Introduction to the Yoga Vasistha
Sri Swami Venkatesananda
This article is from the book “Multiple Reflections”.
The Yoga Vasistha is a scripture of great importance but it is perhaps not as well-known in the world as, for instance, the Bhagavad Gita may be. The scripture contains a cosmology which is most modern. It contains theories of physics which are not only nuclear but sub-atomic; and, what is extremely important, it gives a vision that is at the same time both grand and subtle. Recently I was reading a very interesting book titled Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas, where he describes the human body in cosmic dimensions, meaning that every cell in this body is an enormous organism within which there are independent organisms, which themselves house other organism–worlds within worlds. That is just about the basic theory of the Yoga Vasistha. Thomas says that on the basis of his studies, he does not even visualise the earth as an organism. The best view of the world could be that it is one single cell. The Vasistha gives a beautiful story which resembles exactly that. If one has this view, then I think all the division which haunts our vision will disappear. You and I, including the dog, are not only one, but we are all cells–little things within one cell.
The scripture contains wonderful health hints, psychosomatic theories, wonderful instructions for meditation and for worship and beautiful descriptions, if not instructions, concerning warfare. All this and highly romantic stories, too.
However, we are not really concerned with all that. Most of our problems revolve around the questions: What is our life? What am I? What must I do? Why am I here? Some of us at some time or other in our lives reach the point where we feel: “I am living a useless life. What is all this for? I feel so insignificant–like a dry leaf which is wafted in the wind.” There arises despair–what St. John of the Cross might have called the dark night of the soul. The response to this question is the teaching contained in the scripture.
Vasistha declares right in the beginning that the feeling that I am bound psychologically and that I want to get out of this prison is the qualification of one who can profit by study of this text. If the soul experiences this dark night and that soul, craving for light, is exposed to this teaching, it is instantly enlightened.
Why do despair and fear arise in our life? Why do we get attached to anything in this life? Why do we hate anything in this life? All these arise from hope or desire for happiness, for peace of mind. This hope inevitably leads us to its own destruction, leads us to unhappiness. Vasistha says: “Give up all these ideas of running away from this world. Don’t even try to examine what this despair is, don’t even try to investigate whatever is a passing phenomenon. Don’t even let your mind dwell on what has been considered unreal.”
There is one verse which is extremely beautiful:
bhramasya jagatasya ‘sya jatasya ‘kasavarnavat
apunah smaranam manye sadho vismaranam varam
The world is bhrama–an appearance, hallucination. Vasistha compares the world-appearance to the blueness of the sky; although there is nothing blue there, if you look at it you will still see blue. This hallucination will continue as long as you continue to look at it and wonder. You have hallucinated this world and you have strengthened this hallucination by constantly thinking about whether it is real or unreal. Vasistha says: “It is better to think of something else.”
What is the reality? That which is, is real. The following example occurs quite often in the scripture: there is a bracelet made of gold. Bracelet is a word which we have used conventionally. We also see this as a form and as soon as the form is seen, it generates a concept and a word in the mind. If we dismiss the word and look at the form, we can play a very interesting game: is it gold or is it bracelet? Both. How can only one thing be two? The substance is gold; the reality is gold. It appears in a certain form and convention has given it a name.
If that is clear, everything is clear. For instance, if somebody called me a fool, by reacting to that, I am accepting that I am a fool. The statement had a certain psychological form but the reality of that is nothing but pure consciousness within. Something that happened in the outside world sent me into this ocean of despair. I became afraid and I did not bother to look into it, because I took the external circumstance as something real. And so my attention was completely and totally directed towards this external experience. If I am not a fool, why should I react to him at all? In such a situation, can I look for the reality? What is the reality of one I call the other person? What is the reality of that body, that mind? At the same time what is the reality that I call me, which reacts? Are these two completely separate and independent realities? This dual enquiry has to continue together, not one after the other. The subject and the object have to be looked into together.
A student of the Yoga Vasistha discovers that enlightenment consists of just three steps: there is an appearance; what is the substance behind the appearance? The mind. What is the substance of the mind, and who understands all this? The answer is pure consciousness. In that consciousness you and I, the subject and the object, appear to be divided.
Consciousness, being omnipresent and infinite, manifests (no other word is possible) itself in infinite ways everywhere. It is not possible for this diversity to disappear, but what can and should disappear is seeing it as diverse objects opposed to one another. The infinite remains infinite all the time and the infinite conceives of all this in creation within itself.
A beautiful symbolism is given to us: Vasistha says that this objective creation is like uncut figures in a marble slab–you are a sculptor and you think of the lovely figures you can carve out of it. All those figures exist in it already, potentially. You can visualise one big Buddha or you can visualise hundreds of smaller Buddhas in that one figure of Buddha. That is how this whole world exists.
The world exists not as a reality; the world is a word and there is a psychological form. The psychological form is nothing more than an hallucination which arises in consciousness. Accepting it as an independent reality, we chase one thing and reject something else. All these experiences again form impressions on the mind, strengthening bondage or rather strengthening the idea we have of bondage.
The external world and external circumstances arise in this cosmic consciousness (which you call God); the same consciousness experiences these external circumstances and these are known as subjective experiences, which change–that is all. Realising this you are freed from the delusion of considering these appearances as the reality. Having been freed, says Vasistha, you don’t sit idle, you are rejecting that which is the flow of life. Finally Vasistha advises: live in this world as life is lived here, but completely free of all sorrow. Then if you have to weep, weep; if you have to express suffering, express suffering; if you have to express joy and happiness, do so–because you are free.
I have seen only one person who measured that description–my Guru, Swami Sivananda, who was a completely enlightened and liberated person and also totally human. If you went to him with an unhappy story, even before you shed tears you would find tears in his eyes; if you had something joyous to tell him, he was more happy than you were. He was completely uninhibited; free psychologically and spiritually; he was extremely busy–not because he wanted to achieve anything, but because he had realised that achievement or non-achievement are both irrelevant to life.
Your life is not your life. It is part of this cosmic being and whatever that cosmic being decides has to happen. The direct understanding of this is surrender. In order to see this, you must have passed through this despair. You must have come to the direct understanding that what you want to happen, does not happen. If you want something, work for it and if it does happen, Vasistha would say that it is an accidental coincidence. It does not happen all the time and you might notice that more often than not it does not happen. When one sees that, he completely surrenders and at that point he directs his attention towards the source of all these cravings, desires, hopes and anxieties and comes face to face with the mind. He realises that that mind itself is pure consciousness. In it there appears to be conditioned motivations and even that appearance is discarded. That is a life totally free, instantly freed and divine.