In the previous chapter we spoke of the cosmic process of “evolutionary creation.” How does that all come about?
The Conscious Universe
First we have to realize that the ancient yogi-sages of India directly experienced the truth that the entire universe is a manifestation of Divine Consciousness–of God. All “creation” is really Spirit, not matter at all. More to the point, it is the infinitely complex and perfect Thought of God. Just as we create worlds and live in them when we dream or daydream, in the same way the Cosmic Dreamer is “dreaming” the Cosmic Dream of this evolutionary creation. Therefore it all has a meaning and a purpose, and is at all times absolutely perfect and consistent with itself. We must keep this in mind at all times, but especially when considering our life within the Dream.
As yogis aspiring to return to the Infinite Being through the self-evolution produced by our yoga practice, we must understand every step of the way–and this requires a comprehension of the specific laws governing our presence within creation and our way out of relativity back into the Absolute.
The beginning–and the end
When the individual spirit-self, the atma, moves in its consciousness from the Absolute to the relative, the first step is an outward-turning of awareness and a production of the seed of dual consciousness that is necessary for its entry into and out of the relative state that is fundamentally dual. This is done through the slightest and subtlest of movements that produces a kind of stress-point in our awareness. This is the moment of entry into relativity, though so subtle as to be virtually imperceptible. Actually, the movement is the stress-point. Further, it is the root or seed that is the beginning of all things, the Holy Breath (Agia Pneuma; Holy Spirit), the Holy Light, from which all things proceed and into which all things are ultimately resolved. As a divine seed it contains all that ever shall “be” for that individual spirit. Its unfoldment and manifestation is the history or destiny that it shall experience throughout its time within relative existence.
This initial impulse is dual in nature. First, it is the force that impels the individual onto the path that leads into involution–into experience and identity with increasingly complex forms of manifestation; and it is also the impulse that moves the spirit onto the path of evolution–of growth out of relativity. Second, it is the beginning of duality: a vast chain of constant cycling between two poles–negative and positive–that makes relative existence possible, both as evolving consciousness and evolving organism.
First the spirit travels along the path of involution until it reaches the experience of self-awareness and self-reflection (or analysis) within a human body sufficiently developed to permit–and even perhaps produce–that awareness. Then it begins the path of evolution back to Infinity. Of course, the two paths are really one–it is only a matter of the direction being taken. The point where involution becomes evolution is a kind of watershed or continental divide. All this is a direct production of the Original Breath which takes place both macrocosmically and microcosmically. This has a profound yogic significance, and will be discussed in a later chapter.
In yogic treatises we find it stated over and over that the breath is the essence of our existence. Prana means both life and breath in Hinduism and Buddhism. In fact, the word atman (Self) comes from the root-word at, which means “to breathe.” Other religions also use the same word for both spirit and breath: in Judaism, ruach; in Eastern Christianity (and ancient Greek religion), pneuma; in Western Christianity (and ancient Roman religion), spiritus (which comes from spiro, “I breathe”).
The ancient yogis discovered that the root impulse of inhalation makes the subtle sound of So, and the root impulse of exhalation makes the subtle sound of Ham (pronounced Hum). So means “that” and Ham means “I am.” In this way every living being is perpetually intoning So’ham (So’hum) at the core of their being, saying: THAT AM I–“That” being the spirit-Self which is a divine part of the Divine Infinite. For that reason So’ham is sometimes translated as “I am That” or “I am He.” Since all creation is the thought or ideation of God, meaning is inherent in everything, including the breath. So no matter how many ages we wander in forgetfulness of our divine Origin and Nature, we are always affirming “I am That” without ceasing. But we have lost that sacred thread of inmost knowledge and are now wandering without direction or discernment. By means of So’ham Yoga we consciously take hold of the thread and begin moving in the right direction.
How it was intended to be
Originally the evolution of the universe and the conscious beings within it was meant to go smoothly and directly. None would forget their eternal origins and lose awareness of their true Self or identify in any degree with the forms and situations in which they would be evolving within the cosmos. Further, they would only spend a single embodiment in each life-form, expanding their consciousness to the full potential of that form. As soon as this was done, the spirit would consciously, effortlessly, and without pain or conflict, leave that body and just as easily enter into a more complex form that would serve as the next rung on the ladder of evolution. Finally the highest form would be perfected and left behind as the individual merged back into the Absolute, having developed the capacity to share in the Infinite Life, to be a “god” within God. There would never at any time be what we know as suffering and death, but only a joyful transition from one step to another in the ladder of Return. The evolving consciousness would always be in a perfect state of Satchidananda–the Conscious Bliss of Reality–with no diminution or loss being possible.
How it has come to be
Things did not go as planned–at least not in this creation cycle. Paramhansa Yogananda said that one of the seven great creators known as Prajapatis was flawed in some way and attempted to wrest that part of creation which was under his supervision away from the divine plan and rework it to his own flawed ideas, the prime one being the intention to prevent the spirits from evolving beyond his domain. This Prajapati was in charge of the material plane evolution, but somehow managed to also damage the two realms just above him and subject the spirits in those realms to return or falling back into his world for rebirth. The account of “the devil” rebelling and causing the “fall” of angels and archangels is a garbled version of the actual facts. (I have greatly simplified Yogananda’s explanation. For the complete explanation, see the Seventh Discourse of The Second Coming of Christ.)
