. In
grammar this refers to an unmodified form such as any verb before
  the addition of any suffx. Creation is brought about by transformation of
this prakṛti to vikṛti, yielding all animate beings and inanimate things.

Puruṣa: This is an irregularly formed word from Purin as prefix and śī
the verb meaning to reside in with suffix a. In Sāṅkhya-yoga as well as in
vedānta this refers to the ‘soul’, the indweller in all living beings, though
usually it refers to human beings. In both systems it also means the
unchanging, quality-less awareness ever present but not known to be
distinct from and other than prakṛti. This ignorance of one’s true nature
is the result of human suffering.

dvaita, viśiṣṭādvita and advaita: These represent three ways of
interpretation of vedānta, respectively propounded by three masters,
Madhva, Rāmānuja and Śaṅkara (and a few other masters before him as
well). The most easily understandable and easily appreciated one
is dvaita since it is the basis of almost all current day theologies including
the ancient Sāṅkhya-yoga.

   dvaita: a compound of dvidhā, twofold and verb ī to go, know, perceive,
cognize, be aware of, and the suffix ta. Etymologlically it can mean ‘taken
as / known as / perceived as / cognized as two. Two does not mean only
two – it means with reference to you, there is “other”; thus you
   and the other form two. The other can be God, this world, your spouse,
and so on. Thus those who subscribe to this theology as the reality are
convinced that God is God, You are you and one can never be the other.

  viśiṣṭādvita: derived in a similar way except it is a compound of viśiṣṭa
usually translated as ‘qualified’ and advaita. The prefix a, called negative
particle in grammar gives the opposite meaning of the word to which it is
attached (similar to typical, atypical; thiest, astheist). Thus advaita means
non-dual, the philosophy of advaita is unfortunately wrongly translated
in many authoritative books as monism! As a compound, viśiṣṭādvita is
qualified non-duality, meaning there is some qualifier – that you are
  almost but not same as God.

advaita: As described, this means non-dual, that is, in reality you and God
are not different in reality. It is only apparently different since the
concept (or notion) of I and concept of God are both conditioned by
some qualities. Thus the qualities attached to you are limited in terms of
knowledge, power, and time (alive between date of birth and date of
death). Similarly we attach qualities of being ‘The Lord’, Creator,
Sustainer, Destroyer, One in control of our destiny (karma), One who
blesses us and so on. A twentieth century sage, Ramana Maharshi puts it
succinctly thus in Upadeśasāram: ‘The difference between you (jīva) and
God (Īśa) is due to costumes; drop the constume, you see the Truth of
yourself’. Of course, it is not that easy as we the long-time students of
advaita-vedānta know only too well, the reason being our minds having a
strangle hold to our conviction that we are this body and the mind, all the
philosophy is nice to listen and or teach! And, to be in a position to see
what he says we need to prepare the mind to rid of its likes and dislikes –
this is the whole thrust of Patañjali’s and Vyāsa’s works.


 1 Yogasūtrabhaṣyavivaraṇa of Śaṅkara, Vol1-4, T. S. Rukamni, Munshiram
Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd. 3rd Edition 2010 (Has Devanāgarī text
and English translation of the sūtra, the commentary and the vivraṇa)

 2 Śaṅkara on the Yogasūtras, Trevor Leggett, Motilal Banarsidas Publishers
Private Ltd., Delhi, First Indian Edition, 1992 (All in English)

 3 The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, With insights from the traditional
commentators, Edwin F. Bryant, North Point Press, New York, 2009
(Sūtras in Devanāgarī, English transliteration, Meaning of sūtras in
English and Bryant’s comments)

 Light on the Yogasūtras of Patañjali, B. K. S. Iyengar, Harper Element,
2013 (Sūtras in Devanāgarī, English transliteration, word for word
meaning, meaning the sūtras in English and Iyengar’s comments)

 Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras with the commentary of Vyāsa and the gloss of
Vācaspati Miśra by Rāma Prasāda,  Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers
Pvt. Ltd. 2005 (Has Devanāgarī text and English translation of the sūtra,
word for word meaning, Vyāsa’s commentary in Devanāgarī with English
translation, and the gloss only in English)

Yogasūtram, Śrī Sadāśivendrasarasvatīkṛta Yogasudhākaropetam, First
   Edition, 1992,The Samskrit Education Society, Madra – 600 004 (In Sanskrit
only. Available as a PDF download)

Srīmad BhagavadGītā Bhāṣya of Śrī Śaṅkarācārya, Translation by Dr. A. G.
Krishna Warrier, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras-600004, India (Has
Devanāgarī text and English translation of both the verse and Bhāṣya, the

Shrimad Bhagavad Gita, Swami Swarupananda, Advaita Ashram,
Calcutta-14, India (Has Devanāgarī text and English translation of every
word of the verse in Devanāgarī with meaning in English and the verse
meaning in English – best for easy reference)

Patañjali Yoga Sutras, Swami Prabhavananda, Sri Ramakrishna Math,
Mylapore, Madras 600004, India (Has Devanāgarī text of the sūtra and
English translation with a short comment by the author – best for easy

10  The Sānkhya Aphorisms of Kapila, by James Robert Ballantyne Kapila
(Published by Forgotten, Copyright 2013, available for PDF
download, paperback copy can be purchased from

11  Samkhya Karika with Gaudapadacarya Bhashya by Brhamasirhi
Vishwatma Bawra, compiled and edited by William F. Milcetich,
Brahmarishi Yoga Publications, 2012 (Text in English Transliteration,
Commentary and comments by Bawra. Some out of print books available
for PDF download and Digitized by Google Books, printed paper back
copy can be purchased)

A rather strange title indeed for this post! The SARS-CoV-2 virus causing COVID-2019  is an equal opportunity infector, transcending race, nationality, age, wealth, power, technological advancement or political polarization and posturing. Not unlike the famous quote made by Oppenheimer on witnessing the awesome power of man-made bomb, I can only think of quoting from the same chapter from the Bhagavadgītā to this Nature-made virus with global impact. To me the virus seems to be declaring 

‘World-destroying mighty time am I’ (Bhagavadgītā, Ch.11:32)

It is ironic to see history repeating itself since the flu pandemic of 1918, a century ago, showing the vulnerability of the human kind, perhaps human irrationality as well in dealing with this type of unseen enemy. As one interested in history, I read about the Spanish Flu pandemic, the refusal to wear masks, organizing protests agains mask wearing directives and the pandemic coming back with greater ferocity in spring of 1919 causing even more deaths than it caused when it first arrived in 1918. Santayana, the 19th century philosopher perhaps foresaw this to state “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it“. Sadly it is true in the 21st century as well!

Since the last six months of almost near shut down of activities thanks to the SARS-CoV-2 virus induced pandemic I have been thinking about what positive effect it can have on humanity, can there be any silver lining? Can a person really relate to it, as Shakespeare wrote:

“Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything”
(As You Like It, Act II, Scene 1)

Another poem, a favorite of my father (who was a high school English and history teacher before he became a head master, called a high school principal in US) also comes to my mind when thinking of the current situation, if it can provide us a rare opportunity to ‘have time to stand and spare’. This is a poem ‘Leisure’ is by the 19th century Welsh poet Davis.

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Over the last few weeks, I have been thinking more and more about discovering any possible silver lining in this dark cloud hanging over the entire globe. I was reminded of my life at an āśrama (a monastery offering a way of life of study and contemplation) in Bombay (Mumbai) in India during 1976-1978. This is one of the several interesting anecdotes that has relevance to the current situation we are confronting and its potential for transformation of the human being in more ways than one.

Though most of you may know my years of study of Vedānta, here is a brief background setting the context, for the anecdote I refer to here. Almost 45 years ago, a close friend of mine and I decided to leave our respective professions in New York and go for a full-time study of Vedānta at an āśrama in Bombay, after listening to public talks by Swami Chinmayananda for several years in US. This place was devoted a residential course for study of vedānta texts, learn Sanskrit to allow us to study the commentaries of texts that were not covered in this short 30-month course, and included daily guided and silent meditations. The resident teacher was Swami Dayānanda, an erudite Vedānta scholar and an excellent teacher. His Sanskrit name Dayānanda means ‘the joy of compassion’, and he lived true to the name – dealing with a motley crowd of 65 of us of widely different ages, cultures, educational qualifications, expectations and, at times bristling with irritation against any kind of do-s and don’ts. The suggestions of activity reduction were construed by many among us to be an imposed ‘discipline’.

We were told not to go to the āśrama library and delve into books on Vedānta or any other philosophic systems; not to go out of the āśrama premises to see movies, visit restaurants, eat street foods etc., etc., Naturally there was some murmur about these impositions. Swami Dayānanda devoted one of his talks explaining the reason for these suggestions misconstrued as an ‘imposition’. He thought that these suggestions were helpful in bringing about a transformation of oneself, the primary goal of any monastic life style of study and reflection. This is what I remember about his discourse, it is not a verbatim quote.

“All your needs are taken care of here. There is no cause for mental agitation since boarding and lodging are free. Even necessary books to study are provided free. So no worries about having to pay for anything. There is no expectation as to what you have to do after this 30-month course of study and reflection. The reason for my suggestion about not reading any books on philosophy, reading papers, journals etc., and curtailing your external activities is just this: In our daily life there are so many distractions and external stimuli so the mind is constantly engaged with no time to turn inward. Thus the impact of constantly changing inputs does not allow one to change, to let the mind look at itself – this is the first and necessary step towards transformation. Only then the teaching about the Truth of your Being I impart, based on these sacred texts can take hold in yourself. In our āśrama setting, I reduce the external stimuli to the minimum to provide this opportunity for personal growth.”

