Atma-Samyama Yoga

|| भगवद्गीतासारः ||

Atma-Samyama Yoga

(M. R. Dwarakanath)



This chapter is titled Atma-Samyama Yoga. Samyama means restraint or control. Thus, Atma here seems to refer to the mind (or the individual self – ego) as the mind is the one that needs restraining all the time. At a very practical level, the Bhagavadgita is a treatise on duty and mind/self control! If only one could keep one’s mind in check at all times, there would be few problems in life; especially of law and order and most medical problems too! This chapter is also referred to as Dhyana Yoga or the Yoga of meditation which is highly appropriate. Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras defines Yoga as (योगः चित्त वृत्ति निरोधः।) the reining of the mind / behavior and Yama as consisting of (अहिंसा सत्यमस्तेयं ब्रह्मचर्यमपरिग्रहं यमः।) non-violence, honesty, non-stealth, continence and non-covetousness. He then goes on to list the types of mental vacillations and the means to control them as (अभ्यासवैराग्याभ्यां तन्निरोधः।) practice and dispassion. As we shall see, Patanjali fully resonates with Krishna.

The first 4 verses of this chapter reiterate the ideas expressed in the previous chapter. A Sannyasi is not one who merely dons ochre robes, relinquishes the fire ritual and withdraws from social intercourse; rather is anyone who carries out one’s prescribed duties without an eye on the rewards of that effort is a true Sannyasi!  If Yoga is the positive aspect of action – the dos, Sannyasa is the negative aspect – the don’ts. Relinquishing mental resolve to reap benefits from one’s action is essential for spiritual progress. This understood there is no difference between a Sannyasi and a Yogi. Krishna makes no distinction between Sannyasa and Yoga just as he saw no difference between Sankhya and Yoga earlier. Krishna lays down the chief prerequisite for meditation as selfless action – not the sole purview of ascetics. Once engaged in contemplation, the votary should rid one’s self of all thoughts of the world. Sankalpa is a vow to undertake certain spiritual activities. Typically, these are undertaken with specific material benefits in mind. These are not conducive to meditation, thus they should be shunned.

The next 6 verses develop this idea further. While Krishna asks the votary to forego the fruits of his actions, he holds his feet to the fire with regard to personal responsibility! He says one should lift one’s self up with one’s bootstraps. The self can turn out to be one’s best friend or the worst enemy depending on how the senses are reined in or otherwise. When reined in, the mind stays serene and is not agitated by the opposites of heat or cold (metaphorically,) happiness or sorrow (literally.) The Yogi who has total control over his senses regards a clump of mud, a piece of stone or a nugget of gold all equally with dispassion. He shows no allure for gold, nor disdain for the lump of mud. This is a refrain that weaves throughout the entire gita. If one were to pick a single message from the gita to live by, then this is it; do your duty sincerely and be indifferent to the outcome. This indifference does not allow one to be slip shod in carrying out one’s work. All work should be performed diligently with total dedication for a successful outcome of the highest caliber. The indifference comes in only after the fact; after the duty has been discharged with utmost care! The Yogi excels when he is free from prejudice, treats friends, foes, relatives, mediators, the virtuous and the wicked with equanimity and without prejudice. This injunction has to be taken in the sense that those who live in glass houses should not pelt stones at other dwellings.

Preparation for Meditation: Dhyana requires preparation both external and internal. Krishna is no mere theoretician; he spares no minutia on the steps to be taken in preparation of meditation. He guides the votary every step of the way. He says that one should sit in a clean, secluded place on a stable platform with Kusha grass, deer skin and silk cloth forming the seat. This seat should be neither too low nor too high. These practical details are intended to ensure that meditation is not disturbed by others, pests, a wobbly seat, unclean surroundings or fear of falling off the seat. Krishna does not recommend austere practices such as standing on one foot in searing heat and going without food or water, as these practices cannot be sustained over time. A sustained effort is more important than short bursts of severe penance. The body, neck and head should be aligned, erect and steady for even breathing and reducing strain on the back. The gaze should be on the tip of the nose and not allowed to wander hither and thither. The eyes distract most easily!

Having attended to the physical, Krishna turns to the mental. The mind should rein in the senses, be perfectly calm and free from fear. One should not waver from Brahmacarya and the votary should constantly focus on Krishna and enjoy lasting peace. Krishna advocates moderation in diet, in activity, recreation and sleep.  As for the focus of one’s meditation, Krishna directs Arjuna to constantly focus his mind on him (Krishna) and be absorbed in him. Yet he refers to uniting with the Atma, being in touch with Brahman to enjoy eternal bliss. What should then be the focus in meditation?

