Knowledge yoga in the Chapter of the Self


In the Chapter of the Self, there is first an instruction to perform yoga to purify and steady the mind. Then come the verses on the Self, indicating it from two directions: the king of the city, hidden among his ministers in the innermost apartment, and the creator, sustainer and withdrawer of the universe. It is said that the Self is first known in meditation (verse 9). This is now realization of everything in the Self and the Self in everything, and he who is seeing thus is Brahman, glorious in the highest heaven and in everything.

And yet in verse 11, as explained by Shankara, it is only when the doshas have been thrown off that this pandit who knows the Self is fully liberated.

The point comes up again and again in his commentaries, in various forms. In many places in the Gita commentary it is said that the rise of Knowledge ‘qualifies’ for jnana-yoga, or Knowledge-yoga, which leads to liberation. It is described in a number of passages, of which certain verses of chapter XVIII are typical:

The yogi with pure buddhi, firmly self-controlled,
gives up the objects of sense and puts away desire and hate;
Lives in a solitary place, eating little;
holding under control speech body and mind,
he practises meditation and samādhi, keeping away passion;
Freed from egoism, force, pride, desire, anger and possession,
unselfish, serene – he is ready to become Brahman.


This Gita passage refers to a man who has performed the duty and actions to which he was fitted innately, as karma-yoga.

That is to say, without attachment to the distant ‘fruits’ of his actions, as an offering to the Lord, practising indifference to the events of life, and practising devotion-meditation. (It is important to note again that in this doctrine, a man who simply does his duty well, but turns his back on the worship of a supreme which must be stirring in him, does not attain Knowledge.) He has done this, and Knowledge has risen in him. Now the man of Knowledge, with his mind in samadhi, strives to reach the Lord, firm in the faith that he himself is the Lord (Shankara on GitaVII, 18). How can he strive to reach the Lord if he already knows that he himself is that Lord?

In his usual way, Shankara clarifies the point by putting objections into the mouth of an opponent, and meeting them by rational argument. He does not attempt to prove the text by rational argument, but he uses it to meet objections, for instance accusations of inconsistency in the texts.

The main objection which comes up here is that it is inconsistent for the texts to give instructions to perform yoga to a man of Knowledge. Here there is a Self-knower, who by definition is one with the universal Brahman, and yet he has to perform yogas in order to attain Brahman. It would follow that Knowledge does not give liberation. The contradiction is clear- cut: either the Knowledge gives liberation, in which case the instruction to practise yoga along with Knowledge is pointless, or Knowledge does not give liberation, in which case the whole doctrine falls to the ground; either the Knowledge gives universality, in which case there is no one to whom instruction could apply, or it does not, in which case the claim that Knowledge gives universality is wrong.

The answer in the commentary is that knowledge of Self may in some cases not be absolutely clear; in other words the Knowledge may be for a time clouded, not indeed with illusions, but with memories of illusions. This is not in every case, but in some cases the memories caused by activities before the rise of Knowledge go on reverberating, even after the rise of Knowledge.

We are familiar in modern life with many cases where mutually inconsistent ideas are held at the same time. In the television serials, when a favourite character complains of a headache or a cold, letters recommending favourite remedies are received at the station, addressed to the character. Such letters are received in tens and occasionally in hundreds. The writers are in a sense aware that the headache or cold is only part of the script, but on the other hand they have actually seen and heard the character complaining, and the illusory idea somehow becomes real enough to make them perform their act of kindness. The confusion may be greater or less; in some cases the letters are addressed to the actor or actress, showing that the two levels of reality are present together at the same time in the mind of the writers, though they would be mutually exclusive if analysed.

In some primitive countries, when the cinema was first introduced, the exhibitors had to be careful not to show an actor or actress dying in one film, and then alive in a film following within the next month or so. There were disturbances among the audiences when the second film was announced, ‘No, no, she is dead; we saw her die.’

In all such cases, if the people concerned sit down calmly, not merely to think out but to feel the true state of things, the compelling power of the illusion disappears. This is the natural state of affairs; sitting down calmly is not producing something new, but removing the unnatural disturbances.

In yoga, once Knowledge has arisen there can never again be complete illusion, but sometimes, as Shankara says in his Brihadaranyaka commentary for example, the memories of previous illusion can make a disturbance and confuse the clearness of Knowledge. It is for these cases that the ‘instructions’ to perform yoga are given. They are instructions only in form. Before Knowledge, the yogi is an individual, and performs practices, making a time to sit deliberately, deliberately cutting off involvements in thoughts of ordinary life, and concentrating deliberately on the Lord or the Self.

After Knowledge, there is no injunction to do these things. To sit is the natural position for a man who is not being pulled by something; to be at peace is natural for a man who is not entangled in the world; to be aware of universality is natural when there is no illusory imprisonment in individuality. Shankara adds, ‘There is no need of an injunction to meditate on the Self, because it is natural to do so.’

What then is the meaning of the directions, ‘Practise yoga’, ‘the wise man should restrain the senses, withdrawing them as a tortoise withdraws his limbs, and remain in samadhi on the Lord, in the form “I am no other than He”.’ ‘By whatever cause the wavering and unsteady mind wanders away, from that let him restrain it and bring it back direct under the control of the Self’?

