Means to God-realisation | Śrī Vaiṣṇavism | 4
The Means to God-realisation
The process by which one works towards a spiritual goal is known as yoga, which means to yoke or to join. It indicates the unification of the seeker with the sought. The Veda declares: tat tvam asi - “Thou art that which you seek”.
So Yoga should not be thought of as a process whereby the remote becomes attainable but rather as a process whereby obstacles and hindrances to the revelation of our true and natural state of being are removed.
This process of self-realisation is also called upāya - which means “a methodology”.
Yoga is the procedure whereby one achieves insight, wisdom and enlightenment. The Bhagavad Gītā is the handbook par excellence of Yoga in which the 3 principle processes of Yoga (Upāyas) are taught. They are:
1. karma yoga - yoga of action done without interest in rewards.
2. jñāna yoga - yoga of knowledge and meditation.
3. bhakti yoga - yoga of devotion
These three apply to the perfection of action, intellect and emotion respectively.
To these the Śrī Vaiṣṇava āchāryas add another one:
4. shaḍanga yoga (Śaraṇāgati) - the path of self-surrender.
The Teṅkalai place even greater emphasis on:
5. āchārya abhimāna - taking refuge in a Spiritual Preceptor.
Karma Yoga is defined by Rāmānuja as the dutiful performance of those actions (Dharma) - both of a daily and periodic nature - that are prescribed by the Scriptures with reference to one’s social status and marital state such as.
These prescribed activities are centred around the key concepts of yajña - sacrifice, dāna - charity, tapa - self-discipline, anashah - periodic fasting and more specifically - the 5 Great Sacrifices known as Pañca-mahā yajña.
These are to be performed by the aspirant until death and are never to be abandoned, because according to the Gītā they are the purifiers of the wise, they destroy past karma in the form of saṁskāras (sub-liminal activators) which is an obstacle to the spiritual path.
This purification is achieved in 2 ways:
1. Purity of Diet: from purity of food arises purity of mind; from purity of mind steady remembrance. Pure food is defined as only those edible things which have first been offered to the God.
2. Performance of yajña, tapa dāna with the right attitude serves to detach the mind from sense-objects and turns it towards the Ātman within.
The distinguishing factor between spiritually uplifting action - Karma Yoga and ordinary action, is the wisdom aspect – jñāna:
Mentally one renounces the desire for the results of the act, the idea of agency and the act itself - the ability to do this skilfully is based upon the knowledge of the true nature of the Self.
This ability to act with renunciation is developed in 2 stages:
1. The first stage consists in analysing and reflecting upon the distinction between the Self [ātman] and Matter [Prakṛti] gives rise to the understanding that action is not the essential nature of the Self, it arises due to the conjunction of the Self with a material body.
By constantly practicing acting without personal interest one is not deceived into identifying Self with non-Self - that is material nature.
2. First stage realisation leads to an even deeper and more mature understanding of the nature of action - knowing that the Selves [jīvas] and Matter [Prakṛti] constitute the ‘body’ as it were, of Brahman, and are activated and empowered by Him, one realizes that the agency in every action and the act itself belong to the Supreme Person.
The ātman is dependant [Śeṣa] upon the Lord and ensouled by Him, as well as ruled by Him - in every act it is the Lord Himself who is the ultimate agent acting and experiencing through us who are merely his manifold “expressions” or “modes”.
Thus the performance of action itself becomes a recognition of one’s, sheshatva; one’s complete dependence upon the Lord. Every act thus becomes an act of worship, a note in the cosmic symphony.
Karma Yoga purifies the mind in 2 ways:-
1. As an act of worship it pleases the Supreme Person who then erases the impurities - the saṁskāras - impressions/sub-liminal activators left upon the mind by past karmas.
2. As mental renunciation - it removes the ego-sense [ahaṁkāra] and turns the mind away from attachment and identification with the objects of the senses.
The ultimate purpose of Karma Yoga is to prepare the mind for Dhyāna Yoga.
Karma Yoga in short is the performance of one’s chosen personal, professional and social duties unconditionally and as duty only, without being motivated by the personal, material, social or spiritual rewards.