His talk made a deep impression on me, and this lasts even to this day, after forty five years, two bouts of monastic living, getting back to pressure-cooker high tech work for two decades with its inescapable consequences, looking forward to and longing for retirement and after almost two decades of retired life! Despite my sporadic but nowadays a more sustained efforts in exercise, yoga and meditation, I have to admit that regarding this inner transformation, I am still a WIP (work in progress), but at peace with continuing effort! 

I think that with my background, with this Nature-made bomb still showering a global sense of helplessness and untold misery with no clear end in sight, I can see the sliver lining! It appears to me as though the virus telling us “Stop! You have enough of escape distractions despite what I have done – Your internet, cell phones, other mobile devices, social media and doom-scrolling! This is an opportunity for looking at yourself, try to transform yourself into better human beings with greater compassion, kindness, forgiveness and understanding!”


In 1956 Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) was launched with the logo of two hands protecting a lamp with the Sanskrit quote ‘Yogakṣemam vahāmyaham’ in Devanāgarī script. 
(Edited to show just the logo).

I was sixteen years old at the time, I recognized that the phrase was a quote from the Bhagavadgītā (the Gītā), but I did not know what the words really meant! I was vaguely aware that these words were understood to mean general well-being, but this colloquial use does not necessarily imply that the meaning is correct.

In 1972 in New York City, I listened to a series of talks by the (late) Swami Chinmayananda on the Bhagavadgītā’s 12th chapter. This led me in 1976 to study vedānta full-time at his āśrama at Sandeepany Sādhanālaya, Mumbai. Among other major vedānta texts, we studied the Gītā, under the tutelage of Swami Dayānanda Sarasvatī. There I understood the depth of meaning of this quote which comprises just one quarter of a verse (Chapter 9, Verse 12) in the Gītā, a book of 700 verses.

In 2019, during one of my regular phone conversations with my brother in India, he asked me what this word yogakṣhema meant. He is a retired electrical engineer, a deeply religious person who is well versed in Sanskrit and familiar with the Gītā. My reply to him forms the content of this post.

Bhavadgītā Chapters

The Gītā consists of 18 chapters, each containing the word Yoga in its title. As explained in my previous post, Jewels from the Bhagavadgītā (1) , the word yoga here means a topic or a chapter. The Gītā is divided into three sets of six chapters, each set is called a ṣatkam. From the advaita view, this book is an exposition on the meaning of the rather cryptic sentence in an Upaniṣad, Tattvamasi, That You Are (Chāndogyopaniṣad 6:9-4). Thus, the first set of 6 chapters centers on the word tvam, you, while the second set focuses on the tat, that (God, the Limitless) and the last set of 6 chapters focus on asi, are, emphasize the essential identity of the tat and tvam, in contrast to our total identification with the body and mind.

The LIC quote occurs in Chapter 9, which is in the middle of the second ṣatkam of Chapters 7 to 12. These focus on God’s greatness and attributes as well as Her all pervasiveness / omnipresence. This section ends with the twelfth chapter called Bhaktiyoga, the chapter on Devotion. The ninth chapter is titled Rājavidyārājaguhyayoga –The King of Knowledge, the King of Secrets. The word guhya, secret, implies that the Gïtā is the essence of the Upaniṣads, and they are referred to as secret-knowledge in the sense that this is not to be given to the unprepared. The idea being that a mind full of desires which acts impulsively would be unable to assimilate that teaching, in contrast to a focused, calm mind not consumed by cravings.

The thrust of these middle six chapters is simple: the suffering and confusion of human beings is due to the conviction that they are in charge of their own actions and can control their outcome as well – in short, operating solely based on the ego. One has to realize that God governs things and that surrendering to this Higher Power in thought, word and deed is the way for the complete removal of human unhappiness.

Yogakṣemam Vahāmyaham

This quote Yogakṣemam Vahāmyaham occurs as one quarter of the 22nd verse in the ninth chapter of the Gīta that consists of 34 verses. In this verse, Kṛṣṇa, identifying himself with God, proclaims

Ananyāścintayanto mām ye janāḥ paryupāsate
Teṣām nityābhyuktānām yogakṣemam vahāmyaham. (9:12) 

Prabhupāda Bhaktivedānta’s interpretation of this verse in his popular book “Bhagavadgītā As It Is” follows:

But those who worship Me with devotion, meditating on My transcendental form, to them  I carry what they lack and preserve what they have.

I prefer the following interpretation of the same verse In my version, I chose to use the same Sanskrit words yoga and kṣema in the translation as well. Finally we come to an exposition of the meaning of these two words, the focus of this blog post!

Those who constantly meditate on Me with no other thought,
I secure their yoga and kṣema.

What is Yoga?

Nowadays the word yoga has become quite well-known almost everywhere in the world. It is commonly understood to mean the practice of āsanas, that is, physical postures with emphasis primarily on physical fitness and good health. But if one looks at the etymological root, yoga comes from the noun form of the verb yuj, to yoke, connect, join,, it is clear the word can have a different connotation, from just referring to physical postures.

The word yoga is used in the Gīta in its most general meaning – any activity initiated to gain / connect to something that one does not have but wants (aprāptasya prāptiḥ). Thus yoga is the activity all living beings engage in, be it a slug moving towards shade or a predator pursuing a prey. For a human being this yoga can be the process of gaining something that is desired – a fit body (which drives one to take up āsana practice), wealth, power, or to become an authority in a subject of choice and so on. The word desire is used to indicate both desire and aversion since they are two sides of the same coin – a desire for wealth or aversion to poverty.

What is kṣema?

The meaning of this word is not known to many even in India. This noun is derived from the verb kṣe, to stay, abide in, to keep. As used in juxtaposition with yoga it means protecting what one already gained (prāptasya rakṣaṇam). This second activity also takes constant effort by all living beings. Bhaktivedānta translates this word by the expression “to protect what they have”, or one can use just the word safety.

What is unique to humans in yoga-kṣema?

The question then is “are these two pursuits universal”? The simple answer is yes. Then one can ask what is unique for us? The additional feature not available to the animal and plant kingdoms is that we are not totally programmed, driven by instincts. We do have choices. My vedanta teacher used to say “a cow does not choose to smoke, but we choose to smoke even though we do not have a chimney”. This choice, driven by the faculty of thinking is what drives some of us to find meaning in life, call it search for freedom or nivāṇa of mokṣa or God. We make use of the mind to create a hell in this life being propelled by our desires and aversions, but yearn for eternal freedom. Many a religious thought and philosophy of the East makes one see that one is already free and the reason we do not experience it is the mind full of impulses, desires and aversions. An upaniṣad states

Mana eva manuṣāṇām kāraṇam bandhamokṣayoḥ (Matri. 6:34)
Mind indeed is the cause for both bondage and freedom.

A mind consumed by cravings is stuck in a cycle of expectation, frustration or elation which is bondage. A mind not afflicted by these cravings is free. Belief in God is one tool that rids the mind of agitations brought about by unfulfilled expectations as well as ever increasing temptations and desires. The Gītā devotes several chapters to how faith in God helps towards this goal.

How can God “carry what I lack and protect what I have?”

The answer depends upon one’s concept or notion of God. The popular one of some Super Being sitting in heaven doling out rewards and punishments to humans is far from the vision of God in the Gītā. The multi-layered Hindu Concept of God, role of prayer, the belief in fulfillment of the wish of the devotee, and why prayer sometimes do not seem to work have been discussed in my blog

According to the Gītā, yogaśāstra, the teaching of Yoga, is focused on dealing with the mind. The fundamental problem is that one identifies with the contents of the mind. Redirecting the mind to focus totally on God results in cessation of the desire to gain something that one does not have (defined as yoga pursuit) and of the equally strong urge to protect what one has gained (defined as kṣema pursuit). This is the real intent of this phrase in the verse where Krṣṇa says: yogakṣemam vahāmyaham – “I take care of yoga and kṣema”. This is in contrast to the idea that some God up somewhere is going to cater to every fancied need and desire or bless one to hold on to what one has, simply because the individual prays fervently!

Roles of prayer and why
prayers are not always fulfilled

One may ask, “If I cannot single mindedly meditate on God with no distractions, does my prayer / meditation become meaningless?” No one can easily choose to meditate constantly with no stray thoughts coming in the way! We all have to start with the mind we have. Arjuna says, “mind indeed is distraction, it is as hard to control as the wind” (6:34). Krṣṇa’s answer is simple “Indeed it is true. But one can restrain the mind by practice and developing vairāgya, dispassion” (6:35). Students of Patañjali’s Yogasūtras may be familiar with a very similar aphorism “By practice and dispassion (the mind) is restrained” (1:12). How exactly this is to be accomplished by a believer is the focus of a few chapters of the Gītā (2-6, 12). 

In addition, as no action, intentional or otherwise is without consequence in this world, prayer is no exception. Arjuna had similar doubts about the effectiveness of prayer, to which Krṣṇa tells him ‘my devotee never is let down” (6:40). We will discuss this in future blogs.

A natural follow up question is, “How can I know that my prayers will be answered, if these are for my own selfish goals rather than  desire-free meditation ?” Prayer for a believer plays two roles: psychological and religious.  At a practical level, thinking of something greater than oneself brings about a certain calmness of mind. At the theological level, there is a possibility of the divine Grace helping you to to fulfill your desire. But this Grace is not handed out just because one prays but depends on three factors – right effort (prayatnam), time (kālam), and God (daivam).

Prayatnam, effort, means adequate and appropriate effort. For example, if I love redwood trees and want to grow one in my backyard in the Arizona desert, my efforts will fail and no amount of fervent prayer will help.

kālam, time required for fruition of an action. Say that I live in Hawaii, being a lover of coconuts I plant one in my yard. I have to wait for a few years to harvest a coconut. Here too, God is not going to accelerate the process however much I pray. 

