By Swami Harshananda
Yogavāsistha is an extremely popular work, especially among the followers of Advaita Vedānta. It is an extensive philosophical poem spread over six prakaraṇas or chapters containing nearly 32,000 verses according to the tradition. Though the printed versions of this work contain less number of verses upto 23,734. It might have been composed during the 8th century A. D. It is written by an unknown author while tradition assigns it to the sage Vālmīki.
Impact of Yogavāsistha Over Other Works
This work seems to have influenced several later works like:
- Annapurna Upanisad of Sureśvara
- Mahopaniṣad of Sureśvara
- Mānasollāsa of Sureśvara
- Daksināmurti-stotra of Śaṅkara
- Jivanmuktiviveka of Vidyāraṇya.
Commentaries on Yogavāsistha
It has several commentaries. Some of them are:
- Vāsistharāmāyanacandrikā by Advayāraṇya
- Tātparyaprakāśa by Anandabodhendrasarasvatī
- Padacandrikā by Mādhavasarasvatī
Other Names of Yogavāsistha
It is known by several other names such as:
Summaries of Yogavāsistha
A few available summaries of the work are:
- Laghuyogavāsistha of Gauḍa Abhinanda
- Vāsisthasāragudhārtha by Rāmānandatirtha
These works again have their own commentaries written by scholars.
Content of Yogavāsistha
The treatise begins in a dramatic manner containing stories within stories and ends with a long dialogue between the sage Vasiṣṭha and Rāma, the son of king Daśaratha of Ayodhyā.
It is the first section which deals with the vairāgya or intense dispassion of Rāma due to disillusionment with the transitory nature of the world. At the request of the king Daśaratha, the sage Vasiṣṭha tries to enlighten him. This section is the onset of entire work.
It is the second section which tells Rāma that disillusionment in the world, because it is evanescent. He should lead to the dawn of wisdom. The conviction that one is in bondage because he feels that the world is real. One’s own ego leads to the cultivation of the four qualities like:
- Śama - tranquillity
- Vicāra - rational investigation
- Santoṣa - contentment
- Sādhusaṅgama - the company of the wise
Here, the sage Vasiṣṭha stresses the importance of pauruṣa and it can help overcome even the effect of past karmas.
This section deals with sṛṣti or creation. Vasiṣṭha is a thoroughgoing idealist. According to him, this world is a manifestation of the mind; the mind of Brahmā by his saṅkalpa or will. Even as the ocean alone is real and not the waves, though they appear and disappear, it is Brahman the ultimate Reality that is real and not the world. An analysis of the three states of consciousness is resorted to prove this point. Since the world arises by the saṅkalpa of Brahman, it is experienced by all of us to be tinted with our own saṅkalpa.
This section explains that the world continues to exist only as long as the saṅkalpa or desire is there. The world-experience is maintained as long as the mind is active and outward-looking. This is proved by taking the example of avasthātraya or the three states of consciousness. It is vāsanās that are responsible for the continuance of world-experience.
This section teaches the art of calming the mind. This calming of the mind is similar to the deep-sleep state. The techniques of destruction of the vāsanās or vāsanākṣaya are described here, leading to manonāśa, the destruction of the tendencies in the mind to rise in the form of mental waves. Jñāna or knowledge of the Self is the chief technique.
It is the last chapter. This is the longest part and has two sections:
- The purvārdha - earlier part
- The uttarārdha - later part
It has a number of stories and is highly repetitious. Nirvāṇa or liberation is the realization of the identity of the Self with the Absolute or Brahman. Since bondage arises by the false identification of the Self with the body, its reversal through a critical inquiry leads to this liberation. Hence, neither worship nor devotion to God will be of any use in this path.
Liberation is possible for everyone here and now. The liberated man, called jivanmukta—one who is free even while living—is a normal person who continues to live in the world and fulfill all the duties of his life. He is equanimous under all circumstances of life, never attached to anything. This treatise lays great stress on pauruṣa or self-effort. The subject of prāṇāyāma is also dealt with in detail. Prāṇa is essentially of the form of spanda or vibration. Seven stages of spiritual progress are also described. They are:
- Prathama-bhumikā - study and association with saintly persons
- Vicāraṇā - critical thinking
- Asaṅgabhāvanā - dissociation from all passions
- Vilāpanī - right understanding that the world-appearance is false
- Śuddhasariivit-maya-ānandarupa - a state of pure knowledge and bliss
- Suṣupta-sadṛśasthiti - a state similar to deep sleep, full of bliss
- Turyātita - transcendental state got after death
The fifth is the state of the jīvan-mukta. As regards the sādhanas or spiritual disciplines the Yogavāsistha advises the aspirant to study sacchāstras or right kind of scriptures and cleanse the mind by getting rid of:
- Rāga - attachment
- Dveṣa - hatred
- Tamas - ignorance
- Krodha - anger
- Mada - arrogance or pride
- Mātsarya - jealousy
Unlike Śaṅkara, Vasiṣṭha declares that a joint operation of karma and jñāna is necessary for reaching the goal. Great stress is also laid on vāsanākṣaya and manonāśa with the help of tattvajñāna, the three practices always going together.