The Yogi worships God through various acts of philanthropy, social work, and by simply doing one’s chosen job and even the activities of daily living, to the best of one’s ability in accordance with Dharma.
In this practice there is no motivation other than service to God, and no concern with rewards, be they emotional gratification, esteem, fame, honour or wealth.
In this way the focus is entirely on the practice which is in the here and now. One’s every action is done with precision, efficiency, attention to detail and of course beauty.
In Śrī Vaiṣṇavism Karma Yoga also takes on the particular form of rendering some practical service to the iconic form of the Lord.
The Karma-Yogi contributes to the upkeep of temples, helps to subsidise festivals and teaching programs and takes part in the choral chanting of hymns in the temple and also performs some manual work such as cleaning temples or assisting in the daily chores of the temple compound.
This service is technically known as kainkaryam, and is the paramount duty of every sincere Vaishnava. Even standing in front of the deity exchanging glances (darśana) is considered to be kainkaryam.
For Rāmānuja jñāna yoga is the path of introversion or renunciation.
He discusses this Yoga as an alternative to or a supplement to Karma Yoga in preparing the mind for meditation - Dhyāna Yoga, but he does not recommend this path to those who are desirous of liberation.
The Way of Knowledge is an actionless, entirely mental discipline based on the traditional idea of complete renunciation of action. Its main aim is diminish sensory input so as to focus the mind entirely upon the Ātman.
Jñāna Yoga has 4 stages of maturity:
1. Renunciation of all worldly activities, and practicing withdrawal of the senses from contact with the sense-objects, and focussing of the mind upon the Self.
2. Developing complete indifference to pleasure and pain.
3. Practicing constant refection, undisturbed by feelings of love, fear, anger, joy etc.
4. Establishing of the mind exclusively upon the Ātman, having renounced the desire for anything else. (sthita-prajñā),
Rāmānuja explains that Jñāna Yoga cannot be practiced without first disciplining oneself by Karma-Yoga:
This mental preparation for Dhyāna-Yoga can be achieved by engaging actively in the world in a constructive but non-attached manner through the discipline of Karma-Yoga alone, and therefore Jñāna Yoga with all its attendant difficulties and pitfalls should not be practised as a discipline in itself.
Pitfalls of Jñāna Yoga:
1. The senses are extremely difficult to control; craving and desire only cease; upon the vision of the Ātman, and this vision cannot be achieved unless craving and desire have been conquered - this leads to an endless circle of striving and frustration.
2. Total renunciation of action is impossible for any but the very few.
3. Control of the senses requires that the mind be centred on the Supreme Person in meditation, it also requires that one practice Karma-Yoga as a preparatory discipline to such meditation.
The binding factor in terms of our suffering in Samsāra is not action per se, it is rather the craving and attachment from which such action arises.
Even by the renunciation of all action one would not rid oneself of the desire which is a very deep rooted saṁskāra - this is the root problem of the jñāna yogi.
What is necessary for the practitioner is to renounce the attachment to the material world, and not the material world itself.
The physical body and the material world are provided by the Lord as the instruments whereby the jīva may worship Him, and thereby attain release.
It is in and through the world that one obtains divine Grace and the opportunity to achieve Moksha, the world therefore should not be renounced.
Pursuing liberation as a householder is easy and without dangers and pitfalls involved in becoming a renunciate; it is a natural state for the embodied being and for Rāmānuja it is the preferred one.
Rāmānuja opines that a realisation of the Ātman is a preparatory requisite to the Higher Meditation - parā vidyā or meditation upon the Supreme Person.
Through the consistent practice of Karma-Yoga the mind becomes pure - freed from the mental contaminants such as selfishness (kāma), anger (krodha) and greed (lobha).
It becomes calmer and unruffled by the distraction of the senses - once this state has been achieved, the practice of meditation or Dhyāna-Yoga may be commenced.
But it is also necessary to realize that any attempt to control the senses by self-mastery alone is ineffective and unacceptable - it can only be done with the complete recognition of, and reliance upon the God.
So any attempt to control the mind by one’s own effort without relying upon the divine is bound to end in failure.
Rāmānuja distinguishes 4 stages of accomplishment in the process of “Self-realisation”.
1. After having realised that the Self is distinct from Matter [prakṛti], one sees that all beings have the same essential nature as one’s own Self,
i.e. the essence of all beings is the same when they are viewed as distinct from Prakṛti - to know one Ātman is to know them all. This understanding is called sama-darśana
2. Thereafter the “sameness” or “equality” of the individual essence and the Supreme essence is perceived. The Divine having been thus perceived, ever remains fixed in the vision of the practitioner.
3. Such a vision of the Divine essence pervading all things matures into seeing God as abiding everywhere at all times, being all things –
the devotee sees nothing but God where previously he had seen only the variegated differences of the material conditioning.
4. This state ultimately matures into a complete indifference to the joys and sorrows which affect the material bodies and a complete freedom from suffering.
Meditation (dhyāna, upāsanā) according to Rāmānuja is smruti - a perpetual mindfulness of the Divine qualities, a continuous stream of thought directed towards the Lord.
God according to his interpretation of the Vedanta is to be obtained only by devotion which takes the form of incessant meditation - in which the practitioner is aware of no other object other than the Divine Presence - it is the mystical state of perpetual vivid perception of the all-pervading Divine Nature.
These forms of meditation known as the Para-vidyā or “Supreme Teaching” are prescribed and taught in the Śruti and Vedanta texts, e.g.;
1. sad-vidyā - Chāṇḍogya Upaniṣad 6:2:1
2. bhuma-vidyā - Chāṇḍogya Upaniṣad 7:1
3. dahara-vidyā - Chāṇḍogya Upaniṣad 8:1
4. upakosala-vidyā - Chāṇḍogya Upaniṣad 4:10
5. shandilya-vidyā - Brihadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 5:4:5
6. vaishvanara vidyā - Chāṇḍogya Upaniṣad 5:11
7. anandamaya-vidyā - Taittirīya Upaniṣad 2:5
8. aksharavi-vidyā - Maṇḍaka Upaniṣad 1:1
The meditator need practice only one of these several meditations: each being capable in itself to bring about the desired result.
An essential awareness maintained during all these meditations is of the Divine Qualities of satyam - true being, jñānam - absolute knowledge, ānandam - infinite bliss, amalatvam - purity, and anantatvam - infinity, inherent in God’s nature.
Meditation upon Brahman performed thus only once is of no significance, for meditation per se does not result in the attainment of Brahman; its purpose is to be just a means of expressing and actualising devotion towards God, and of generating ever more intense devotion.
Thus the devotee ideally never goes beyond the practice of Dhyāna; Rāmānuja never speaks of the attainment of absorption [samādhi], mystical powers [siddhis] or Self-liberation [kaivalya].
The problem with Bhakti Yoga as thus conceived is its practicability and accessibility:
In order to practice these meditations one needs a long and arduous process of preparation through Karma Yoga. The actual para-vidyā practices are to be learned from a competent guru through the study of the Vedas. In order to be qualified for this form of study one needs to be a male of the upper three castes.
It is thus not within the purview of the majority of people - and is the reserve of a tiny minority.
The alternative is found in the Pāñcharātra Tantric teaching:
The Upaniṣadic para-vidyās are substituted by meditation upon one of the many images of the Divine described in the Pāñcharātra texts.
In this form of meditation, a chosen form of the deity is envisioned to be seated above one’s head, one then focuses all one’s attention flow on that image while repeating the specific mantra of that deity.
The Bhagavad Gītā is considered to be the Yoga Text par excellence. Lord Krishna gives clear and explicit instructions regarding the three paths of Yoga.
After expounding upon them in great detail, and acknowledging their difficulties, in the 18th Chapter Verse 66 the Lord makes the Ultimate Statement (Chāraṇa Śloka):
Abandoning all other means (dharmas) take refuge in me alone;
I will liberate thee from the effect of all sins, grieve not.
