While we exist in relativity there are two selves, the lower and the higher. The higher is the true Self, and the lower is the pretend self, which is nevertheless necessary at this moment for our evolution. Until the real Self masters the lower self they are in continual conflict with one another, often on a subconscious level. Krishna is now going to talk about this. He will use only a single word, Atman, but will mean it in these two virtually antithetical selves. By using small and large “s” we can convey the idea. However, translators do not agree as to which self is meant at the various times the word is used. So I am going to give the translation without capitalization and then analyze it in both ways.
One should uplift oneself by the lower self; one should not degrade oneself. The lower self can truly be a friend of the lower self, and the lower self alone can be an enemy of the lower self. For him who has conquered himself by the lower self, the lower self is a friend. But for him who has not conquered himself, the lower self remains hostile, like an enemy (6:5-6).
The lesser aspects of our being, our lower self, are not negative by their nature, but ignorance and misapplication of will have corrupted them and reversed their polarity. The first step, then, for the aspiring yogi is their purification, correction and repolarization. This is accomplished in the very first step of Patanjali’s eightfold yoga: yama and niyama.
Prerequisites for yoga
“Yoga is for the purpose of knowledge of truth,” says Shankara. Knowledge (jnana) does not come about from practice of yoga methods alone. Perfection in knowledge is in fact only for those who practice virtue (dharma) as well as yoga.
All things rest upon something else–that is, all things are supported by another. This is because a foundation is needed for anything to exist. Being Himself the Ultimate Support of all things, God alone is free from this necessity. Yoga, then, also requires support. As Trevor Leggett says in his introduction to Shankara’s commentary on the Yoga Sutras: “This is yoga presented for the man of the world, who must first clear, and then steady, his mind against the fury of illusory passions, and free his life from entanglements.” Patanjali very carefully and fully outlines the elements of the support needed by the aspirant, giving invaluable information on how to guarantee success in yoga.
The first Yoga Sutra says: “Now the exposition of yoga,” implying that there must be something leading up to yoga in the form of necessary developments of consciousness and personality. These prerequisites are known as Yama and Niyama. Shankara says quite forcefully that “following yama and niyama is the basic qualification to practice yoga.”
Yama and Niyama
Yama and Niyama are often called the Ten Commandments of Yoga, but they have nothing to do with the ideas of sin and virtue or good and evil as dictated by some cosmic potentate. Rather they are determined by a thoroughly practical, pragmatic basis: that which strengthens and facilitates our yoga practice should be observed and that which weakens or hinders it should be avoided. It is not a matter of being good or bad, but of being wise or foolish. Each one of these Five Don’ts (Yama) and Five Do’s (Niyama) is a supporting, liberating foundation of Yoga.
Yama means self-restraint in the sense of self-mastery, or abstention, and consists of five elements. Niyama means observances, of which there are also five. Here is the complete list of these ten elements of successful yoga as given in Yoga Sutras 2:30, 32:
- Ahimsa: non-violence, non-injury, harmlessness
- Satya: truthfulness, honesty
- Asteya: non-stealing, honesty, non-misappropriativeness
- Brahmacharya: sexual continence in thought, word and deed as well as control of all the senses
- Aparigraha: non-possessiveness, non-greed, non-selfishness, non-acquisitiveness
- Shaucha: purity, cleanliness
- Santosha: contentment, peacefulness
- Tapas: austerity, practical (i.e., result-producing) spiritual discipline
- Swadhyaya: introspective self-study, spiritual study
- Ishwarapranidhana: offering of one’s life to God
All of these deal with the innate powers of the human being–or rather with the abstinence and observance that will develop and release those powers to be used toward our spiritual perfection, to our self-realization and liberation. Shankara says quite forcefully that “following yama and niyama is the basic qualification to practice yoga. The qualification is not simply that one wants to practice yoga. So yama and niyama are methods of yoga” in themselves and are not mere adjuncts or aids that can be optional.
But at the same time, the practice of yoga helps the aspiring yogi to follow the necessary ways of yama and niyama, so he should not be discouraged from taking up yoga right now. He should determinedly embark on yama, niyama, and yoga simultaneously. Success will be his.
Only through establishment in yama and niyama can anyone “uplift oneself by the lower self.” If yama and niyama are not observed then there is no other result than that the person shall continue to degrade himself. By yama and niyama “the lower self can truly be a friend of the lower self,” which before was its enemy. The diligent yogi makes the lower self his friend, but if he lapses in yama and niyama the lower self reverts to being his enemy.
The highest self of him who has conquered himself and is peaceful, is thus steadfast in cold, heat, pleasure, pain, honor and dishonor (6:7).
Peace is a matter of the exercise of will. Never will our life be free from the pairs of opposites, from ups and downs and changes of all kinds, pleasant and unpleasant, if the will is not strong and operative. If the will is in peace, in the Self, then the sadhaka will be in peace. This is a very high and subtle state, and many think they have attained it merely because they have developed a kind of Stoic numbness in relation to their life. (This prevails in India.) But this is not so.
The serenity spoken of by Krishna comes from identification with the immutable Self. Two examples of this in modern times are Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh and Swami Ramdas of Anandashram. They were often seen to be happy and peaceful in adversity and good fortune, and especially in honor and dishonor. Swami Ramdas’ autobiography, In the Vision of God, illustrates this many times.
The yogi who is satisfied with knowledge and discrimination, unchanging, with senses conquered, to whom a lump of clay, a stone and gold are the same, steadfast–is said to be in union (yukta) (6:8).
The human race is gripped in the delusion that if a thing looks like something, then it is that. Even worse: that if someone acts like they are in a certain state, they have that state. I vividly remember seeing Alan Watts pretending (very poorly) to be in the state of satori (enlightenment) as he rubbed away on an ink slab (!?). At that very moment he was an alcoholic–not a state or action produced by enlightenment. People think that if they act kindly then they are kind, if they act generously they are generous, and if they act like aristocracy they are aristocracy. Not so.
Swami Sivananda cleared up the whole question by four little words he formed into a motto that he even had printed on pencils: BE GOOD. DO GOOD. Throughout every morning at satsang with him in the Diamond Jubilee Hall, right behind him above the door which we had all entered, we saw those words in huge letters. First we must be; then we can do.
We do not have measles because we have red spots on our skin; rather, we have red spots on our skin because we have measles. This is incredibly simple, but few people, especially in the West, grasp the nature of cause and effect. They continually get cause and effect reversed, thinking an effect can become a cause. “If I act like it, then I will become it.” This is philosophically translated into the absurdities of Positive Thinking. “If we just hold that good thought it will come about… We will just know that everything will be all right.…” and other nonsensical platitudes. Thoughts may be things, but things are not inner states. “Satisfied with knowledge and discrimination,… steadfast in yoga,” are absolute requisites.
When Brahman is experienced, then the fluctuations of the senses are no more than driftwood on the vast ocean of Spirit. All that which men prize and despise are both seen as the same: dreams. Sri Ramakrishna tested his mind by holding a lump of clay in one hand and a rupee in the other. Saying: “Rupee is clay and clay is rupee, clay is truly rupee and rupee is truly clay,” he tossed them into the Ganges, affirming their sameness–for all things must in the end merge into Brahman.
He is preeminent among men who is impartial to friend, associate and enemy, neutral among enemies and kinsmen, impartial also among the righteous and the unrighteous (6:9).
For he sees all in Brahman as Brahman.
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: The Yogi’s Retreat