Whether we accept any of the explanations formulated over the centuries (the ancient “Gnostics” had many of them) or not, there is no denying that the following conditions prevail: entities are born over and over again without any realization of the why or wherefore; entities suffer throughout embodiment on the material plane; decay and death are inherent in material existence; complete confusion and delusion rules the consciousness of all sentient beings; all beings–including humans–engage in negative thought and action that blind and bind them more and more. All are helpless against the forces of Mayic delusion.
On the practical level, how did all this confusion come about? The negative force which flawed the universe also flawed the personal world of each individual consciousness, warping and distorting their lower physical and subtle levels so that So’ham no longer sounded within them as the dominant impulse to further their evolution. Instead, all kinds of alien and poisonous vibrations began to be produced by the corrupted bodies, rendering them out of touch with the higher bodies, and consequently out of touch with Spirit. Those false and negative vibrations coarsened the bodies–including the mental bodies–so they no longer responded to the vibrations of So’ham, which were still present but attenuated and even suppressed. Thus evolution was impeded, being slowed, stopped, and even in some instances reversed. Negative and destructive paths of development became opened, and humanity began pouring into them, “descending to hell” and becoming trapped therein, whether in or out of physical embodiment.
As a result of the foregoing, the time spent on the path of evolution became greatly increased, seemingly impossible to end. Through the development of intuition, which included memories of previous lives, this fact became intensely and painfully evident. Yearning for the means to minimize or altogether eliminate those delays and reversals, the ancient yogis of India discovered the way to link up with their spirit-will so they could move forward without hindrance.
They found after intense and extensive self-examination that the mind, the instrument of consciousness that is spirit, was fundamentally affected by two factors, breath and sound, and that all other elements were quite secondary to these two things. Investigating the breath in its subtler and subtler (higher and higher) levels, they found that breath and sound were inseparable–really two manifestations of a single factor: an impulse that came directly from the spirit. In the highest level they found that the breath is originally a kind of unitary-yet-dual impulse manifesting in a circular motion or pattern that is single yet possessing two halves which appear in the body as two parallel movements–inhalation and exhalation–seemingly opposed to one another and completely separate like two lines side-by-side. They further discovered that the breath is making very subtle sounds–one during inhalation and one during exhalation. On the lower levels, including the physical, these sounds are as distorted as the breath, but in the highest level they are making two very distinct sounds that can be translated into speech as So while inhaling and Hum (written as Ham in Sanskrit) while exhaling. These two syllables produced the original breath sounds when mentally recited (intoned). Interestingly, they had a definite meaning: “That [So] I am [Ham].”
Through constant repetition of So’ham in time with their breath, the primeval yogis united their outer and inner consciousness and will. In this way they brought the alienated bodies back into alignment with the evolutionary vibrations of So’ham. For So’ham is the keynote of the evolving universe. Repeating it in a constant flow turns the mind inward and produces spiritual awareness in an ever-increasing degree, in time putting us in touch with the cosmos as well as our Self and God. And that is what this book is all about, for this tradition has been handed down even until today, though often obscured and nearly lost.
The “religion” of yoga is the way to restore the original evolutionary pattern on the individual level, enabling the yogis go from darkness to the Light of God which fills the horizon of their consciousness completely in the realization-experience that is the ever increasing awareness of God as the prime reality and our individual spirit as secondary, existing only because God exists, drawing on the Infinite Life for our finite life. So’ham is the force that impels us ever onward and upward, as we say with John the Baptist: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Since He is our own inmost reality we will become increasingly ourselves until we become gods within God, able to say: “I and the Father are one”–even: “Whoever sees me sees the Father” (John 10:30; 14:9). That is the glory of yoga, and why we breathe in So (“He”) and breathe out Ham (“I am”)–breathing in God and breathing out ego. Gorakhnath inquired of Matsyendranath: “What is illusion and what is the dispeller of illusion?” The answer was simple: “‘I am’ [ham] is illusion and ‘He is’ [So] is the dispeller of illusion” (Gorakh Bodha 113, 114)
Yoga is based on the science of Spiritual Sound. All things–the entire cosmos itself–are formed of vibrating energy. This cosmic energy possesses the dual nature of light and sound, both of which are essentially Consciousness. The totality of that Consciousness is known as the Shabda Brahman, the Sound God–the Word. The Word is spoken, yet It is beyond speech in Its essence because It is the source of speech. Its spoken form is the final step in the objectification of the primal creative stream arising from the inmost depths of Being Itself, that “point of light within the mind of God” from which has issued all manifested being, all that exist. It is the original movement outward from the Omnipresent Center which took place when the Supreme Consciousness willed, “I am One; let Me become Many” (Chandogya Upanishad 6:2:3; Taittiriya Upanishad 2:6).
