Learning how to use the memory creatively is one of the most valuable techniques of Yoga. Memory plays a large part in our lives. When we carry on a conversation, we remember the language that is being spoken, the companion with whom we are conversing, and a host of past associations which render intelligible the subjects under discussion. The core of experience which determines our way of acting is rooted in past memories. Nevertheless, although the value of memory in daily life is obvious, it must be admitted that much of its functioning in practice is passive and concerned with trivia—snatches of tunes, images of recent scenes, I said to her and she said to me—which rise up uncontrolled to distract the mind. The Teachers of Yoga say that this is a great waste of memory, that the highest use of memory is continuous remembrance of God, the Reality within us, with a feeling of constant dependence on Him and not on what we can achieve outwardly.
One of the first messages revealed to the Prophet Mohammed was:
“Invoke in remembrance the Name of Thy Lord, and devote thyself to Him with an utter devotion.”
In the Bhagavad Gita the Lord repeatedly instructs his disciple: “Fix thy thought on Me. Be devoted exclusively to Me, and thou shalt reach Myself.”
The chief method of inculcating remembrance of God makes use of a psychological principle familiar to everyone. A schoolboy repeats Latin gender rhymes over and over again until they are firmly fixed in his mind and can be recalled at will. An actress learns her lines by reciting them until her mind accepts and retains them. In much the same way Yoga prescribes the rhythmic repetition of a God-centred holy formula with faith, devotion and concentration. Such a holy formula is called a mantra, and the process of repeating it is known as japa.
Dr. Shastri has said that mantras are constructed by the holy Sages who know the deeper forces of nature and their operation, and that when a mantra is correctly repeated, the disciple holds the key to the Cosmic forces which he can bring into operation in his personality. When the japa is done as instructed by the Teacher, conscious unity is established on the higher plane between the individual and the Cosmic consciousness, and the personality is transformed into a pillar of light.
Examples of mantra are OM NAMO NARA- YANAYA (explained in the Tarasara Upanishad),
OM MANI PADME HUM (Buddhist)
and LA ILAHA ILLA ’LLAH (Moslem).
In all religions the Holy Name of God is held to be the highest mantra. The classical Yoga promises that the repetition of OM, Rama or Krishna with loving concentration leads to God-vision. A verse of the Koran instructs: “Repeat ‘Allah’ and leave them to their idle talk.”
Japa is usually done with a rosary, and the number of repetitions is counted. Sufis often wear rosaries round their necks following the example of a disciple of Mohammed. (Beads were not used in the time of the Prophet, and he is said to have counted on his fingers.) Sufi rosaries usually have 99 beads with a piece at the end called an alif which makes up the 100. This number was favoured by Mohammed and may be connected with the 99 names of God found in the Koran—the greatest name, the hundredth, is said to be contained in the Koran but is not apparent except to the spiritually mature. Rosaries in the classical tradition of Yoga mostly have 108 beads, sometimes subdivided into 54 or 27. The Shaivas favour the “Rudra-eyed” (rudraksha) beads, the berries of the plant Eloeocarpus ganitrus, whereas Vaish- navas use tulasi beads made from the wood of the sacred basil.
Repetition of a holy formula or a Name of God can be done aloud, silently with the tongue and the lips forming the words, or mentally with no accompanying physical movement.
Al-Ghazali, the celebrated Islamic saint and philosopher, describes an elementary practice of remembrance which he was given as a young boy. “When you put on your nightgown,” he was told, “say three times within your heart without moving your tongue: ‘God is with me, God is watching me, God is looking upon me’.
Al-Ghazali emphasizes that mere mechanical repetition of a mantra, though not entirely useless, can only be considered the lowest preliminary stage. He analyses the practice into three main stages: (a) mechanical repetition with the tongue only, (b) the repetition with feeling but with the heart still subject to distractions, and (c) the repetition which takes possession of the heart.
The culmination of the practice is when the ‘remembrance’ itself disappears, and that is the end sought. Al-Ghazali’s description of the method of japa is summarized in the following passage quoted from Professor R. A. Nicholson’s book on The Mystics of Islam :
“Let him reduce his heart to a state in which the existence of anything and its non-existence are the same to him. Then let him sit alone in some corner, limiting his religious duties to what is absolutely necessary, and not occupying himself either with reciting the Koran or considering its meaning or with books of religious traditions or with anything of the sort. And let him see to it that nothing save God Most High enters his mind. Then, as he sits in solitude, let him not cease saying continuously with his tongue ‘Allah, Allah’, keeping his thought on it. At last he will reach a state when the motion of his tongue will cease, and it will seem as though the word flowed from it. Let him persevere in this until all trace of motion is removed from the tongue, and he finds his heart persevering in the thought. Let him still persevere until the form of the word, its letters and shape, is removed from his heart, and there remains the idea alone, as though clinging to his heart, inseparable from it. So far, all is dependent on his will and choice; but to bring the mercy of God does not stand in his will or choice. He has now laid himself bare to the breathings of that mercy, and nothing remains but to await what God will open to him, as God has done after this mannerto prophets and saints. If he follows the above course, he may be sure that the light of the Real will shine out in his heart.”