Lastly, the third factor called daivam, God comes in the picture. Let us say a couple wants to have a child and all the other conditions are right, but still they cannot conceive. The couple prays fervently to be blessed with a child, and sometimes they do beget a child and it is attributed to the grace of daivam. A scientist may question if this is really a divine grace – this cannot be proven by a randomized-double-blind trial! Faith does not lend itself to scientific methodology. And if, despite the prayers the couple does not have a child, being strong believers in daivam they accept it as God’s will, thus be free of emotional turmoil, that is, fluctuations of the mind.

Conclusion : Yogakṣma and the Logo

Back to the logo. It is just a clever marketing ploy in India to sell life insurance using familiar and readily recognizable words from a sacred book, the Gītā. But if this logo were to make one curious enough to figure out the source and dig into the real import of the Gītā, then it is an unintended great service to this well-known sacred text of India.

My heartfelt thanks to my friend Philippe, a student of Patañjali’s yogasūtras, for devoting hours of his time to make this post useful
for anyone not familiar with the Gītā.

The Bhagavadgītā – background

For many among us who have just heard of the word Bhagavadgītā, but are not quite sure of who wrote, where it occurs and what it is about, the following background would help. For the rest of us, this is just a concise summary of what we already know.

This text, sometimes translated as “The Song Divine” has eighteen chapters, comprising about 700 verses. This is in the epic “Mahābhārata”, a 100,000-verse work attributed to Vyāsa. This epic describes a familial feud among nephews of two royal families that resulted in a fratricidal war leading to almost total annihilation of one of the families. Bhagavadgītā is set at the place in the epic where the nepoticidal war is about to begin. But the Commander-in-Chief of one army was having a crisis of confidence and was ready to give up. This was brought about, not by lack of courage, but by the fact that this war thrust on him by his nephews would result in his killing or death in battles of his brethren and those he respects. His name was Arjuna and his charioteer was Kṛṣṇa, his friend and relative. Bhagavadgītā is a conversation between Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa, where Arjuna beseaches his own charioteer thus

Kārpaṇyadoṣopahatsvabhāvaḥ pṛcchāmitvām dharmasammūdhachetāḥ
Yacchreyaḥ syānniścitam brūhi tan me śiṣyasteham śādhi mām tvām prapannam. (2-7)

My mind is tainted by self-pity, I am totally confused about what is dharma I approach you as your student, please teach me! (Ch.2, Verse 7)

Thus, having set the context, Vyāsa describes this spiritual teaching as an ongoing dialogue between the two, Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa. This dialogue is about 650 verses constituting the rest of the 2nd chapter and the remaining 16 chapters.

Even at that time it was common belief that Kṛṣṇa was an incarnation of Lord Viṣṇu. And in a few chapters in the Gītā he takes on the role of God. In one celebrated chapter he shows Arjuana his cosmic vision. Those who are familiar with the nuclear physicist Oppenheimer may remember his quote from the Gītā (from the 11th chapter, where Kṛṣṇa shows Arjuna the cosmic vision of Himself) on witnessing the first atomic bomb detonation. 

The “Vision” and the “Way” in Bhagavadgītā

Bhagavadgītā is not an easy text to follow: thus, giving rise to a number of interpretations over the last several centuries. This set of 700 verses captures the essence of Vedānta’s vision of what you are in contrast to what you take yourself to be. 

Vedānta means the end portion of vedas. Vedas mean books of knowledge. Vedānta is also called the ultimate knowledge of the vedas. Another name for vedānta is Upaniṣads. Vedānta is usually looked upon or interpreted in three ways: advaita-vedānta, viśiṣādvaita-vedānta and dvaita-vedānta. 

These Sanskrit terms such as advaita, viśiṣādvaita and dvaita are typically translated as philosophies of nondualism, qualified dualism and dualism respectively. The foremost exponents of these three thoughts are Śaṅkarācārya (8th century CE) for advaita-Vedānta, Rāmānujācāya (11th century CE) for viśiṣādvaita-vedānta and Madhvācārya  (13th century CE) for dvaita. It is not correct to assume that they were the ones who came up with these concepts first. It is likely that such divergent views were already present, and they expounded them clearly by writing commentaries to several upaniṣads and the Gītā.

The nondual vision of vedānta and the Gītā is that you, the individual, are essentially not different from the world and God. The qualified non-dualism insists that you and God are not quite nondual while the dualistic vision, which is commonly shared with all Abrahamic religions, is that you and God are separate and your role is to worship Him so after death you will be in heaven with Him. Note that this idea of ultimate duality is also the cornerstone for Sāṅkhya-Yoga philosophy.

In one of the invocation verses for the Gītā usually chanted in India expresses the fact that it captures the essence of Upaniṣads in a poetic way.

Sarvopaniṣado gāvo dogdhā gopālanandanaḥPārtho vatsassudhīrbhotkā dugdhaṁ gītāmṛtam mahat

All Upaniṣads are cows, the milkman is KṛṣṇaArjuna is the calf, the enjoyer is one of clear-mind (who drinks this) great nectar of the Gītā.*

(In olden days the calf is allowed to drink the milk from the cow, then the milkman moves the calf away and milks the cow. The milk is for others to enjoyThis is the basis for this verse. I replaced the words gopālanandanaḥ and Pārthaḥ with the corresponding synonyms for clarity.)

Irrespective of these philosophical differences, one has to agree that the Gītā imparts a vision: of who you are that is at variance from your idea of your relationship to other people, the world and God. Since this Vision is so radically different from our perception, merely presenting the vision as Upanisads do was not enough. So, the Gītā offers a Way to understand and assimilate this Vision. (I use the terms Vision and Way with cqpitalized first letters since these terms are commonly used in a Buddhistic tradition.) Assimilation of this vision manifests in terms of one’s behavior towards people and all living beings as well as ways of  understanding of the nature of God. Thus, one can say that the Gītā has both the Vision of this ancient spiritual wisdom and the Way to own it up.

The Vision of the Gītā

The easy way to introduce the Vision for the reader is to start with a familiar example of what we all know and perceive. But we do not see any inherent problem or conflict between our perception and knowledge. We all know that the Sun never rises or sets. This knowledge can be called Vision. But this vision does not negate the perception and experiential enjoyment of a beautiful sunrise or spectacular sunset. In this simple example of the Vision, the way to retain it is through the  basic science taught in grade schools.

Another more advanced example, one my vedānta teacher Swami Dayananda Sarasvati used to cite, is diamond and charcoal. This illustration shows how day-to-day transactions with people need not conflict with the Vision. Any one who has an understanding of elements, crystalline and amorphous solids has the vision that diamond and a piece of charcoal are but the same carbon. But this vision will not alter the behavior of a man offering a big piece of wood charcoal to his girlfriend as a unique Valentine-day gift! 

The following example illustrates the Vision of non-duality not in conflict with perceptual/ experiential duality. In science it was left to Einstein to remove the perceived duality of mass and energy; this does not mean a piece of rock can light up an object nor can visible light be hurled at one to cause physical harm. 

I plan to use these examples to highlight the most difficult, if not often questioned, Vision of non-duality revealed in the Gītā. Once this is understood, it is easier to see the viewpoint of the other two philosophies. 

The vision of the Gītā is a concise summary of the knowledge stated in all Upaniṣads. The core teaching of all Upaniṣads is captured by a single sentence “Tat tvam asi, That (limitlessness, brahman) you are.” (This is a quote from Chandoyopaniṣad.) The natural question arises in one’s mind, “If I am limitless, then what about the world I perceive?” This is where one can see that perception is not reality only to be sublated by knowledge – this is what science teaches us tirelessly! The examples cited earlier of sunrise, sunset, diamond, charcoal, matter, energy, all tell the human being that perception is not reality, nor does reality alter your perception.

But does this mean advaita-vedānta is a branch of science? As a retired scientist, I will respond, “Definitely not!” The simple reason is that the foundation of science is the invariant observer-observed relationship. The observer is the scientist and the observed is the phenomenon. In Vedānta, this is described as aham-idam, I-this duality. But the edifice of advaita-vedānta is elimination of this observer/observed duality, the ultimate goal of science by the postulate of non-duality. This is why vedānta is treated as philosophy and not science. 

But for many of us who are students of this philosophy it is not just a speculation but sacred knowledge to be understood and assimilated. I must add that for some academics and other scholars, this too is only a belief system not any different from any other theistic dualism or non-theistic philosophies.

While there is no conflict between knowledge of sun rise and perception, if vedānta tells me that non-duality is the reality, I find it at variance with all my waking world experience, my emotions, my conflicts etc., So, where is the catch? The catch is that one takes oneself to be this body, this mind, this intellect, these emotions, to be different from this world, God, Heaven, Hell etc., – simply taking perceived duality as the only reality. That is, idam is really and totally different from and other than aham. The prime substratum for this notion is the total identification with mind by the individual.  And to remove this habituated and society imposed thinking that is defined as “knowledge” one has to have a “how to” manual. And this I call the Way to assimilate the Vision. This is where the Gïtā comes in. 

This, in a nutshell, is what the Gïtā teaching of Vision / Way is all about. Namely, if one follows the Way to hold the Vision, that person’s behavior towards fellow human beings or any living being on the Earth will never result in disharmony. And the person will operate from a center of complete harmony in his / her thought, word and deed. Maintaining harmony is what is technically called dharma in Indian tradition, and this dharma conflict was what drove Arjuna to the exasperating confusion and consequent need for clarity. 