The reply is, that these are not directions to do something which is natural, but reminders not to do something unnatural which would interfere with it. As an example, take the case of relatives who are sitting up in turns with a fever patient. When the relief comes, she says, ‘I am here now, sleep.’ Often the previous watcher somehow does not go and sleep at once, but talks a little out of a sort of politeness. The relief says again, ‘Sleep, please sleep.’ This is in the form of an injunction, but it does not mean that. Someone who has been up all night will sleep, and in any case sleep is not a voluntary action to be commanded. ‘Sleep!’ means ‘Don’t keep yourself awake any more, don’t talk to me, don’t feel you have any more responsibility, don’t do anything to interfere with the sleep which you should now enjoy.’ The apparent injunction is called technically a ‘restrictive injunction’ in the Vedanta philosophy – it is a short way of ruling out all other alternatives, so that the natural tendency to sleep has its way.

Again, guests hungry from a long journey sit down and politely wait till the host is served, but he says to them, ‘Eat, please eat.’ For hungry men to eat food in front of them does not need a command; the word ‘eat!’ is a restrictive injunction, telling them not to wait out of politeness when the host is wanting them to satisfy their hunger straight away.

After Knowledge, the karma-already-in-operation, namely the undertakings and obligations and promises and so on which a man has assumed in his present role in life, still produces likes and dislikes, though the objects are known to be illusory. The injunctions to meditate are to prevent these memories from reinforcing each other. When left alone they die out.

For instance, to Knowledge, the functioning of the world is a conscious movement, purposeful and beautiful. But memories of the materialist view may bring up the conviction that it is like an unconscious mechanism. ‘If a ball is struck, it flies off; the movement can be predicted and calculated. Its flight is the resultant of blind forces – there is no need to suppose any conscious controller.’ The Knower throws off that view of unconscious cause-and-effect sequence. The predictions can indeed be made, but they are the same thing as predicting the next note of a tune that one knows. Each note is a conscious free expression of the universal Musician; the earlier notes do not cause the later ones, though there is a relation between them which may be partly known.

It may be said: ‘What is the difference in practice between a mechanical cause-and-effect sequence and the notion of free expression on pre-determined lines?’ It is the difference between a pianola and a master pianist. With the former, the notes are all played, in their sequence, but there is little beauty; they are all at the same strength. With the musician, there are shades of intonation which give expression to the music. The musician has himself chosen the music freely; he does not now express his freedom by altering the notes, though of course he could do so. His freedom is in maintaining the sequence of the notes; contrary to the assumptions of the materialist, unless there were an intelligent controller, the surface order would lapse into chaos. Even the materialist assumptions, if carried to their logical conclusion, must predict ultimate chaos, because it is accepted that at the most fundamental level there is uncertainty. Suppose a simple wheel, mounted without friction so that it can turn freely around its axis, which passes through the centre of the wheel. If the wheel is set in movement by an initial turn, it will keep on moving indefinitely. Since there is always some uncertainty in the initial velocity, if we wait sufficiently long, the position of the wheel will be completely undetermined. This is one of the reasons why Shankara insists that there must be an intelligent controller of even the simplest movements of nature, like water flowing. He says that the control is exercised from within, by the Lord as the inner controller.

The yogis say that they hear the master musician or flute player who plays the whole universe; they see the puppet-master who manipulates the movements of the cosmos, a simile used also by Albert Einstein.

When attention is turned to the Lord as the controller, the memories of the other conviction die away; many things are seen which the superficial vision of the materialist overlooks, or deliberately brushes aside. The so-called causation is not the true causation; we may think we can successfully exploit the regularities and to some extent we can do so. But we find that the regularities conceal deeper and deeper complexities, which cannot be manipulated so easily. The regularities cannot be isolated in closed systems. Science advances by studying repetitions, but there are no exact repetitions, and as we approach the edge of precision we find the regularities dissolving into something else. Materialism cannot explain the evolution of complex forms of life when the simple forms are just as successful in terms of propagation.

The yogis do not turn their back on science, but they know that the sequences which science studies are not determined by unconscious ‘laws of nature’; there has to be intelligence. After all, why these laws of nature and not others? The regularities are the regularities of a play, and they can be different in different plays. Ariel and Puck can fly; Lear and Brutus cannot. Rama Tirtha sums it up saying that to see cause-and-effect is to fall, and to see the controller Lord is freedom.

While body and mind last, they express Knowledge in action and speech through the memory of cause and effect, in terms which other people can understand. But sometimes those terms are transcended. Swami Rama Tirtha gives an account of a yogi who was chanting Om when he was attacked by an old tiger. A man who witnessed this from a cliff said that the yogi’s voice went on chanting the Om without any change as the tiger tore off an arm, and only stopped when the tiger killed him. Rama Tirtha himself, a strong and daring swimmer, was caught in a whirlpool; he made three attempts to get out, and when he failed, cried, ‘If it is to go, then let it go – Om, Om, Om!’ He was carried down and drowned. In many lesser ways also, Knowledge shows itself to give faith and courage to the people of the world.

In a ship in a typhoon off the China coast, the crew gave up hope and rushed to get drunk at the bar. Dr Shastri, who was a passenger, began to chant in a loud voice the name of Buddha – Namu Amida Butsu. Some of the passengers took it up, and then some of the crew also. Their courage was restored and the boat was saved.

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