Agnihoma — an ancient Vedic ceremony performed by a brahmin desirous of obtaining heaven. The ceremonies continue for five days with sixteen priests officiating.
Akshauhini — an ancient battle formation of 21,870 chariots, 21,870 elephants, 65,610 cavalry, and 109,350 infantry.
Agastya — considered a Tamil/Vedic sage is one of the Seven Sages (Saptarishi). He is credited with many mantras of the Rig Veda, and is also the author of Agastya Samhita (Agastya Collection). Once a clan of demons hid in the Cosmic Ocean so the gods could not defeat them. The gods appealed to Agastya who drank the entire ocean and held it within until the demons were destroyed.
Amalaki — (Emblica Officinalis) Indian gooseberry, a small tree whose fruit, in Ayurvedic healing tradition, is considered the most powerful rejuvenating medicine.
Amaravati — the heavenly city of Indra, King of the Gods.
Apsara — beautiful, supernatural women; nymphs. They are youthful and elegant, and proficient in the art of dancing. They are the wives of the gandharvas, the court servants of Indra, the Lord of the Gods. They dance to the music made by their husbands, usually in the palaces of the gods, and entertain gods and fallen heroes.
Arghya — an offering of water as a token of respect.
Aruna — the god who serves as the charioteer of the Sun.
Arundhati — The wife of Vasishta.
Asura — power-seeking deities, sometimes considered sinful and materialistic.
Ativahika — In the Upanishads, refers to those who are deployed to carry the dead to the other world. Here, the meaning is the everlasting spiritual body.
Ayodhya — the capital of Kosala, the kingdom ruled by Dasharata.
Bael — the bael (bel, bilva, wood apple) tree is considered sacred to Shiva. Its fruit, as large as a grapefruit, has a smooth, woody shell so hard it must be cracked with a hammer. The fibrous yellow pulp inside is very aromatic.
Bali — (Mahabali, Great Bali) an asura demon, was the son of Devamba and Virochana. He grew up under the tutelage of his grandfather, Prahlada, who instilled in him a strong sense of righteousness and devotion. Bali would eventually succeed his grandfather as the king of the asuras, and his reign was characterized by peace and prosperity. He would later expand his realm and bring the entire world under his benevolent rule. He was even able to conquer the underworld and heaven, which he wrested from Indra and the gods.
Bhairava — fierce, destructive manifestations of Shiva.
Bharadwaja — a sage, one of the even rishis, the leading student of Valmiki, and considered the ancestor of all brahmins.
Bharata — (“Emperor”) legendary ruler of India after whom India and Indians are named.
Brahma — God the Creator, also the father of Vasishta.
Brahma rishi — the highest class of rishis (sages), one who has understood the meaning of Brahman, the highest divine knowledge.
Brahmaloka — the heavenly world where Brahma resides.
Brahman — the indescribable One.
Brahmin (fem. brahmani) — members of the priestly caste.
Brihaspati — Sage and guru to the gods; identified with the planet Jupiter.
chandala — a man born of the illegal union of a low caste shudra man with a woman of one of the three higher castes. They were regarded as the vilest and most abject of the men.
chandrayana — a penance, including fasting, according to the lunar cycle.
Charvaka — a system of Indian philosophy that dates back to the 7th C. BCE, around the same time as Buddhism and Jainism became popular. It assumes skepticism and religious indifference and is characterized as a materialistic and atheistic school. Charvakas believe only what the physical senses tangibly perceive.
chataka — a kind of cuckoo (Cuculus Melanoleucus). Indian traditions suppose that it drinks only the water of the clouds, and their poets usually introduce allusions to this bird in connection with cloudy or rainy weather.
chauri — a female hybrid of yak and hill cattle.
Chitragupta — the god assigned to the task of keeping complete records of actions of human beings.
daivam — fate, providence, god.
dakini — in Indian tradition, female demons, vampires, and blood-drinkers feeding on human flesh. In tantric practice, she is a female embodiment of enlightened energy.
dakshinayana — The sun’s yearly movement is divided into two parts, uttarayana and dakshinayana. Uttarayana starts with the winter solstice and dakshinayana starts with the summer solstice.
Danava — a race of asuras, demigods.
Dasharata — King of Kosala ruling from its capital of Ayodhya, and father of Rama.
dvijas — the three higher castes: brahmins (priests), kshatriyas (rulers and warriors) and vaishyas (traders and landowners). The second birth relates to assuming their roles in society.
eight elements — the eight basic elements are earth, water, fire, air, space, mind, intellect and identity. The first five elements are the gross aspects of matter, and the last three are the subtle aspects of matter.
five elements — earth, water, fire, air, space (akasha).
fourteen worlds — lokas or dimensions. The seven higher (heavens) lokas are: the three planes in which the gods live: satya (truth, the highest); tapas (spiritual austerities; meditation in samadhi); and jnana (creative, knowledge); mahar (spiritual masters), svar (heaven of Indra); bhuvar (demigods); and bhu (material world, the earth). The lower ones (the “seven underworlds” orpatalas) are atala, vitala, sutala, rasaataala, talatala, mahaatala, paatala.
gandharva — male nature spirits, husbands of the apsaras. Some are part animal, usually a bird or horse. They have superb musical skills and made beautiful music for the gods in their palaces.
garima — one of the siddhis (powers) acquired through yoga in which the yogi swallows and compresses great draughts of air.
garuda — a lesser deity, part man and part eagle, known as the eternal sworn enemy of the naaga serpent race. His image is often used as the charm to protect the bearer from snake attack and poison, and the garudi vidya is a mantra to remove snake poison and all other kinds of evil.
Gauri — “Golden”, a name of Goddess Parvati, considered the spouse of God Shiva.
gunas — Three primary gunas are the fundamental qualities or operating principles in creation: sattvas (purity, balance, preservation), rajas (action, creation, power) and tamas (lethargy, passivity, destruction).
Hara — name of Shiva meaning Destroyer (i.e., the destroyer of illusion).
Hari — name of Vishnu meaning Tawny (yellowish-brown) or Remover.
hatha yoga — has the meaning of forceful yoga. It is a system of physical exercises to promote health and prepare the body for long meditation. It is what most people in the West association with the word yoga.
ichor — fragrant secretion from a rutting elephant’s temples.
Indra — King of the gods; his vehicle is Airavat, the eight trunked elephant.
jagat — “all that moves”, the created universe.
Janaka — Self realized King of Videha and father of Sita, the wife of Rama.
jiva — the individual soul. The root meaning of jiva is to breathe, which implies movement. The Latin vivus (alive) shares the same Indo-European origin.
kaivalya — Absolute oneness, aloneness; perfect detachment, freedom. Kaivalya is the term used in the yoga tradition to name the goal and fulfillment of yoga, the state of complete detachment from rebirth.
kalpa — 4,320,000,000 years. Two kalpas are a day and night of Brahma.
kalpa tree — mythical wish-fulfilling tree.
Kama — the god of love, as in lust.
Kapali — “Skull-bearer”, a name of Goddess and a reference to sadhus (ascetics, holy men) who worship God in this form.
kinnara — the paradigm of a lover, a celestial musician, half-human and half-horse.
Kirata — the Kirat are indigenous ethnic groups of the mid-hills of the Himalayas, extending eastward from Nepal into India, Burma and beyond. Kirata is a general reference to peoples of the Himalayan foothills in India, i.e., Mongol-type peoples.
Kosala — the kingdom ruled by Dasharata.
kshetrajna — a compound of kshetra (body) and -jna (knower). Because what one knows encompasses the field of one’s sphere of action, it could be translated as field-knower, or witness consciousness.
kumbhaka breathing — an advanced practice of breath control (pranayama) to regulate the mind and increase concentration.
kusa (kusha) grass — a long, sharp edged grass considered sacred and used to cover a meditation seat.
Lakshman — Rama’s brother.
Lakshmi — goddess of abundance, wealth; considered the spouse of God Vishnu.
linga deha — the subtle or astral body.
loka — world, dimension, environment. Variously numbered three or fourteen.
Lokaloka — world and no world, a magnificent belt of mountains girdling the outermost of the seven seas and dividing the visible world from the region of darkness.
Mahadeva — “Great God”, a name of Shiva.
Mandakini — a sacred river that flows from near Kedarnath in the Himalayas into the Ganges. The celestial Mandakini River is the Milky Way.
mandara (flower) — Datura stramonium, a flower considered sacred to the gods and often planted by temples.
Mandara Mountain — mythical mountain used by the gods and demons to churn the milky sea and separate the nectar of immortality from the poison.
manvantara — an age of Manu, the first man in Indian cosmology. Fourteen such lifetimes make a kalpa, a day of Brahma.
Meru (Sumeru) — mythical mountain considered to be the center of the universe, around which the sun, moon, planets and stars revolve.
moksha — release from the cyclical flow of birth, life, death and rebirth.
muni — an ancient rishi.
nag, naag — a divine snake or cobra; races of such beings.
Nandana — garden of paradise.
Narada — an ancient sage devoted to Vishnu. Narada is the guru of Valmiki.
Narasimha — the half-man, half-lion major avatar of Vishnu. He was created to destroy the demon Hiranyakashipu and not upset the boon given by Brahma, that Hiranyakashipu could not be killed by a human, a god, or an animal. Narasimha’s nature is that of divine anger.
Narayana — God Vishnu resting on waters, or on the coiled form of Sesa-naaga, the endless serpent. Narayana is associated with Brahma the Creator as well as Vishnu the Sustainer.
nirvikalpa samadhi — formless samadhi in which there is no longer any sense of individual identity and no thought; the ultimate Self realization.
pisacha — the fading remnant of a human being, considered to be a malevolent astral being.
prana — vital energy (literally, airs), the subtle life force that circulates in the channels (nadis) of the astral (subtle) body and associated with the breath but more subtle. Comparable to Chinese chi (qi).
pranava yoga — the controller of life force (prana, vital breath) is the sound Om (sometimes spelled Aum) the most sacred word in yoga. Meditation on the sound of Om is pranava yoga.
pranayama — the science of breath (life force, prana) control.
Puranas — a genre of important Indian religious texts, myths and histories, from c. 200-1500 AD.
pushkaravarta — (from pushkara, water, and vrita, to have place in, i.e., a watery cloud) a name for the flood clouds of the world-destroying deluge.
Raghava, Raghu — the dynasty of King Dasharata and Rama.
raja yoga — the king of yoga because its practices focus on controlling the mind, which controls the individual ego. It consists of a series of practices that culminates in meditation without form focused between the eyebrows.
rajas — the quality of action or force; one of the three gunas.
rajasuya — a sacrifice performed by the ancient kings of India who considered themselves powerful enough to be an emperor. Rajasuya would occur after the king’s generals returned from a successful military campaign. The ceremony was religious and political because it implied that he who instituted the sacrifice was a supreme lord, a king over kings, and his tributary princes were required to be present at the rite.
rakshasa (fem. rakshasi) — supernatural humanoids, some good and others malicious. They are powerful warriors, expert magicians, illusionists and shape-changers.
Rama — A major incarnation (avatar) of God Vishnu. He was born, in part, because of a curse by Anaranya, Rama’s ancestor, against Ravana. When Ravana subjugated Anaranya, the dying Anaranya cursed Ravana to die at the hands of his great-grandson (Rama) in later generations.
Ramayana — the epic story, some 24,000 verses (slokas), of the life of Rama attributed to sage Valmiki. With the Mahabharata, it forms the two great epic stories of Hindu culture. Ramayana can also refer to the Yoga Vasishta as its full title is the Yoga Vasishta Maharamayana.