The Way described in the Gītā

While the Vision is easy to communicate. But without emphasizing the Way, it cannot be retained to bless the student. Thus, one very short Upaniṣad, called Māṇdūkya conveys the Vision in just 12 sentences! This Vision is called Brahmavidyā, knowledge of the Timeless (limitless, Brahman, call it God, total, Nature or whatever).

Note the word Yoga as many meanings. The most popular meaning is practice of physical postures, called āsanas. The other meaning is a section or topic. Third meaning, mentioned by Vyāsa in his commentary to Yoga aphorisms refers to a mind that is capable of single-pointed attention towards a chosen action or thought, also called samādhi.
The Way is what is called Yogaśāstra, teaching of yoga. Yoga centers on dealing with the mind, accepting the mind with all its existing notions, concepts, conclusions, impulses etc., but consistently and methodically works with it towards its complete rehabilitation. This results in a mind in samādhi, that can hold the Vision. Else the Vision only remains as an intellectual exercise, not blessing the seeker.

This is the reason why in traditional chanting of the Gītā one chants at the end of each chapter the following:   

Brhamavidyāyām yogaśāstre Kṛṣṇārjunasaṁvāde arjunaviṣādayogonāma prathamodhyāyaḥ.
In the knowledge of Brahman and the teaching of Yoga, in the dialogue between Kṛṣṇa and Arrjuna (is) the first chapter called Topic on Confusion of Arjuna.

Each chapter ends in a similar way, as though reminding the one who chants that this is the dialogue between Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna. For those of us who have studied the Gītā the titles of each section beyond the second chapter tells the Way – the means of assimilating this vision while the main focus of the second chapter is to tell the Vision.

The Gīta’s exposition of the Way

Any teaching has to start with what one already knows or believes. The Gītā is no exception. What one knows is this phenomenal world. I, the person, is the one who perceives, knows and thinks. I know I am other than this world. This dichotomy of I and world, known as duality, is the basis of all my worldly pursuits driven by my cravings, desires and aversions . If I believe in a Higher Being, call it God or any other name many religions give, then that God gives me punishment or reward for “good” or “bad / evil” things I do while living. The result is heaven, hell and so on after death. 

Kṛṣṇa, knowing Arjuna’s background, starts with the latter’s world view which includes God as an entity beyond the phenomenal world. For multi-layered idea of God in the tradition, please refer to my post at this site: At the same time, Kṛṣṇa never loses sight of the Vision, whether you are drawn to non-dual or dualistic philosophy.

As long as one takes oneself to be a limited-being, circumscribed by the world of things and beings, then God is as real to that person as this world. For such a one this conviction on dualism is valid. And, this dualistic approach is quite relatable and popular in the context of prevalent theism with Creator – Created dichotomy as the reality among all religions. This dualistic thinking, found in most of Indian systems of theology as well, contrasts with mystic traditions of both the East and the West that assert the essential non-duality despite perceived and experienced duality. The latter is the same as the advaita-vedānta Vision.

Jewels from the Gītā

As the title of this post implies, this will be the first in a series of posts. I take some snippets from this 700-verse text which I call jewels. Since our focus is centered on the Way to hold the vision of the Gītā, these quotes pertain to this primary objective.

I thank Alice and Chris for editing and helpful comments.


I thought about writing this post for a long time. The reason I decided to do it now was, in a way, related to many news events centered on allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against many gurus all over the globe. Perhaps this was triggered by the #Metoo movement, or just the way things work in the scheme of things, I do not know. Whether it has come to the forefront or whispered among devotees and students, or with many folks in denial or ostracizing those who talk about this subject, this type of allegation has been there for ages. Perhaps it will also continue. It is not my goal to dismiss or agree with the truth behind them. Rather, my objective is to point out the ever present danger of apotheosizing the guru. This can result in rather unpleasant situations. In extreme instances there is a danger of ‘throwing the baby out with the bath the water,’ thereby denying oneself a chance to benefit from the teaching one gains from the guru.

The first question that rises in my mind is “What is normally understood by the word guru in modern parlance?” It is used in expressions such as Wall Street guru, Investment guru, Internet guru and the like. The other day while I was walking in our neighborhood, I saw a van with the logo ‘Heating and Plumbing Guru’ with a drawing of a man with a long beard sitting in lotus pose! I think that the word guru in context means an expert, equivalent to the Sanskrit term paṇita.

This word guru in Indian tradition is commonly used for ‘teacher’ for anyone teaching classical Indian arts and scriptural studies—thus it includes dance, music, architecture, medicine, astrology, yoga, vedānta and other branches of knowledge, secular or spiritual. I use the word to include religious, sacred knowledge, such as the three Freedom Philosophies of India I discussed in my earlier posts at this site.

My objective in this blog is three-fold: (1) to explain the additional expectation implied in the word guru in contrast to common understanding of a teacher. I accomplish by introducing three related Sanskrit words—guru, ācārya and paṇḍita, (2) to discuss the potential for deifying (apotheosizing) the guru and (3) how to forestall this human nature to avoid the possibility of deep emotional hurt when the guru’s behavior does not  reflect the teaching he imparted. This hurt can result in throwing away the teaching altogether, thereby missing the benefit from the teaching.

Words paṇḍita, ācārya and guru


This word means teacher. Similar to pandit, this also is used to refer to a caste, rather a family pursuing a specific profession or trade. When I was growing up in India I knew blacksmiths and goldsmiths who were called āsāris, a Tamilized equivalent of ācārya. I was then intrigued as to why and how these artisans came to be called ācāryas.
Also, the main proponents of philosophies of nonduality, qualified nonduality and duality had this epithet attached to their names as well — Śaṇkarācārya, Rāmānujācārya and Madhvācārya respectively. When I came to know of the word guru later, I also wondered why these teachers were not referred to as Śaṇkaraguru, Rāmānujaguru, and Madhvaguru. It thus appears there is a subtle difference between the words guru and ācārya.


This word means a scholar, expert. This has been anglicized as pundit and punditry meaning expert and expertise, respectively. A few of you may remember the word Pandit as a prefix to some names, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Vijayalakshmi Pandit for example. Here it refers to the family or caste. In olden tradition, almost all dedicated pursuits in any trade or branch of knowledge were transmitted from father to son. Perhaps the family name morphed into a caste name, an occurrence not unusual in India. A paṇḍita need not be a teacher, many great scholars are not teachers but a teacher must be a paṇḍita.


This word also means teacher. One can consider both guru and ācārya to be synonyms, but there seems to be a difference. Vaman Shivaram Apte’s Practical Sanskrit English dictionary lists the word guru as both an adjective and a noun. It lists 18 meanings as an adjective and 12 as a noun. Among the 12, one means teacher. Etymologically guru is derived from the verb gṝ meaning ‘to teach, to praise’. There is also a verse that explains the meaning of this word as it applies to a teacher. This meaning is neither in the dictionary, nor based on etymology. There are a few Sanskrit works (Vacāspatyam, Śabdakapadrumā and others) that are something between a regular dictionary and an encyclopedia. These works refer to verses in their citations including meanings, etymology etc., but I have not any translation of these works. This verse on guru states:

guru comprises two syllables, gu and ru.
Syllable gu stands for darkness (of ignorance)
and syllable ru represents its removal.
Thus guru is the one who removes the darkness of ignorance.

Teacher of religious theologies
or any freedom philosophy

There is a big difference between a teacher of sciences or arts and one who teaches religion or spirituality (I call the latter Freedom Philosophies). One does not care if one’s economics professor is quite ethical, moral, amoral or immoral; one can definitely will learn the topic from the teacher. And, the teacher is respected for his teaching not for his behavior. This is not the case in regard to a religious or spiritual teacher. And herein lie the much-publicized current day issues centered on such teachers.

It is thus very important to understand the critical difference between secular knowledge, be it botany or biology or particle physics, and what I call freedom philosophies. This is best illustrated by an example used by my vedānta teacher, Swami Dayananda Saraswati. His explanation follows: “When you study microbiology, you do not want to be a microbe. But when it comes to vedānta, what you want to be is identical to what you want to know, that is, the object of knowledge is none other than the subject, you!”
In the Freedom Philosophies of India series we saw how, irrespective of the name, vedānta, sānkhya or Buddhism, the object of study and practice is non-different from the subject, you. Freedom is coming to understand that you are already free. This is the core of any spiritual study.

One can extend this to religious theologies as well. Thus, regardless of religious tradition, the focus for teachers of all religious theologies is what you will be after death. This is still centered on yourself, not the guru. This subtle but critical difference, imposes an additional qualification for the guru of being the one of impeccable moral and ethical conduct in thought, word and deed. And for the student who seeks and learns from a guru the conundrum is “What if the teacher is not”?

Ācārya and Guru: Gradation of the guru

Though these two Sanskrit words, ācārya and guru, mean the same, i.e., ‘teacher’, the word guru is more popular worldwide. In this section we discuss the potential difference between these two words ācārya and guru and the implication for the student.

Guru: In the Upaniṣads and the Bhagavadgītā there appears to be a dual qualification for the ideal guru. As a corollary, one can deduce three types of guru based on the presence or absence of the qualifications. I do not find any such stipulation where there is mention of the word ācārya!

For example, Munḍakopaniṣad says:

… to know That (Truth about oneself), one may go to a guru
who is a scholar andis established in the Truth he teaches (Ch. 1.12).

