By Dr. David Frawley
People tend to forget that seer Adi Shankaracharya was a great Raja Yogi as well, one of the greatest of all time. Shankara discusses all the main aspects of Raja Yoga in his different books and shows he knew the secrets of the chakras, mantra, pranayama, concentration and meditation, as well as the intricacies of Nirvikalpa Samadhi, the highest yogic state.
Shankaracharya, or Adi Shankara the teacher, is one of the greatest spiritual masters in the history of India. Shankara has often been called the greatest philosopher of India, if not of all time and the entire world. His teaching is highly rational, clear and concise, as well deeply mystical, unfolding all the mysteries of Self, God, the universe, the Absolute and immortality. Most of what today is called Advaita (non-dualistic) Vedanta reflects the mark of his insights. He is the main classical teacher of the Advaita Vedanta tradition.
Shankara’s greatness has been hailed by such monumental modern gurus of India like Swami Vivekananda, Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, Ramana Maharshi, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Paramahansa Yogananda, to name a few. In fact, most of what Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta taught as Advaita is pure Shankara Advaita. Perhaps more notably, most of the original Yoga that came to the West starting with Vivekananda was styled “Yoga-Vedanta,” reflecting Shankara’s influence, and aimed at Self-realization through meditation, not simply at skill in asana practice. Indeed Shankara has been a more dominant figure than Patanjali in for these great Yoga-Vedanta masters and for India as a whole historically. He has been regarded as a veritable manifestation of Lord Shiva, the king of the Yogis himself, evidenced by his name Shankara, which is one of the main names for Shiva as well.
Shankara is the main traditional teacher of Jnana Yoga or the “Yoga of Knowledge,” which is usually regarded as the highest yogic path. Even Patanjali states that liberation or Self-realization is gained by knowledge, not by any other means and makes Yoga a means of achieving that higher knowledge. Shankara’s many written works, including extensive commentaries on the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and Brahma Sutras, and shorter philosophical works like Vivekachudamani or the Crest Jewel of Discriminationremain the core teachings behind Jnana Yoga even today.
However, people tend to forget that Shankara was a great Raja Yogi as well, one of the greatest of all time. Shankara discusses all the main aspects of Raja Yoga in his different books and shows he knew the secrets of the chakras, mantra, pranayama, concentration and meditation, as well as the intricacies of Nirvikalpa Samadhi, the highest yogic state. Shankara’s great poem Saundarya Lahiri or the Wave of Bliss remains the most famous work of Tantric Yoga and Shakti Sadhana reflecting all the secrets of Sri Vidya, mantra, yantra and Tantra.
In addition, Shankara composed beautiful chants to the Hindu Gods and Goddesses that remain repeated and sung today probably more than any other poet. These include chants to Shiva, Sundari, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Sarasvati, Rama, Krishna and Ganesha. In these hymns, he shows that he also mastered all the intricacies of Bhakti Yoga or the Yoga of Devotion and was not a mere dry philosopher. The musical cadence of some of his chants like Shivo’ham, or “I am Shiva,” has entered into the western kirtan movement as well.
Shankara is usually dated to the eighth century by western scholars but is placed much earlier by most Indian scholars. Though he lived only to the shortage of 32, he left a legacy of teachings, temples and lineages that affected the whole of India and marked an entire era.
Shankara’s non-dualistic Raja Yoga
It is often highlighted, particularly by academics, that Shankara does refute Samkhya-Yoga philosophy, particularly in his commentaries on Vedic texts, and so appears to be against Yoga. This is a misunderstanding. It is not the practice of Yoga overall that Shankara criticizes but the ideas of Purusha and Prakriti as separate realities and that the Purushas are many, which do occur in Samkhya and Yoga Sutra philosophy. Counter to these ideas, Shankara proclaims Kevala Advaita or pure unity as the highest reality instead.
Shankara has a slightly different view of Raja Yoga than the philosophy of Samkhya or Patanjali and teaches his own system of Raja Yoga based upon Advaita or the non-dualistic view. It is not Yoga per se that Shankara refutes, but simply the dualistic aspects of Samkhya and Yoga philosophy, which are arguably not their real implication, or necessary for the practice of Yoga overall, which after all aims at unity consciousness. Shankara never criticizes the Yoga of Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita but promotes it strongly.
Specifically, Shankara taught a fifteenfold Raja Yoga in his important short work Aparokshanubhuti. Aparoksha refers to the knowledge gained by the direct perception in consciousness itself, which is beyond both reason and sensory perception. Anubhuti is the experience of that from moment to moment as the ground of one’s own being. This is the knowledge born of Samadhi that is the highest form of knowledge.
Shankara’s fifteenfold Yoga combines Raja Yoga and Jnana Yoga rather than the physical practices of Hatha Yoga. This fifteenfold Raja Yoga of Shankara is quite advanced, even for advanced Yogis. There may be not a single person in the world, much less in the West, who can follow it directly without already having undergone considerable training and preliminary support practices. We are not necessarily recommending that the ordinary Yoga student take up Shankara’s Raja Yoga as their primary practice, but rather to use it to see greater depths of Yoga that remain far beyond what modern Yoga has become, particularly in it’s commercial and exercise approaches. Shankara takes the main outer practices and techniques of Yoga and replaces them with inner meditational ways or ways of Self-knowledge or the realization of non-duality.
The following is a translation and short commentary of the portion of Aparokshanubhuti that deals with Raja Yoga, which also occurs in the Tejobindu Upanishad. The Sanskrit idiom is at times terse and difficult to be literal with, so I have in places opted for a degree of simplification, as well as including in brackets some important Sanskrit terms. Shankara’s Yogataravalli and Saundarya Lahiri have similar ideas. We begin with a few verses earlier on in the text to put it into context.