Rati — one of the two wives of Kama, the god of love.
Ravana — the ten-headed rakshasa demon King of Lanka and antagonist of Rama. He was born of a brahmin father and a daitya rakshasa mother. Ravana performed tapas to God Brahma, chopping off his own head ten times to appease the god. He became an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva.
rishi — one who speaks the truth; an ancient sage.
Rudra — an ancient name of Shiva. The Rudras are forms and followers of Rudra-Shiva, eleven in number. The Rudras are described as the loyal companions or messengers of Shiva, often fearful in nature.
sacred thread — symbolizes coming of age. It is usually made of three cotton strands, variously symbolizing the debts owed to God (or guru), ancestors and sages, or purity of mind, word and deed.
saligrama — a stone found at the Gantaki River in Nepal, sacred with the presence of God in the form of Vishnu.
samadhi — various higher states of consciousness in which the mind has become still.
Samkhya — one of the six schools of classical Indian philosophy and is regarded as one of the oldest philosophical systems in India. Samkhya denies the existence of any external God and is strongly dualist. It regards the universe as consisting of two realities: purusha (consciousness) and prakriti (phenomenal realm of matter). Samkhya, is one of the six schools of classical Indian philosophy that recognize Vedic authority.
samsara — the continuous flow of birth, life, death, rebirth or reincarnation.
Sanatkumara — one of the four mind-born sons of Brahma.
Saraswati — the goddess of learning and the arts; traditionally considered the spouse of God Brahma the Creator.
sattva — purity, the most subtle of the three gunas qualities.
Seven Rishis (saptarishi) — the list of seven varies somewhat depending upon the tradition, but they are associated with the Pleides or the seven stars of the constellation Big Dipper (Ursa Major) and include Vasishta.
sharabha — a mythical creature, whether eight-legged deer-like or goat-like, able to kill lions and elephants.
Shastras — scriptures.
Shesha — king of all naagas (snakes), one of the primal beings of creation. He is said to hold all the planets of the Universe on his hoods and to constantly sing the glories of Vishnu from all his mouths. As Anantha Shesha (endless Shesha) or Adishesha (first Shesha), when he uncoils, time moves forward and creation takes place. When he coils back, the universe ceases to exist. “Shesha” also means remainder, that which remains when all else ceases to exist.
Shiva — God the Destroyer (of illusion); God in the form of a yogi. Also called Mahadeva (Great God), Hara (Destroyer) and Rudra.
shradh — derived from shraddha which means faith or respect to someone. It refers to a two week period in autumn considered particularly auspicious for offerings to the souls of dead ancestors.
shudra — the lowest of the four castes; workers.
Shuka (Shukadeva) — Sage, son of sage Vyasa. Dispassionate as a boy, his father sent him to King Janaka for training and enlightenment.
Shukra — the name the son of Bhrigu. He is the guru of the demigods and asuras (demons), and is identified with the planet Venus. He is also referred to as Bhargava because he is a descendant of Bhrigu.
siddha — adept, spiritual master.
Sruti (Shruti) — sacred Indian texts.
Subramanyan — Son of God Shiva, also known as Kartikeya, Skanda and Murigan. His vehicle is the peacock.
Sumeru — Mount Meru; the prefix “su” gives the meaning “excellent Meru” or “wonderful Meru.”
suras — minor, benevolent deities.
swaha — an interjection, approximately “hail!” indicating the end of a mantra. Whenever fire sacrifices are made, swaha is chanted with each offering at the end of each repetition of a mantra.
tamas — darkness, dullness, passivity; the lowest of the three gunas (qualities).
tapas (penance) — spiritual austerity; meditation in samadhi. Upon successful completion of tapas, god manifests and grants whatever boon the tapasvin (person who does tapas) desires.
ten directions (dikh) — four cardinal (north, south, east, west), four intermediate (northeast, northwest, southeast and southwest) and zenith and nadir (up and down).
three-fold — creation, preservation, and destruction; waking, sleeping, and dreaming; and supernatural, natural, and material. Also, rajas, tamas and sattva.
three worlds — the physical world of desire (kama loka), the mental world of form (rupa loka), and the spiritual world without form (arupa loka). Alternatively, bhutakasha, element-space;chittakasha, mind-space; and chidakasha, consciousness-space. Living beings within the world of desire have desire, greed and lust. Living beings within the world of form do not have such heavy desire. However, they still have form and appearance. The third plane of existence, the spiritual world, is considered the abode of the gods and other shining beings who received various forms and states according to their acts and desires.
Tumburu — the best among the gandharvas or celestial musicians. The best of singers, he performs in the courts of the gods and leads the gandharvas in their singing.
twice-born — (dvija) those of the three higher castes, brahmins, kshatriyas, and vaishyas, who take a second “birth” by wearing a sacred thread.
two holes — The whole sphere of air is thought to teem with individual souls and spirits that rove freely until they are made to enter and pass out of the body by two unknown holes, possibly the nostrils, eye sockets or opening of the windpipe.
Uchchaihshravas — the seven-headed flying horse obtained during the churning of the milk ocean. It is considered the best of horses, prototype and king of horses. He is often described as the vehicle of Indra and is said to be snow white in color.
uttarayana — The sun’s yearly movement is divided into two parts, uttarayana and dakshinayana. Uttarayana starts with the winter solstice and dakshinayana starts with the summer solstice.
Vaikuntha — the heavenly world where Vishnu resides.
Vaishnava — a devotee of Vishnu or any of Vishnu’s many incarnations.
Valmiki — The Uttara Khanda tells the story of Valmiki’s early life, a highway robber named Valya Koli who used to rob people after killing them. Once, the robber tried to rob the divine sage Narada for the benefit of his family. Narada asked him if his family would share the sin he was incurring due to the robbery. The robber replied positively, but Narada told him to confirm this with his family. The robber asked his family, but none agreed to bear the burden of sin. Dejected, the robber finally understood the truth of life and asked for Narada’s forgiveness. Narada taught the robber to worship God. The robber meditated for many years, so much so that ant-hills grew around his body. Finally, a divine voice declared his penance successful, bestowing him with the name Valmiki, “one born out of ant-hills.”
vasana — the impressions stored in the mind: memories, attitudes, habits, etc.
Vasishta — ancient sage and one of the Seven Rishis (saptarishi) associated with the seven stars of the constellation Big Dipper (Ursa Major).
Vasudeva — The name of Krishna’s father and also a patronymic name for Lord Krishna himself.
Vedanta — Indian philosophy based on the Vedas and Upanishads; also synonymous with Upanishads.
Vedas — a large body of ancient Indian scriptures consisting of the hymns, formulas and incantations of the Rig Veda (the oldest, dating to c. 1700–1100 BC), Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda. The Vedic period ends c. 500 BC.
vetala — a ghost-like being that inhabits corpses and cemeteries; analogous to a vampire.
vidyadhara — (vidhya = wisdom, dhara = bearing, feminine vidyadhari) a type of supernatural being possessing magical powers and dwelling in the Himalayas. They also attend God Shiva, who lives in the Himalayas. They are considered semi-gods.
Vijnanavada — a school of Buddhist philosophy that consciousness (vijnana) is real, but its objects are constructions and unreal.
Vishnu — God the Sustainer, along with Brahma the Creator and Shiva the Destroyer, one of the three primary manifestations of God. Also known as Hari and Narayana.
Vishwamitra — a valiant warrior and king in ancient India. As king, he quarreled with the sage Vasishta who used his spiritual powers attained through tapas to destroy his army. This made Vishwamitra undertake tapas for a thousand years. He is also called Kausika (“the descendant of Kusha”) and the son of Gadhi. To Vishwamitra is attributed the Gayatri Manta.
vital airs — see prana.
Vyasa — A rishi, also called Krishna Dvaipayana, referring to his complexion and birthplace.
yaksha — a broad class of nature-spirits, usually benevolent, who are caretakers of the natural treasures hidden in the earth and tree roots.
Yama — god of the underworld. His vehicle is the buffalo.
yogini — female yogi.
yuga — There are four yugas in a cycle of divine time: Satya Yuga (Golden Age) of 1,728,000 years, Treta Yuga (Age of Silver) of 1,296,000, Dvapara Yuga (Bronze Age) of 864,000 years, and Kali Yuga (Iron Age) of 432,000 years, for a total of 4,320,000 years. A thousand yuga cycles is a kalpa which is 4,320,000,000 years. Two kalpas are a day and night of Brahma.
• • •
THE STORIES IN YOGA VASISHTA
Story Links Open In New Window/Tab… Links Given As BOOK.CHAPTER.SHLOKA
In this opening story of Yoga Vasishta, sage Agnivesya tells his son, Karunya the story of what Indra’s heavenly messenger told the nymph, Suruchi, and it is the story of King Arishanemi who declines the offer of Indra’s heaven because it is impermanent. Indra instructs the king to go to the ashram of sage Valmiki in order to attain liberation by listening to Yoga Vasishta. (I.1.19)
Brahma reveals the nature of creation to his mind-born son, Vasishta. (II.10.10-44)
BOOK III: ON CREATION
Leela and Saraswati (Padma’s body on the shrine) — Queen Leela and King Padma lead an idyllic life, but as they age Leela fears he might die first, in which case her own life would be intolerable. She does tapas to Goddess Saraswati and obtains the boon to have her husband’s spirit always with her. She and the goddess astral travel and time travel to see the couple’s prior life as simple brahmins when her husband sees a lavish royal hunting party, creating a desire in him to possess the wealth of an empire. That desire manifests after King Padma dies and the queen and goddess see another reality in the deceased king’s mind. He is now King Viduratha ruling a vast empire with a second Leela as his wife (III.15-30) —
The Great War : Leela and Saraswati witness the great war between King Viduratha and his enemy King Sindhu. (III.31-39) —
Viduratha Awakens : Leela and Saraswati awaken Viduratha who remembers his past lives, including as the brahmin who wanted to possess the wealth of an empire. (III.40-41) —
Viduratha Killed : In the end, Sindhu wins, Viduratha is killed, and Sindhu rules. (III.43-51) —
Back to the Shrine; Nirvana : Saraswati instructs both Leelas, they return to King Viduranatha’s tomb in the shrine, King Viduranatha-Padma is brought back to life in front of the two Leelas, and both Padma (Viduratha) and the first Leela attain nirvana. (III.52-59) — There is a twist on the ending in Book VI, part 2. (VIB.156-157 )
Karkati— Karkati (“Crab”) is a female demon (rakshasi) who performs powerful tapas and obtains the boons to become Vishuchika (“Cholera”) and Suchi (“Needle”) so she can feast on mankind. Unsatisfied, she does tapas again to regain her original form and learns from a king and his minister how to eat lawful food. (III.68-83)
The Ten Aindavas (Sons of Indu)— Indu and his wife perform tapas and receive the boon of having ten sons. After their parents die, all ten complete tapas and attain the boon to become God the Creator, the sole God of the Universe, at the same time. (III.86-87) — (See also VIB.178.26-48 )
The Adulterous Lovers— Libertine Indra and Queen Ahalya, are discovered by King Indra who seeks to punish them. Despite torture, the two lovers refuse to abandon each other. Cursed by sage Bharata, they die and reincarnate together over many lifetimes until they perform tapas and attain liberation. This story illustrates the power of belief. (III.89-90)
Deluded Men Punish Themselves— Men in a desert, club themselves, fall into pits and jump into thorny brambles. They rest in shady groves, then resume the self-punishment. (III.98-99)
King Lavana, a Magician and a Horse— The magician appears in King Lavana’s court and manifests a magnificent horse. The king mounts the horse and disappears for a couple of hours. Upon his return, the king explains that he had passed a lifetime married to a tribal woman, raising children. When his tribal family died in a great famine, he was preparing to immolate himself when he woke up, found himself back in his court, and realized the magician had put a spell on him. (III.104-109)
BOOK IV: ON EXISTENCE
Shukra Falls in Love with a Nymph— Shukra, the son of sage Bhrigu, had performed tapas but falls in love with a fairy nymph. He pursues her to Indra’s heaven and ends up getting lost in repeated incarnations until he does such severe tapas by the Ganges River that his body perishes. Bhrigu uses his yogi powers to look for his missing son, finds the dead body, and complains to Yama, the god of death. Yama explains the nature of reality to sage Bhrigu, then awakens Shukra who restores his original body and becomes the guru of the demons (Shukra, Venus). (IV.5.7-IV.16)
Dama, Vyala and Kata— The demons Dama, Vyala and Kata (who become known as Bhima, Bhasa and Dridha) are created by the demon-king Sambara in order to defeat the gods in war. Having no prior birth, the three lack ego and are invincible. The defeated gods obtain Brahma’s counsel to foster ego in the three demons, and the demon armies are defeated. The three demons experience innumerable reincarnations until they attain liberation as a sparrow, a gnat, and a parrot when they overhear a king’s minister telling the story of their war with the gods. (IV.25-33)
Dasura— Dasura does tapas sitting in a kadamba tree. A goddess appears who seeks a son and he gives her the boon. Dasura tells the son the story of the air-born King Khottha (mind) and his grand city. Vasishta interviews Dasura. (IV.48.8-IV.55)
The Song of Kacha— Kacha, the son of Brihaspati (Jupiter, the teacher of the gods), sings of the Spirit abiding everywhere. (IV.58)
BOOK V: ON DISSOLUTION – BECOMING QUIET
King Janaka— King Janaka overhears the divine siddhas (spiritual masters) singing praises of Brahman (the Self), reflects upon the meaning, and attains Self-realization. (V.8-12)
Punya and Pavana— Punya and Pavana are brothers whose devout parents pass away. The elder Punya is enlightened, but the younger Pavana grieves. Punya teaches and enlightens Pavana about reincarnation. (V.19-V.21.3)
Bali, the Demon King— Bali (or Mahabali), a benevolent king of demons, tires of life. He remembers asking his father Virochana about attaining everlasting happiness. Virochana explains that the mind is like a royal minister — subduing the mind, one subdues all. Bali gets instruction from Shukra, teacher of the demons, that all is consciousness and does a thousand years of tapas. Vishnu tricks Bali into giving the world to Indra, then imprisons Bali in a cave. Bali regains his authority and rules as an enlightened king. (V.22.7-V.29)
Prahlada, the Demon King Devotee of Vishnu— Prahlada, lord of demons, is the son of Hiranykashipu who was defeated in battle by Narasimha, the man-lion incarnation of Vishnu. Vishnu is the lord of gods, the enemies of the demons. Prahlada becomes a devotee of Vishnu, as do his demons. Through discrimination Prahlada attains enlightenment and performs tapas for thousands of years, throwing the demon world into anarchy for lack of a ruler. Vishnu awakens Prahlada, explains living-liberation, and Prahlada resumes his governing duties. (V.30-41)
Gadhi— Gadhi the brahmin looses consciousness as he performs his ritual bathing. He wakes up as a child in the womb of a tribal woman. He lives a lifetime among tribals until he outlives his contemporaries, then wanders to a rich city, Kira. There the royal elephant chooses him to be the successor king. After eight years of rule, the citizens discover he is a tribal, so brahmins and ministers immolate themselves in disgust. Gadhi does the same, and as he throws himself on his own funeral pyre, he wakes up and realizes that his entire life as a tribal and a king was a brief daydream. But the dream seemed so real that Gadhi travels to where he lived as a tribal and where he ruled as king. Three times he explores, interviews witnesses, and thinks that it had all really happened. Three times he does tapas to Lord Vishnu who tells him it was just in his mind. (V.44-49)
Uddalaka— Uddalaka practices discrimination, meditates in samadhi, and practices pranayama breath control. The story is an occasion to explain some aspects of pranayama. (V.51-55)
King Suraghu— King Suraghu of the Kiratas (indigenous peoples of the Himalayan foothills) receives instruction from sage Mandavya, practices self-inquiry, and attains Self-realization. (V.58-60)
King Parigha— King Parigha of Persia, disheartened by a severe famine, performs tapas and becomes known as Parnada (“Leaf-eater”). He wanders about and meets his old friend, the now Self-realized King Suraghu of the Kiratas and they discuss enlightenment. (V.61 to 63)
Bhasa and Vilasa— The two friends grow up in the ashram of sage Atri, then wander off to perform severe austerities but without gaining true knowledge. They meet again as old hermits, converse, and finally attain liberation. (V.65-66)
Vitahavya— Vitahavya abandons his practice of puja and yagna (ritual worship and fire sacrifices) and practices self-inquiry. He attains samadhi and performs tapas in a cave for such a long time that his body becomes inert and is covered in deep mud and clay. The sage devotionally bids farewell to the various aspects of his body and attains liberation. (V.82-87)
BOOK VI – PART 1: ON LIBERATION
Bhushunda— Bhushunda is an ancient, Self-realized crow who has survived countless cycles of creation and dissolution. Vasishta visits Bhushunda who tells the story of his birth. He was one of twenty brothers born when the crow Chanda mated with seven swans who are the divine vehicles of god Brahma. Bhushananda describes numerous creations and dissolutions, many Creators, Shivas and Vishnus, and many incarnations of the personality of Vasishta, Rama and other sages and avatars. Underlying reality, he explains, is the principle of vital air, and this becomes an occasion to elaborate on pranayama. (VIA.14-27)
Shiva Instructs Vasishta— Shiva instructs Vasishta on the best way to worship God, which is internally as empty consciousness. He explains that consciousness has forgotten itself, and that creation really exists as divine consciousness. (VIA.29.85-VIA.42)
Arjuna and Krishna— This is the Yoga Vasishta version of the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna and Krishna are dual incarnations of Vishnu. Vasishta describes how Krishna instructs Arjuna to perform his duty with detachment and go into battle, and how Arjuna attains enlightenment. (VIA.52.8-VI.58)
The Hundred Rudras— The story begins with a mendicant who dreams numerous incarnations until a swan dreams it is Rudra (Shiva). This enlightened Rudra restores the mendicant’s body and they proceed to awaken each of the intervening dreamed incarnations, becoming the one Rudra with one hundred forms. (VIA.62-65)
The Vetala and the Prince— A vetala (ghost, vampire) threatens to kill and eat a prince unless he properly answers the vetala’s questions. The prince does and the vetala forgets its hunger. (VIA.70-73)
King Bhagiratha— This is the story of how the Ganges River was made to flow on earth. King Bhagiratha ages and tires of his great life. He seeks counsel of his spiritual guide (the ascetic Tritala), becomes a renunciant, and in his wanderings agrees to rule another kingdom which has no heir. He thinks of redeeming his ancestors and performs tapas in order to make the heavenly Ganges river flow and purify the earth. (VIA.74-76)
King Sikhidhwaja and Queen Chudala— The royal couple lead an idyllic life and both pursue spiritual knowledge. Chudala practices self-inquiry and attains Self realization. Sikhidhwaja notices she appears unusually radiant, but when she explains Self realization, he dismisses her as a mere woman. — Astral Travel : Chudala keeps her wisdom to herself and learns the yogic powers of manifesting astral bodies and astral travel. (VIA.77-80). Vasishta explains how such powers are possible. Queen Chudala tries to share her knowledge with her husband, but Sikhidhwaja continues to simply dismiss her as being only a woman. (VIA.83)
The Parable of the Miser Kirata and the Philosopher’s Stone. In this interlude within the story of Sikhidhwaja and Chudala, Vasishta explains how one can learn something valuable despite seeking trifles. The miser is searching for a lost cowry shell when he discovers the Philosopher’s Stone. (VIA.83.16-24)
King Sikhidhwaja the Hermit; Chudala as the Brahmin Boy Kumbha— Thinking asceticism is the way to attain enlightenment, King Sikhidwaja abandons his kingdom to become a hermit. Queen Chudala, knowing she has to allow her husband to learn in his own lessons, remains home to govern the country in his name, periodically using her powers to astral travel and check on how her husband is faring. She assumes the form of a brahmin boy, Kumbha, who becomes the hermit-king’s spiritual teacher and questions whether the hermit is progressing towards his goal of liberation. (VIA.84-87)
Sikhidhwaja & Chudala (Kumba) Continued— The king burns all his hermit possessions in an attempt at complete renunciation, and Kumbha (Chudala) explains the real meaning of renunciation and reality, and that God and creation are the same consciousness —
The King Attains Samadhi : the king attains enlightenment and gives up his need to live as an ascetic. (VIA.92-103) —
A Married Couple Again : Sikhidhwaja and Kumba (Chudala) wander the world together and the queen desires to make love with her husband. The queen, as the boy Kumbha, tells the king that a curse by sage Durvasa makes him become female each night. It is in this form that they are married. (VIA.104-106) —
Chudala Tests Sikhidhwaja by making a false Indra appear as if making love to her, he passes the test, Chudala reveals her true form to her husband, and they are reunited. (VIA.108-110)
Kacha— Kacha, son of sage Brihaspati, seeks lasting peace of mind. His father teaches him to understand that there is no such thing as ego (personal existence). Kacha does tapas to attain liberation. (VIA.111)
Bhushunda— Bhushunda, the long-lived crow, instructs a vidyadhara demigod who has tired of the world. Bhushunda describes the tree and temple of illusion, and the nature of Brahman. (VIB.5.4-VIB.12) Bhushunda instructs the vidyadhara that the sense of ego is the source of error and the vidyadhara attains liberation. (VIB.15)
Indra’s Rule of an Atomic World— This story is told by Bhushunda to the vidyadhara. Indra, king of the gods, became weak by studying spirituality, and is defeated in war by the demon asuras. Indra hides by making himself minute inside a lotus flower, when he imagines a palace and a universe. Countless successor Indras rule that universe. (VIB.13.5-VIB.14)
Manki— The brahmin Manki, on pilgrimage and crossing a wasteland, encounters Vasishta. Manki complains about life, receives Vasishta’s instruction, and attains liberation. (VIB.23-26)
Vasishta’s Stories: Vasishta’s Search for Seclusion;
A Vidyadhari’s Song;
Her World inside a Block of Stone; and
Her Husband, Creator God Brahma— Vasishta seeks a secluded place in the universe where he does a hundred-year tapas. (VIB.56) Awakening, he hears the sound of a woman singing and explores creation, a network of alternate realities. (VIB.59-60) The song is from a beautiful vidyadhari who grieves because her ascetic, brahmin husband is uninterested in her. She describes their world inside a block of stone. (VIB.64-66) Vasishta and the vidyadhari awaken the husband, a brahmin who is the creator god Brahma, who explains that she is an aspect of his own creation and that creation is about to dissolve. (VIB.69-70) —
A Siddha Master Visits Vasishta’s Aerial Home. Vasishta has experienced cosmic dissolution and returns to the aerial site of his 100-year tapas. He finds a siddha master has taken up residence there. (VIB.93-94)
King Vipaschit— The besieged king, a devotee of the fire-god Agni, enters sacred fire and emerges in four forms in order to wage war successfully. (VIB.108-113) —
Travel the Four Corners of the World : The four kings, each with his courts and armies travel the four corners of the world, walking across the oceans and praising creation. (VIB.114-123) —
Lost in Repeated Reincarnations : His four persons get lost in repeated reincarnations; some attain enlightenment and help the others. (VIB.124-126) King Vipaschit, in the form of a deer, is produced by Vasishta before Rama and Dasharata’s court.
The Deer Enters a Sacred Fire and emerges as the liberated Bhasa. Bhasa describes his many incarnations. (VIB.129-133)
The Story of the Cosmic Carcass— Bhasa (Vipaschit) relates the story of the wonderful carcass to Vasishta, Rama, and Dasharata’s court. He saw a huge carcass fall on the world causing a cosmic dissolution. What is left was used to recreate the world. (VIB.133-135) —
Agni Explains the Carcass : Bhasa describes how he had asked the fire god Agni the meaning of the carcass, and Agni related the story of the asura demon cursed to become a gnat, then becomes a deer and a hunter. The hunter comes across an unnamed sage who tells him his own experience entering into the dream consciousness of his student, where the sage gets lost and experiences cosmic dissolution. (VIB.136-141) —
The Unnamed Sage Finally Awakens and realizes he imagined everything. Another sage visits him and explains that all is Brahman. The first, unnamed sage explains to the hunter that the guest sage was also himself. (IVB.147-150) — Prophesy that the Hunter Will Ask Questions : The guest sage tells the unnamed sage that he will instruct a hunter who will ask questions about dreaming and sit in tapas. (IVB.153.1-5) —
The Boon to Become Huge : Agni, who is telling this story of the hunter to Bhasa (Vipaschit), who is repeating it to Vasishta and Rama, describes how the unnamed sage told the hunter that he will complete tapas, earn the boon to become huge, tire of his body, and the carcass falls on the earth, destroys creation, and becomes a new creation. (VIB.155) — The Hunter Becomes King Sindhu who defeats King Viduratha in battle, then retires and attains liberation. (VIB.157-158) (See the story of Leela, Saraswati and Vidhurath in Book III.) —
Vipaschit Does Tapas : Agni’s explanation of the carcass to Vipaschit completed, Bhasa relates how, in his incarnation as one of the four King Vipaschits, he completes tapas. Indra appears and says he is fated to go through more incarnations before liberation, ending up as a deer in the court of Dasharata. (VIB.159.3-26)
Kundadanta and the Upside-Down Ascetic— This is a story related by Rama. Some time before the assembly that is Yoga Vasishta, the wandering Kundadanta appeared before another assembly that included Rama and Vasishta. Kundadanta tells his story of finding an ascetic hanging from a tree. They travel together and find another ascetic, a hermit living in a desert by a kadamba tree, in what used to be goddess Gauri’s forested ashram, stripped bare by woodcutters. The kadamba tree hermit describes his tapas with his seven brothers which resulted in the blessings of all eight acquiring dominion over creation. Meanwhile, their parents went on pilgrimage and sought wives for the eight sons. They inadvertently gave offense to sage Durvasa who cursed their sons’ tapas to end in failure. (VIB.180-183) —
Personified Blessings and Curse: Kundadanta relates how the personified blessings and curse argue before god Brahma who explains how both blessings and curse come to pass. (VIB.183) His story of the kadamba tree ascetic completed, Kundadanta listened to Vasishta’s teaching and attained liberation.
King Prajnapti— The king asks Vasishta how immaterial can create material; Vasishta’s discourse to King Prajnapati. (IV.206-210)
Rama’s Prior Life Learning under Vasishta— Rama asks Vasishta to illustrate how the supreme Brahma comes to think of ego. Vasishta replies that Rama had asked this same question of him in a prior incarnation. (IVB.212.19-IVB.213)
Yoga Vasishta is an extraordinarily long book that is considered among the most valuable spiritual treatises and the most comprehensive exposition of non-dualistic (advaita) philosophy or Vedanta. Shri Shri Shri Shivabalayogi Maharaj is a yogi, one who has successfully completed tapas, meditation in samadhi for twelve years, to attain God or Self realization. Shivabalayogi regarded God and Self to be the same. According to Shivabalayogi, Yoga Vasishta is the only book that accurately preserves a yogi’s teachings. Other scriptures, he would say, have been altered over time.
Ramana Maharshi, another great yogi of the 20th Century, often cited Yoga Vasishta. Ramana encouraged the practice of self inquiry and one who reads Yoga Vasishta will find it to be the quintessential treatise on the practice. Yoga Vasishta is the book that Shivabalayogi recommended for people to learn more about his own spiritual philosophy, yogis and avatars generally, and the nature of creation. Everything one would want to know, he said, is in Yoga Vasishta. Listening to Shivabalayogi talk about Yoga Vasishta, many devotees came to the conclusion that he was Vasishta. All Shivabalayogi admitted was being there when Vasishta taught Rama.
Yoga Vasishta is the record of how young Rama, the avatar of God Vishnu, attained Self realization through the teaching of the sage Vasishta. Over the course of twenty-two days, Rama asked questions and Vasishta answered, lectured, and told stories. All this took place before the assembled court of Rama’s father, King Dasharata, and numerous sages, gods, nobles and brahmin priests. The book is attributed to sage Valmiki, the same person who wrote the epic history of Rama, the Ramayana, which events take place after those in Yoga Vasishta. The essence of the philosophy in Yoga Vasishta is that creation is not a separate existence from God but a reflection of God. God is consciousness and there is nothing material anywhere. Each individual is consciousness, ultimately the same indivisible Divine Consciousness, and not any physical body.
The only complete English translation of the Yoga Vasishta Maharamayana is by Vihari Lala Mitra, published in 1891. It is a monumental work in two volumes, long since out of print. Copies are difficult to find. A portion of Mitra’s Preface to the 1891 edition is included here and it reveals the high level of Mitra’s scholarship.
Shivabalayogi often described himself as a practical yogi. Instead of intellectualizing spirituality, he encouraged people to practice meditation. Instead of giving discourses, he gave actual experiences. However, he placed a great value on Yoga Vasishta and over four decades, he often recommended the book to devotees. As early as around 1958 or 1959, before he finished his twelve-year tapas, Shivabalayogi recommended the book to two devotees, Rumale Chennebasaiah and M. G. Kabbe, who would meditate in Swamiji’s presence in the evening and mornings. Kabbe explained how they spent the days in nearby Draksharama, resting, taking food and reading Yoga Vasishta. Gen. Hanut Singh met Shivabalayogi in Dehradun and was quickly drawn into the regular practice of meditation. He had questions about his experiences and the spiritual path and talked with Swamiji about them. Swamiji’s answers became material for the biography that Gen. Hanut assembled, Spiritual Ministration, first published in 1981. In that book, Gen. Hanut quotes Swamiji, “Read the Yoga Vasishta. Swamiji’s philosophy is fully expounded in that scripture.”
General Hanut’s biography of Shivabalayogi includes a chapter on “Mission and Upadesa” (upadesa means spiritual guidance), which contains a short synopsis of Yoga Vasishta, ending with the encouragement: “Those who wish to know more about the profound teachings embodied in this Scripture, particularly with a view to gaining a better understanding of Sri Swamiji’s Teachings, would do well to make a more detailed study of the ‘Yoga Vasishta.’ ” In the United States almost two decades later, Shivabalayogi told devotees about his consecration of the Brahma-Vishnu-Maheshwara temple in Bangalore and how his consecration of the idol to God Brahma, the Creator, removed a curse by Shiva. When asked about Brahma, he said, “You should read the history of Brahma.” He was asked whether there was any particular book that he recommended. “Yes, the Yoga Vasishta.” Shivabalayogi would warn of the dangers of nuclear war and how one of the reasons he completed tapas was to use the powers to prevent such a war from breaking out. “This is not the first time people have made atomic bombs. This happened many thousands of years ago and many millions of years ago. If you study history you will come to understand. If you read the Yoga Vasishta you will come to know about that.” On another occasion, Shivabalayogi was asked about avatars. “Read the Yoga Vasishta,” he said, “and you will learn how yogis make avatars and how Rama acquired his powers from yogis.”
Shivabalayogi revealed that he had incarnated during each major avatar of God Vishnu, which occurs every five thousand years. The last such avatar was Krishna, and the one before that was Rama. Shivabalayogi added that he was a witness to the events described in Yoga Vasishta when sage Vasishta gave spiritual instruction to the young Rama. Shivabalayogi discouraged intellectualizing about spirituality, so for him to recommend any spiritual book really stands out. He said that Yoga Vasishta, unlike other scriptures, preserves the original teachings of a yogi. He mentioned it often enough that many began to think that Shivabalayogi was Vasishta.
Encouraged by Shivabalayogi’s praise for the book, devotees in the United States tried to find copies. The only complete English translation of the Sanskrit work was a two-volume set by Vihari Lala Mitra printed in 1891, long out of print and existing copies scarce. A new abridged translation by Swami Venkatesananda, The Concise Yoga Vasishta, had recently been published in 1984. We asked Swamiji about it and he complained that it was not as good as the original because in shortening and adapting the original, Venkatesananda had made too many alterations. We read the abridgment anyway, and even in that form the book was mind-altering. Venkatesananda wrote more expanded abridgments, Vasishta’s Yoga published in 1993, and The Supreme Yoga, 2007. Like the earlier The Concise Yoga Vasishta, these works are extremely well written, intelligent and inspiring. His modern English is excellent. Swami Venkatesananda and Swami Jyotirmayananda, who produced the abridged Yoga Vasishta are direct disciples of Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh. Swami Jyotirmayananda gives weekly podcasts on Yoga Vasishta and he has written a six-volume summary of its essence.
How Shivabalayogi knew anything about Venkatesananda’s The Concise Yoga Vasishta is anyone’s guess. It’s not like he read it. But comparing Venkatesananda’s more complete Vasishta’s Yoga with Mitra’s 1891 translation, chapter by chapter, it becomes obvious how much has been omitted. The Concise abridgment is roughly about a quarter of the Mitra translation. Mitra knew Sanskrit and read the commentaries. He was also an excellent scholar in Western spiritual poetry and literature. Those who do not read Sanskrit can only give second hand evaluations, but his translation may reflect the poetical qualities in which the Sanskrit of the Yoga Vasishta was written. Indian scriptures were first meant to be heard and only in later ages to be read. Obviously a lot of meaning since the ancient times of the Treta Yuga has been lost.
Some criticize Mitra for taking liberties and augmenting the text. Currently there is a collaborative, volunteer project to prepare a completely new English translation of the original Sanskrit (Google Group Yoga Vasishta). They recognize that Mitra’s 1891 translation “is not a satisfactory translation. The English is very poor. It often uses the word ‘God’ to translate ‘Paramatma’, etc.But worst of all, it constantly paraphrases and amplifies the text it ought to be translating. But it is all we have for a complete translation.” Archaic English in the Mitra translation apparently motivated Ravi Prakash Arya to prepare an edit. The result is Yoga Vasishta of Valmiki published in India four volumes in 1999. Arya notes that Mitra’s Bengali background affected his Sanskrit spelling, he used archaic English, and some of his rendering was simply misleading. For example, Arya writes, Mitra misleadingly translates “samadhi” as hypnosis or trance.
There are other English translations, abridgments and commentaries available in India. Vidvan Bulusu Venkateswarulu translated the complete six books of Yoga Vasishta, but not the supplemental second part of the sixth book on Nirvana. His complete translation was published over twenty years ago in Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh, but is also out of print. Shivabalayogi said that that he would have a new English translation prepared by a devotee in India working with the edition Swamiji himself had read, twice. This edition contains parallel Sanskrit and Telugu text. The Telugu translation was done by Swami Purnananda and Swami Vidyaprakasanandagiri of Vyasa Ashram, Erpedu, Chittoor District, in Andhra Pradesh, India. The devotee was Prof. P. N. Murthy, an engineering professor educated in Telugu and English who knew Sanskrit. In a draft introduction to the Book on Nirvana, Prof. Murthy wrote how Shivabalayogi encouraged him to prepare a new translation. “The magnitude of the task was staggering,” Murthy wrote, then added, “There is another angle to it. Devotees all believe that Swamiji was Vasishta and what is preserved in the Yoga Vasishta is what he said thousands of years ago. We hope that through this translation, he is again speaking to the world.” Prof.Murthy’s English translation of the Book of Nirvana was published in India in two volumes. The translation suggests that the Sanskrit verses are terse with little in the way of flow connecting or developing concepts. Perhaps this is driven by the slokas (couplets) in which the Sanskrit text is composed. This staccato flow of the text is also apparent in Mitra, but somewhat less because he added and amplified. Or it may be that Prof. Murthy’s translation condenses too many verses. He also omits some of the detailed descriptions, so in some ways, it is incomplete. On the other hand, he included one reference to vidyadhara (demigod) love making which the Victorian prude Mitra omitted.
This edition takes Mitra’s 1891 translation and updates the English. Jay Mazo spent a year revising the text to delete the archaic second person (“thee” and “thou”) that Mitra had used. Jay has made a study of Yoga Vasishta and its various English translations, going verse by verse comparing them. I am grateful to Jay for much of the information about English translations in this web page. To my taste, Jay had not gone far enough. Mitra’s English, even his punctuation, is frustratingly opaque and obscures the subject matter. I found myself editing the text just to be able to understand what Mitra was writing. It was the only way I could read the translation. This quickly evolved into the idea that I would print my own copy of the complete Yoga Vasishta. With today’s book publishing technology, it’s easy and relatively inexpensive to print a single copy of a book. In a little over a year, I went through two rounds of edits.
Valmiki’s book, Yoga Vasishta is about Rama awakening to God realization through the lectures of sage Vasishta. Rama asks
questions and Vasishta gives answers over a twenty-two day period. This is the same Rama who was an incarnation of the god Vishnu and who is worshipped as God by many in India even today. The subject of the book is a lesson by itself. Even gods forget their identity when they incarnate and require a God-realized master to wake them up. It is a very long book, about 32,000 slokas or verses of two lines each. V. L. Mitra’s English translation is about a million words. By comparison, the King James Bible is about three-quarters of amillion. Valmiki describes twenty-two occasions when the assembly broke for the evening. The last day was one of confirmation and celebration, so Vasishta’s discourses, sermons and stories extended over twenty-two days. At a comfortable spoken pace of 120 words a minute, that works out to about five to six hours of constant dialogue each day.
Most of us would be ecstatic to attain God realization in only twenty-two days. The book itself states that simply reading it can evoke enlightenment. “Whoever hears and attends to these discourses of Rama and Vasishta is sure to be relieved in every state of life and be united with [God] after his release.” (VIA.128.109) (Citations are to Book.Chapter.Shloka). “Reading this Vasishta Maharamayana is sure to produce the knowledge of self-liberation in its reader, even during his lifetime in this world.” (VIB.95.25)
“There was never a better scriptures than this, nor is any like this now in existence or likely to be in fashion in the future… . This is the best among the principal works of the scriptures. It is easily intelligible and delightful. There is nothing new here, only what is well known in spiritual philosophy. Let a man read the many stories contained in this book with delight. He undoubtedly will find this book the best of its kind.” (VIB.103.25,42-43 ) Yet among Vasishta’s or Valmiki’s praise for the book, it also recognizes that it may not be to everyone’s taste. “Should this scripture prove distasteful, owing to it being the composition of a holy sage, then the student may consult the sacred scriptures to perfect his spiritual knowledge.” (VIB.175.76 )
Some say Rama lived about ten thousand years ago. Traditionally, he is thought to have lived during the Treta Yuga, the Age of Silver, which lasts over a million years.
We are now in the Kali Yuga, the dark Age of Iron, which lasts almost a half a million years. In between Treta Yuga and Kali Yuga was the Dvapara Yoga, the Age of Bronze, which lasted over three-quarters of a million years.
Sage Vasishta is an ancient yogi who was born from the mind of Brahma, God the Creator. Sage Valmiki, to whom the writing of the Yoga Vasishta is attributed, is also a yogi of ancient times. So the Yoga Vasishta has its roots in ancient times.
The subject of the book may be exceedingly ancient, but the book itself is set in medieval India. Vasishta is the name of a family or class of brahmin priests who served royalty in India for centuries. Valmiki is the name under which another great work was written, the Ramayana, the 24,000 sloka epic of the life of Rama. The Yoga Vasishta is
generally believed to have been written down in India some time between the 11th and 14th Centuries AD, only seven or ten centuries ago. The Ramayana dates back to the last centuries before Christ. Yoga Vasishta refers to various schools of Indian philosophy, Buddhism and Christianity (resurrection at the Second Coming), which establish its age in conventional history.
The written Yoga Vasishta and Ramayana are much more recent than the traditional dates for the events they describe, so there is no need to believe that the original Vasishta or Valmiki actually wrote the versions we have now. Yoga Vasishta itself teaches that time and space do not really exist and even sage Vasishta and sage Valmiki, the original ones, have incarnated as themselves many times over.
Among many other qualities, Yoga Vasishta is a book written by priests in the service of royalty designed to teach princes how to live and rule. It abounds in stories of enlightened rulers, the wars they waged, and the lands they ruled. It constantly praises the brahmin caste and encourages the royal caste to donate generously to all brahmins.
Despite its dated style and context, and sometimes questionable or inapplicable social values, the book remains exceedingly timeless.
Yoga Vasishta is stories within stories within stories. The entire book is a story (Valmiki telling his student, Bharadwaja, what Vasishta told Rama) within a story (Valmiki repeating the story to King Arishtanemi), within a story (the divine messenger telling thstory to a celestial nymph named Suruchi), within a story (sage Agnivesya telling the story to his son, Karunya), within yet another story (sage Agastya telling the story to his student, Sutikshna). It begins in this context with the fourth verse and ends in this context almost a million words later. Yoga Vasishta is divided into seven Books. It would seem to end with Book VI part 1 where Rama attains enlightenment and that Book concludes with, “Thus ends the Maharamayana of sage Vasishta and spoken by Valmiki relating to the boyhood of Rama and consisting of thirty-two thousand slokas.”(VIA.128.110)
Actually, Book VI part 2 is required to bring the verse count to about 32,000. Then Book VI part 2 begins as if the end of part 1 never happened. This seventh Book concludes with another celebration of Rama’s enlightenment. “Here ends the Maharamayana of sage Vasishta with its continuation by his recorder Valmiki and the speech of the celestial messenger at the latter end of the Book on Nirvana, the ultimate extinction of the living soul.” (VIB.216.27) The two parts of Book VI suggest that the entire book’s organization is anything but obvious.
Book I is about Rama’s dissatisfaction with everything the world has to offer. Only fifteen years old (I.5.1), Shivabalayogi said he was only eight), he is unusually mature for his age. This Book is entitled vairagya, detachment. Constantly throughout all of its seven Books, Yoga Vasishta emphasizes that detachment or lack of desire is the essential preliminary to spiritual awakening. The setting of Book I is the same as all the other six Books. We are in the court of King Dasharata, the father of Rama. Not only are the nobles and brahmins of the kingdom gathered, but also sages, spiritual masters, gods and demigods from this mundane world and the many spiritual worlds. This is an example of another constant emphasis throughout the book: the need for the aspirant to keep company with the wise, and to listen and reflect upon their teaching and the meaning of the scriptures.
Book II is about the qualities of the aspirant who longs for liberation, enlightenment. It introduces themes that permeate the rest of the book: dispassion, control over one’s desires, company of the wise, study of the scriptures, and self-inquiry. The titles of the remaining five Books provide the reader with little guidance.
Book III is entitled creation, Book IV is on existence, Book V is about dissolution or abiding in stillness, and Book VI is on nirvana or liberation, its part 2 labeled the “latter treasury.” But the contents of all but the first Book are permeated with the need for dispassion and abandonment of desires, creation and its existence and dissolution, and the nature of nirvana or Self realization. All these subjects are intermingled repeatedly throughout the book.
The similes and metaphors in Yoga Vasishta are repetitive and seemingly endless, often obscuring the simple thought being expressed. “What I will say, by opposite similes, right reasoning, graceful style, and good sense of the words in which they shall be conveyed to you, cannot fail to come to your heart.” (III.84.47) We might mistake a rope for a snake until we examine more closely and realize our mistake. We mistake a desert mirage for water. Through a thin cloud layer we see a second moon. The appearance of phenomena is like waves on the ocean or jewelry made out of gold. There is no difference in the substance (water and gold), only the appearance. Seeing a snake in a rope, water in a mirage, horns on a rabbit, castles in the sky, a barren woman’s son, and a double moon are repeated endlessly. A metaphor frequently cited in Venkatesananda’s English abridgments is a crow landing on a coconut tree and a coconut simultaneously falling. The meaning is that we mistakenly assume there is a cause-and-effect relationship. Although a frequent metaphor in Advaita writing, it appears only twice in Mitra’s translation. It seems that Vasishta is incapable of making a statement without a simile. “Whatever … compositions are adorned with measured sentences and graceful diction, all these are rendered acutely insightful through conspicuous comparisons, as the world is enlightened by cooling moonbeams. Therefore almost every verse in this work is embellished with a suitable comparison.” (III.84.47)
Ornate, baroque language may have been the fashion in medieval India, but it makes for a tough read for a modern reader. One wishes a modern day sage would re-write the book, using similes and metaphors more sparingly. Perhaps the modern sage could employ more modern comparisons, like movie projectors and screens, television programs, and computer clouds. Like creation itself, Yoga Vasishta seems repetitive, sometimes irrelevant, and seemingly endless. But the only way to describe God is through simile and metaphor. There is no word or concept that can describe consciousness, God. “The soul being inexpressible in words proves to be described only in negative terms.” (V.34.101 ) “No conception of God can be true.” (VIA.49.24 ) We are so habituated to believing our senses and desiring the things of this world that repetition and effort are necessary to become established in the truth. “The repetition of a lesson serves to impress it more deeply in the memory of inattentive persons.” (VIB.198.1 ) “But because the human mind is like a child, it must not be forced. The training of a child is like that of the mind. It is done slowly by gentleness and indulgence, and not by force or hurry.” (II.9.32-33 )
As one reads what seems repetitive or irrelevant, the ideas and images become more deeply impressed in the mind. We realize it’s true because it is a part of who we are. As one reads, one argues with the book. As one re-reads, ideas occur. Realization happens. So the length or complexity of the book ought not deter any of us. It’s part of the process. The rewards are there.
