Theory And Practice
Sri Swami Venkatesananda
This article is from the book “Sivananda Yoga”.
The Yoga-Vedanta Forest Academy (originally called a University) was Swami Sivananda’s brain child. When he gave expression to this idea he had a certain vision which was characteristic of him–that of a synthesis of theory and practice.
In this particular area of the Himalayas you’ll find many enlightened souls (some perpetually silent, others engaging themselves in their own practices) without the urge–and sometimes the ability–to communicate with others. Perhaps if you go and live with them, through what is known as Shaktipath, you might also reach enlightenment–but it is also possible that you might not.
For the vast majority of people some form of theoretical introduction is vital before they are even induced to take up the practice of Yoga. The usual gradation in Yoga is that first comes Karma-yoga, then Bhakti-yoga, then Raja-yoga and then Jnanayoga. There was a great Acharya called Ramanuja. It was his theory that Bhakti comes after Jnana, for how can you love something which you don’t know? Real Bhakti (or Parabhakti or devotion) arises after you have some knowledge of the person or the principle. Thousands of people may be potential Yogis and may want to practise Yoga. If they are given a glimpse of the theory they would probably enter the path, but they are neglected by these cave-dwellers who have reached the goal without an intellectual understanding of the theory.
Krishna suggests this in the Bhagavad-Gita:
chaturvidha bhajante mam janah sukrtino ‘rjuna
arto jijnasur-artharthi jnani cha bharatarshabha (VII. 16)
Four kinds of virtuous men worship Me, O Arjuna, and they are the distressed, the seeker of knowledge, the seeker of wealth, and the wise, O lord of the Bharatas.
All sorts of people seek to enter the spiritual path. Among them are the Jijnasus, the people who want to know. If they are told that they must become like those silent Yogis, either they are completely turned off, waste their time or imagine that they have become like the masters, which is even more dangerous. Merely sitting erect and unmoving doesn’t make you an enlightened person. Gurudev himself used to make fun of these people, comparing them to stones in the Ganga. The stones also sit there for thousands of years, unmoving. Are they also enlightened?
Two incidents come to mind. Way back in 1946, when the Ganga bank had not been developed (or spoiled, it depends upon your point of view) there were no steps. There was a longish veranda on the post office complex; that was our kitchen, dining hall, Satsang place, office and everything in those days. Gurudev used to conduct a morning meditation class there from 4.15 to about 6.00. Right on the Ganga bank a howling wind blows early in the morning, and in spite of it he used to come out of his room exactly at 4.00, wearing an enormous overcoat and a shawl tied as a turban. It was an exciting, inspiring sight just to look at this Jivanmukta walking out of his little Kutir. He was regular and punctual in attending the meditation class. A visitor from Andhra Pradesh was not keen on attending this class, but used to sit up poker-stiff on a huge rock at 4.00 a.m. One day after the meditation class Gurudev was seated on one of those cement benches and we entered into some discussion for about half an hour. In the meantime that gentleman had finished his meditation and entered through the farther door. Gurudev looked at him with one eye closed. (He usually closed one eye whenever he wanted to say something very interesting!) For a couple of minutes, Gurudev questioned him and he revealed that he meditated every day from 4 to 7. Gurudev appeared to admire him. But suddenly the whole scene changed. He roared: “Look at him! Sleepy and drowsy. (To him) What are you doing? Sitting and sleeping on the stone? Do you know what meditation means? What Samadhi means? To touch the infinite. Do you know what power, what energy you’ll have when you touch the infinite like that? You say you have been enjoying deep meditation and Samadhi for three hours. Yet when you come out you are sleepy, drowsy. Go and wash your face.” In those days there was no water supply here. We used to form a line of water carriers from the Ganga to the downstairs kitchen water tank. Gurudev said to this man, “Join them, fill up the tank, then you will know what Samadhi means.” So Samadhi is not merely sitting. If that is Samadhi then all the stones on the Ganga bank have attained Samadhi!
The second incident happened to me. One day in 1948 I went down to the Ganga several times at three-hour intervals. I saw an almost naked ascetic seated under a tree with half-closed eyes. I thought he was a very great Yogi who could meditate for over ten hours at a stretch. One night there was some commotion in the temple where he was staying as a guest. The next day he had left. On enquiry, the temple priest said to me that he was not a real Sadhu (holy man) but a bad character and that his ability to sit unmoving was the result of some drug!
When you see someone sit still for a long time and you try to imitate him and can’t do it, either you give up the whole thing, pretend that you have also attained this state or find a short cut to it. Someone comes along and says, “You’re wasting your time. Take one sniff of this drug and then you’ll enter into real Samadhi.” Then you begin to think that may be the Guru also does the same thing. It leads to all sorts of perversions. So when you imitate these enlightened cave-dwellers you may become like them, but you may not. You may slip into Tamas, which is very easy. So one needs some other knowledge.
