The Seven Planes of Prajna
By Swami Alokananda
Brahman is Satchidananda—existence, knowledge, and bliss absolute—eternal, unchanging, without beginning or end, the plenitude of knowledge, devoid of all activity, transcending all objective categories. Through its omnipotence, Shakti, it willed its own objective manifestation. The indivisible ocean of consciousness was thrown into waves. Though every wave is part of the ocean, yet each is seen as a separate independent entity. In like manner, the individual soul, jiva—a wave in the limitless ocean of nondual Satchidananda—conceives itself as independent out of ignorance, ajñāna or avidyā, becomes confined to the limited sphere of knowledge, and is overcome by egotism. Release from this avidyā alone can bring fulflment in life. Only then is the jiva able to transcend the cycle of birth and death by being established in its own true Self. The Indian spiritual tradition has detailed different spiritual practices or sadhanas for practitioners of diverse temperaments to be established in the Self. We shall be taking a very brief look at the process of reaching the farthest reaches of insight, prajñā, as described by Maharshi Patanjali.
Ayurveda conceives the practice of the art of healing in terms of disease, its cause, health, and the means to health. The system of yoga, which aims at elimination of existential ills, also outlines its method under four heads: heya, the ill that has to be eliminated; heya-hetu, the cause of the ill; hāna, freedom from the ill; and hānopāya, the means to this freedom. Existence, characterized by sorrow, is itself the ill. The union between the purusha, the seer, and the mind or intellect, buddhi, the seen, is the cause of the ill. Permanent elimination of this attachment or ‘wrong identifcation’ is freedom, and viveka-khyāti, discriminative knowledge devoid of all falsity, is the means to this freedom.
That all worldly objects are sources of pain is a central dictum in yoga. Even apparently pleasurable objects lead to painful consequences. The identifcation of the Purusha with the mind is the source of the three kind of sorrows: ādhyātmika, physical and psychological; ādhibhautika, caused by other beings; and ādhidaivika, the natural calamities. Though eternally pure and unattached, the Purusha identifes itself with the mind or buddhi due to ajñāna. Just as a loving mother actually starts feeling the pain of her sick child and even thinks of herself as ill due to her attachment to the child, the Purusha too considers itself afflicted by the ills of the mind. So the sadhaka has to break this identifcation of the seer with the seen. The identifcation is the result of a lack of discrimination between the true identities of the seer and the seen. Hence the sadhaka has to cultivate discriminative knowledge, viveka-khyāti, about the seer and the seen through the practice of the eight limbed yoga. When this viveka-khyāti remains unimpeded by nescience or false knowledge the jiva attains prajñā, discriminative insight.
In his Yoga Sutra Maharshi Patanjali mentions several levels of prajñā, the ultimate discriminative insight derived from viveka-khyāti: ‘Tasya saptadhā prānta-bhūmih prajñā; to that person come seven forms of discriminative insight’ (2.27).
The first plane of prajñā marks the ultimacy of the sadhaka’s knowledge. Earlier, the sadhaka had something to know about the ills that he or she was trying to forsake. Now that need is extinguished. In the next stage the renunciant is established in the conviction that nothing further remains to be renounced. On reaching the third plane the sadhaka realizes that he or she has successfully accessed all the means to this detachment; nothing more remains to be acquired. When on the fourth plane, the sadhaka is convinced that having attained viveka-khyāti through samprajñāta samādhi he or she has reached the culmination of the practices for liberation and that nothing more remains to be done.
These four forms of prajñā constitute kārya-vimukti, liberation from action. They involve active practice. The next three planes involve dissolution of the citta, mindstuff, and together constitute citta-vimukti. As the yogi remains established in para-vairāgya, supreme renunciation, these three planes of prajñā unfold of their own accord.
The fifth form of prajñā brings with it the realization that the mind, having fulfilled its function, has become quiescent, and that sorrows born of vāsanās, desires and impulses, have come to an end. With the advent of the sixth discriminative insight the mindstuff, derived from the three gunas, starts disintegrating irreversibly: ‘like boulders dislodged from the top of a hill, the mind, along with its constituents, rushes unstoppably into dissolution—merger in its cause, Prakriti’. On the final plane the Purusha is restored to its own pristine state, devoid of all contact with the mind and its functions which have now undergone total dissolution.
The first plane marks the end of all jijñāsā, desire for knowing; the second of jihāsā, desire for giving up; the third of prepsā, wish to obtain; and the fourth of cikīrsā, wish to do. The next three planes are characterized by the successive elimination of duhkha, bhaya, and vikalpa—sorrow, fear, and finally all mental modifcations. In the Vedantic text Yogavasishtha, the sage Vasishtha also speaks of seven stages of yoga:
Jñāna-bhūmih śubhecchākhyā prathamā samudāhrtā; Vicāranā dvitīyā syāt trtīyā tanumānasā. Sattvāpattiś-caturthī syāt- tato’samsakti-nāmikā; Padārthābhāvinī sasthī saptamī turyagā smrtā.