These qualifications mean that the guru is one who not only talks the talk but walks the talk. The same sentiment is expressed in a different way in the Bhagavadgītā:

“May you know that (Truth) by approaching with humility, attitude of service and asking questions to the teacher who is also the seer of this
Truth. He will teach you that knowledge” (Ch. 4.34)

Ācārya: On the other hand, Chāndoya-Upaniṣad simply states

“One who has an ācārya knows.” (ch. 6.14.2)

I have not come across any mention of a dual qualification for ācārya in vedānta literature like that found for guru. I wondered if there is any difference in etymology or other traditional definitions for the word ācārya. This word is formed from the verb car meaning ‘to move, to follow the code of conduct’; with the prefix ā and suffix ya. Based on rules of formation, ācārya can mean (i) one who follows the codes of conduct and also (ii) one who make others follow the codes of conduct called dharma. The need for any religious / spiritual preceptor to have this code of conduct need not be overemphasized since it forms the foundation on which any spiritual system is built on.

Traditionally this word means teacher, though classical connotation indicates a teacher of the vedas, though popularly it applies to anyone practicing and teaching any trade. Thus in the epic Mahābhārata, Droṇa the teacher of archery and warfare is addressed as ācārya. (This incidentally explains why a goldsmith or a blacksmith is called āsāri in Tamil.) Over centuries, a number of verses have been in use that elaborate the meanings of many common words. They explain contextually what these words mean. We saw an example explaining the meaning of guru. I found two such well-known statements in the tradition regarding the word ācārya:

ācārya is one who teaches the meaning of scriptures to the students, teaches them the right conduct, while practicing what he teaches”

“Due to clarity of understanding the truth of the scriptures
one who treats all things and beings as equal, and
one who is established in yama etc., is called ācārya”

This is the reason that proponents of the three systems, non-dualism, qualified non-dualism and dualism, have the word ācārya appended to their names – they practiced what they taught.

From the foregoing it is clear that the meaning of the word ācārya includes the two-fold qualifications of a guru stated in Munḍakopaniṣad and in the Bhagavadgītā.

Based on the discussion one can think of a gradation of gurus. One can categorize any guru as belonging to Types I, II and III. This is not a grading of any guru but just to highlight the differences. As the guru, they all deserve our utmost respect.
Type I guru is identical to that of an ācārya. That is, he is not just a teacher of spirituality but reflects in his behavior the essence of what he or she is teaching.
Type II guru is one who has the knowledge and ability to communicate the knowledge to the student but himself is either unable to unwilling to follow the teaching. Thus there is a split between what is taught and the teacher.
Type III guru is a walking symbol of the essence of the teaching, but has no ability or choose not to communicate the vision to the potential student. Such a person is popularly known as a mystic. No one can learn from or study under a mystic. Mystics typically do not publicize, market themselves, travel, give talks, nor do they take on students. Mostly they give satsanga, meaning informal discussions with those who come to visit them. Some of them may even practice maunam, silence.

So, the questions that arise are: ‘What is the student to do who seeks a teacher to gain knowledge?’ By definition, he/she is ignorant and so, does not have the ability to prejudge a potential teacher to be Type I, II or III. Though one may like to seek a Type I guru, there is no way to assess the guru. And, these days the guru is seeking the students! During these “The World is Flat” days, it is far easier to find a Type II teacher. However, one must must understand that even looking for Type II guru is a bit iffy since the student, being ignorant cannot easily assess the qualifications of the teacher.
So,one can go and watch, or listen to the potential teacher. If what the teacher says makes logical sense consistently, then one can go to study under that teacher. Of course, there is always the additional input from friends one trusts. I don’t even want to go near social media as a source to find a guru. Since the student’s goal is to learn, it is best to go to a Type II teacher to study and it is not the role of the student to judge the teacher as to what type he or she is! As mentioned, this categorization is not a guru grading system.

Guru and apotheosis

Apotheosis is deification of a person and this is a far too common human condition. In my own tradition, there is the well-known epic Rāmāyaṇa. For those few among you who may not know the full story, one important aspect of the story is this: Rāma was the eldest son of the king Daśaratha; he was an incarnation of Lord Viṣṇu, the aspect of the ‘Great Spirit’ protecting the world. But in the current incarnation as Rāma, he says

“I consider myself as a human being, the son of Daśaratha”.

In the story he shows himself to be just a human, subject to all too common conflicts of ethics, emotions of despondency and anger. Rāma chose some paths of questionable ethics of war, got chastised for those actions and lived his life following the path of dharma in the best possible way he could. But now, all over India he is worshiped as a God in hundreds of temples and in great celebrations remembering him conquering his enemy who kidnapped his wife; hundreds of thousands consider him as their favorite deity. I wish that people would also understand the story as highlighting the complexity of leading a life of dharma instead of just elevating Rama to God, thereby letting themselves off the hook for continued ethical compromises they make. I believe that living a life adhering to dharma (ethics) is the core message of Rāmāyaṇa.
Here I have to narrate an incident in my life as a kid in India during the 1950s amidst a social milieu of rampant atheism, anti-brahminism and anti-temple worship. It was not uncommon for these attitudes to seep into public school education though not explicitly. One day my father asked me, “Who was Rāma?” Based on what I learned at school, my reply was “He was a king!” You must have been there to witness the anger of my poor orthodox brahmin father at his first-born who appeared not to know that Rāma was the God after whom he was named! By the way, my given name is Ramasvāmī in Sanskrit which can be resolved to mean one for whom Rāma is God.

This deification also happens to gurus. The Indian tradition elevates the guru to the level of God by citing guru-paramparā. This word means an unbroken chain of teachers. If we extrapolate, this unbroken chain of teachers one ends with God as the first teacher. In fact, Lord Śiva, the destroyer of ignorance and delusion is pictured as a guru, once see this south-facing icon called Dakṣiṇāmūrti in all temples dedicated to
Śiva .

There is a well-known verse extolling the guru
“If both my guru and the Lord were to appear together
in front if me, my first salutation goes to the guru”.

At the āśrama I went to study vedānta we used to memorize and chant daily verses dedicated to the guru. One of the verses extols the guru thus:

“Indeed you are my mother, father, relative, and friend;
you are knowledge, wealth, you are everything, my great Lord!”

It is a common practice in India to ceremonially wash the feet of the guru and offer flowers at the feet on a specific day of the year called Gurupūrṇimā. The reason I cite these parts of tradition is not to criticize. I still chant these verses, follow the tradition on Gurupūrṇimā and agree with my former vedānta students to celebrate the day at my home chanting the set of verses I mentioned earlier. On the other hand, my objective here is not to emphasize the tradition but to highlight the reality of how easy it is to forget the symbolism and hold on to symbols. The idea behind all this chanting and rituals is the ideal, namely the teacher is worshipped because of the teaching. It is easy to forget the symbolism and hold on to the symbols.
If this is not kept in focus, the chanting becomes mechanical and potentially meaningless at best, if not resulting in blind faith at worst. This blind faith and following the masses is ironically the antithesis of learning. Learning is centered on questioning, raising doubts and clarifying them through respectful dialogue between the teacher and the taught. A classic example of this type of learning is seen in many Upaniṣads. In Bhagavadgītā all the chapters exemplify this crucial teacher-student interactive methodology of learning.
One other point that is relevant there is how one’s learning is complete. A Sanskrit verse epitomizes this:

“One learns one-fourth from the teacher, a quarter by independent reasoning and analysis, a third by discussion among
co-learners, and the last fourth only in course of time.”

This is true regarding any learning, secular or spiritual. The part regarding interaction among co-learners is particularly relevant and perhaps central to adult learning.

The problem with apotheosis of the guru

Whether one grows up in an Indian culture or imbibes that culture of apotheosizing by association, the fact remains that it affects not just our relationship with guru, the teacher, but co-students and the teaching itself. Unfortunately for us, nowadays the teacher himself, either deliberately or otherwise perpetuates this apotheosis. So, it is relevant to understand why this problem occurs and how to avoid it while being a student as well as for the rest of the student’s life.
Why does the apotheosis happen? As I mentioned, the first factor is the culture of worship of guru due to the natural human tendency of putting the person whom we respect on a pedestal. The commonly happens with any person of great influence, power, or wealth. The psycho-social milieu of the students, especially those who stay in an āśrama with the teacher, promotes this idolization of the guru. The third and important factor is the irony of setting aside the quizzical eye that prompted the student to come to study with the guru; the longer one stays and studies with the guru, the easier it becomes to set aside the very discriminating, analytical  mind that is necessary to learn. Thus the students, instead of using their mind to think, become devotees, followers of the great master who cannot be wrong.
In short, the problem is that we often find ourselves projecting the ‘ideal guru’ on the person who is our guru. And, in many an instance this projection does not stand up to reality and we suffer the consequence. This is not the fault of the guru alone.