This is the highest path and the Supreme Means to God - called Śaraṇāgati or “the way of surrender”:
It is not actually Yoga or a process as such, but a total resignation of oneself to Śrīman Nārāyaṇa, and reliance upon His Grace alone. It is greater than all the other ‘Means’ and includes within it all the three.
Taking refuge in the Divine (Prapatti) is the easiest way to God-realisation and Liberation. In fact it is the means par excellence.
In the Scriptures we find the tales of Prapatti performed by animals such as Gajendra, Hanuman, Jatāyu and Jāmbavat and women such as Draupadī and Kuntī. Arjuna and his brothers performed Prapatti as did low-born characters like Śabarī and Guha and myriads of other beings.
It is a means open to everyone and has no restrictions of any kind: There are no restrictions as to time - Gajendra the King of the elephants performed Prapatti as he was about to expire.
There are no restrictions as to place - Arjuna performed Prapatti on the field of battle, and not even restrictions as regards states of purity - Draupadī performed Prapatti when she was menstruating!
So in this present age, when life is so short and filled with all kinds of responsibilities, difficulties and limitations; Śaraṇāgati is the path of choice:
It consists of taking refuge in the Supreme Person; an act of total self-dedication. Even ONE sincere act of self-surrender is enough to elicit the Grace of the Lord.
It is taught that Divine Grace is given to those whom the Lord choses, but this does not mean that the Lord is capricious or partial - Divine Grace is given to those who surrender to it and accept it.
The only qualification is that the postulant (Prapanna ) should understand and realise his/her intimate relationship with God - A relationship of complete dependency and subjugation.
The only prerequisite for Prapatti is a feeling of total helplessness (akinchina ) and an understanding that there is no other refuge than the Lord (na-anyagati ).
The prospective Prapanna should have a sincere change of heart or contrition, and absolute confidence in the saving Grace of the Nārāyaṇa.
It is not merit (puṇya ) which is the operative cause of Grace (dayā ) but the sense of one’s unworthiness (akinchina ), one’s deep entanglement in materialism and the inability to follow the three conventional Yogas.
The Lord Himself is the way, the means (upāya ) as well as the goal (upeya ) and Prapatti is the act of self-surrender to His Grace.
There is an intimate relationship between the act of self-surrender to Nārāyaṇa and the flow of Divine Grace: The act of sincere surrender opens the flood gates of Grace.
Although taking refuge means essentially Liberation through Grace - it also includes works -because surrender requires the resolve to perfect one’s act as well.
The Three Components of Taking Refuge
The procedure of taking refuge consists of three components:-
Abandonment of the hedonistic motive that self-satisfaction in some heavenly realm is the supreme end of religious practice, and the rejection of the concept that surrendering to God is a means to achieve this end.
The true Prapannas realise their complete dependency on the Lord and recognise that the jīva proceeds from, depends upon, and exists for the pleasure of the Lord alone. They then give up all forms of egoism and spiritual self-gratification.
One should understand that one is nothing to oneself, owns nothing, and does nothing independently of the Lord.
One should renounce the ideas of agency (kartṛttva), proprietorship (mamatā) and self-interest (svārtha).
Renunciation of the sense of personal responsibility in the act of Liberation. Liberation is effected by the Lord Himself who is the Way and the Goal. It does not come by the will or desire of the individual.
Prapatti or the Way of Surrender obviates the burden of guilt, self-effort and the consequences of error.
The actual surrender of oneself to God with the mindfulness of one’s true nature (svarūpa) - being a mode or ray of the Divine, essentially pure and perfect and accepting that existential fact.
The act of Taking Refuge
The actual act of taking refuge (Śaraṇāgati or Prapatti) consists of 6 components enumerated in the following verse:-
anukulya sankalapah prati-kulasya varjanam |
rakshishyati iti vishvaso goptrtva varanam tatha |
atma-nikshepa karpanya sad vidha saranagati ||
1. anukulya-sankalpah - The resolve to act in harmony with the Divine Nature.