Meditative State: Here I digress. Meditation involves both negative (don’ts) and positive (dos) actions. The negative is to restrain the senses from chasing sense objects and the mind from conjuring scenarios of pleasure or pain. This can be achieved by redirecting (distracting) the mind towards something benign. For instance, one could direct attention to one’s breath. Following the breath as the cool air enters through the nose and fills the lungs raising the diaphragm subsequently the falling of the diaphragm emptying of the lungs and the warm air flowing out of the nose etc. to distract the mind from its usual penchant for vacillation and hankering after sense objects. Alternately, one could focus attention on a steady flame or a favorite icon. The idea is to steer the mind away from the constant barrage of Raga-Dvesha. Concentration and Meditation do not come easily – these techniques can be of help. As the mind gets restless and turns toward sense objects, it has to be steered back to god, eventually renouncing completely all desires and attraction to sense objects.

Focus in Meditation: Now for the positive action in meditation, one could focus the mind on god or the Self. If one were to choose god as the focus, it seems that one cannot dwell too long on god in the abstract. One would pick an Istadevata and contemplate on that icon and god’s majesty and His various Vibhutis. This would be termed Saguna Upasana.  If one were to meditate on the self, the self has to be clearly understood. What is the Self? It is not the body, as it is after all the locus of all enjoyment and sorrow. The mind is a bundle of thoughts or Vasanas which lead back to memories of happiness and sorrow or longings for happiness and removal of sorrow. The mind is not fit as the subject of contemplation. One thinks of consciousness as the Self, but consciousness involves being conscious of something leading back to Vasanas. Thus, it seems the one remaining element is Free Energy that sustains and drives everything in this world. It is the common denominator; the substratum. It is universal. This universality seems to be at the heart of what Krishna is driving at when he says that he who sees me in everything and everything in me is not lost. This attitude to life is most conducive to happiness.

Curiously, the gita seems to switch back and forth between theism and monism in the span of just a few verses. We go from reining in the senses and the mind from an objective world to the lofty ideal – ‘The Yogi sees the self standing in all, and all in the self, he sees the same in everything.” Immediately following this verse, one is directed to an intensely theistic passage of devotion to Krishna. Krishna asks the votary to worship him an in turn Krishna assures that he will not abandon the votary, a dualistic idea. This tension between theism and monism is seen throughout the gita at various places. It appears to offer an option in method.

State of Samadhi: When one identifies with universal human kind, the attributes of Yama of Patanjali come naturally. The votary, united with the universal (Krishna / Brahman,) enjoys eternal bliss. When the mind is fully tamed and rooted in god, then one is free from desires and is said to be Yogi. He is in Samadhi, is calm and unruffled, resembling a steady flame in a windless environment. This is a state of bliss with the mind stilled and the self rejoicing in the self. The intellect grasps that which is beyond the senses and enjoys extreme bliss. While Dhyana requires effort, Samadhi is an effortless state of pure bliss.

The fickle Mind: Arjuna observes that all this equanimity is not easy in practice as the mind is fickle and tough to control unlike the flame in a windless environment. In fact the mind gets tossed about just as the wind is turbulent and they are both hard to tame. Krishna acknowledges that the mind is indeed hard to control but it can be steadied by constant practice and by exercising dispassion. Krishna then goes on to assure Arjuna that while mind control is difficult, it is not hopeless. Constant effort is necessary. This opens up the possibility, nay certainty, the meditative state will be disturbed in time leading Arjuna to ask what happens to the person who is devoted, strives hard and yet falls short of the necessary level of control. Won’t he face the double jeopardy of neither heavenly bliss nor worldly enjoyment?  Krishna acknowledges that there will be lapses but there will also be success. Krishna assures Arjuna when meditation or spiritual progress is interrupted due to fatigue and an inability to concentrate, it does not lead to a total reset. Past effort does not go to waste; instead it goes to build a foundation for future effort. This is like experience that goes on to seed the next venture. The votary is reborn but into more propitious conditions such as a good and resourceful family to continue one’s spiritual journey from where it was lifted off and not from square one. However, the Yogi who stays on the path undisturbed attains release even in one’s present life. This chapter concludes with the exhortation for Arjuna to become a Yogi who is superior to a Sannyasi or one well versed in the Shastras and certainly those engaged in actions. Among Yogis Krishna regards that Yogi who is devoted to him as the best of Yogis.

Summary: Continued practice of Nishkama Karma leads to the conquest of wants, passion and prejudice, the true hallmarks of a Sannyasi. This sets the stage for Dhyana. Dhyana is the process for spiritual development leading to Samadhi or enlightenment. In this chapter, Krishna clarifies to Arjuna and the world the true meaning of Sannyasa which is primarily abjuring covetousness and not merely donning ochre robes and relinquishing action. He then instructs on the preparation for meditation, both external and internal. The key is to keep the mind focused on the Atman, be free from all distractions and see the world as humanity. In Samadhi all differences melt away and one enjoys perfect bliss. Finally, there is assurance that no sincere effort goes to waste.

॥सर्वं श्रीकृष्णार्पणमस्तु॥






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