The Importance of Vichara or Inquiry
Jnana Yoga or the Yoga of Knowledge is based upon deep thought, observation and inquiry (vichara). This is also the background of Shankara’s Raja Yoga, without which one cannot understand it. Shankara states:
11. Without inquiry (vichara) there is no knowledge, which is not gained by any other means, just as an object is revealed only by light and not by anything else.
12.” Who am I? How did this world come into being? Who is its creator? What is its material cause?”This inquiry is of that kind.
13. “I am not the body which is a collection of the elements, nor am I the conglomerate of the sense organs. I am distinct from all that.” This inquiry is of that kind.
14. “Everything arises through ignorance and is dissolved by knowledge. The different thoughts are the creator of all this.” This inquiry is of that kind.
15. “Of all this universe, the material cause is the One subtle unchangeable being, just as one findspots made of clay.” This inquiry is of that kind.
16. “I am the One, subtle knower, witness and unchangeable being, of that there is no doubt.” This inquiry is of that kind.
Yoga is a means of gaining this higher knowledge, a practice called Sadhana in Sanskrit. In this regard, Yoga consists of two factors:
- The first is outer practices to purify the body and the mind so that they have the capacity to gain higher knowledge. This consists of the outer limbs and practices of Yoga as Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, and Pratyahara, as well as the preparatory practices and sattvic lifestyle necessary to even begin the practice of Yoga.
- The second consists of Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi (yogic Samyama as all three together) as developing higher knowledge through deep meditation. However, it must be noted that the yogic Samadhi or Samyama can be used for lesser goals than the higher Self-knowledge (Atma-Vidya or Purusha-vidya), but that is another issue and is not the true goal of Yoga.
Shankara and Jnana Yoga bring clarity to the higher goal of Yoga. Shankara states that Self-realization requires knowledge, not merely Samadhi and that this knowledge rests upon inquiry or vichara, which is a higher mental activity, not simply actions like asana or pranayama, which have value more for purifying the mind and body than for the direct realization of the Self. This means that one can practice asana and pranayama forever and still not gain liberation, though these practices may aid with physical health and psychological well-being. We must move beyond them to deeper meditation.
Even meditation cannot bring us Self-realization unless it is allied with a deeper inquiry or vichara, meaning meditation on the Self, rather than on other objects or ideas. On the other hand, without deep meditation, vichara or inquiry is not enough either, as it can remain merely at a conceptual level. In this regard, Shankara teaches his fifteenfold Raja Yoga to aid in the realization of the knowledge generated by vichara or inquiry, and as a deeper level of inquiry. Clearly the role of knowledge and vichara has not been given its proper central place in most of modern Yoga. Shankara teaches us how to bring it back.
Shankara’s Fifteenfold Raja Yoga
100. I will declare a fifteen limbed Yoga, for the accomplishment of the Self-knowledge taught in the previous verses. These should be practised by all as a meditative inquiry (Nididhyasana).
The previous part of the text deals with the knowledge of Advaita or non-duality. This section provides a Yoga sadhana or practice to help reveal that knowledge, without which it is likely to remain only a theory. Meditative inquiry or Nididhyasana is the third aspect of Advaitic practice following receptive listening (Shravana) and deep contemplation (Manana). In the following verses, Shankara provides a complete structure or system for its practice.
101. Without continual practice (nitya abhyasa), there is no attainment of the Self of Being and Consciousness (Sacchidatman). Therefore, those aspiring to the truth should continually meditate upon Brahman for their highest good.
102-103. Yama, Niyama, Renunciation (Tyaga), Non-speaking (Mauna), Place (Desha), Time (Kala), Asana, Mulabandha, Balance of Body (Dehasamyam), Fixing of the Gaze (Drik Sthithi), Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Atma-Dhyana, and Samadhi are the various limbs of this Yoga in order.
Classical Yoga also emphasizes continual practice, meaning the practice to control the mind through discrimination and detachment. Shankara adds several other limbs or aspects to the eight of Ashtanga Yoga, which reflects other important yogic concerns.
104.“Everything is Brahman (sarvam Brahma):” from that knowledge arises the control of the senses (indriya samyama). This is said to be Yama or self-control, which should be practised at every moment.
105. Increasing the sense of unity and decreasing the sense of difference, which grants the supreme bliss, that Niyama or restraint is practised by the wise.
Shankara dispenses with the longer description of the five or ten Yamas and Niyamas found in other Yoga texts. He emphasizes seeing everything as Brahman or God as the primary means of Yama or self-control. He also simplifies the Niyamas into promoting greater recognition of the consciousness of oneness and the harmony of feelings arising from it.
106. Renunciation is giving up the form of the outer world from the ascertainment of the Self of pure consciousness behind it. This Tyaga is honoured by the great, from which liberation rises quickly.
Shankara adds renunciation or Tyaga as an additional principle to the eight limbs of Yoga, showing the foundation of Yoga as a movement from an outer vision to the inner awareness of the supreme Self. He is not asking us to give up anything in particular but to renounce the vision of the outer world as a separate reality, replacing it with recognizing the world as our own Self.
107. From which speech and mind return, not being able to reach, that Mauna which is attained by the Yogis should always be honoured by the wise.
108. That from which speech turns back, by what can it be spoken? What can even be said about the world by that which is devoid of sound?
109. Thus should be the practice of Mauna which is the natural state of those who know their own being. The mere refraining from speaking recommended by the sages is but a practice for those who are immature.