It includes the abandonment of ego (ahaṁkāra) and entails vowing to be benevolently disposed towards all beings (sarva-bhūta-anukulya) based on the firm conviction that the Lord dwells within all beings.
The qualities of a Prapanna that please the Lord are enumerated in detail in the 12th Chapter of the Bhagavad Gītā entitled “Bhakti Yoga” (The Yoga of Devotion):-
13. Not hating any living being, friendly and compassionate to all, free from the notions of ‘I’ and ‘mine’, and regarding all pain and pleasure with equanimity, and forbearing;
14. contented, constantly contemplating, self-restrained and from in one’s convictions, dedicating the mind and intellect to Me - such a devotee is dear to Me.
15. He by whom the world is not disturbed, and who is not disturbed by the world, who is free from joy and jealousy, fear and repulsion - he is dear to me.
16. One who is free from expectations, who is uncontaminated, skilled, impartial and free from anxiety, who has renounced every undertaking - is dear to Me.
17. One who is full of devotion to Me, who rejoices not, nor hates, nor grieves, nor desires, and who renounces both merit and demerit - such a devotee is dear to me.
18. He who is impartial to both foe and friend, honour and dishonour, who is indifferent to both cold and heat, pleasure and pain and who is free from all attachments;
19. to whom both censure and praise are equal, who is silent (when praised or abused) and content with any condition, who has no home, who is steady of mind, and who is devoted to Me - dear to Me is such a person.
20. But those devotees who adopt this ambrosial virtuous conduct (dharma) as taught above, who are full of faith and who regard Me as the Supreme - they are exceedingly dear to Me.
2. pratikulya-varjanam - is the resolve to abstain from acts which are not in harmony with the Divine Nature, these are the opposites of all the above virtues and also such prohibited acts, which are mentioned in the Dharma Shastras, such as intoxication, injuring other beings, despoiling the environment, lying, cheating, stealing, exploiting others etc.
3. karpanya - the realisation of, and acceptance of the absolute impossibility to achieve Liberation from the cycle of reincarnation through one’s own personal efforts in practicing the three Yogas - karma, jñāna and bhakti. It is a feeling of complete helplessness.
4. maha-vishvasa - complete faith in the saving Grace of God. It is the faith that He alone has the ability to liberate and that He will fulfil His promise to liberate those who take refuge in Him.
Maha-vishvasa is the absolutely clear and distinct recognition of the omnipotence of Mercy and this is the central pivot and ruling motive of Prapatti Dharma.
The Yoga of Devotion is the arduous building up of devotion from below, whereas Prapatti is the descent of Divine Grace into the realm of action.
5. goptrtva-varanam - the sincere request by the prapanna for the Grace and protection of the Lord, abandoning all other self-initiated means to achieve Liberation.
6. atma-nikshepa - the governing factor of taking refuge is the offering of oneself to the Lord with the conviction that the opportunity for such self-dedication is in itself the result of Divine Grace.
The postulant is fully aware of negative Karma; its causes and its results, but there is no act in the entire universe so evil as to exhaust the redemptive compassion of God!!
The forgiveness of the Redeemer presupposes the quality of being forgiven in the jīva, and a change of heart as well. The bestowal of Grace may be unreserved, but it cannot be accepted undeserved.
The theory of “pretext” (vyaja) for granting Grace reconciles the ‘justification by works’ with the “justification by faith”, on the principle that a trivial cause can precipitate a mighty effect.
The pulling of a lever can cause a dam to flood an entire valley. Similarly a sincere display of remorse, no matter how small, is enough to open the flood gates of Grace and Divine Mercy.
The seed can only sprout in suitable soil and so too, Grace needs an pretext or an excuse to manifest itself. Even an act of unintentional merit is enough to elicit the flow of Grace.
The Spiritual Preceptor - Āchārya - has an essential place in all the great Wisdom Traditions of the world.
Taking refuge in an abstract and seemingly distant Divine Being is somewhat troublesome, but taking refuge in a learned, compassion, caring and wise person is much easier, as such a person is present and approachable.
In this age of consumerism and “shopping” how does one know if a “guru” is genuine or not? There are many people who go from one spiritual teacher to another - shopping around for one who will tell them what they want to hear.
