by Swami Krishnananda
The asanas are often combined with certain other exercises, called bandhas and mudras. These accessory exercises are supposed to help to fix oneself in the practice of asana. All these are physical exercises no doubt, but they have the power to exert an influence over the nerves and the prana. By ‘nerves’ we are not to understand merely the visible passageways of the physical system. They are subtle channels of force, and these are said to also have a counterpart in the subtle body of our personality. It is difficult to say where the physical body ends and the subtle body begins. This physical body seems to fade away in a very indistinct manner into the subtle body, and in turn the subtle body solidifies itself gradually into the physical body. There is no sudden jump from the physical to the subtle, or the subtle to the physical. It is a gradual or ethereal transition that cannot be seen with physical eyes. The asanas, bandhas and mudras are certain postures of the body by which the subtle nerves, called the nadis (through which the prana moves), are kept in a particular position.
I have mentioned the way in which the body may be kept in position, but I mentioned only the general characteristics of poses that are to be maintained in asana. Again, the concept of asana infers a maintenance of a balance of the nervous system; but something else also can be accomplished with these postures. The energy may be kept in balance, it is true, but it also can be directed or channelled in certain ways if the necessity arises. This can be done internally as well as externally. When it is directed externally, it is coupled with concentration. The mind, the prana and the vital force all act together in the focusing of energy to any particular spot external to the body. We shall not concern ourselves so much with externalisation of energy, because that is outside the pale of the practice of yoga, although it is also done for certain purposes. The more important thing is internalisation of the energy rather than allowing it to go outward—to centralise it in particular parts of the body, especially in the astral system.
This art of the centralisation of energy in particular parts of the body has led to the science of what is called tantra yoga, and sometimes called kundalini yoga as well. It is also concerned with mantra yoga or the chanting of religious formulas. The whole technique is one of internalisation of force. Just as energy may be dissipated by the fixing of the mind on objects of sense, it can also get stagnated in the body by disuse. There are people who are not constantly thinking of sense objects, and though we cannot call them sensuous people, their minds are nevertheless stagnant and they are not active in their mental process. The mind is bad enough, whether it is in an act of fixation on the objects of sense or if it is doing nothing.
The purpose of yoga is to so adjust the mind so that it neither fixes on a sense object, nor does it gets stagnant or lodged up in the body because of a lack of action. To be stagnant would be tamas, to be thinking of a sense object would be rajas—but both are equally bad for yoga. What we need is sattva, not rajas or tamas. To think of an object is rajas, and not to think anything is tamas. Sattva is a third condition altogether, which is different from thinking and non-thinking. It is a transparent mood of consciousness, and it is the purpose of yoga to awaken more sattva. The particular systems of yoga called tantra yoga, kriya yoga or kundalini yoga engage themselves in the channelisation of energy. This is a very important aspect of these yogas.
While in all forms of meditation there is channelisation of mental force, in these yogas there is a particular type of channelisation which distinguishes itself from other types of yoga in the following ways. One, these forms of meditation are internalised rather than externalised. Two, this internalisation is restricted to the bodily organism rather than focused on the universal whole. The belief of these techniques is that the knowledge of the microcosm is as good as the knowledge of the macrocosm. If we have a knowledge of ourselves, there is no need to worry about the world. Let the world be made of anything, it makes no difference—provided we know what we are made of.
These yogas concern themselves with the individual rather than with the cosmic, because of their notion that it is pointless to worry about the cosmic when it is enough to concentrate one’s attention on the individual—which is a copy of the cosmic. The body is a specimen of the universal, and within it the whole universe is hidden, just as a tree is hidden in a seed. If we can know what is contained in the seed of a banyan tree, we can know what the tree is made of. Though the tree is so large, its essence is hidden in a small seed. So tiny is the seed, but it can contain within itself the large expanse of the banyan tree. In the same way, this microcosmic individual is identical to this wondrous cosmos. This is the philosophical foundation of kundalini yoga and tantra yoga, and many other yogas are akin to it. They start with certain positions of the body, and they lay much emphasis on asana, bandha and mudra. Emphasis is laid on these because in these specific techniques of yoga the individual is believed to commence with the physical body. Everything that extends from the physical on up to the spiritual is taken into consideration.
As a little digression I might mention the distinction between hatha, kundalini, jnana and bhakti yoga. The difference lies in the fact that the jnanayogins or the philosophically minded people believe that consciousness can transcend everything that is below it, and the proper manipulation of consciousness is all that is necessary. From this philosophical point of view, if consciousness were to properly adjust itself, it could then adjust everything in the world. Intelligence directs everything in the world—thought precedes action. The bodily organism, the nervous system, the sensory powers, the prana—all these are slaves of consciousness, and they will just do what consciousness says. Where the consciousness is, there the senses are, there the prana is, and that will determine the state of the nerves and the body. Our health, our position, our mental state, whatever we are and whatever we have is entirely dependent on the state of consciousness in which we are lodged.
