Yogic practices for preparing the mind for knowledge are not necessarily concerned with ultimate truth, but may be just to purify and steady the mind as it now stands, with all its present preconceptions.
It is found that in many cases there has to be some definite experience, however small, of something beyond the normal range. Unless this happens, everything is merely theoretical, and the highest Self seems so remote that yogic aspirants give up in despair. So certain practices may be given to steady the faith of the pupil, as well as his mind. Sutra 35 refers to a set of five of them:
or (by) mental perception of (divine) objects, the mind becomes steady
Shankara in his commentary on this gives examples of what are called dharana. The word means to support or maintain, and the practices consist in fixing the attention on to one place. He adds that before this practice can be undertaken successfully the yogi must be living a self-controlled life of extreme independence, practising some austerity, studying the scriptures, and worshipping God. He must also know how to seat himself upright and still, in balance and at ease, for a long time.
Now he fixes his attention on the nose. Many yogis, in India and outside, direct the gaze on to the tip of the nose, it is found by experience that if the pupils of the eyes are controlled, a bridle is put on the mind. There is a knack of doing this without strain, which can be acquired without too much difficulty. At first it feels unnatural, and some people feel that it makes the forehead ache. If so, they should stop, rub some oil on the forehead, and begin again. Practice of ten minutes morning and evening for six weeks generally gives mastery of the technique. Shankara says that the yogi should be aware of his sense of smell vividly.
After practice of some time which varies with the individual, but is generally something like six weeks, the yogi experiences first a little, and then continuously, a delightful fragrance, which is just like the normal sense-functioning but much more intense and varied.
Shankara explains that yoga drives towards face-to-face experience, and a first experience like this creates enthusiasm for the practice of yoga. The fragrance gives joy because it awakens confidence in the whole yoga system, and in the tradition which has given the practice and predicted the result. It is given so that a student may confirm one thing early on in his career, in his own living experience. Until something definite has happened, everything taught, right up to the final doctrines of Self-realization and liberation, is all as it were merely taken second-hand; from time to time doubts are likely to arise as to whether after all it is true or not.
‘Until some one thing has been directly perceived by one’s own sense, the higher mind (buddhi) is likely sometimes to waver.’ But after one direct experience, however small, it is reasonable to suppose that the rest can be confirmed also.
However, Shankara makes the point that this sort of experience has no spiritual value in itself; it is not to be lingered over. He compares it to the smoke which appears when a man is making fire in the traditional way, by pressing a stick into another and twirling the first one rapidly. The friction produces heat which first shows itself as smoke. Smoke is not at all what is wanted, and to stop at smoke, however fragrant it might be, would make the whole process meaningless. Moreover when the man stops, even the smoke soon disappears.
Shankara does not discuss this practice of perceiving divine fragrance any further; he regards it as a practice which can be dispensed with. In his commentary on a parallel passage in the Svetasvatara Upanishad, he remarks that the practice is ‘inferior’. He does not even bother to outline the other practices of this set of five, namely perceiving divine colours, tastes, touch, and sound. He believes that the perception of light, as described in the next sutra, is a far better basis of practice. This will be set out a little later, but there are one or two points still to be made about the ‘sense’ experiences.
They are not like what the yogi may imagine beforehand; all the accounts show a sort of surprise when the experiences first come. They are more beautiful than anything in the world, and are quite different from hallucinations or dreams. The commentators say that they are genuine perceptions, but of objects not normally accessible to perception. If they produce attachment to their delight, it blocks further progress in yoga, because independence is lost. After a few such experiences, the teacher always directs the pupil to meditations on truth. Attachment to these higher sense experiences, like any attachment, darkens and restricts the mind, which loses its purity and strength.
They come and go. They are self-terminating, because the excitement they arouse interferes with the necessary concentration, which becomes split between the meditation, and what he expects to get as a result. The same applies to drug experiences.
There is a traditional story on the point. A yogi who lived on top of a hill in a remote area used to meditate every day either inside his little hut or in front of the door, just as the impulse took him. A poisonous snake which lived in the roots of a nearby tree came to know the man, and feeling some sort of attraction to him, used to coil itself round his neck when he was motionless in meditation. The yogi became aware of it but did not mind; as he slowly came out of meditation the snake would quietly go back to its own home.
The villagers in the valley used to send one of their number to take some milk and rice to the yogi every day. Once the messenger saw the snake coiled round his neck. In this village they were worshippers of the god Shiva, who is classically represented with snakes round his neck, symbolizing tamed passions. The villager fell down and worshipped the yogi as Shiva. Next day another messenger saw the same thing. A few days later, the headman brought the rice; he waited till the yogi came out of meditation and the snake had gone, and then asked whether the whole village could come to see it.
The yogi agreed, but said, ‘You must not disturb the snake. So stand a good distance off. I will meditate in front of the hut tomorrow, so that you will be able to see.’ The next day he sat in meditation as usual, while the villagers stood some way off to see the miracle. But the snake never again came to the yogi.
© Trevor Leggett