There is also no lack of “Spiritual Teachers” who are quite willing to tell their disciples whatever they think they want to hear in order to enjoy some economic benefits and thrill of power.
According to the orthodox Vedic tradition the credentials of the āchārya are established from the lineage or sampradāya to which he/she belongs.
No knowledge is considered as valid unless it comes from a Preceptor who belongs to an authorised lineage and actually practices the teaching and lives a spiritual life.
The greatest of all spiritual masters in the Śrī Vaiṣṇava Sampradāya was Rāmānuja. There is nothing that can be added to or subtracted from his teachings. Therefore all contemporary āchāryas must confine themselves to re-interpreting the teachings of Rāmānuja to suit changing social circumstances - not inventing new doctrines.
Taking refuge in a bona fide āchārya is an integral part of Śaraṇāgati. One cannot learn about the Ultimate Truth from the Scriptures through personal reading and self-interpretation – the teaching must come from an authority.
In matters of health one does not consult a doctor who is self-taught, one goes to a specialist who has studied in a recognised school of medicine.
In the same manner in order to understand the Ultimate Truth as it really is, one goes to a properly qualified āchārya.
Prior to his death Rāmānuja āchārya nominated 75 disciples to act as āchāryas for the Vaishnava community that he had organised. Their function was to administer the sacrament of initiation (pañcha-saṁskāra) to all who requested it.
Most of the chosen āchāryas were householders and there are still many of their descendants today who continue the tradition.
The descendants of the original 75 āchāryas are known as svayam-āchāryas.
Nowadays it is customary to take initiation from one of the Abbots (matadhipati) of the numerous monasteries (mutts) that are found attached to all the main Vaishnava temples in the South.
Definition of an āchārya
The term Āchārya means one-who-teaches-by-example and according to the Āgamas all āchāryas - must be possessed of the following qualities:
1. They must be strict followers of the Vedic tradition and therefore faultless in conduct. vaidika-agresar
2. They must have unflinching faith in God. sraddhalu
3. They must be free of egotism. nirahamkara
4. They must understand the three sacred mantras along with the esoteric meaning. mantravit
5. They must be able to explain the meaning of the Scriptures to others in a skilful manner. pravacana-nipuna
6. They can be living as a householder pursuing the Four Aims but should be free of attachment. nissangha
The āchāryas must be of unimpeachable conduct and above all, compassionate.
The prospective disciple should observe and test them until convinced of their noble character, learning and compassion.
The function of an āchārya is to interpret and explain the teachings of the Scriptures in harmony with the teachings of the previous āchāryas in the lineage (Sampradāya).
The āchārya is not permitted to formulate and transmit personal theories and indulge in arbitrary self-interpretation and speculation.
All new commentaries (Bhāshyas) on the Scriptures are backed up with copious quotations from previous āchāryas to prove that the present rendering is true, in spirit, to the original.
The āchārya once chosen and accepted should not be treated as an ordinary person, but as a manifestation of the Mercy of God.
The āchārya is presumably a selfless person dedicated to helping others without any selfish motivation other than altruistic compassion for sentient beings.
The āchārya is a direct link between the Prapanna and the Lord, and as such deserves the highest respect and adoration.
One should surrender completely to such an āchārya because it is only in a spirit of humility that one can learn anything from another.
As long as pride and ego have control over the mind one can never absorb or assimilate and practice the teachings. With self-discipline obtained from the service of the āchārya one becomes fit for the practice of the dharma.
It is important to note that the Advaitic concept of the āchārya taking on the balance of the disciple’s karma has no place in Śrī Vaiṣṇavism.
In the philosophy of Advaita it is taught that there is no difference between the Guru and the disciple - they are one in essence – the difference is only imagined, but the Guru is more enlightened than the disciple. By initiating disciples the Guru takes on personal responsibility for their spiritual advancement. If the disciple succeeds the Guru is benefited, if the disciple fails the Guru is detrimented.
