Shri Vasishtha and the seven stages of the yogic path12 min read

The subject of this article is the seven stages of the yogic path of spiritual development as described by the great Rishi or Seer, Shri Vasishtha.

It is based on the seventh discourse of The World Within the Mind, a book consisting of extracts from the Yoga Vasishtha (attributed to the Sage Valmiki) translated from the original Sanskrit by Dr. H. P. Shastri.

Shri Vasishtha describes in all seven yogic stages from that of the beginner to the seventh, which he himself designates as indescribable. The first six stages are divided into two groups of three each by a division at the end of the third stage. The first three stages, Vasishtha says, are called the waking state, because in them the yogi retains the perception of the difference of things, that is to say, he continues to believe that they each have an individual and independent existence of their own.

The goal of these three stages is explicitly stated by Vasishtha in his description of the third stage:

“The yogi now comes to know God within himself as clearly and certainly as one sees a fruit in the palm of the hand”.

If for the word ‘God’ we substitute Existence-Consciousness-Bliss, we can say that the aim of the first three stages is for the yogi to experience within himself a blissful existence of the nature of consciousness.

The yogis use various similes to describe what they mean by this experience of God as Existence-Consciousness-Bliss within themselves. Some say that it is like the sweeping away of clouds to reveal the sun; others that it is like the removal of weeds from the surface of a pond; others that it is like the settling down of mud or sand particles in a jar of turbid water. All these similes refer only to one thing: the clarification and purification of the mind, for it is the mind and the mind alone which, they say, obscures the Existence-Consciousness-Bliss within.

Now we must understand that by ‘mind’ we do not mean the brain, which is a physical organ. The mind, as understood by the yogis, consists solely of thoughts, desires, memories and subtle impressions. We will get closer to what the yogis mean by a person’s mind if we regard it rather as the mental atmosphere which he carries around with him.

It is this mind which, to use one of the similes, obscures the sun of the Existence-Consciousness-Bliss within us, and all the methods advised in these first three stages of the yogic development are intended to thin the mind, to purify it, to refine it, that is to say, somehow or other to make it more permeable to the light of Existence-Consciousness-Bliss behind it, which can then begin to shine through it. This is the key to the understanding of all the different methods, with which Shri Vasishtha now deals individually.                                                     .

“O Rama, destroy sensuality!

This is the first stage. What is the good of using many words, when it can be described in few?”

It is an ancient tradition in this Yoga, going right back to the Upanishads, that the control of the sensual side of human nature is essential in the yogic training. Excessive interest in the sensual side of things distracts and disperses the attention; it is inclined to weaken the will; and often in the end it brings on depression and melancholy. Such an excessive interest has to be destroyed.

However, Dr. Shastri did not use the word ‘destroy’ with reference to any facet of our human nature. He preferred to talk of transforming the lower energies into the higher ones and of redirecting them.

In the Bhagavad Gita it is said that even in the mind of a man who abstains from sense pleasures some faint taste for them remains; this faint taste will cease for good only when the Supreme is finally seen. So even the Gita does not envisage the possibility of the total destruction of his sensual nature by the pupil during his pupilhood.

What therefore is meant by the words ‘destroy sensuality’ is not a life of extreme asceticism, which after all is not possible for all, but the elimination of all excess, which is possible for all. One must not be addicted to enjoyments, although one may have them in moderation. On the other hand, some degree of asceticism in daily life is helpful in Yoga, as a means of strengthening the will and as an effective method of dealing with mental disturbances.

“Desire”, says Vasishtha, “is our great bondage, and its absence is our complete liberation.”

It is a profound law of life that people receive only what they really want, or have wanted, which is not necessarily what they say they want or want any longer at the time they actually achieve their desire. People who are in the grip of strong desires have in their minds only two categories: I/me, and everything else. Such a mental conformation is a very strong obstacle to spiritual progress.

In the first stage the main task is the reorientation of the personality. Yoga is not only a matter of ordering the thoughts and of concentrating: it is also a matter of ordering the activities, because every activity brings with it its train of attendant memories, plans, worries, etc.

Not many activities are purely neutral in their effects: most leave some mark for better or for worse on our minds. Some actions thicken the obscuring clouds of the mind, others thin and disperse them. In the first stage we must review our lives bit by bit and gradually begin to change our habits. Some few fortunate people may have little to change, but most of us have a good deal of rearranging to do. These changes, however, are changes in our behaviour, our attitudes, and above all our habitual thinking. Dr. Shastri rarely recommended such radical changes as those of profession or domicile.

“One should practise Yoga where one finds oneself,” he would advise, “and the seeming disadvantages can often be turned into advantages.”

The second stage of Yoga is the stage of enquiry and of starting the yogic mental practices. Changes in the physical habits and external behaviour are made in the first stage; in the second the attention shifts to the direct purification of the mind. Good actions performed year after year will in the end purify and thin the mind; but trying to fix the mind on yogic meditations does the same thing more directly and quickly. Just as attempts to drop bad habits are made in the first stage, so now in the second the pupil makes efforts to abandon pride, vanity, jealousy and avarice, not for, as it were, aesthetic reasons, in order to have a more presentable character, but because the thought-content of the mind of a proud, vain, or jealous man rules out any possibility of spiritual development. The thoughts generated by these attitudes of mind are like dense impenetrable clouds, completely obscuring all the deeper reaches of the mind.

In this stage the pupil studies the philosophy of Yoga and of other mystical systems and associates, if he can, with people of similar interests. Some people have attained great spiritual heights by practising in complete solitude, but most benefit from spiritual companionship.

In the first two stages the pupil reorientates both body and mind, so that in the third stage he can pursue the yogic mental practices successfully. In this stage he learns how to fix his mind in steadiness. Dissolving the thinned and purified mind, he reaches a stage of being described as being above the mind, a stage which is free from both objectivity and subjectivity. It has been described as a state of looking, but not looking at anything, for where there is an object there is also an active subject. This state is not affected by anything else (though it is capable of being obscured, or rather of becoming latent again), and it does not do anything to anything else, that is, it does not have the characteristic of an agent.

Let us now survey the yogi as he is. The activities and habits of the body and the mind have been so ordered that the mind has largely ceased to be an obstruction to the internal light of Existence-Consciousness-Bliss. He has learnt how to focus his mind and dissolve it at will, at any rate temporarily, so that during this time the light of Existence-Consciousness-Bliss can emerge and shine fully within him. Some of the nature of God has been apprehended within him, but he has not yet seen it outside.

He is to some degree serene and contented, at least normally, but he is still liable to disturbance, because the supreme reality is still only apprehended within. However he still perceives differences outside; he is still fearful; he can still be shaken, though he may be able to re-establish his apprehension of the internal Existence-Consciousness-Bliss quickly. This is not therefore a final stage.

We pass now to the fourth, fifth and sixth stages of the yogic path. But first we must not think that this division of the yogic development is a rigid one.

Quite a number of people, particularly early in the yogic training, have experiences which belong to much later stages. These experiences may be very short, and they may not recur for many years. They serve to remind us that Yoga is not something mechanical and that what we are rather inexpertly pursuing is at any time able to present itself to us even when it is not being consciously sought for at all.                                                                   .

The key to the understanding of the fourth to the sixth stages is in Vasishtha’s observation:

“In the fourth stage the yogi sees the world as a vision in his dream”.

What can this mean? What is a dream? Although we may not realize it when we are actually dreaming, when we look back upon it, having woken up, we recognize that it was a wholly mental experience, happening entirely within our own individual minds. All the appearances, all the experiences, were made up of, as it were, mental material. The dream appearances emerge within the mind and at the end of it they disappear again within it. Hence whatever apparent diversity and independence the dream appearances may have, when we reflect upon them when we wake up we are compelled to admit that they are all of one substance, that is, a mental substance, and that they are all dependent for their existence on that substance.

What then happens in this fourth yogic stage? In the preceding stages the yogi still sees the world as consisting of individual discrete objects; but in the fourth stage he begins to be dimly and intermittently aware of a continuum, of a mental substance like a backdrop against which the objects appear.

It is because he is now starting to see the world as appearances against a backdrop of something subtle and omnipresent, a sort of subtle sea, that Vasishtha compares this stage to a dream. The yogi now, like the sleeper who has awoken from a dream and is reflecting on the appearances in his dream, sees the visible world as an appearance within a sea of subtle matter. He sees that the solidity of the world and even its divisions into discrete objects are purely conventional concepts which human beings have made for themselves for their own convenience.

This stage probably dawns in flashes, as do the preceding stages. It appears in no way to prevent a yogi from taking part in the ordinary affairs of life. If anything, it might improve his performance by at times increasing his detachment and so improving his judgement. Its precondition is a partial disidentification from the individual mind or mental substance, which allows a partial perception of the universal mental substance, since no individual can begin to perceive something until he has ceased to be identified with it.

Let us now turn to the fifth stage. In the first three stages the yogi has begun to become conscious of a great light hidden within his mind, the light of Existence-Consciousness-Bliss. In the fourth stage he becomes aware of the universal mental substance. In the fifth stage, as Shri Vasishtha describes it, he begins to become aware of the light of Existence- Consciousness-Bliss not only in himself but everywhere, in all the so-called inanimate objects of ordinary life, but above all in other human beings, in whom this light, according to the testimony of the sages, is more fully present in potentiality than in all other created things.

In the fifth stage the yogi who already feels within himself the internal Existence-Consciousness-Bliss now perceives it outside, but the two lights, the individual internal one and the universal external one, are still felt to be distinct. Vasishtha describes this stage as one of great joy. The world, so he says, takes on an aspect of extraordinary vividness, and everything in it reveals its meaning and purpose.

Shri Vasishtha abstains from describing the seventh stage; it would be appropriate for this description to end here, even before the sixth stage, for the transformation of the yogi’s inner experience that it brings must be far beyond our grasp. However, the description which Shri Vasishtha gives of it is clear enough. It seems that in this stage the interior light and the exterior light are recognized as being of the same nature and as coming from the same source. When they are thus recognised as identical, they merge, the concepts of exteriority and interiority, which arise within the mind, disappear, and the whole of one’s experience both inner in the mental world and outer in the so-called physical world is recognized to be homogeneous and mental. This recognition is accomplished by complete disidentification from the mind.

This then is the last stage of the yogic development of which Shri Vasishtha is willing to tell us. It is of course far beyond our experience, and we can only have a very inadequate notion of its true nature; however, it is still worth-while to read and reflect on Shri Vasishtha’s account of it, for it serves to remind us that the yogic practices and meditations do not have limited aims, intended simply to correct personality defects and to remove fears and neuroses, but are designed to be the first steps on a path which in the end will bring about the most far- reaching transformation of our psychological life.