How to avoid the ‘side effect’ of apotheosis? If one imagines ignorance to be a disease and seeking knowledge is the means of ending the disease, this apotheosis is not dissimilar to the phenomenon of iatrogenesis (treatment caused complications) in medicine. Extending the analogy of medicine, one prevents medicine-induced-complications by being very alert to a medicine’s side effects and taking preventive steps. The prescribing doctor may not be aware of the potential for iatrogenesis in a patient.
Regarding avoiding the “side effects” while studying with the guru, the student should keep the focus on the objective and be aware of the need to separate the teaching and the teacher and not to idolize the teacher. This is difficult, but it is necessary to avoid a very natural apotheosizing. With such a razor-sharp focus on learning, one may be able to observe the faults of the teacher even while still learning from the teacher. If, after leaving the āśrama the student learns of misbehavior by the guru he may not be swayed by the news or become emotionally distraught to dismisses the entire teaching.
One of the foundations of spiritual wisdom is based on a good analysis of human nature – understanding impulsive actions driven by cravings for, or aversions to things or living-beings and to cultivate the ability to master them. Certain basic values any spiritual aspirant must hold dear and practice include compassion, understanding and forgiveness. With these one avoids reacting to things one hears, knows or believes regarding moral and ethical lapses of any human being, including gurus.
Discrimination and objectivity are invaluable long after the study is complete and the student is leading his life in the world. If one does not hold onto these traits, the undesirable side-effect of apotheosis, that is, rejecting the teaching can manifest decades later if bad behavioral issues of the guru come to light. If you make the guru an idol, and he starts to behave badly, the students often question or reject the teachings rather than the teacher’s actions.
The following story exemplifies this point of point of keeping an open mind without idolizing the teacher. This is a story of the sage Dattātreya in Bhāgavata-purāṇa. When asked by a king as to how the sage was so carefree and at ease with himself despite having no possessions while he, the king, is full of concerns. The sage replied how he learned from 24 ācāryas. The sage went on to list them, and all were centered on observations of the world around. His main thrust was that one learns both from the positive and negative sides of a teacher. Thus, one of his teachers was the honey-bee. Its prime focus is nectar in a flower, unmindful of, and unconcerned by the beauty of the flower or the environs in which it grows. Dattātreya learned to have this focus towards his objective, freedom. The other lesson he learned from the same bee is how not to be in life. The bee collects and stores in a beehive only to be chased away by humans (or bears) that rob the honey. This taught him not to hold on to things. Those of us who studied vedānta remember the dictum ‘āgate svāgatan kuryāt, gacchantam na nivārayet, welcome whatever comes to you, do not hold onto things’, be they fame, money, power, etc.


The most important thing for the student of any heaven-centered or freedom-centered study (both are called theologies by academicians) is to learn what is needed from a competent teacher. The objective is not to use that knowledge to assess the teacher’s ability to reflect the teaching in his behavior, or to judge anybody else. As the story of Dattātreya amply illustrates, such a behavior, if true, only enhances the role of the teacher! The guru also teaches one not to be what he is, in addition to the actual teaching of the spiritual topic of freedom.
If this objective to learn is kept clear during the study, there will be lot less of idolization but a greater degree of respect for the teacher for the teaching he or she imparts. After the study, it is the role of the student to be what the teaching says one already is. I may conclude this stressing the fact that the teacher is respected for the teaching the student receives.


Freedom Philosophies of India: Similarities and Differences

  Buddhism, Sāṅkhya/Yoga and Advaita-Vedānta: Unifying Concepts

In my last September post, Freedom is not Gained by Action I discussed the unifying concepts of freedom among three Indic philosophies of freedom – Buddhism, Sāṅkhya/Yoga and Advaita-Vedānta. All three systems start with ignorance as the root cause for the sense of bondage, and knowledge as the only way to realize that one is already free. For this understanding to stay in one’s mind, however, a long and sustained practice to rehabilitate the mind is necessary to free it from attachments, aversions, cravings, distractions, likes and dislikes, generally included in the term saṁskāra meaning subtle impressions and habits of thoughts.

An important addition to the three philosophical system’s unifying concept to be noted here is this “How does this sense of bondage manifest in one’s life?” The systems express this by three Sanskrit words – tāpa in Sāṅkhya,  śoka in Vedānta and duḥkha in the teachings of Buddha.

The seminal work on Sāṅkhya was by Kapila in a series of terse aphorisms. Īśvarakṛṣṇa in the well known Sāṅkhyakārikā presents them in a way easier to follow. His work starts with the need for the ultimate removal of three-fold tāpa (Sāṅkhyakārikā 1:1).The word tāpa has the meaning ‘burning’ but it does not imply any physical sense of heat and burning but applies to the mind. That is, a mind that is restless and tries to totally eliminate the source of this burn (the effect on the mind caused by natural, man-made and internal that is, memories etc.,).

A well known Vedānta text, the Bhagavadgītā, starts with the student, Arjuna, asking his friend the way to remove śoka – grief (Bhagavadgītā 2:8). The Buddha’s first noble truth (Dhammacakkapavattanam-sutta )is that the world is duḥkha – usually translated as suffering. The point to be emphasized is that all these Indic systems, despite different ways of expressing these human emotions, are centered on the human mind, not the physical body. Also, none of the systems focus on freedom after death, as a posthumous award in an afterlife, unlike most of religious theologies.

Unfortunately, for a chronology-obsessed modern reader, the exact time frame for when the many of the systems came into vogue is well nigh impossible to determine with any degree of certainty except for Buddhism. The time of Gautama, the Buddha, is known to be the fifth century BCE though the Buddhist tradition holds that he was preceded by many other Buddhas.

It may be that you, esteemed reader, are a pragmatist, and being a seeker after freedom here and now, are not concerned with these philosophical differences. It is easy to dismiss them as futile intellectual exercises!  However, it is useful to be informed about these differences, to understand why there are so many heated arguments among proponents of these three systems, not unlike the “my God is the only God” type of religious belief-system-centered fierce discussion in today’s world.

Conceptual Differences
Among the Three Systems

This post summarizes the marked philosophical, that is, conceptual differences among the three systems as these differences have an impact on the practices they recommend for one to see the fact that one is never bound, but always free. Indian systems of philosophy have two distinct but related aspects – epistemology and metaphysics. The first one seeks to define how one gains knowledge. In Sanskrit it is called pramāṇa, the way one gains knowledge also called the means of knowledge. The second tries to explain the nature of reality, technically known as ontology as well as the structure of the universe called cosmology.


Buddhist philosophy accepts only direct perception (pratyakṣa) and inference (anumāna) as valid means to gain knowledge (pramāṇa). These two sources of knowledge tell us that everything perceived in this phenomenal world continuously changes starting with one’s mind. Nothing remains unchanged, that is, nothing is permanent nor eternal. Since the permanent, unchanging realities of ātman, brahman, puruṣa, prakṛti, Iśvara and similar words of Vedānta and Sāṅkhya are not directly perceived nor inferred in this phenomenal world, seekers of freedom need not pursue them. Thus, one of the tenets of Buddhism, expressed by the Pali word anattā (Sanskrit – anātma meaning no ātma), is a denial of the fundamental tenet of Vedānta – which posits a permanent, timeless reality. Tangentially, this also includes the permanent dualities of Sāṅkhya, prakṛti and puruṣa. Metaphysically, this is reflected in the belief that no permanent reality exists including the world, the cosmos.

The four Noble truths of the Buddha centered on duḥkha, function as the cornerstone of Nirvāṇa, freedom. He lays down the way to gain this freedom in his fourth noble truth of an eight-fold path which stresses right vision (understanding), right thought, right speech and others. Recognition of this freedom is the ultimate goal. All these practices, such as developing positive qualities of compassion and love for all living beings or leading an ethical life of reflection, are in order to fully appreciate the impermanence of everything in this phenomenal world starting with with one’s thoughts, feelings etc., Continued and prolonged practice results in clarity of understanding of the impermanence of the phenomenal world: thus, discovering the Buddha in your true self. This is nirvāṇa (nibbāna in Pāli) while living in this world, samsāra. I think perhaps this was the basis of the famous quote from the great Buddhist master Nāgārjuna, “Nirvāṇa is samsāra and samsāra is nirvāṇa.”

There is a certain charm and freshness to this reasoning founded on observed impermanence of the phenomenal world that includes oneself. As I heard from a friend of mine, “There is no fairy dust” to bless you with freedom: it is all your own effort to see that you are free here and now and not after death. The world and you remain the same, impermanent before and after nibbāna or satori . This is exemplified by the famous story in the Zen tradition of Buddhism. A novice seeker approached a Zen master and asked, “What were you doing before you gained Satori?” The master replied “Chop wood, carry water.” The eager seeker asked, “Master, what did you do after gaining Satori?” The master replied, “Chop wood, carry water.”

Sāṅkhya/Yoga System

In contrast to Buddhism, the Sāṅkhya epistemology adds āgama, scriptures (or the words of the teacher who explains the scriptures, also called verbal testimony) as the third valid source of knowledge. The core idea is the superiority of āgama based-knowledge over perceptual and inferential knowledge. In other words, what is missing from the two sources or knowledge of direct perception and inference, is acquired by using this third means of knowledge (pramāṇa).  Thus, scriptures, which are but words communicated by a teacher become the primary way for one to gain knowledge that results in freedom during one’s lifetime. Accepting āgama, scriptures as a valid source of knowledge, Creation, Heaven, Hell, Karma, Reincarnation, and other related concepts are brought into the fold of this system.

Sāṅkhya metaphysics postulates two independent and permanent (eternal, meaning timeless) realities of prakṛti and puruṣa. The prakṛti is one while puruṣas can be an infinite number. Before Creation, prakṛti’s three components or guṇas: sattva, rajas and tamas were in equilibrium. Creation is the result of a disturbance of this equilibrium by the  puruṣas. This results in multiples stages of evolution resulting in this cosmos including all animate and inanimate things.

An offshoot of the Sāṅkhya is Patañjali’s Yoga philosophy as described in yogasūtras . Note that this is different from what is usually understood as ‘yoga’. The popular word yoga refers to just the practice of āsana, postures. This practice, despite its undisputed value, is based on a very different philosophical system called Haṭhayoga. This system describes in detail how to assume postures (āsana), breathing techniques (prāṇāyāma) etc., but with a very different underlying philosophy. The aphorisms of the sage Patañjali, called Yogasūtras is what I refer to as Yoga philosophy here. His work is an extension of Sāṅkhya philosophy. Since he mentions āsana, prāṇāyāma etc., as part of the eight limbs of his yoga system with no “how to” instruction, it is popularly misunderstood to just teach āsana practice.