Stories and Analogs in this Work
The work abounds in several interesting stories and analogies. A few of them may be briefly set out here:
- On the advice of his father, the sage Vyāsa, Suka goes to the king Janaka to learn about Brahman. Though severely tested, he comes out successful and is taught by him.
- There is a long and interesting story of the king Padma and his queen Līlā in the Utpattiprakaraṇa. The two were very much attached to each other. The queen Līlā prays to the goddess Sarasvatī and obtains the boon that when her husband dies, his soul should continue to live within her room. Even though the king Padma dies, his soul is confined to the room as promised by the goddess. His various experiences are seen mysteriously by the queen Līlā. Ultimately the soul of the king re-enters his body. He is revived and lives happily.
- In an allegorical story, the human mind is described as a mad man having a thousand hands and eyes. He constantly beats himself and wanders in a dense forest. This shows the self-torturing nature of the mind.
- A magician hypnotizes a king. The king then experiences a long series of events within a short period. This is just to show that all things in this world are relative, including time and space.
- Through the story of the sage Śukrācārya, it is shown how a jīva transmigrates due to intense desires and attachments.
- Dāśura was a sage who was upset by his father’s death. He then tried to get peace of mind through austerities and performance of sacrifices but failed. Finally, he got it by meditation on the ātman or the Self.
- Puṇya and Pāvana were brothers. The former was an enlightened person whereas the latter was not. When their father died Pāvana wept bitterly. Punya then revealed to him how he had had innumerable fathers in various births and it was futile to sorrow like that.
- The king Prahlāda had neglected the duties of the State, by constantly immersing himself in samādhi. Lord Viṣṇu awakened him and advised him to perform his duties which were equally important.
- Gādhi was a brāhmaṇa devotee of god Viṣṇu. He worshiped Viṣṇu to know something about his Māyā- power. Viṣṇu granted the boon. Once, when this devotee, while bathing in a river, dipped his head in water, he had a vision of a wonderful series of events involving himself and taking several years. When he regained his normal state, he discovered through a traveler that all these incidents were true and took place in a distant country.
- In the story of Kāka-bhuśuṇḍa, the sage in the form of a crow, Vasiṣṭha is taught the science of prāṇāyāma by which one can live a very long life.
- A vetāla used to put difficult questions to human beings he met and would devour them if they could not answer. He once met an enlightened king who answered all the questions properly. So, he could not harm him at all.
- Bhagīratha was a king who renounced everything to realize Brahman. After realization, he was once requested by the people of another country whose king had died, to be their king. He accepted their offer and ruled wisely. This shows that a man of knowledge can also be a man of action.
- The story of the king Sikhidhvaja of Mālva and his queen Cuḍālā is the longest of all. Hankering after true happiness and peace they start practicing spiritual disciplines. Cudālā, through discriminative knowledge, realizes the Self first. Her husband Sikhidhvaja does not succeed even after severe austerities. Cudālā, out of her love and compassion for him, succeeds in making him realize the Self by adopting some clever plans. She later tests him in various ways to find out whether his realization is true and steady. When she finds him truly established in the highest knowledge of the Self, she brings him back to the kingdom to rule over it like a perfectly free and wise man.
- There was a very poor woodcutter. He used to go to a forest in search of wood every day and supported his family by selling the wood thus collected. By constantly striving to better his earnings, he one day found the philosopher’s stone. This solved his problem permanently. This story shows how constant efforts of perfection done according to the instructions of the teacher and the scriptures, will surely succeed one day.
Incidentally, this work explains some other topics also. It is opined that vāsanās are responsible to bring the soul back to other lives. Hence, śrāddhas or obsequial ceremonies to the dead are not of much use. As regards with the ritualistic worship, it is ātmapuja or worship of the Self through bodha, sāmya and śama that really matters. Other ingredients which are helpful are as follows:
- Maitrī - friendliness towards all
- Karuṇā - compassion towards the lowly and the suffering
- Mudita - delight towards those who are happy
- Upekṣā - conscious indifference towards the evildoers
Murtipujā or image-worship is considered equal to bālakrīḍā or child-play. On the whole, the Yogavāsistha is a work that challenges the intellect by its uncompromising logic and at the same time exhilarating by its beautiful poetry.
- ↑ He lived in A. D. 800.
- ↑ He lived in A. D. 788-820.
- ↑ He lived in 14th century A. D.
- ↑ He lived in 9th century A. D.
- ↑ Pauruṣa means self-effort.
- ↑ Brahmā is the creator.
- ↑ Saṅkalpa means thought, desire.
- ↑ Vāsanās means inclinations and predispositions of the mind.
- ↑ Prāṇāyāma means control of prāṇa or the life force.
- ↑ He lived in A. D. 788-820.
- ↑ Karma means action.
- ↑ Jñāna means knowledge.
- ↑ Vāsanākṣaya means destruction of the root-inclinations.
- ↑ Manonāśa means destruction of the tendencies in the mind that forcibly arise.
- ↑ Tattvajñāna means knowledge of the truth.
- ↑ Vetāla means the malevolent spirit of a dead man.
- ↑ Bodha means understanding.
- ↑ Sāmya means sense of equality towards all.
- ↑ Śama means calmness of mind.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore