By Swati Chopra
It is said that there are as many ways to God-realization as there are seekers. We present some oft-traveled paths to God—Sufism, Shamanism, Kabbalah, Buddhism and Jainism, Zen, Tantra, and three yogic paths from Hinduism
An analogy favorite with the Indian sages talks of a lump of salt that goes to plumb the depths of the ocean. What happens to it? The lump dissolves in seawater in no time and becomes the ocean. Similarly, knowing God intellectually is impossible, it is only possible by dissolving your identity as the small self into God, becoming God. Brahma vidam brahamaiva bhavati (the knower of Brahman becomes Brahman), declare the Vedas.
Indian philosophy is also clear that the goal of human life is self-realization or enlightenment—and that it is a real blessing being born in human incarnation. The aim of all mystical traditions is the same. It can even be said of most major religions of the world that each one started off as a path to God, containing some esoteric knowledge, which tends to get eroded over time.
They are called paths to God or self-realization because they contain specific practices and instructions. There is also the assurance that some others before you have walked that path and reached the goal. Those people may even have left accounts of their journey. Holy books and scriptures enshrine some of those accounts.
The importance of the living guru, sheik or roshi is clear then. He knows the terrain firsthand. The master is also there to keep the student from forgetting what he has learnt. The guru-shishya (master-disciple) relationship is of dynamic give and take, not passive taking by the shishya
But, even if you are walking the path of your religion or master, you are in effect carving your own, because you have to claim it for yourself, and all those truths have to be intuited all over again firsthand. for real transformation to take place.
Even a cursory study of the different paths—some summarized in the following lines—shows you the similarities between them. The techniques may be different, the language and terminology may vary, but they all seem to arise from the same source. They also make it clear that no matter how desirable, ecstasy or other mystical states are not for their own sake. The idea is to increase awareness in daily life. God realization will come when it comes, meanwhile become a better human being: kind, compassionate, tolerant.
No matter how good the path, for real progress the importance of persistence, perseverance, discipline and regularity cannot be emphasized enough. And, of course, one ounce of practice is better than tons of reading spiritual books or discussing them.
Meditation, of any kind, is a useful practice to follow for anyone. It is the easiest method to quieten the mind. A well regulated, honest, clean life, evenness of temperament, and following the basic good health principles also help.
If you don’t want to or cannot follow any practices, try Karma Yoga, one of the four main paths of yoga besides Bhakti, Jnana, and Raja Yoga. It constitutes performing actions without a feeling of doership or expectation of the fruits thereof, as an agent of God. That should be easy, and is highly recommended in the Bhagavad Gita.
KABBALAH: WAY OF THE CHOSEN ONE
Kabbalah are the secret mystical teachings of Judaism aimed at achieving union with God. Though they are founded on the Torah (Jewish scriptures) they are not an intellectual discipline and were traditionally transmitted orally from master to pupil.
Many versions of the kabbalah exist, the oldest being the Merkabah, also called ‘shamanistic mysticism’ as it required going into trance and sending one’s soul to enter the Merkabah, ‘God’s throne chariot’. The mystics prepared for this ascension using talismans and incantations.
Classical kabbalah is sourced from the 13th century Sefer ha-Zohar (Book of Splendour) written by Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai and sees God as ‘Ein-Sof’, the endless. Since Ein-Sof created the world from Himself, everything exists in dependence of everything else. Thus the merger of the kabbalist with Ein-Sof is not only the supreme spiritual achievement but also an act of altruism, as it brings the rest of the cosmos closer to God.
Central to the kabbalist’s practice was the ‘Tree of Life’, which he ascended symbolically through meditation. The Tree illustrated the path of reaching the Divine during one’s lifetime. The seven lower sephirot (paths) were Sovereignty, Foundation, Endurance, Majesty, Beauty, Loving-kindness and Judgment, and corresponded to the seven energy centers along the spine (chakras). The top three—Understanding, Wisdom and Crown (Humility)—were mystical steps to unity with God.
To ascend the Tree of Life, the kabbalist visualized each sephirot vibrating with its specific color, along with images of corresponding Hebrew letters denoting names of God (like YHVH), and planets, angels, metals, body parts and energy centers. Breath and sound were important in this.
The ‘short path’ to God was developed by Spanish kabbalist Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia in the 13th century. This was through tzeruf (letter permutation) and based on the belief that each Hebrew letter has attributes and numerical values, which when meditated upon, unify mind and body and bring the mystic in contact with higher planes of consciousness. To meditate on these letters is to meditate on all Creation, and to become one with the Whole. The tzeruf would begin at midnight and the mystic would write sacred letters, visualize the Tree and do breathing techniques. An ecstasy, called shefa, would descend upon the mystic, bathing him in sensations of air, heat, and rushing water or oil.
The kabbalah has always been an exclusive path to God-realization, divorced from mainstream Judaism. It is to be transmitted to only those ‘who were ready’.
SUFISM: CREED OF THE ENLIGHTENED LOVERS
Sufism is a branch of Islam devoted to personal worship of Allah. Its basic tenets are mystical love and oneness with God (tawhid). It takes a lifetime of love on the part of the Sufi to realize his own innate oneness with God, the Eternal Beloved. The path, tariqa, is but a means of this realization.
The Sufi moves towards knowledge of the divine through study, prayer, and especially the dhikr—endless repetition of God’s name or sacred Koranic passages—often resulting in a trance-like state of mystical ecstasy. In his daily life, the Sufi observes faqr, pious poverty, and so is also known as a ‘fakir‘. The importance of simplicity is evident from the very word ‘sufi‘, that comes from the Arabic suf (wool) and refers to rough woolen gowns worn by early adherents.
Guidance of a teacher, ‘sheikh‘, is considered essential to staying on the path. Sheikhs are venerated as saints to whom disciples bind themselves by oaths of allegiance. They then pledge to do their master’s bidding without any sense of their own desires—a first-step towards unconditional surrender to God.
The Sufi must move through four stages of spiritual evolution—fana (annihilation of worldly attachment), baqa(permanency of God-consciousness), spiritual guidance, and helping others evolve on an esoteric plane. In fana, the Sufi is intoxicated with divine love and seeks union with God. In baqa, he has surrendered himself completely to God and lives in and through Him. This is also when he becomes a qutub, a disseminator of wisdom. Higher stages make him a ‘perfect master’, guiding others towards God.
Although poetry addressed to the Beloved, music, dance, whirling, drum-beating have come to be inextricably interlinked with Sufism, they are not the be-all and end-all of the Sufi experience. The real achievement is the translation of the mystical experience in the temporal world in the form of love towards all, and freedom from afflictive emotions. To ‘be in the world but not of it’ is the core of the Sufi’s life.
BHAKTI YOGA: LOVING GOD ABOVE EVERYTHING ELSE
Indian saints dexterously used stories or analogies to drive home a point. To illustrate the difference between jnana and bhakti practices, they referred to the difference between the way infant monkeys and cats are carried by their mothers.
The baby monkey wraps his arms around his mother and clings to her as she moves across the ground or swings from tree to tree. All responsibility to stay attached rests with the baby. If he lets go he falls and may die. The mother cat, however, grabs her offspring firmly behind the neck with her teeth. For the process to be smooth and painless, the kitten must not move at all-it must completely let go and surrender to the mother. That is what an aspirant in Bhakti Yoga needs to do.
Bhakti Yoga is the path of love and devotion. The devotee uses the combined energies of all emotions and transmutes them, sublimating them into the highest of all emotions: prem, which is pure, unconditional, divine love. The devotee is, in fact, not even seeking enlightenment or God, he is just overflowing with his love for God. This path obviously suits and appeals to people with an emotional temperament. It may also be the easiest—no mind and body control as in Raja Yoga, no intellectual or intuitive prowess required as in Jnana Yoga.
Bhakti Yoga proceeds by qualities of the heart. Love, emotion, happiness, kindness, and surrender are the qualities of the heart that sustain this path. Love of God is the greatest virtue that a man can cultivate; through this develops love for the creation of God and for his children, all beings. Compassion, tolerance and helpfulness to others emanate from the heart in which the love of God grows.
Bhakti is classified as apara bhakti and para-bhakti. In the former, the beginner decorates the image of his deity with flowers and garlands, rings the bell, offers food items, performs aarti, and observes rituals and ceremonies. The devotee regards the Lord as the supreme person, who is immanent in the image and can be propitiated through that form only. To that extent the devotee is sectarian and he still has to expand his heart. In para-bhakti, the devotee sees the Lord and Lord alone everywhere and feels his power manifest in the entire universe. Para-bhakti then becomes one with jnana.
Devotion and love for God increases through the nine modes of devotion (nava-vidha bhakti), described in Srimad Bhagavata (containing the lilas of Lord Krishna):
Listening to stories of the lilas or play of the Lord or your deity. One source of these stories is the Puranas, each one being dedicated to a deity or incarnation of God.
Singing of God’s glories. Many mystics and yogis have spontaneously composed and written devotional songs, which can be chanted.
Constantly remembering the presence—name and form—of the Lord. Unceasing prayer is one form of it.
Developing the bhava (state of mind) that you are serving and worshipping the Lord’s Feet.
Worship of God through rituals such as puja, havan or homa. Ideally, rituals should be accompanied by true feelings, but their regular practice is also a way to develop true feelings of devotion.
Prostration to the Lord to express one’s respect and love. Prostrating physically to the ground even develops humility. As a bhava you cultivate the awareness that the Almighty is present in the altar in front of you and in all names and forms.
The devotee is developing the feeling of being the Lord’s servant. This will weed out pride, selfishness, arrogance and egoism, which are all based on avidya, ignorance.
Feeling of friendship. This bhava helps the devotee establish a personal relationship with God, picturing him as his best friend.
Complete surrender of self, which is the highest aspect of bhakti. One’s ego is offered to the Lord and nothing but the atman remains and non-duality is experienced.
RAJA YOGA: AS PRECISE AND PREDICTABLE AS A LAB EXPERIMENT
The term ‘Raja Yoga‘ was first coined by Swami Vivekananda. ‘Raja‘ means royal, and this path is called so because it is precise, systematic and the results of different practices are predictable and assured. It combines philosophy, psychophysiology and, of course, lots of practice.
The premise of Raja Yoga is that our mind creates our world. Our whole life, with its pleasures and pains, is nothing but our mind’s creation. If the mind is unsteady, it will waver with each and every distraction, obstacle or event happening in its environment. The yogi, who has achieved mind control, is the true king of this world. He has controlled all his desires and enjoys absolute peace and contentment that constitute true happiness.
In Raja Yoga, the mind is compared to a lake. Owing to the wind and undercurrents, the lake gets agitated and some waves are created. Similarly, external distractions, sensory perceptions of the outside world and internal factors, memories and sanskaras, create modifications at the surface of the mind, the conscious mind. These modifications, thoughts and emotions, are called vrittis. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the key text of Raja Yoga, yoga is defined as prevention and control of these vrittis.
The waves when quietened return back to merge with and become the lake. Similarly, a quiescent mind, experienced as samadhi or pure consciousness, is no different from the Self, your true nature.
Patanjali Yoga or Ashtanga Yoga is a practical eightfold path. The first two are yamas and niyamas (don’ts and do’s), constituting 10 commitments.
Asana (yogic postures) and pranayama (breathing practices) come next. These are followed by pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses from the objects of the world), dharana (fixed flow of consciousness) and dhyana (meditation). The last one is samadhi, pure consciousness. But samadhi is not the final goal. Regular and repeated experience of samadhi gradually makes this fourth state of consciousness stabilize with the other three-sleeping, waking and dreaming. Along the way, you attain siddhis (occult powers like precognition and levitation), but the final goal, according to Patanjali, is kaivalya.
Erroneously, Patanjali’s system has been called an eight-step system, implying that you master the first before moving on to the second and so on, which is not practicable. Modern masters emphasize meditation, supported by some asanas and pranayama. This starts giving glimpses of the inner infinite reservoir of sat-chid-ananda (truth, consciousness and bliss), assuring quick progress on the path.
JNANA YOGA : TELLING THE REAL FROM THE UNREAL
Jnana, or knowledge of the real, is the goal of every yogic path. But Jnana Yoga turns it into a path. According to Vedanta, the ever-changing phenomenal world is not really existing, it only appears to be so. Discrimination, or the power of the intellect, is the vehicle that leads you beyond all forms and phenomena, to a transcendental reality, which is permanent, never changing, eternal and absolute. That is Brahman and Thou art That.
In practice, there are three steps in Jnana Yoga:
The guru explains to an attentive student the teachings of Vedanta and what is Brahman. It is superior to mere reading of the scriptures because a mystical transfer of the spiritual state of consciousness takes place from the guru to the student.
The student deeply reflects upon what he has heard, trying to comprehend the subtle truths taught to him.
The student meditates on the Brahman, which leads to the intuitive, direct experience of Truth.
To make you fit to receive the knowledge of Brahman, four means (Sadhana Chatushtaya) are recommended:
Discrimination. This is the intellectual ability to discriminate, or discern, between the real and the unreal.
Developing six virtues which are: sama, tranquility or control of mind; dama, control of the senses; uparati, renunciation of activities which are not duties; titiksha or endurance; shraddha, faith; samadhana, perfect concentration, one-pointedness of the mind.
Intense longing for liberation.
TANTRA: WEAVE OF THE COSMOS
Tantra is a blanket term for an aggregation of ancient Indian, pre-Vedic doctrines and rituals that have, as their aim, an evolution towards superconsciousness. Literally, ‘tantra‘ connotes ‘weaving’, that conforms to its view of the entire universe as a fabric where everything is interconnected. In another sense, tan means ‘to stretch’ and so ‘tantra‘ means an instrument to expand consciousness, which through its many practices, it does.
Fundamental to the Tantra worldview is the belief that everything exists as a result of the interplay and union of polar opposites Shiva, the unmanifest male principle, and Shakti, the dynamic female principle. This sacredness accorded to physical yoga (union) is perhaps what led to the worship of genitalia among Tantrists in the form of lingam (penis) and yoni(vagina).
Tantrists believe that everything that exists is made of varying levels of energy. In human beings, this vital life energy is stored at the base of the spine in the form of the kundalini, denoted as a ‘sleeping snake’. The kundalini must uncoil and rise through the body in order for the individual to experience higher states of consciousness. Various ways for awakening the kundalini are detailed in Tantric texts, including vizualization, mantras, meditation on yantras (mystical diagrams), chanting sounds corresponding to chakras, and maithuna (copulation).
Tantric maithuna is ‘spiritualized’ sex that serves to, apart from kick-starting the kundalini, enhance consciousness. It actualizes the Sanskrit saying: pinde so brahamande, the body is the temple of God and replica of the entire cosmos. It means in essence, as does Tantra, that if you learn to be conscious of the body and the breath, you can become conscious of the universe.
Tantra is essentially a merging with the One, using the physical plane as the launch pad. We indeed create our own reality, says Tantra, and this reality can be in the here and now, in the body, through the Tantric orgasm.
ZEN : DIRECT SEEING INTO ONE’S NATURE
Zen is a Buddhist sect that developed in China and Japan. It is non-theological and emphasizes development of intuitive wisdom to see the oneness of all, rather than relying on intellect and logic. Zen is the way of meditation as the Japanese term ‘zen’ is a corruption of the Sanskrit dhyan(meditation), which was called chan in China.
In the words of Hui-neng, its founder, Zen is ‘seeing into one’s own Nature’. It is believed that we are all already enlightened; it just needs to be realized. One way to achieve this is zazen, literally ‘sitting meditation’. Zazen is done while sitting in a lotus posture with eyes open and cast slightly downward. To empty the mind of thoughts and train it to achieve a one-pointed state of concentration (samadhi), breath counting is also employed.
As the mind matures into greater awareness through zazen, it might achieve a breakthrough of consciousness, a sudden leap, called satori. This, however, is not the ultimate aim but only the beginning of the Zen experience. Satori may come after a period of samadhi, or even unexpectedly in the form of a sudden intuitive understanding of one’s true nature.
Zen masters often use the koan for achieving this breakthrough. Koan are seemingly nonsensical riddles, for example: ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ Since these could not be solved with logic, the practitioner would be forced to work through the layers of conditioning obscuring the mind’s true nature. The answer would often come in a flash of satori.
The initial satori experience was subsequently deepened through meditation until a state of ‘no-mind’ evolved. No-mind is real seeing, beyond all dualities of subject-object. In this state, the clarity of satori permeates daily life and manifests in all of one’s actions.
Regardless of whether s/he has achieved satori or no-mind, the Zen student practices the Ten Grave Precepts of the bodhisattvas. These are—no killing, no stealing, no misuse of sex, no lying, no consumption of intoxicants, no speaking ill of others, no self-praise, no sparing of Dharma, no anger, and no slandering of the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha).
BUDDHISM AND JAINISM: ATHEISTIC RELIGIONS
Both Buddhism and Jainism arose from the ascetic Shramanic tradition that had coexisted since time immemorial in India with the ritualistic Vedic religion. Along with their belief in the importance of individual effort for enlightenment, both religions are singular in having denied the existence of God—as Brahman, Creator, or anything else. Whereas Bhagwan Mahavir, the 23rd Jain Tirthankara, categorically stated that there is no God, Gautama Buddha remained silent on the issue. Jainism and Buddhism therefore became perhaps the only atheistic religions in the world.
Buddhism, in addition to being an expression and exposition of the Buddha’s nirvana experience, was also a movement for reform in the era’s caste-ridden, Brahmin-dominated society. Said the Sakyamuni: ‘The Truth of the universe can only be realized within the framework of the physical body.’ By saying this, he not only negated Brahmanical theism, in which the Brahmins had all but appropriated God as a figure to be propitiated with innumerable rites and rituals, but also empowered the individual as the facilitator of his/her own salvation. Buddhism is, for that reason also, a religion based very much in the here and now.
It went on to develop as an honest, and practical, inquiry into Truth and the nature of Reality, sometimes even brutally so. There was no place for anything divine. Avoiding, even ignoring to a large extent, all the theological hairsplitting about God, the Buddha got down to business. Nirvana, Buddhist enlightenment, would not be some ecstatic paramananda(extreme bliss) state, but the cessation of the commonest human complaint—suffering. Also, it was described, not as union with God or expansion of the soul, but as a direct perception of shunyata, nothingness, the truest aspect of Reality where all afflictive emotions and karma dissolved. The way to achieve this was the Eight-Fold Path.
The Buddha is said to have come upon the Eight-Fold Path while meditating on how to liberate mankind from the endless cycle of birth and death, marked by suffering. The path consists of—right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Repetition of the word ‘right’ might give it the appearance of being moralistic, but what practice of this path really does is lead one to constantly analyze and contemplate one’s actions and thoughts, thereby enhancing one’s awareness.
Later centuries saw the elevation of the Buddha mostly in the Buddhist Mahayana sect into a Godlike figure and being worshipped as so. Tibetan Buddhism, which incorporated features of Tibet’s earlier Bon religion (a kind of shamanism) and also shades of Tantra, further brought the element of worship of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas as means of gaining positive karma. In Tantric Tibetan Buddhism also developed Vajrayana—the thunderbolt vehicle. If practiced correctly, Vajrayana is considered to be a short path to enlightenment as it transforms instead of destroying afflictive emotions—passion, aggression and ignorance.
Worship is also an integral part of Jainism, the creed of those who have conquered their baser selves and become enlightened Jinas. It is inhabited, like Tibetan Buddhism, with godlike figures that will help you on the material plane, but for kaivalya (enlightenment), you would still have to get rid of all karma by personal effort. Only then would it be possible to escape from the vicious cycle of life and death and go on to eternal life. And the way to do this would be through conducting one’s life according to ahimsa (nonviolence), satya(harmless truth), asteya (non-stealing), aparigraha (non-attachment) and brahmacharya (celibacy).
It is interesting to note that though both Buddhism and Jainism believe in karma and reincarnation, the concept of what reincarnates differs widely. Jainism believes it to be the atma, soul, which due to defilement by karma, is drawn again and again into the world. Buddhism, on the other hand, has the doctrine of anatta, no-self, according to which there is no permanent essence of any human being (like the atma) and what reincarnates is a constantly changing collection of attributes (skandhas) that come together at each birth. The component in every creature that is capable of enlightenment is ‘Buddhanature’, which is cultivated through the Eight-Fold Path, contemplation, and so on.
—illustration by Sumedha Shivnani
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