Patañjali’s yoga philosophy, on the other hand, rests on the bedrock of the Sāṅkhya system. The only conceptual addition he made was the introduction of a special puruṣa, Īśvara, The Lord, also known by the term God, but unlike the God of theistic religions, this one has no form but is just represented by the mystic syllable Om (Yogasūtra, 1:27). This puruṣa is special in that unlike other puruṣas who are driven by karma, this one is untouched by ignorance or karma and its consequences (Yogasūtra, 1:24). Patañjali has an eclectic view of yoga practices saying that one can attain freedom via different paths, either devotion to God and or following the eight limbs including āsana. Thus, it is common to treat Sāṅkhya/Yoga as a single system and different from Haṭhayoga.  The sense of bondage keenly felt by all human beings, according to Sāṅkhya/Yoga is due to the association between Prakṛti and Puruṣa. Thus, freedom is best described by sage Patanjali in his aphorism: “absence of association (between Prakṛti and Puruṣa, brought about by removal of ignorance) is indeed Kaivalya” (Yogasūtra 2:25). Thus, the understanding of ignorance and the way for its total elimination is quite different from Buddhist philosophies.

Typically, a seeker after freedom identifies with the mind, which is but an evolute of insentient prakṛti.  This mistake rooted in ignorance that gives rise to the I-sense, likes, dislikes, etc. Patañjali defines this ignorance: “Taking what is impermanent, impure, sorrowful, non-self to be the eternal-pure-happiness self is ignorance” (Yogasūtra, 2:5). By following the teachings of the Sāṅkhya precepts with a mind freed from the hold of one’s likes and dislikes and consequent distractedness and by following the practice manual Yogasūtras of Patañjali, you come to appreciate that you are, indeed, the ever free Puruṣa (Yogasūtra, 2:18) .

Vedānta: Advaita-Vedānta

Vedānta means the end portion of the Vedas. Vedas, also called śrutis are four in number and are considered to be millennia-old according to academicians.. But tradition believes it to be as old as creation. The end portion of the Vedas are called Upaniṣads.  Vedic analytical method admits six pramāṇās or ways of gaining knowledge: the three already mentioned above and presumption, illustration, and non-cognition (arthāpatti, dṛṣtānta, and anupalabdhi respectively). It is beyond the scope of this post to elaborate in detail on all these pramāṇās and their application for understanding Vedānta philosophy. The essence of Vedānta is described in the Bhagavadgītā and this text also is treated as a Vedānta text. While the śrutis declare that you are what you seek, but most of verses in the Bhagavadgītā describe in detail as to how to deal with the mind for getting ready to integrate the core teaching of Vedānta so it does not remain an just another piece of information. In this sense it is akin to the ‘practice manual’ of Patañjali with reference to Sāṅkhya.

In stark contrast to the Sāṅkhya/Yoga system, the Vedānta paradigm states that there  is no eternal duality of Puruṣa and Prakṛti but only the single non-dual reality of Brahman, that is you, the self, ātman. This is stated explicitly in an Upaniṣad, “This Ātman is Brahman” (Atharvaveda, Māṇdūyaka-Upaniṣad 1.2).

The metaphysics of Vedānta, in contrast to the impermanence of Buddhism and the eternal and independent dualities of Sāṅkhya postulates just one reality of Brahman. Creation has the appearance of plurality due to the power inherent in Brahman, called māyā, often translated as either illusion or just nonexistent. The correct way to understand the term māyā is “indeterminability”. This idea is exemplified by modern physics’ understanding of matter. Freedom is to see the existing non-duality of you, the human being, as none other than Brahman as revealed in the śruti. Accepting perceived duality as the reality is ignorance, and this can be removed only by the knowledge revealed in the pramāṇa, the śruti.

But to make sure that this not an intellectual idea but is integrated by the seeker, one has to have clarity and stability in this knowledge. That is, it is necessary to have a pure and steady mind. Most of the qualities a person must cultivate to develop such a mind are described in the Bhagavadgītā: humility, being unpretentious, not hurting, forgiveness, the alignment of thought, word and deed, etc., (Bhagavadgītā 13: 7-11).

Practices to develop a pure and steady mind are not elaborated in Vedānta, the teaching of the end-portions (veda-anta) of the Vedas. The earlier section, which forms the bulk of the Vedas, is centered on rituals and meditations. These actions result in the seeker having a mind capable of understanding and assimilating the teaching. The presumption is that one does not enter the portals of the Upaniṣads unless the mind is prepared by prolonged Vedic practice.  For the modern student of Vedānta who is not exposed to the prior sections of the Vedas, yogic practices do help to prepare the mind. In this regard, one may note that most of the ancient commentaries to the terse statements of Kapila’s and Patañjali’s sūtras are attributed to Vedāntic masters – Vyāsa (the author of the Bhagavadgītā) , Gauḍapāda, Śaṅkara, Vāspati Miśra and others.

Irrespective of the important philosophical differences among these three systems, the common baseline is the necessity to have a mind that is free of its usual trappings of the desires that drive the human being. Gaining such a mind by steady practice is the first step of any seeker. One can call this cultivation of a pure and steady mind relative freedom, a stepping stone to see that one is really and totally free here and now.

Three different freedoms or one?

Given the philosophical differences among the systems, Buddhism, Sāṅkhya/Yoga and Advaita-Vedānta, are there three freedoms? I can only think of modifying the answer given by my dear friend, an eclectic Catholic monk. When asked a similar question regarding heavens of Hindus, Muslims and Christians, his reply was “There are no Zip Codes in Heaven”!  Similarly, there are not three freedoms: there is just one. The conceptual approach and terminologies may be starkly different, but the end is just the same – to be totally free of the dictates of the mind, here and now, while living. Freedom is not a posthumous award such as the heaven of religions. This total freedom, however, is not possible unless there is relative freedom from the shackling hold of one’s impulsive actions driven by likes and dislikes. I conclude this discussion with a well known Vedic declaration

What IS, is one: the learned describe it differently
(ekam sat viprā bahudhā vadanti – Rig Veda).

I thank my dear friends Chris, Philippe and Richard for their valuable input.

Suggested sources for further reading

  1. Introduction to Indian Philosophy Paperback – December 1, 2012 by Satishchandra Chatterjee  (Author), Dhirendramohan Datta (Contributor)
  2. A History of Indian Philosophy (a 5-volume paperback Set) – July 16, 2009 by Dasgupta (Author)
  3. What the Buddha Taught – Second and Enlarged Edition, 1974 by Walpola Rahul
  4. The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation Paperback – June 8, 1999 by Thich Nhat Hanh (Author)
  5. The Sánkya Aphorisms of Kapila, With Illustrative Extracts From the Commentaries: Translated by James R. Ballantyne (Classic Reprint) Paperback – February 9, 2017 by Kapila Kapila (Author)
  6. The Sánkhya Káriká (Classic Reprint) Paperback – November 16, 2016 by Íswara Krishna (Author)
  7. Gheranda Samhita/Commentary on the Yoga Teachings of Maharshi Gheranda Paperback – December 19, 2012 by Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati  (Author)
  8. Hatha Yoga Pradipika Paperback – Laser printed, September 1, 1998 by Swami Muktibodhananda
  9. The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary Paperback – July 21, 2009 by Edwin F. Bryant  (Author)
  10. Journey From Many to One / Essentials of Advaita Vedanta Paperback – January 1, 2009 by Swami Bhaskarananda  (Author)
  11. The Six Ways of Knowing: A Critical Study of the Advaita Theory of Knowledge Paperback – January 1, 2017 by D. M. Datta (Author)

In the blog on freedom (July 2016) we saw what freedom means for a pragmatist, one who is not attached to any theology or religious thought centered on an afterlife in Heaven. The focus is entirely practical and action oriented, “What can I do to become free now?” is the most asked question. This freedom (mokṣa) is expressed differently in many philosophies of India.

Three Indic systems of philosophy

Enquiry into the goal of every human being – freedom – is the bedrock of all Indian philosophic thought. Of several such systems, from mechanical materialism (Cārvāka), Vedic ritualism (pūrva-mīmāmsa), asceticism (Jainism etc.,) and others, I choose to focus on three – Buddhism, Yoga and Vedānta.

In most English translations of works on these systems of thought, one finds the expression ‘freedom from pain’. Though pain is a correct translation of the Sanskrit word (tāpa) often mentioned in these philosophies, it can restrict one to think only of physical pain. No one can be really be free from inherent limitations of the body – disease, accidents, aging with its attendant issues . The human problem of bondage is centered on the mind – it can be a sense of dissatisfaction with life despite one’s achievements, or a deeply felt sorrow about one’s condition in life, or fear of mortality – all summed up by one Sanskrit word duḥkha, sorrow, is the closest translation for this word.

Basic concepts of the three philosophies of freedom

Unifying concept (1) – Freedom is not gained but ‘to be known’: This is a unifying concept of all three systems, that freedom is unlike something that one gains or achieves by doing something, such as striving to gain wealth, success, power, fame, progeny and so on but that you are already free and you do not know it.

In this world, whatever one gains is invariably short-lived, never permanent. According to Indian thought even the Heaven one gains by religious and ethical actions in this world is only a temporary sojourn. Once the accrued results of such actions are exhausted, one returns back to Earth, reborn.  So, if freedom also were to be gained by any action, that gained freedom also would be subject to be lost; that is, one can become bound again! This potentially infinite loop cannot be freedom.

This understanding, and the means to gain this understanding are what all three philosophies are about – freedom is not something that is gained as a result of any action, to accrue at a future date, but one has to understand that “you are free here and now”.

This is illustrated by the analogy of sculpting an elephant from a big block of granite, one does not create an elephant that was not there, but only removes the non-elephant chips from the piece of stone. It is in this sense that the Buddhistic tradition says you are already the Buddha, the Yoga tradition stresses that you are the puruṣa and vedānta declares tat tvam asi, You Are That.