Everything we can think in our minds or perceive with any of our organs of sense is an expression of the consciousness of God. God created nothing tangible or material. All that seems to exist is only an appearance of God, like waves on the ocean. There are at least three ways to know this truth: logic, ordinary experience, and God realization. Reason Logic involves the implausibility of any other explanation. Reason and inquiry must conclude that all is God. If God is all powerful, all knowing, and all present, how can anything exist that is not God? The process of self-inquiry or discrimination is the path of jnana yoga. In modern times, the best known exponent of self-inquiry is Ramana Maharshi. Shivabalayogi taught meditation and Ramana taught self-inquiry. They are the same thing. As Shivabalayogi explained, “Each teaches what his guru taught him. Ramana Maharshi taught self-inquiry, which is the same thing that Swamiji is teaching.” We think we are our bodies, but if we search our own consciousness, we realize that it is not located in the body or even confined to it. Consciousness is not material and it is implausible to think that God is material. God is spirit. Like can only create like. “The essence of consciousness is not material so it cannot be the cause of a material thing.” (VIB.55.2 ) It is impossible for spirit to create material. Therefore material creation is an illusion. It exists only in consciousness.
The ordinary experience which confirms this truth is dreaming. “The example of the dream is the best illustration of creation. You can judge creation well by the nature of the dreams you have every night.” (VIB.168.20 ) “Know, O son of Raghu’s race, that this world is a display of the vast kingdom of your imagination. It will vanish into nothing when you come to good understanding by the grace of your God. Then you will see the whole as clearly as the light of the rising sun, and you will know this would is like a creation of your dream.” (VIA.28.29-31 ) “To the clear mind this world appears like an fleeting dream ….” (VIA.67.13-14 ) While we dream, the dream appears real. But when we wake up, we know the dream was an illusion, a fanciful creation of the mind and its consciousness. The only difference between sleep-dreams and awake-dreams is duration and consistency, which relate to the level of consciousness that is doing the dreaming. When we die, we wake up from our life-dream and, at least for a moment, realize it was all a dream. But then our minds start thinking and we create another life-dream for ourselves.
Those who have attained Self realization experience the truth that all is a reflection of God. They are the spiritual masters beyond all desires and the ordinary limitations of the mind. Their personal experience, indescribable in words, is that only Divine Consciousness and Bliss exists. “After egoism and mental powers are extinguished and all feelings in oneself subside, a transcendent ecstasy arises in the soul called divine or perfect joy and bliss. This bliss is attainable only by yoga meditation and in some ways can be compared to sound sleep. But it cannot be described with words, O Rama. It must be perceived in the heart.” (V.64.51-52 ) The personal experience of yogis confirms that creation is only consciousness, like a dream. “Rama, I have told you all this from my own personal perception and not by any guesswork. Through their purely intelligent bodies, yogis like ourselves have come to the clear sight of these things in nature which are otherwise unknowable to the material body or mind. Thus the world of which I have spoken appears to us as in a dream, and not in any other aspect as it is viewed by others.” (VIB.128.1-2 ) “There is truly only consciousness in reality. All other existence is truly consciousness and full of consciousness. The mind is consciousness, and I, you, and these people are collectively the same consciousness.” (V.26.11-12 ) Most of Yoga Vasishta consists of stories and stories within stories, and these stories illustrate the power of consciousness to travel, experience and create everywhere and everything. “By the application of a bit of their intelligence, yogis convert the world to empty air or fill the hollow air with the three worlds.” (VIB.37.73 ) “Rama, know that this world is like a dream that is common to all living beings.” (VIA.52.1 )
Vasishta spends considerable time answering Rama’s questions and lecturing on various spiritual subjects, but most of Yoga Vasishta is stories that illustrate the nature of reality. These stories, like the similes and metaphors, serve to impress understanding upon the mind.
The first long story is in Book III and is about Queen Leela and King Padma. (III.15-58 , with a twist on the ending in VIB.156-157) They lead an idyllic life, but as they age Leela fears he might die first, in which case her own life would be intolerable. So she does tapas to Goddess Saraswati and obtains the boon to have her husband’s spirit always with her. She and the goddess astral travel and time travel to see the couple’s prior life as simple brahmins, and the origin of her husband’s desire to possess the wealth of an empire. That desire manifests after King Padma dies and the queen and goddess see another reality in the deceased king’s mind. He is now King Viduratha ruling a vast empire with a second Leela as his wife, then battling his enemy King Sindhu. In the end, King Sindhu wins, King Viduratha is killed, King Padma is brought back to life in front of the two Leelas, and both Padma and the first Leela attain nirvana. The story of Gadhi (V.44-49 ) is much shorter and involves one of those moments in which a person experiences another lifetime. Gadhi the brahmin looses consciousness and wakes up as a child in the womb of a tribal woman. He lives a lifetime among tribals until he outlives his contemporaries, then wanders to a rich city, Kira. The king of that city had recently died, so the citizens decided to let the royal elephant chose the successor. The elephant chose Katanja (Gadhi) and he became king. After eight years of rule, the citizens discovered the king was a tribal, so brahmins and ministers began immolating themselves in disgust. The tribal who became king does the same, and as he throws himself on his own funeral pyre, Gadhi the brahmin wakes up only to realize that his entire life as a tribal was a brief daydream. But the dream seemed so real that Gadhi goes to where he lived as a tribal, then where he ruled as king. He explores and interviews and realizes that it had all really happened. He does tapas to Lord Vishnu who tells him it was just in his mind. Gadhi ends up travelling there three times. Each time his daydream is confirmed, and after each time he does tapas and Vishnu tells him it was only in his mind.
In Book VI part 2, Vasishta tells a story of a sage entering the consciousness of a student in order to explore the nature of dreams. The story includes narrations by the sage, Agni (the god of fire), Vasishta himself, two unnamed sages (one the dream of the other), and a hunter who becomes the cosmos, is destroyed as the end of the world, then reincarnates as a character in the Queen Leela story. It is within this story that Vasishta weaves his own personal experiences the most obviously. There is the story of the ten Aindava bothers. All ten become God the Creator, the sole God of the Universe, at the same time. Then there is King Vipaschit who makes himself into four, wages war successfully, then his four persons get lost in repeated reincarnations. One of those four persons ends up as a deer who Vasishta restores to a human form before the amazed Rama and the assembled court. That former deer tells the court about his own experiences as King Vipaschit and all the many other incarnations of his four copies. In another part of the book, sage Bhushunda, a crow who is the only point of consciousness that has survived countless cycles of creation and dissolution, explains how there have been many Creators, many Shivas and Vishnus, and many incarnations of the personality of Vasishta, Rama and all the other sages and avatars. This has all happened before, many times. There are many, many such stories.
Mitra’s translation frequently refers to nirvana, extinction and liberation. Today, the words enlightenment or God realization are more commonly used, but perhaps the best term in today’s spiritual vocabulary is Self realization because ultimately, God is Self. Repeatedly sage Vasishta insists that such words are interchangeable. They only get in the way. “Mind, understanding, egoism, intellect, consciousness, action and imagination, together with memory, desire, ignorance, and effort are all synonyms of the mind. Sensation, nature, delusion and actions are also words applied to the mind to bewilder one’s understanding. The simultaneous collision of many sensations diverts the mind from its clear sight of the object of its thought, and causes it to turn about in many ways.” (III.96.13-15 ) Reality is constantly described as a void. God is an emptiness. Reincarnation is described as something terrible, as is the ignorance of believing in the material world. The highest good is to extinguish one’s own mind, to be utterly indifferent to everything. This is nirvana and the reader necessarily wonders, “What’s the point of nothing?” It takes considerable effort to assimilate what Vasishta is trying to explain in words because nirvana is inexplicable. It’s not being catatonic. “I think no liberation is obtainable from stone-like, apathetic trance any more than one gains liberation from deep sleep. Only through consummate knowledge can reasoning men dispel their ignorance… . [Liberation] is not the stone-like inertness of some philosophers or the trance or sound sleep of others… .
It is the knowledge of Brahman [God] as the prime source of all and the nothingness of visible creation. It is knowing God as all and yet nothing that exists.” (VIB.174.12-13,17-18 ) What motivates any person to seek this knowledge is the same thing that motivated Rama, a deep apathy towards everything the world has to offer. Upon attaining the state of enlightenment, the living liberated abide in bliss and see all as Divine Consciousness. “All intellectual conceptions cease upon the spiritual perception of God. There ensues an utter and dumb silence.” (III.84.25 ) “Know that this state of transcendent bliss can only be attained through intense meditation.” (VIB.163.46 ) Such a person does not identify with his or her body and has no sense of personal identity. They engage in ordinary activities, as is the custom for the society in which they live, but they have an utter disregard for any personal benefit. Such people are unrecognizable by the ignorant, yet they command the respect and affection of all. The Self realized have a feeling of fellow-love towards all creation. “Regard everything in the same light as yourself and observe a universal benevolence towards all beings… . Let your continued observance of toleration preserve you from acts of intolerance, which tend at best to oppress others.” (VIB.198.7, 35 ) They see all things in a different light. “In this state of emancipation we see past and present, and all our sights and doings in them, as present before us.” (VIB.194.37 ) “When this material world is viewed in its ethereal and intellectual light, the distresses of this delusive world take to flight and its miseries disappear. As long as this intellectual view of the world does not reveal itself to the sight of a man, the miseries of the world trouble him stronger and closer on every side.” (VIB.178.59-60 ) Rama asks how to tell the genuinely Self realized from the pretended or hypocrites. (VIB.102.20-21 ) Vasishta answers that if they act as if perfect, that also is good. “Only those who know the knowable and are equally pure in their minds can distinguish hypocrites from other people.” (VIB.102.26 ) He goes on to explain that the realized stay out of the public eye. “They are the best of men who hide their good qualities from others. For what man is there who will expose his most precious treasure in the market with the raw produce of his land? The reason to conceal rare virtues is to keep them unnoticed by the public. The wise who lack desire for reward or reputation have nothing to reap or expect from the public.” (VIB.102.27-28 )
There is nothing fatalistic about Yoga Vasishta. Early in the work, immediately after Rama completes his speech on the vanity of everything the world has to offer, Vasishta hammers away on the need for personal effort. This theme is woven throughout the book. There is no fate or karma. What we call fate is the result of prior effort. Although we have become habituated because of our past efforts (desires, attachments, vasanas), our efforts in the present time are more powerful than those of the past. (II.4-5 ) “The presence of the Holy Light is not to be had by a teacher’s lectures or the teaching of scriptures. It is not the result of good acts or the company of holy men. It is the result of your own reasoning.” (V.12.17 ) “[T]he pious acts of men, their riches and their friends are of no use for their salvation from the miseries of life. Only their own efforts are of use for the enlightenment of their soul.” (V.13.8 ) “[T]he primary cause of spiritual light is a man’s intelligence, which is only gained by exertion of his mental powers. The secondary causes may be the blessing and grace of a god, but I wish you to prefer the former one for your salvation.” (V.43.11 )
Vasishta’s teaching begins with the need for personal effort and not religion or teachers or good deeds. The book pretty much ends on the same subject. Rama asks whether there is any good studying the scriptures or listening to spiritual teachers. Vasishta says they are not the means to understanding. “So it is, O mighty armed Rama, that the scriptures are not the means to divine knowledge. Scriptures are profuse with words; divine knowledge is beyond the reach of words.” (VIB.196.10 ) “Transcendental knowledge of God cannot be derived from the doctrines of the scriptures, or from the teachings of our preceptors. We can never know the unknowable one through gifts and charities, or by divine service and religious observances. These and other acts and rites are falsely said to be the causes of divine knowledge, which can never be attained by them.” (VIB.197.18-19 ) Religion, scriptures, the company of the wise, and good deeds serve to create the opportunity to understand, but ultimately, one has to do the work alone. One has to become dispassionate, learn to be without desires, practice good conduct, study scriptures and learn from teachers. Then one has to internalize everything. “Rama, you have heard whatever is worth hearing. You also know all that is worth knowing. Now I see there is nothing left worth communicating to you for your higher knowledge. Now you have to reconcile in yourself, by your best understanding, all that I have taught you and what you have read and learnt in the scriptures, and harmonize the whole for your guidance.” (VIB.203.20-21 )
Almost every story in Yoga Vasishta, and there are many of them, begins with a long description of idyllic nature, people and heavens. Among the longest description of nature is when the four copies of King Vipaschit, accompanied by his court, survey the lands they had conquered, including walking on the waters of the ocean to travel to other continents. There are several long sections, some spanning numerous chapters, describing visions of the end of creation. Vasishta describes his own visions over several chapters in the second part of Book V, but there are other detailed descriptions of cosmic dissolution. Kings fight wars and Rama was born to be a king and fight a war against the King of Sri Lanka, the demon Ravana. Perhaps that is why Vasishta delivers such a long, detailed account of the battle between King Viduratha and King Sindhu in Book III. The wars between demons and gods get extended coverage. In the last Book, King Vipaschit battling his enemies is also an extended description ending with a catalogue of the peoples he defeated.