In the microcosm of the human being resides all the powers and processes of the macrocosm, the universe, and in the human being the highest faculty is that of speech. The vibrating column of air within the body from which speech is produced–represented by the flute of Krishna–is the objective embodiment of the essential creative power of the human being and is imbued with both the individual and universal characteristics of the consciousness that wields it. This is why Jesus told His disciples that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Matthew 12:34; Luke 6:45) Speech is the projecting of the inner consciousness of the speaker, especially when it is employed in the use of what is called a mantra.
In the yoga tradition a sound formula or word which has precise esoteric effects is called a mantra–a series of verbal sounds whose effect lies not in an assigned intellectual meaning, but in an inherent sound-power that can produce a specific effect, physically or psychologically. The word mantra itself comes from the Sanskrit expression manat trayate which means “a transforming thought;” literally, “that which when thought carries across”–which produces an objective, perceptible change. It also literally means “a liberating thought.” So’ham is the supreme mantra of liberation.
Pronunciation and use
For a mantra to produce its effect it must be pronounced correctly. So’ham is pronounced like our English words so and hum. (The short a in Sanskrit is pronounced like the u in “up” or “hunt,” so we say “hum” even though we write it as “ham.”)
It is most important to pronounce the O correctly. It should be pronounced like the long o in the Italian or common American manner–as in home and lone. In England, Canada, and parts of the American South, the long o is sometimes pronounced as a diphthong, like two vowels jammed together: either like “ay-oh” or “eh-oh.” This is not the correct manner of pronouncing the O, which should be a single, pure vowel sound.
The same is true of the U in ham (hum). As already pointed out, it is pronounced like the u in “up” or “hunt”–not like the u in “truth” or “push,” as in done in parts of Great Britain.
A mantra is more effective if it is mentally intoned–that is, mentally “sung” on a single note. (The pitch does not matter–whatever is spontaneous and natural.) This makes the repetition stronger and of deeper effect, because intoning unifies the mind and naturally concentrates it.
The way to receive the benefit of a mantra is japa, the continual repetition-intonation of the mantra. In this way the invoker is constantly imbued with the power and consciousness inherent in the mantra. So whenever we intone So’ham, we align and link our consciousness with its origin: both our spirit and Divine Spirit.
God is guru
Not only was God the first guru, He is still the guru of humanity. For as already said, He has implanted in us the So’ham mantra. Consequently, in the depths of our being, our spirit, So’ham is continually flowing or rising. Together we, the universe, and God are vibrating So’ham without interruption. In this way the heart-core of God and the individual spirit are made the same in non-dual unity. So’ham is flowing from the single point where the spirit and the Spirit are absolutely one.
God is eternally stimulating or “teaching” the spirit to emanate So’ham as the agent of its evolution and perfection. In this way God is the guru of each one of us. One finite spirit may reveal to another finite spirit the way to realize its oneness with God, and thereby momentarily become a spiritual teacher for that spirit, but God alone will be the Sat (true and eternal) Guru, the ultimate guru, the infallible teacher and guide from within. The aspiring yogi can then feel safe and assured, for God will be his guru, just as He has been for all the enlightened throughout the ages. “He is guru even of the ancients,” affirmed Patanjali (Yoga Sutras 1:26).
The first American disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda was Dr. M. W. Lewis, who perfectly assimilated the wisdom imparted to him by Yogananda. In a talk given in San Diego, California, in 1955, he said these inspiring words:
“To me the real meaning and understanding of discipleship is that a disciple, a true disciple, is ‘one who follows God.’ Many times the Master said that. In spite of his realization and his oneness with God, which he had and does have now, he said when leaving Boston, ‘Never mind what happens to me. That Light which you see is far greater than I am. That is God Himself.’ And so, there is only one Guru, and that is God, and the greater the saint, if we can classify them that way, the surer they are to say, ‘I am nothing, God is all.’ And so, the Master said that. God alone is reality. He is with you. He is the One Great Guru. And the Master was most humble, because the more you realize there is One Reality, God Himself, the more humble you become, because the ego cannot stay. If you have realization of God, the ego has left.
“And so, realize: who may become a disciple? Anyone; anyone who knows the Presence of God, and follows God. Master often said that someone said to him in India, ‘I hear so-and-so is your disciple in America.’ He said, ‘They say so.’ And seeing the confusion on the face of the inquirer, he said, ‘I haven’t any disciple. They’re all disciples of God.’ How wonderful that is. And so, just realize, he who knows God may be called a disciple. Now that means you must have contact with God. There must be a relationship between you and God, an understanding, a realization that God is in you, you are in God, there is one consciousness–God alone. Now if you have that, you may be called a disciple.”
Dr. Lewis was the “disciple” spoken of in India.
It is commonly believed that an aspiring yogi must be empowered for yoga practice through some kind of initiation or transference of power. There are many exaggerated statements made about how it is impossible to make any progress, much less attain enlightenment, without initiation. But the truth is that Brahman has already initiated us into So’ham and is always maintaining the flow of that mantra within us. So’ham Yoga is the demonstration of the eternal, single nature of God and man.
Read the next chapter in So’ham Yoga: So’ham Yoga Meditation
Chapters in So’ham Yoga: the Yoga of the Self
Preface to Soham Yoga: Yoga and Freedom
Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary.
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