Al-Ghazali was born in a.d. 1058, and it is interesting to compare his account of remembrance (dhikr) with the account given by a modern Sufi saint, Shaikh Ahmad al-’Alawi, which is quoted in Martin Lings’ book A Moslem Saint of the Twentieth Century. The Shaikh was bom in Algeria at Mostaganem in 1869 and passed away in 1934. He describes how his Teacher used to enjoin “the invocation of the single Name with distinct visualization of its letters until they were written in the imagination. Then he would tell him (the pupil) to spread them out and enlarge them until they filled all the horizon. The dhikr would continue in this form until the letters became like light. Then the Shaikh would show the way out of this standpoint— it is impossible to express in words how he did so—and by means of this indication the Spirit of the disciple would quickly reach beyond the created universe provided that he had sufficient preparation and aptitude—otherwise there would be need for purification and other spiritual training.
At the above-mentioned indication the disciple would find himself able to distinguish between the Absolute and the relative, and he would see the universe as a ball or a lamp suspended in a beginningless, endless void. Then it would grow dimmer in his sight as he persevered in the invocation to the accompaniment of meditation, until it seemed no longer a definite object but a mere trace. Then it would become not even a trace, until at length the disciple was submerged in the World of the Absolute and his certainty was strengthened by Its Pure Light. In all this the Shaikh would watch over him and ask him about his states and strengthen him in the dhikr degree by degree until he finally reached a point of being conscious of what he perceived through his own power. The Shaikh would not be satisfied until this point was reached, and he used to quote the words of God which refer to: One whom his Lord hath made certain, and whose certainty He hath then followed up with direct evidence.
“When the disciple had reached this degree of independent perception, which was strong or weak according to his capability, the Shaikh would bring him back again to the world of outward forms after he had left it, and it would seem to him the inverse of what it had been before, simply because the light of his inward eye had dawned. He would see it as Light upon Light, and so it had been before in reality.”
Although ‘a charm’ has come to mean an amulet or other object with a mysterious power to protect the wearer from harm, the word derives from the Latin word ‘carmen’ denoting a formula sung or recited to bring about a beneficial result. In the latter sense mantra are the best charms, not because of any magical properties but because they are affirmations of the highest Truth and have the power of awakening a consciousness of the Truth in the personality of the disciple. Truth is already present at the core of the personality but is overlaid by the innumerable percepts and concepts (vrittis) which revolve in the mind and by the veiling power of tamas guna which in its most patent phase is expressed as deep sleep. By rhythmical repetition of the mantra, as Dr. Shastri says, “we charge the mind with the highest principle of Truth (from which results great peace and delight) and all the lower elements of the mind are cut out, which itself constitutes a great and abiding gain.”
Other trivial and distracting mental contents have to be pushed out by the mantra, and this can only happen if it is recited with deep feeling and unwavering concentration. Narada refers to “ceaseless worship” (Sutra 36) and enjoins: “With all one’s mind, one must worship the Lord at all times” (Sutra 79). Many thoughts and ideas which flit across the mind have no depth—no emotional matrix, as the psychologists say—they are held momentarily in the mind without any deep conviction. Consequently they do not take root and have little influence on our pattern of behaviour, whereas the sentiments held with deep conviction are creative and change the springs of action in the mind.
Authorities on the practice of remembrance are unanimous that mere repetition of mantra is not enough but must be accompanied with a profound conviction and feeling so that ultimately
“it takes up its dwelling in our hearts and on our tongues and is mingled with our blood and our flesh and our bones and all that is in us” (Shaikh Ahmad al-’Alawi).
One of the earliest treatises on Sufism, of which remembrance (dhikr) is the key practice, records that Sahl bin Abdallah of Tustar instructed a disciple to repeat ‘Allah, Allah, Allah’ continuously for one day. He did so, and was asked to do the same during the next day, and again for a third day. Then the Teacher told him to repeat the holy Name at night also. He followed the instruction and found that even when he fell asleep, the rhythm of the repetition still continued.
Then his Teacher called him and said: “Do not repeat the holy Name any more, but let all your faculties be engrossed in remembering God.” One day a piece of wood fell on the disciple’s head and cut it, and the drops of blood trickling to the ground formed the words ‘Allah, Allah’. This tradition shows that the practice of remembrance reaches a stage demanding no conscious effort of memory on the part of the disciple, since the mantra has been absorbed as part of himself. In the Gita the Lord refers to this one-pointed devotion when He says: “Fix thy mind on Me exclusively” (XII. 8) and: “That Highest Spirit within Whom all beings dwell, by Whom all this is pervaded, is attainable by exclusive devotion.”
The beautiful images of the dancing Shiva illustrate the Lord performing His dance of joy in the universe. In Him the whole universe moves in rhythm—the seasons come and go, the particles turn round the nucleus, tides ebb and flow. By the rhythmic remembrance of the Lord, the mind is enabled to come into touch with the inner peace and joy of the Divine Dancer.
Dr. Shastri has written: “When you pronounce mentally the holy Name Rama or OM, you put your mind in touch with the Cosmic mind, charged with Truth and Beauty. Life-giving influences pass into your soul from the region of perpetual light and high inspiration . . . The holy Name will do for you all you need to flower out into divinity, Sat-Chit-Ananda.”