These long, detailed descriptions of creation, the end of creation, and battles are typically omitted in any abridgment of Yoga Vasishta, even more complete translations. Presumably, the idea is that these descriptions are overly long, repetitive and irrelevant to why people should read Yoga Vasishta, its spiritual philosophy. It’s surplus or not important. Creation, its end, and the wars in between are all a part of life. Yoga Vasishta is about life, how to live it without being enslaved to desires. We may read these descriptions less carefully than the philosophical parts, but to eliminate them takes away from how Yoga Vasishta works on he mind. These long, repeated descriptions emphasize the creativity of God. There is nothing so beautiful or so violent that is not an expression of God’s consciousness. One needs to read and re-read Yoga Vasishta in detail, the full version. Some parts we need to read slowly, others may only create images in the mind. No summary or abridgment is equal to the impact of the original, even though many, many passages seem redundant or irrelevant. There are many obscure passages and many answers that don’t seem responsive to Rama’s questions. But somehow, it all is impressed upon the mind which becomes more open to what is really going on.
Yoga Vasishta is a challenging read because of its length, its setting in medieval India, and the subject matter itself, the nature of reality. It doesn’t make the reading any lighter when Vasishta regularly describes people who believe in external reality as worse than beasts. He is dead serious about despising everything the world has to offer. Yet there is also humor in Yoga Vasishta. Book III has the story of men in a desert, alternating among beating themselves, falling into pits, and jumping into thorny thickets. (III.98 ) Even Vasishta recognizes humor. “Now, Rama, listen as I tell you the story of the false and fanciful man. It is pleasant to hear and quite ludicrous and laughable from first to last.” (VIA.112.15 ) It is the parable of the blockhead who imagines a home for himself from where he can rule his empire that is a void. Of course, it is a story about us. Some humor is in the word play. Mitra in his translation notes the use of alliteration in the original Sanskrit descriptions of battle. “The whole of this chapter abounds in onomatopoeian alliterations, and is more a play upon words than display of sense. However, it is interesting for these jingling words and for the names of the weapons in use among the ancients.” (III.33 ) Chapter 165 in Book VI, part 2, is obviously a word play on daydreams and sleep-dreams. The story of Gadhi includes citizens using the royal elephant to choose their next king. Vasishta seems to enjoy the situation. “The royal elephant was employed as a jeweler to select the best gem to be placed on the royal throne.” (V.44.29 )
Some of the humor is more subtle. Consider the premise of the demon Karkati (“Crooked Crab”) who undertakes tapas in order to become a needle, Suchi (“Pin”). The needle is cholera. The demon relents and does tapas again and is restored. It’s hard to read the story of Queen Chudala and King Sikhidwaja without smiling. Chudala attains enlightenment but Sikhidwaja, somewhat sexist, cannot bring himself to believe that his wife can teach him anything about spirituality. He thinks he has to live like an ascetic to attain enlightenment. Ignoring the treasure he has in his wife, he abandons his kingdom to live as a hermit. The queen, understanding that her husband will not listen to her, remains behind to rule the kingdom, then periodically visits her hermit-husband to see how he is faring. She uses her yogic powers to appear in the form of a brahmin boy. The king had not listened to his wife, but now he believes what the boy has to say. The wife, in the form of the boy, teaches him that even a hermit can be attached to things. So the hermit-king ceremonially burns his remaining meager possessions, even his hut. The description of his ceremony is almost comic because the king still doesn’t get it. (VIA.92 ) By the end of story, he does. Significantly enough, Yoga Vasishta has only happy endings.
As written down in medieval times, Yoga Vasishta is not a pure expression of a yogi’s teaching. The scribes inserted their gloss because some some parts are what we would call culturally insensitive. The condescending references towards women and “lower” social classes belong to the pundit scribes who wrote down the stories. One cannot imagine a yogi having such attitudes. The brahmin scribes who put the existing Sanskrit text in writing were misogynistic to the extent they blame women for being the seducers of men and of less value. But in the substance of two of the most significant stories themselves, that of Queen Leela and Queen Chudala, it is the woman who attains Self realization first and ends up having to wake up their husbands. India is held up as the land of wisdom and sages. Certainly, we can believe that India may be the land where more sages have lived and the culture of the ancient sages has best been preserved. But consistent references to foreigners as being savages, less enlightened or even less than civilized are a bit too much. “Among all living beings confined in this earth, only the human race living in this part (India) are capable of receiving instruction and civilization.” (IV.40.12 ) This is suitable praise to cultivate the patronage of a medieval Indian ruler, to whom the written Yoga Vasishta was directed, but yogis do not distinguish on the basis of national identity. The most obvious gloss is the reverence towards the brahmin priest class. Brahmins are held up as the most pure of men and even gods.
At the end of the work, Vasishta instructs King Dasharata to reward every brahmin. (VIB.214.30-32 ) He feeds the brahmins first, ten thousand of them gathered from all over the realm, then his family gods, his family and friends, then servants and citizens, and only at the end does he bother with the poor, needy, lame, blind and lunatics. If this ending isn’t enough, Valmiki, the narrator of Yoga Vasishta, is made to state that upon each recital of the work, the brahmins are to be rewarded. “At the close of reciting these lectures on the way to attain human salvation, it is suitable for every sensible man to honor brahmins with diligence and serve them with desirable gifts of food and drink and furnish them with good houses for their lodging. They should also be rewarded with gifts and payments and supplied with money to their hearts’ desire and to the utmost capacity of the donor. Then the giver or master of the ceremony should rest assured of having discharge his duty and reaped the merit according to the intent of the scriptures.” (IVB.215.15-16 ) The consist praise for the brahmin caste of priests, together with disdain for tribals, shudras (low caste) and chandalas (mixed child of a shudra and one of the three higher castes) also reflect an attitude that we should consider prejudiced. Even so, the brahmin pundits did not alter the many stories of demons who attained Self realization, and the one person who survives all the ages is a crow, Bhushunda. Periodically, there is a sentence about universal love. This is the attitude that reflects the yogi. “The mind, cleansed of its selfishness, turns to universal benevolence and philanthropy.” (IV.35.67 ) “Fellow feeling for all living beings makes the best state of the mind.” (IV.56.42 ) “Know Rama that all created beings are friendly and useful to you, and there is no person or thing in the world with which you are not related in some way. It is false to look anyone as a friend or foe among the various orders of created beings in the universe. In reality, each may be of help to you, however unfriendly they may appear at first.” (V.18.63-64 ) The truth in Yoga Vasishta is universal fellow-feeling where gender, culture, caste or even demons are seen only as appearances. This is the yogi’s teaching.
No doubt there are precise nuances in meaning in the Sanskrit and the English vocabulary is very limited in its ability to describe spiritual matters. So it is inherently impossible to “accurately” translate a work like Yoga Vasishta into English. It’s like trying to translate the Quran into English. The subtlety and beauty of the original Arabic doesn’t translate into English. Actually, it’s a problem of any translation between any two languages. The Mitra translation does use some English words which may have made sense in the academic, essentially European-centric Asiatic studies environment in which he wrote. A century ago, academics studied Indian religion as if it was a branch of anthropology, typically with an unstated bias that non-Western culture was somehow inferior. Mitra, bless his soul, took pains to write a detailed, annotated treatise on yoga philosophy and include it in the 1891 publication of Yoga Vasishta. It argues that yoga philosophy is consistent with other religions, including Christianity, Gnosticism and ancient Greek philosophy. Perhaps Mitra used words like “trance” or “hypnosis” for samadhi because they were more acceptable to academia. Or maybe he thought these words would best express the meaning to a 19th century English audience. Today, many in the West have some personal experience with different spiritual traditions. Some Sanskrit words like yoga, pranayama, and samadhi have become familiar. So today, “trance” or “hypnosis” for samadhi is unacceptable and extremely misleading. Other misleading usage is more subtle.
Mitra most often uses “Intellect” for chit. I am no Sankrit scholar, but intelligence has too many connotations of rational thinking or IQ. The word consciousness is more subtle, amorphous and appropriate. Then there is the problem of God and gods. The English word for paramatman is “God”. Unfortunately, we also use the word “god” for lesser deities, even idols. Fortunately, Vasishta often reminds us that in the end, the words not only don’t count, they are a hindrance. “Besides the names that I have already mentioned for the mind, the disputants in mental philosophy have invented many others agreeably to their diverse theories. They have attributed many names to the mind according to the views in which they want to exhibit its nature, such as calling it intellect, understanding or sensation and so forth. One takes it as dull matter and another as the living principle. Someone calls it ego, while others apply the term understanding… . All these various doctrines, arising at different times and in distant countries, lead at last to the same Supreme Being …. Ignorance of this supreme truth and misunderstanding among conflicting doctrines cause the adherents of different systems and sects to carry on endless and bitterly acrimonious disputes among themselves.” (III.96.45-47, 51-2 ) “Rama, know that the words vibration and inaction, desire and no desire, and such other spiritual or theological terms, only serve to burden and misled the mind to error. Keep yourself from thinking on these. Remain in your peace and quiet, whether you attain your perfection or otherwise.” (VIA.67.35 ) “So it is, O mighty armed Rama, that the scriptures are not the means to divine knowledge. Scriptures are profuse with words; divine knowledge is beyond the reach of words.” (VIB.196.10 )
Yoga Vasishta is addressed to a future king, Rama. Sage Vasishta was consulted because young Rama had become so apathetic that he would be unable to assume his duties to succeed his father on the throne. At the end, Rama not only attains Self realization, he also understands that one who is completely unattached to the world also should perform the duties to which he was born. Rama, being an incarnation of a god born to serve humanity on a cosmic level, is a bit special. Rama was the perfect student and Vasishta was the perfect teacher. Rama attained Self realization by listening to Vasishta’s lectures. The rest of us can benefit from the recorded lectures, but we may not be as perfect as Rama.