It is possible for the Mouni (silent) Jivanmukta to transmit his Shakti to an Adhikari (qualified or mature seeker). Adhikara is the most important thing. A student who is internally ripe (like Sukadeva) only needs a little bit of concentration and he has knowledge of the Reality. But what happens to the thousands of people who are not so evolved, who still need some more theoretical help? Observing this need, Gurudev said that the Yoga-Vedanta Forest Academy should impart knowledge of both theory and practice.
A Mouni Jivanmukta may not have much theoretical background. If you go down to Benares or other such places you will find people who can lecture, but in their own lives they are nowhere near their own ideal. Gurudev did not have any special admiration for them beyond the respect that he gave everybody.
The following incident illustrates this: The present post office was our office then. Three of us used to sit in the office with Gurudev. In those days the work was not so heavy so there was plenty of leisure, and Gurudev had a lot of time for us. One day a doctor of philosophy entered the office early in the morning. Gurudev welcomed him. He sat down and said, “Swamiji, I have a question. Please tell me what the difference is between Nirvikalpa Samadhi and Savikalpa Samadhi.” That was an opportunity for us to learn–we would not dare to ask such a question for ourselves–so we all stopped working and listened. It’s a million dollar question! Gurudev put his glasses up and looked at him. “Have you had your breakfast?” he asked him. “Would you have some tea or coffee?” He had to give an answer. He said, “Tea, Swamiji.” Now came tea, fruits and books. The doctor enjoyed his tea and some Idli. And then came his wife. She stepped into the office, gave one stern look, and said. “How long have I been waiting there for you! Come, let us go.” And he quietly got up, bowed down to Swamiji, and said, “I’m leaving.” Once he had gone Swamiji laughed and laughed. It was a beautiful laugh. “He wants to know about Savikalpa Samadhi. The wife gives one look and he goes.” This is the type of person you find elsewhere–pandits who have enormous knowledge, who could keep you enthralled for hours discoursing on half a verse of the Bhagavad-Gita. Fantastic. Gurudev loved them, admired their intellect, but that’s all!
There was another very amusing incident. During Gurudev’s All-India Tour a few learned scholars met him in Varanasi. As he was walking past, greeting them, one of them asked a question in Sanskrit. Gurudev turned to him and asked, “Comment ca va, comment vous appellez vous?”, (two sentences in French he had learnt). The pandit just stared with dropped jaw. He did not understand the reply. (Moral: The purpose of language is communication and not showing off.)
So, you must communicate and you must also learn how to communicate. Theory and practice must go hand in hand. One is not the enemy of the other, but the friend, and one without the other is useless. Apart from the dangers I mentioned earlier, there is another. Gurudev himself told us that when he came to Rishikesh all that he wanted was to sit under a tree, to sing God’s names, to do Japa–and that’s all. He was fond of Kirtan. There was not a single function which commenced without Sankirtana. Every occasion demanded the singing of God’s names. If somebody was sick, dying, dead, born or married, for laying a foundation-stone or pulling a building down, he sang Hare Rama. In one of his early letters to his senior-most disciple, Swami Paramanandaji, he had even said that we should transform the whole of India through Sankirtan alone. In accordance with that ideal, when he was still living in Swargashram he used to preside over and participate in Sankirtan conferences. Even before the Divine Life Society was started he had established several groups of Sankirtanists for organising and holding Sankirtan conferences. But very soon he discovered that it was degenerating into some kind of emotionalism–people jumping and dancing and calling it ecstasy. Ecstasy can be reached through Sankirtan no doubt, but not all can do that. Very soon there was a power struggle, so within a year or two he changed his mind. He said, “Sankirtan alone is no good. It leads to emotionalism. There must be some Jnana, some understanding. Kirtan is singing God’s name, not conducting a musical competition. It is the Bhavana that is important, and one must learn to recognise and understand that Bhavana.” As years went by he evolved a system of synthesis. Practice is extremely important, but not without understanding.
When you gain this theoretical understanding it must at the same time help you and help others. Learn whatever you can here, go out and share it, not feeling that you know everything, but to the extent that you have gained this theoretical understanding and practical knowledge, impart it, offer it at the feet of the omnipresent God in worship. Gurudev used to insist upon that. Whatever you have, share–including knowledge of Yoga and Vedanta. That way your shyness is removed and your own ideas and knowledge become clearer. Otherwise you are your only and greatest admirer! You are utterly convinced that you are very learned and know everything, and as long as you don’t open your mouth at all there is nobody to challenge that conviction, but when you open your mouth and some people laugh you realise you are not all that clever! So there is an incentive to learn more.
Gurudev started this Yoga-Vedanta Forest Academy to train us in the theory and practice of Yoga Vedanta–not only theory, not only practice, but both these combined–in order that this knowledge could be broadcast far and wide; in order that they who come to you out of curiosity might in course of time become Jnanis, because they realise what they are seeking and they also know the path and the goal.