Condensed version of a Heart to Heart article, “Finding God — Soul and Science,” posted to Speaking Tree (India).
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras have provided a sturdy road map for millions of seekers over the centuries. Yet the first line of that scripture is almost ridiculously cryptic.
Patanjali says: “Now we come to the practice of yoga.”
I suspect millions of readers have skipped over that line, imagining it to be no more than a polite formula – as if to say, “Welcome to yoga. Come on in – let’s get started.”
And yet Swami Kriyananda explained that this simple sentence holds enormous meaning – especially the seemingly innocuous word, “Now.”
As Swamiji explained, “Now” means that there are certain steps we need to take before we can begin to practice the yoga path with the right understanding.
Now then, what are those steps – the necessary “prerequisites” to yoga?
Two other scriptures tell us what we need to know before we can practice yoga. One of those scriptures is Shankya, and the other is Vedanta.
Shankya describes the deficiencies of this material life. It tells us why we can never find fulfillment by pursuing our material desires. And Vedanta tells us where we can find the fulfillment our souls are seeking: in the inner experience of God.
“And now we come to the study of Yoga.” Having understood the shortcomings of this life, and with a vision of the truth that will set us free, we can now begin to practice the practical methods of yoga that will take us there.
In the West, we love the scientific approach to investigating reality. We delight in weighing and measuring, and writing down numbers from which we can draw conclusions about the natural world. Using this simple method, science has given us wonderful gifts, from machines that can move mountains, to insights into the structure of the physical universe.
Scientists of exceptional vision have even penetrated the illusion of matter – they’ve shown us that the world isn’t solid as it seems, but that it is composed of energy. Some physicists have even proposed that the world of energy from which matter is created may have its own source in a great universal consciousness.
Now, Paramhansa Yogananda came to the West to share a very different, but no less scientific approach to understanding creation.
Thousands of years ago, the sages of India tackled many of the same problems that interest scientists today. But they used a very different method. Instead of experimenting with material instruments, weighing and measuring, they succeeded in unlocking the secrets of creation by searching ever more deeply in the laboratory of their own consciousness.
The experiments of the pioneering scientists of ancient times resulted in a great body of wisdom known as the Vedas. And Vedanta is the summation – the boiled-down, condensed version, we might say, of the Vedas. The Sanskrit word Vedanta literally means “the end of the Vedas.”
Vedanta describes the truths that are the foundation of all true religions. It describes the nature of Spirit, and the eternal laws that govern all creation, including our lives.
Vedanta tells us, even as science does, that everything we perceive with our physical senses is not as it seems.
In his book, Out of the Labyrinth, Swami Kriyananda tells how the sages of ancient times turned their attention to the most fundamental questions of human life: “What are people looking for? What do they want? And how can they find it?”
By observing the human scene with calm objectivity, they discovered that all human beings are engaged in a relentless quest to experience greater happiness, and to avoid suffering.
We want to know a bliss is that is permanent and unchanging. In Vedanta, the sages call that experience satchidananda. Paramhansa Yogananda said that this word perfectly captures the fulfillment we are looking for: the experience of “ever-existing, ever-conscious, ever-new joy.”
Yogananda was born fully enlightened – he was an avatar, a descent of God into this world, tasked with a tremendous mission: to bring the ancient scientific truths of life to the West, where many souls were yearning for them.
At the time when Yogananda came to America, most Indians knew little of the West beyond what they had observed of the British, and they were not inspired. It’s difficult to appreciate how heathen we westerners appeared to the Indian people at that time.
Ramakrishna, the great yoga master of the 19th century, was uneducated, in the way we think of education in the West. He never learned to read or write, because he felt that it would distract his mind from his direct perception of reality. He understood truth with inner knowing, and he didn’t need to read about it in books.
Ramakrishna would often make fun of the English. He would tie up his Bengali skirt, called a dhoti, so that it looked like trousers, and he would assume the attitude of a British gentleman, putting a walking stick under his arm and whistling and striding up and down in a comic manner. He described the English as “whistling and taking the stairs two at a time,” and he made fun of the bustling, self-important way they moved – as if to say, “we are efficient and we move fast, and we’re going to control the world.” The people who watched Ramakrishna doing these hilarious things were the conquered simple people of India, and they laughed heartily at his antics.
When Yogananda came to the West, he was thrown into a world that was totally different from the one he’d been raised in. In 1920, the differences were even more pronounced than they are today, with our effortless global communications.
But Master knew that the human heart is the same everywhere. It makes no difference what color our body is, or what language we speak.
These differences are superficial, because behind them every one of us has the same hopes and needs. Think of a mother and her child – it doesn’t matter where they live, they all have the same heart that longs to be loved, a heart that longs to feel safe, to feel understood, to be secure, and to have some certainty.
Before we can properly begin the study of yoga, these are the things we need to know – the illusory nature of the physical universe, and what we’re seeking, and where we can find it. And then the study of yoga comes along and tells us how.
“And now we come to the practice of yoga.” Because yoga is the method by which we can master ourselves, by controlling the restless mind so that we can receive the fulfillment that Shankya tells us we cannot find here, and that Vedanta describes so attractively.
Now, the difficulty is that the world seems terribly complex, and the path to joy seems almost impossibly full of twists and turns, for the simple reason that we perceive the world through our ego, and the desires of the ego prevent us from seeing the path clearly. This is our conundrum – the teachings offer us a simple path to bliss, but our own desires obscure our vision of the path.
This is why the Divine, in its great compassion, offers us a simple aid. It sends a great soul who has mastered this seemingly complex reality, and who can serve us as a living example of how we, too, can be free.
We don’t actually know who we are. We don’t even know what we think. We don’t know what we feel. We’re so accustomed to protecting the disguise of the ego. But when that constancy of divine love, and that vibration of freedom comes into the prison of our ego, we suddenly find a light that dispels all our darkness. And we realize that is sufficient by a thousand fold to drive all our fears of loss away, because that love satisfies our hearts forever.