Vasishta & the Rest of Us
Several times in Yoga Vasishta, the sage gives Rama examples of how fully enlightened kings and emperors ruled their nations without any sense of personal attachment. Vasishta’s advice and teachings are as applicable to each person as they are to Rama. Each one of us rules a kingdom. Learn to diminish desires and abide in the consciousness that we really are. That consciousness is unaffected by the pleasure or pains that appear to exist in the world. We can engage in the business and activities to which we were born without worrying about the results. If we use our reason to inquire into the nature of existence, study spirituality, learn from others, and practice meditation, we will come to know who we are and why we are here. Even if we don’t become liberated in this lifetime, our lives will be improved with more understanding and peace and that will give us a leg up the next time we dream up a life. More accurately because there is no time, we become more connected and get assistance from simultaneous other lives and spiritual masters radiating out from to the Supreme Soul to this life. We need not expect to attain the ultimate liberation. Vasishta teaches that the desire for liberation can be as limiting as any other desire. Ultimately, there is no ignorance and no liberation. We asked Shivabalayogi whether we all become yogis sooner or later. He replied, “It depends upon God, whoever God chooses.”
The Practical Yoga Vasishta: Its Applications
Among the available scriptures, Yoga Vasishta is uniquely powerful. The ramifications of its philosophy are staggering. It is the ultimate self-help book. The opportunities for creativity are without limit. Everything we can perceive with our senses is a creation of someone’s mind. Our dreams, silly and nonsensical as they are, are the creations of our minds. See the staggering growth, beauty, symmetry and structure of an oak tree, for example. Imagine the mind that created such harmony, far more refined and controlled than the disorganized monkey-mind that creates our own silly dreams. But we do create our own waking-dreams, our lives, and whether we like our lives or not, they are our own expressions of staggering growth, beauty, symmetry and structure.
“He who reads this spiritual work once, then neglects it thinking he has already read it and turns to the study of unspiritual books, is a miserable fool …. This excellent work is to be read always …. This book is calculated to reward the labor of the student, if constantly read with reverence and rightly explained with diligence.” (VIB.163.49-50) “Now you have to reconcile in yourself, by your best understanding, all that I have taught you and what you have read and learnt in the scriptures, and harmonize the whole for your guidance.” (VIB.203.21) — Thomas L. Palotas
In this age of the cultivation of universal learning and its investigation into the deep recesses of the dead languages of antiquity, when the literati of both continents are so sedulously employed in exploring the rich and almost inexhaustible mines of the ancient literature of this country, it has given an impetus to the philanthropy of our wise and benign government to the institution of a searching enquiry into the sacred language of this land. And when the restoration of the long lost works of its venerable sages and authors through the instrumentality of the greatest bibliomaniac savants and linguists in the several presidencies has led the literary Asiatic societies of the East and West to the publication of the rarest and most valuable Sanskrit manuscripts, it cannot be deemed preposterous in me to presume, to lay before the public a work of no less merit and sanctity than any hitherto published. The Yoga Vasishta is the earliest work on yoga or speculative and abstruse philosophy delivered by the venerable Vedic sage Vasishta to his royal pupil Rama, the victor of Ravana and hero of the first epic Ramayana, and written in the language of Valmiki, the prime bard in pure Sanskrit, the author of that popular epic and the Homer of India. It embodies in itself the loci communes or common places relating to the science of ontology, the knowledge of sat — real entity, and asat — unreal non-entity; the principles of psychology or doctrines of the passions and feelings; the speculations of metaphysics in dwelling upon our cognition, volition and other faculties of the mind and the tenets of Ethics and practical morality. Besides, there are a great many precepts on theology, and the nature of the Divinity, and discourses on spirituality and theosophy; all delivered in the form of Plato’s Dialogues between the sages, and tending to the main enquiry concerning the true felicity, final beatitude or summum bonum of all true philosophy. These topics have singly and jointly contributed to the structure of several separate systems of science and philosophy in succeeding ages, and have formed the subjects of study both with the juvenile and senile classes of people in former and present times, and I may say, almost among all nations in all countries throughout the civilized world. It is felt at present to be a matter of the highest importance by the native community at large, to repress the growing ardor of our youth in political polemics and practical tactics, that are equally pernicious to and destructive of the felicity of their temporal and future lives, by a revival of the humble instructions of their peaceful preceptors of old, and reclaiming them to the simple mode of life led by their forefathers, from the perverted course now gaining ground among them under the influence of Western refinement. Outward peace with internal tranquility is the teaching of our Shastras, and these united with contentment and indifference to worldly pleasures, were believed according to the tenets of yoga doctrines, to form the perfect man — a character which the Aryans have invariably preserved amidst the revolutions of ages and empires. It is the degeneracy of the rising generation, however, owing to their adoption of foreign habits and manners from an utter ignorance of their own moral code, which the publication of the present work is intended to obviate. From the description of the Hindu mind given by Max Müller in his History of the Ancient Literature of India (p. 18) it will appear, that the esoteric faith of the Aryan Indian is of that realistic cast as the Platonic, whose theory of ontology viewed all existence, even that of the celestial bodies, with their movements among the precepta of sense, and marked them among the unreal phantoms or vain mirage, as the Hindu calls them, that are interesting in appearance but useless to observe.
They may be the best of all precepta, but fall very short of that perfection, which the mental eye contemplates in its meditation-yoga. The Hindu yogi views the visible world exactly in the same light as Plato has represented it in the simile commencing the seventh book of his Republic. He compares mankind to prisoners in a cave, chained in one particular attitude, so as to behold only an ever varying multiplicity of shadows, projected through the opening of the cave upon the wall before them, by certain unseen realities behind. The philosopher alone, who by training or inspiration is enabled to turn his face from these visions, and contemplate with his mind, that can see at-once the unchangeable reality amidst these transient shadows. The first record that we have of Vasishta is that he was the author of the 7th Mandala of the Rig Veda (Ashtaka v. 15-118). He is next mentioned as Purohita or joint minister with Viswamitra to king Sudasa, and to have a violent contest with his rival for the ministerial office (Müll. Hist. S. Lit. page 486, Web. Id. p. 38). He is said to have accompanied the army of Sudasa, when that king is said to have conquered the ten invading chiefs who had crossed over the river Parushni (Hydroates or Ravi) to his dominions (Müll. Id. p. 486). Viswamitra accompanied Sudasa himself beyond Vipasa, Hyphasis or Beah and Satadru-Hisaudras-Sutlej (Max Müller, Ancient Sanscrit literature page 486). These events are recorded to have occurred prior to Vasishta’s composition of the Mandala which passes under his name and in which they are recorded. (Müll. Id. p. 486). The enmity and implacable hatred of the two families of Vasishtas and Vishwamitras for generations, form subjects prominent throughout the Vedic antiquity, and preserved in the tradition of ages (Mull. Id. p. 486, Web. Id. p. 37). Another cause of it was that, Harischandra, King of Ayodhya, was cursed by Vasishta, whereupon he made Vishwamitra his priest to the annoyance of Vasishta, although the office of Brahmana was held by him (Müller Id. page 408 Web. pp. 31-37). In the Brahmana period we find Vasishta forming a family title for the whole Vasishta race still continuing as a Gotra name, and that these Vasishtas continued as hereditary Gurus and purohitas to the kings of the solar race from generation to generation under the same title. The Vasishtas were always the brahmins or high priests in every ceremony, which could not be held by other brahmins according to the Sata patha Brahmana (Müll. Id. page 92); and particularly the Indra ceremony had always to be performed by a Vasishta, because it was revealed to their ancestor the sage Vasishta only (Web. Ind. Lit. p. 123); and as the Satapatha Brahmana-Taittiriya Sanhita mentions it. “The Rishis do not see Indra clearly, but Vasishta saw him. Indra said, I will tell you, O Brahman, so that all men who are born, will have a Vasishta for his Purohita.” (Max Müll. Ans. Sans. Lit. p. 92. Web. Id. p. 123). This will show that the sloka works, which are attributed to Vasishta, Yajnavalkya or any other Vedic rishi, could not be the composition of the old rishis, but of some one of their posterity; though they might have been propounded by the eldest sages, and then put to writing by oral communication or successive tradition by a distant descendant or disciple of the primitive rishis. Thus we see the Drahyayana Sutras of the Sama Veda is also called the Vasishta Sutras, from the author’s family name of Vasishta (Web. Id. p. 79).
The Asvalayana Grihya Sutra assigns some other works to Vasishta, viz., the Vasishta pragatha, probably Vasishta Hymni of Bopp; the Pavamanya, Kshudra sukta, Mahasukta &c. written in the Vedic style. There are two other works attributed to Vasishta, the Vasishta Sanhita on Astronomy (Web. Id. p. 258) and the Vasishta Smriti on Law (Web. Id. p. 320), which from their compositions in Sanskrit slokas, could not be the language or work of the Vedic rishi, but of some one late member of that family. Thus our work of Yoga Vasishta has no claim or pretension to its being the composition of the Vedic sage; but as one propounded by the sage, and written by Valmiki in his modern Sanskrit. Here the question is whether Vasishta the preceptor of Rama, was the vedic Vasishta or one of his descendants, I must leave for others to determine. Again in the later Aranyaka period we have an account of a theologian Vasishta given in the Arshik-Upanishad as holding a dialogue on the nature of atma or soul among the sages, Vishwamitra, Jamadagni, Bharadwaja, Gautama and himself; when Vasishta appealing to the opinion of Kapila obtained their assent (Weber Id. p. 162). This appears very probably to be the theological author of our yoga, and eminent above his contemporaries in his knowledge of the Kapila Yoga Shastra which was then current, from this sage’s having been a contemporary with King Sagara, a predecessor of Rama. In the latest Sútra period we find a passage in the Grihya-Sútra-parisishta about the distinctive mark of the Vasishta Family from those of the other parishads or classes of the priesthood. It says: “The Vasishtas wear a braid (lock of hair) on the right side, the Atreyas wear three braids, the Angiras have five braids, the Bhrigus are bald, and all others have a single crest.” (Müller Id. p. 53). The Karma pradípa says, “The Vasishtas exclude meat from their sacrifice; (Müller A. S. Lit. p. 54), and the color of their dress was white (Id. p. 483).” Many Vasishtas are named in different works … bearing no other connection with our author, than that of their having been members of the same family (Müller’s A. S. Lit. p. 44).
Without dilating any longer with further accounts relating to the sage Vasishta of which many more might be gathered from various Shastras, I shall add in the conclusion the following notice which is taken of this work by Professor Monier Williams in his work on Indian Wisdom p. 370. “There is,” says he, “a remarkable work called Vasishta Ramayana or Yoga Vasishta or Vasishta Maharamayana in the form of an exhortation, with illustrative narratives addressed by Vasishta to his pupil the youthful Rama, on the best means of attaining true happiness, and considered to have been composed as an appendage to the Ramayana by Valmiki himself. There is another work of the same nature called the Adhyaatma Ramaayana which is attributed to Vyasa, and treat of the moral and theological subjects connected with the life and acts of that great hero of Indian history. Many other works are extant in the vernacular dialects having the same theme for their subject which it is needless to notice in this place.” Vasishta, known as the wisest of sages, like Solomon the wisest of men, and Aurelius the wisest of emperors, puts forth in the first part and in the mouth of Rama the great question of the vanity of the world, which is shown synthetically to a great length from the state of all living existences, the instinct, inclinations, and passions of men, the nature of their aims and objects, with some discussions about destiny, necessity, activity and the state of the soul and spirit. The second part embraces various directions for the union of the individual with the universal Abstract Existence — the Supreme Spirit — the subjective and the objective truth — and the common topics ofall speculative philosophy. Thus says Milton, “The end of learning is to know God.” So the Persian adage, “Akhiral ilm buad ilmi Khoda.” Such also the Sanskrit, “Savidya tan matir yaya.” And the Shruti says, “Yad jnatwa naparan jnanam.” I.e., “It is that which being known, there is nothing else required to be known.” — V. L. Mitra
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