In Śrī Vaiṣṇavism the Guru and the disciple are separate entities united only in the service of the Divine:
The Guru acts as an intermediary between the Prapanna and God, the Guru links them together, the relationship is essentially between the Prapanna and Bhagavan.
The disciple surrenders to God through the Guru, but the surrender is not to the person of the Guru but to the Guru as the personification of the Grace of God. God himself accepts the Prapannas and showers his Grace upon them and grants them Salvation.
The Guru has no personal advantage or disadvantage in the spiritual progress of the disciple, nor should he ever think that is actually contributing to the emancipation of the disciple:
Any such feelings on the part of an āchārya are a violation of the three components of Prapatti (phala-samarpanam, bhara- samarpanam and svarūpa-samarpanam).
Some of the Teṅkalai āchāryas have taught that Rāmānuja has performed Prapatti for all successive generations of Prapannas and therefore one need only surrender to Rāmānuja who will then carry us across to the feet of the Lord.
Categories of āchāryas
The āchāryas are described as belonging to one of 2 categories:-
1. anuvrtti-prasanna-āchārya - those who have to be sought out and persuaded with much perseverance to impart their knowledge.
It is only after rigorous testing of the prospective disciples that they consent to teach. Most of the āchāryas prior to Rāmānuja were of this category.
2. kripa-mātra-prasanna-āchārya - these āchāryas teach their disciples out of compassion for their plight as ignorant and lost Selves, and are constantly seeking an opportunity to impart their knowledge, and are willing to teach anyone who will but listen.
Rāmānuja and most of the āchāryas who came after him are of this class.
The Reprehensible Delusions of Preceptorship
Pillai Lokacharya has described in Śrī vāchana Bhūṣaṇā (308 - 310) the 3 reprehensible delusions of preceptorship which must be avoided by the āchārya at all costs.
1. The delusions of ‘preceptorship’ - thinking of oneself as the preceptor –
an āchārya should think of himself as simply a conduit of the Lord’s Grace and not as a teacher of sacred lore, this awareness prevents the āchārya from developing the egotistical notion of being a great and learned person and having custodianship of spiritual knowledge.
2. The delusions about the role of the disciple - thinking of the disciple as one’s own personal adherent –
the disciple should rather be thought of as a co-disciple of the same āchārya. Thus the āchārya avoids the potential for exploitation inherent in the relationship.
3. The delusions arising from the process of instruction are of 4 categories:-
a. seeking to gain financially from the tuition fees.
b. the delusion that one is actually facilitating the liberation of the disciple.
c. the delusion that one is assisting the Lord in his salvific agenda.
d. seeking or expecting social companionship or service from disciples.
Finding an Āchārya.
In the wisdom tradition of the East it is axiomatic that the āchārya will only come when the disciple is ready.
In order to obtain such an āchārya, the following 6 factors must be present in the aspirant:
1. Love of God Īśvara sauhardam
2. Freedom from animosity adveshah
3. Perpetual advancement towards the goal abhimukhyam
4. Providential merit (good karma) yadrccha sukrtam
5. Frequent association with the devotees. sattvikaih sambhasanam
6. Divine Grace bhagavad katakṣa
When these factors are present then the āchārya certainly appears in order to mediate the act of Prapatti. The āchārya then delivers the teachings by means of the three wisdom tools.
The three Wisdom Tools.
1. śravaṇa - listening attentively to the teaching. One must attend lectures and discourses (upanyasams, kala-kshepams ) and listen attentively to the teachings of the Ālvārs and Āchāryas. Fifteen minutes of attentive listening can be more valuable than reading stacks of books!
2. manana - reflecting upon the doctrines. One must reflect at great length upon the teachings using reason and logic to understand them from all angles.
Any teaching which one does not understand should immediately be clarified from the āchārya, repeated questioning is the way to understanding and wisdom.
3. nididhyāsana - meditation upon the teaching, assimilating it and making it part of one’s life.
This is the difference between knowledge (Jñāna ) and realisation (vijñāna ):
Knowing all the facts is not sufficient, one must realise and apply the teachings in every aspect of one’s daily life. Knowledge without practice is useless and a burden, like a donkey carrying a load of sandal wood. The donkey can appreciate the weight but not the fragrance!