The first stage of knowledge is called ‘goodwill’, the second is termed ‘discrimination’, and the third ‘attenuated mind’. The fourth stage is ‘self realization’, the fifth is named ‘detachment’, the sixth is the ‘objectless’, and the seventh the ‘transcendent’.
Renunciation of worldly attachments and activities through discrimination and cultivation of traits like restraint of the senses and the mind, abstinence from sensual thought, forbearance, faith, and meditation out of an intense desire for liberation constitute the first plane, Shubheccha. Formally approaching a guru and undertaking study of and reflection on Vedantic dicta under his or her guidance is the second stage, Vicharana. The mental capacity to apprehend subtle spiritual truths, developed through practice of contemplation on Vedantic truths, nididhyāsana, marks the third plane, Tanumanasa. The fourth plane, Sattvapatti, is characterized by the nondual realization of the oneness of Atman and Brahman, resulting from śravana—instruction on Vedantic mahāvākyas, comprehensive unitary statements, by a competent teacher. When the mind practising nirodha, restraint, moves beyond objective or savikalpaka samadhi to nirvikalpaka samadhi, an objectless state, then it is said to have reached the fifth plane, termed Asamsakti. The permanent and steady establishment in this state born of sustained effort on the previous planes is termed Padarthabhavini, the sixth plane. When the yogi is so established in Brahman, so soaked in the bliss of samadhi as never to return to a lower plane, either of one’s own accord or through others’ efforts, then that yogi is on the ultimate plane, Turyaga.
The fourth plane signals Self realization, the first three being means to it. The last three planes are but diferent states of jīvanmukti, freedom while living:
Caturthī-bhūmikā jñānam tisrah syuh sādhanam purā; Jīvanmukter-avasthāstu parās-tisrah prakīrtitāh.
Yogis happening to die while on any of the first three planes would have to be born again. They are not liberated because they are yet to attain jnana, though they have renounced karma. It is only those who are on the fourth or higher planes that are assured of videha-kaivalya, liberation from future embodiment. The Bhagavata has this to say about the external behaviour of the jīvanmukta yogi:
Deham ca naśvaram-avasthitam-utthitam vā siddho na paśyati yato’dhyagamat svarūpam; Daivādapetam-uta daiva-vaśād-upetam vāso yathā parikrtam madirā-madāndhah.
This person of realization is not aware of the body that was an aid to realization—unconcerned if it remains by virtue of prārabdha, past actions that have started fruiting—just as a person inebriated with wine is unaware if his cloth is still on.
Deho’api daiva-vaśagah khalu karma yāvat svārambhakam pratisamīksata eva sāsuh; Tam saprapañcam-adhirūdha-samādhi-yogah svāpnam punar-na bhajate pratibuddha-vastuh.
As long as the prārabdha karma that lead to the present embodiment lasts, the body (of the yogi of realization) will remain, together with the prānas, but the knowing one, who has attained the state of samadhi and realized the Truth, is no more attached to the body and its appurtenances, viewing them as (equivalent to) dream objects (11.13.37).
About the liberated person who has transcended all desires, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says: ‘Tad-yathāhinirlvayanī valmīke mrtā pratyastā śayīta evam-evedam śarīram śete athāyam-aśarīro’mrtah prāno brahmaiva teja eva; just as the lifeless slough of a snake is cast of and lies in the anthill, so does this body lie—then the self becomes disembodied and immortal, (becomes) the Prana (Supreme Self ), Brahman, the Light.’ In his commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra Swami Vivekananda has described this state thus: ‘The Yogi (having reached this state) will become peaceful and calm, never to feel any more pain, never to be again deluded, never to be touched by misery. He will know he is ever blessed, ever perfect, almighty.’ 
- ‘Heyam duhkham-anāgatam’; Yoga Sutra, 2.16.
- ‘Drastr-drśyayoh samyogo heya-hetuh’ (2.17).
- ‘Tad-abhāvāt samyogābhāvo hānam tad-drśeh kaivalyam’ (2.25).
- ‘Viveka-khyātir-aviplavā hānopāyah’ (2.26).
- Laghu-yoga-vasishtha, 13.113–14.
- Bhagavata, 11.13.36.
- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 4.4.7.
- The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997),1.259.
- Originally published as "The Seven Planes of Prajñā" by Prabhuddha Bharata May 2009 edition. Reprinted with permission.