That you are what you are striving to become is driven home by the story of ‘finding the tenth man’, one that is told by my Vedanta teacher. Once a group of ten men were going on a pilgrimage. They took off from their small village and travelled for a long time. On the way they had to cross a river, which they swam across. Not sure whether all had successfully crossed the river, the leader started counting. He lined up all his group, counting them, he only reached nine, and got worried about the missing tenth man. Looking around in turn, each of the group counted only nine. So all started searching everywhere, even jumping into the river, but could not find the tenth man. All were worried and sad about the lost tenth man. A passerby saw this group and asked why they were sad. On hearing their story, it was clear what the problem was. But simply insisting ‘there is no missing man’ would not solve their unique problem.  So the passerby asked them all to line up and for the leader to count again. Again the leader reached only nine – and the passerby, pointing to the leader, announced “And you are the tenth!” Each had neglected to count himself! After a moment of embarrassment, all were very happy that the ‘missing man’ was not in fact missing! This knowledge ‘brought back’ the ‘missing’ tenth man, which no amount of searching or crying could have accomplished.

Both the analogy and the story highlight the fact that one has to know that one is ever-free, never bound and that any amount doing this or that, sacred or secular actions, is not going to gain freedom for anybody.

So, to the inevitable question ‘If I am already free as these philosophies posit, why do I feel limited and still want to be free?’ To this all these three philosophies stress one thing, namely the sense of bondage is due to ignorance – called avidya in Yoga (/ Sāṅkhya) and Advaita Vedānta traditions and avijja (Pali word for avidya) in Buddhism.

The question as to when this ignorance began is never addressed except to say that it is beginning-less (anādi). Though at the outset this does not look convincing, if one were to ask you ‘When did your ignorance of the string theory of the universe begin?’ one cannot come up with any clear answer but to say “I do not know how to answer that question, perhaps it had always been there”. Thus one can see that ignorance has no beginning, but can have an end (anta). The ignorance of string theory ends when one starts to learn about it.

Ignorance centered on any topic, be it string theory or the nature of oneself, cannot end unless one strives to know. And to gain knowledge of anything, one must use a source, a valid means of knowledge (pramāṇa). My teacher used to illustrate this idea as follows: For recognizing color, the eye is the valid means / source of knowledge, for sounds the ears; and for knowing that you are free and never bound, there must also be a valid source of knowledge, and that can be the scriptures or the words of the wise.

The sources of knowledge show that you are never bound, that the sense of bondage and thus the sense of freedom are due to the mind. All three philosophical systems reveal this – (1) Yoga aphorisms of Patañjali, its foundation of sāṅkhya system (2) the Upaniṣad-s for vedānta and (3) the teachings of Gautama the Buddha.

Unifying concept (2) – Why one feels bound and seeks freedom: The logical question then can be “Simple ignorance cannot cause me to feel bound, e.g. ignorance of quantum physics does not cause any problem to me!”

For this the response by all the three Indic systems is this: it is true that pure ignorance, of oneself and the world, as exists in deep sleep is no problem. But in the waking state, due to this ignorance of the nature of oneself, there is total identification of oneself with the body and mind, so the sense of limitation arises. It is but common to hear ‘I am fat, I am short, I am hurt, I am sad, etc.,’. All such statements show the identification of “I” with the physical body, mind, accomplishments, failures, memories etc., the dis-identification of this natural (svābhāvika) identification is the core of these philosophies.

Knowing and Being – the difference and the role of practice (abhyāsa)

Types of questions that a practical, goal-oriented person will ask

  • I get the logic of it all, I can even see that a study of any of these systems will be of use to me. But, how will I feel free by mere study? It all seems like magic to me!
  • This is all too intellectual and seems to be yet another belief system, not different from religions.

In reply, I have to resort again to my teacher who started giving classes for the three-year study of Vedānta I attended. These doubts have a simple answer, he would say, “Just try it and see if the magic works or not! There is no need to prejudge without adequate testing!”

When one discusses the idea of freedom that you already are, based on these ancient teachings, there is confusion between knowing and being. This is because the object of this knowledge is yourself, the subject. Knowledge of microbiology or quantum physics or even psychology is always about a thing other than you. But here the object and subject are one and the same. By studying microbiology one does not become a microbe! But by studying about freedom, you ‘become’ free – that is, you discover the freedom that you always are!

But one hears this oft repeated comment from even serious students of Vedānta who have dedicated years to study “I know I am free, but how come I feel no different, continue to be the same old person?”

While the books and teachers teach you what you are, that you are free and the sense of bondage is in the mind, to own it up one has to work with the mind. This difference between knowing and owning is what is typically expressed as the difference between knowledge and wisdom. The former can be gained, but the latter you must develop, and this takes practice (abhyāsa).

Differences among the three philosophies in practice, abhyāsa

The three liberation philosophies I discuss here have some radical differences, not just in their epistemological and metaphysical constructs but in practice modes as well. I will devote a separate blog to the different paradigms of these three systems since I do not want this blog post to be too technical to be useful. Here I will focus on differences in practice (abhyāsa) only.

Vedānta:  An eighth century advaita-vedānta master provides two distinct terms to differentiate between knowledge and wisdom. One who has studied the Upaniṣads is called śrutaprajña in contrast one who has gained the wisdom enshrined in the Upaniṣads, avagataprajña. The practice (abhyāsa) paradigm in Vedānta is summarised in an Upaniṣad thus: “May (you) listen, analyze and reflect upon Ātman (the truth of yourself).” Thus the cognitive aspect is the central focus of Vedānta, perhaps the reason that many yoga students dismiss Vedānta as theoretical or intellectual!

If one were to examine the reason for this stress it is clear by the term itself – Vedānta, end portion of the Vedas! The vast bulk of the Vedas, usually dismissed as ritual / meditation oriented, focuses on preparing the mind, freeing it from its ravings and cravings. Such a pure and steady mind alone is ready to receive the teaching and see the fact that the person is ever-free and was never bound. Unfortunately for the modern student of vedānta with no such prior preparation of the mind, the teaching leaves her typically at the śrutaprajña state, wondering “I know I am free, but why do I feel no different, continue to be the same old person?”

This uniquely contemporary issue has to be addressed by practices intended to provide purity and stability to the mind. The well known text, the Bhavadgītā, hence devotes the bulk of its 700 verses on ways to deal with the mind, while a mere 30 or so verses focus on teaching the central message of the Upaniṣads.

Yoga: I use the term yoga here not to refer to the practice of physical postures called āsanas. This is part of what is called Hathayoga. I use it to mean the Yogasūtras, aphorisms of Patañjali which many experienced āsana practitioners are drawn to and begin to study. A perusal of this book shows that it is essentially a practice manual to gain mastery of the mind. Vyāsa, the author of the commentary to this book defines Yoga – a word mentioned in the very first aphorism, ‘Atha yogānuśāsam’ – as samādhi, a tranquil mind. Note this word yoga does not mean yoking or joining as popularly misunderstood and promoted in almost all modern books on yoga.

If Yogasūtra is a practice manual, what is the philosophical basis for this work? It is the Sāṅkhya system, attributed to sage Kapila, and is summarized in Sāṅkhyakārikā by Īśvarakṛṣṇa. Like Vedānta,  this system also stresses that one’s true nature (puruṣa) is free from all that is material, such as the physical body, sense organs and the mind (prakṛti).  Taking any of these as oneself is the cause for bondage and seeing the ever-existing fact that I, the puruṣa am not prakṛti (this body mind complex and the phenomenal world) is freedom.

It is possible that Patañjali realized that for this ‘theoretical’ knowledge to sink in one needs a mind that is free from cravings and unsteadiness. So, he chose to focus his book on practice to rehabilitate the mind to see the truth as taught by Kapila. This is why he uses various synonyms for knowledge in a few places in his aphorisms. Unfortunately, these critically important sections are not sufficiently examined but many move on to do’s and don’ts as well as the other six limbs of this eightfold yoga.

Buddhism: For those who have read or heard about Buddhism, it is necessary to know the meaning of the word buddha, the name given to the founder of Buddhism, prince Gautama. This Sanskrit word is the noun form of the verb budh meaning ‘to know, to understand’. Thus his name means ‘one who has understood’, commonly translated as “the realized One, the enlightened One”.

By reflecting upon this impermanence of all things, beings and phenomena one gains freedom from hankerings of the mind towards impermanent things, called sasāra. This phenomenal world and the mind that dwells on it are devoid of any reality, also known as śūnya, nothing. Hence some argue that śūnyatā means no-thingness to the world. And appreciation of this śūnyatā of the phenomenal world is nibbana / nirvana, freedom while living.

This way of life being mindful of the impermanence during waking hours needs a relatively pure mind, less buffeted by desires, likes and dislikes. To gain such a mind, Buddhism, not unlike Yoga prescribes sets of practices for the student of Buddhism. Unlike yoga and vedānta, Buddhism over the two millennia has innumerable branches with various practices that one can choose, though all are grounded on ethical living conducive to gaining freedom.


To be free here and now and not after death is the quest of any pragmatic person. This freedom or liberation, called jīvanmukti in Sanskrit is the goal of the three Indic philosophical systems, Buddhism, Yoga/Sāṅkhya and vedānta. Though they have significant differences among themselves, the underlying common theme is the same – that freedom is not gained by any action but by removing the cause for the sense of bondage, namely ignorance of the true nature of oneself, that you are already free and was never bound. Since it is something connected with the mind, major effort is directed at preparing the mind, that is, gaining a mind that is relatively free from the domination of desires and develop steadiness. Only such a mind can grasp this simple but subtle fact that one is already free and the sense of bondage is due to total identification with the physical body and the mind.

I thank my friends Phillipe and Richard for their helpful comments.