Consciousness is everything to the philosopher and the Vedantin. It is consciousness that has become everything by a sort of gradual condensation of itself. The body, the nerves and the senses are not independent of consciousness. Therefore, when we touch consciousness, we have touched the whole world. When we understand consciousness, we have understood not only our own selves in our integrality, but the whole universe outside. Therefore there is nothing to think and nothing to learn in this world except consciousness, and when we know it, we have known everything. It is a rationalistic approach of the intelligence, analytically and synthetically. This is the essence of the jnana yoga process.
Bhakti yoga differs from jnana in the way that it emphasises feeling rather than understanding. Wherever our feeling is, there our power also lies. Whatever we say or do with feeling has effect. There is no use merely having understanding with no feeling, and we can transform anything in this world by intense feeling about it. Our blessing or curses come through a channelisation of our feeling, and not from our thinking. To contact God, what is necessary is to feel the presence of God. There is no use in our being told that God is so big, so large, and so wonderful—it makes no difference to us. The question is, do we feel His presence? Can we love Him? Can our hearts go to Him?
If our hearts are elsewhere, our yoga is nothing, says bhakti yoga. Where our love is, there our hearts are, and there our whole being is. Whatever be our rationality, it will not help us if our hearts are elsewhere. There are people who are very learned, but their understanding or learning is not in the position to go hand-in-hand with their hearts, because their hearts are different from their understanding. The bhakti marga feels that where feeling is absent, everything is null and void. There is no means except affection to contact God, because in this world affection succeeds where nothing else will succeed. We cannot control anything in this world when our love is absent. Nothing whatsoever can come under our control if our love is diverted from the object of our supposed control. This is the psychology of human living, and this can be applied also to our relations to God. Whatever applies to the world applies to God also. If love succeeds in the world, love will also succeed with God. God sees our hearts rather than our brains.
But the hatha, kundalini, kriya, mantra and tantra yogins emphasise something different, though they do not deny the validity of the points stressed in jnana or bhakti yoga. The shakti yoga philosophy, called tantra in India, is a very vast subject, which even today is not well known to the West. One learned man named Sir John Woodruff has done great research in tantra, but he has been the only Westerner who has taken interest in this subject, and for the most part tantra is a completely closed book to the West. However, not just to Westerners but to almost everyone, tantra has been something unintelligible. People do not know what this tantra or yantra means. They think it is all rubbish and nonsense—but it is not so. Tantra has assumed a bad name due to its not being understood by people and by its being propagated by untutored people. The people who have been talking about it are those who have understood little about it.
It was the intention of Sir John Woodruffe to unveil this mystery to the extent possible, though I don’t say in its entirety, and it has done much good. The whole difficulty was that the tantric texts were all in Sanskrit and were not to be found in any other language. What is more, the Sanskrit in these texts is so enigmatic and couched in such symbolic and metaphorical language that one cannot actually understand what is meant there by a mere reading. Such was the secret of the tantras. The philosophy is akin to the Vedanta, with both placing an emphasis on the organic relation between the body and the world.
The difference between the Vedanta and the Saiva as well as the Shakta Vedanta (tantra) is that, while they both accept the unitary existence of God which is a common point both for the Vedanta of Shankaracharya and the Vedanta of Saivism and Shaktism, the difference between them is that some sort of necessary is laid by the Saiva-Sidhanta (these are terms referring to certain schools of philosophy) and the Shakti doctrine on the vital relationship between the human organism and the organism of the world outside. Tantra believes that consciousness (chit) is everything, but that there is something in the world also, and one has to rise up to the level of universal consciousness called Siva by a graduated evolution from matter to Spirit. Therefore, in this philosophy one cannot ignore matter—it goes without saying. We cannot set aside matter as long as matter is one of the stages of the evolutionary process. There is nothing unintelligible, unimportant or ugly in the world, according to tantra. Everything can be converted into something beautiful, a significant and necessary means in the practice of this art of contact with God, provided we have a purified understanding.
Matter is not dirt; it becomes dirt only when it is out of place. Matter is not ugly; it looks ugly only when only a part of it is seen, and not the whole of it. Any part of our bodies may look ugly if seen only in part, but not when seen as a whole. We may be very beautiful persons, but if we look at ourselves with a microscope, we will not look so beautiful. In the microscope we will see only partially and not wholly, and therefore all the beauty vanishes. It is the case with all things in the world. It is our way of looking at things that is mostly responsible for our evaluations about things.