The Law-giver Manu has said;-
arṣam dharmopadeśam ca veda-śāstra avirodhena |
yas tarkena anusandatte sa dharma veda netaraḥ ||
The man who uses reason & logic; which does not contradict the Veda, to investigate the teachings of the sages on Dharma - he alone and no one else truly knows.
There should be no passive learning or blind acceptance of teachings and doctrines:
In the Vedic tradition the student who constantly questions, inquires, argues logically and thinks deeply is the one who is praised. Rāmānuja himself often differed in opinion from his teachers and debated with them on many issues.
Learning is stressed above all else and the greatest gift is the gift of knowledge. Learning is the cause of Brāhminhood and even Manu says that a brāhmin devoid of learning is not a brāhmin.
It would not be proper to complete this section on the Spiritual Process without referring to the most commonly known process in the west - Aṣṭāṅga Yoga.
Nātha-muni one of our principle āchāryas was said to have been the last great yogi.
The Śrī Vaiṣṇava version differs slightly from the method systematised in the 2nd century CE by Patañjali. The paradigm is that which is taught in the Pāñcharātra texts.
Although not an integral part of the teaching of Rāmānuja it can nevertheless be a useful framework for one’s spiritual practice as it incorporates a physical training program which is essential for health and well-being.
The following is the format given in the Naradiya Saṁhitā chapter 30:
1. Yama - self-restraint;
1. anrshamsyam - absence of vindictiveness or prejudice,
2. kshamā - forgiveness,
3. satyam - truth,
4. ahimsa - non-injury to any living thing,
5. damaḥ - self-control,
6. ārjavam - directness, simplicity,
7. dānaṁ - generosity,
8. prasādaḥ - eating only that which has first been offered to God.
9. mādhurya - sweetness, gracefulness,
10. mārdavaṃ - gentleness.
2. Niyama - self-regulation;
1. śaucaṃ - purity; environmental, physical and mental,
2. ijya - worship of God,
3. tapaḥ - self-discipline,
4. svādhyāya - study of the Scriptures and teachings of the āchāryas and self-contemplation and assessment,
5. upastha-nigrahah - sexual restraint,
6. vratam - seasonal religious observances, retreats etc.
7. upavasah - periodic fasting,
8. maunam - practising noble silence.
3. Āsana - practicing of yogic postures (hatha yoga) the purpose of which is to develop and maintain health and condition the body for the practice of meditation (dhyāna).
4. Prāṇāyāma - regulation of breath - exercises for controlling the breathing which exerts a purification effect upon the mind and the psychic nerve centres (chakras).
5. Pratyāhāra - practicing the withdrawal of the mind from the objects of the senses – the process of taming the mind - a preliminary exercise as preparation for concentration.
6. Dhāraṇa - practice of concentration - in Śrī Vaiṣṇavism this takes the form of contemplation upon one of the iconic manifestations of Lord Vishnu, with the use of the sacred mantras appropriate to that form.
7. Dhyāna - meditation proper; this is understood as a state of continuous visualisation of the Divine Form of the Supreme Lord. Rāmānuja describes this as thought-flow likened to an unbroken flow of oil into oil. It is a state which arises naturally after one becomes proficient in concentration.
Meditation is not a “doing” it is a state of “being”. Technically speaking, one cannot actively meditate, the process of contemplation leads one into a meditative state which is spontaneous. As long as one is trying to meditate nothing will happen.
8. Samādhi - a state of transcendental consciousness in which one is totally absorbed in the object of contemplation to the exclusion of all else. The subject - object awareness disappears.
It can take many years of contemplation before a serious state of meditation is achieved - remember there is no goal beyond the process itself! The practitioner who expects immediate results is likely to become frustrated and disillusioned and renounce spirituality altogether.
As a means to self-liberation it is not recommended but as a basis for one’s personal spiritual practice it can be very useful. So this practice of aṣṭāṅga yoga and specifically meditation can serve as an adjunct to one’s practice.