So we should not say anything negative about the nature of things—they are all right. Tantra and kundalini yoga believe that there is nothing ultimately wrong with things. That which is wrong seems to be the way of looking at things. In homeopathy a similar thing occurs. The belief is that like attacks like, like cures like. This is the difference between allopathic medicine and homeopathy. The opposite factor is used in allopathic, but the same thing is used in homeopathy. “That which can harm can also cure,” is not only the philosophy of homeopathy but also the philosophy of tantra and the scriptures and the arts akin to this line. The world is neither good nor bad to us—it can be good or bad according to our relation to it.
The philosophy of tantra, hatha yoga and kundalini yoga assumes the necessity for a proper utilisation of the energies and materials available in the world for a higher good, rather than despising it with a kind of renunciation. We do not condemn it by renunciation, because the world is not so bad as we think it to be. The world appears to be bad on account of our not properly appreciating it and our not being able to understand it or put it to use. The world is like a flood. We can harness the waters for hydroelectric purposes, or the waters may flood a village if they are not properly channelled. So are the universal forces—they can inundate us and devastate us if they are not properly directed. If however they are harnessed properly, they can be used for great good.
The tantra shastra, which emphasises these techniques of asana, bandha, mudra and pranayama together with concentration, has been regarded as a dangerous technique—especially these days, because of man’s being what he is. We know human nature—it is easily susceptible to temptation. To the sensuous mind, the philosophy of the omnipresence of God is of no use. The mind can use this philosophy for the effacement of all values and the ultimate destruction and self-inundation of the practitioner. These techniques of tantra and hatha also lay stress on moral equipment, and we will find yama and niyama mentioned first. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika we will find yama-niyama mentioned first. In the raja yoga of Patanjali, yama-niyama is mentioned first. When we read the philosophy of Sankara, we will find the sadhana-chatushtaya mentioned first. We will read the bhakti yoga shastras, the Narada Bhakti Sutras or the Srimad Bhagavatam, we will find the moral equipment mentioned as very, very essential.
There is no yoga worth the name without moral purification, and the dread of tantra, hatha and other yogas will come to a person who is morally impure. Otherwise there is nothing dreadful or fearful about them. People handle fire, dynamite and machine equipment that are so dangerous to a child, but are safe if they are scientifically organised and operated. A person who does not know how to use dynamite may be afraid even to touch it. These tantra shastras are like powerful dynamite that can explode at any time, but it can explode for good as well as for bad. It is like atomic energy, which can be made into a bomb to destroy people or be used to provide incredible power.
These practices are becoming more and more unintelligible to people these days on account of people’s asking for quick results without doing anything. Well, we can have a quick result even by invoking the devil—there is no doubt about it. But we know what will happen to us, and we will repent later on. So do not ask for quick results. There is no use in anything happening immediately—let it happen properly. What is important is not the quickness of the result but the efficacy and the rectitude involved in it. All the yogas are wonderful systems. There is no comparison among them. We cannot say that one yoga is superior and another is inferior. They are all wondrous techniques of self-adjustment with the cosmic. Whether it is tantra, hatha, kriya, jnana, bhakti or whatever it is, it makes no difference. We can reach God, the Absolute, through any of these methods; but we are likely to mistake the fundamental insistence on proper understanding of the technique and the moral purification necessary. These two are very important in all the yogas. A very correct understanding of the techniques along with a moral purification is very, very important.
If we go on meditating for years together without knowledge of the technique, we will not succeed. Our technique of meditation may be wrong, and then we will complain that there is no result. The knowledge of the technique is as important as moral purification, and vice versa. These yogas, as I mentioned, take account of the physical body, the nervous system and its counterpart, the macrocosmic. The raja yoga system of Patanjali does not go into the details of these various implications of asanas, bandhas and mudras. Patanjali rather is particularly concerned only with one pose of the body, suitable for a particular kind of meditation. But for your benefit I am mentioning something which is not in the raja yoga system. Those physical postures are to be combined with bandhas and mudras, together with a direction of the prana, combined with concentration of mind.
All these go together—asana, bandha, mudra, pranayama dharana, meditation and concentration—and all get combined in a single act in any limb of this yoga. The physical body is the emphasis in hatha yoga and all the yogas except for bhakti yoga and jnana yoga. This emphasis is to be regarded as a necessary one for obvious reasons. We cannot get over this body-consciousness easily. There is no use saying, “I am not the body, and I have no body.” We know that we have one, and our catch phrases do not necessarily help us. It is not verbal affirmation that is necessary; rather it is an affirmation of the feeling that is necessary.