Yoga and Advaita Vedānta in the Aparokṣānubhūti
A talk given at the World Sanskrit Conference in Vancouver, July 2018
by Zoë Slatoff
The Aparokṣānubhūti provides a concise and accessible entry into Advaita (non-dual) Vedānta philosophy. Its 144 verses teach a method of vicāra or enquiry, which incorporates a fifteen-part system of yoga leading to samādhi, and ultimately to the realization of the oneness of ātman (the individual self) and brahman (the universal Self). Although Yoga and Advaita may appear incompatible, for Vedāntins, yoga is always considered of penultimate value and thus is un-contradictory. Duality fits neatly within non-duality and provides techniques to help make one’s mind ready for the ultimate realization. The word aparokṣānubhūti means “direct, unmediated awareness,” a synonym for brahmānubhava, which is the immediate experience of brahman, an awakening to the non-dual Self. This happens by penetrating the illusion we are enmeshed in, by means of jñāna or true cognition. Even for early Advaita Vedāntins, yoga was considered a purificatory, preparatory practice, which can help to develop the discernment (viveka) necessary to cultivate this ultimate wisdom. In turn, the steady recollection of self-knowledge then results in the goal of Patañjali's yoga, the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.
Although the Aparokṣanubhūti is traditionally attributed to Śaṅkarācārya, modern scholars question this, citing deviations in content and style. Although Śaṅkara did incorporate Pātañjala yoga methodology into his philosophy, his opposition to the dualistic systems of Yoga/Sāmkhya was clear. However, there are enough similarities to suggest that the text was written by someone belonging to his school of followers. Much of what we know about the Aparokṣānubhūti comes from its Dīpikā commentary, attributed to Vidyāraṇya, who was the jagadguru at Śrṅgerī maṭha from at least 1374-75 until 1386, the year of his death. It is known from both inscriptions and textual tradition that he was an important figure and guru of king Harihara II. Vidyāraṇya helped to publicly re-imagine Śaṅkara as a popular hero and is credited for the rise of Advaita Vedānta as the highest philosophical system. According to Vidyāraṇya, he established the Śaṅkara Maṭha, an Advaitic cloister in Sringeri, with a series of directors, who all could have been known by the name Śaṅkara, thus leading to the proliferation of works under his name.
One can see why Vidyāraṇya would have been drawn to the Aparokṣānubhūti, based on his work on other texts that combine Yoga and Advaita Vedānta, such as his commentary on the Yoga Vāsiṣṭha and his Jīvanmuktiviveka, a syncretic work, drawing together elements from the Yoga Sūtra, Bhagavad Gītā, and Laghu-Yogavāsiṣṭhā. Although Vidyāraṇya's ultimate allegiance was to Advaita, he emphasized that yoga and renunciation (saṃnyāsa) together could lead to the ultimate knowledge of brahman. For Vidyāraṇya, samādhi, which is the result of the eight-part path of Patañjali’s aṣṭāṅga yoga, is the main element that leads to the state of jīvanmukti. Vidyāraṇya helped to make Advaita more householder friendly, by incorporating yoga practices to keep people engaged on the path. This ultimately helped lead to the reverse process, the incorporation of Vedānta into Yoga. One does have to wonder if the commentator is perhaps the author of the Aparokṣānubhūti himself, written to help bring together yoga and Advaita in a clear, coherent way. Or if not the author, perhaps he took the bones of an already existing text and elaborated upon them, adding his commentary.
Much of the Aparokṣānubhūti is concerned with the misidentification of the self with the body. In the way that a snake is mistakenly superimposed on a rope, or silver on mother-of-pearl, the body is considered to be superimposed upon the self.
सर्पत्वेन यथा रज्जू रजतत्वेन शुक्तिका ।
विनिर्णीता विमूढेण देहत्वेन तथात्मता ॥७०॥
sarpatvena yathā rajjū rajatatvena śuktikā |
vinirṇītā vimūḍhena dehatvena tathātmatā || 70 ||
Just as a rope is thought to be a snake,
And mother of pearl is thought to be silver.
So the Self is determined to be the body,
By a foolish person.
After detailed descriptions of the qualities which are to be cultivated by the seeker of liberation, and various methods of vicāra, inquiry, the Aparokṣānubhūti presents a system of yoga with fifteen parts (tripañcāṅga), which is not previously seen elsewhere. These fifteen include the eight aspects of the aṣṭāṅga yoga of Patāñjali, as well as tyāga (renunciation), maunam (silence), deśa (place), kāla (time), mūla-bandha (the root lock), deha-sāmyam (equilibrium of the body), and dṛk-sthiti (steadiness of the gaze). Although the text includes the aṅgas of Patañjali, their descriptions generally provide a different understanding. In the Aparokṣānubhūti, these steps are considered to lead to contemplation (nididhyāsana) and constitute a part of the rāja yoga it describes.
For example, Patañjali defines yama, restraint, as ahiṃsā (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacarya (celibacy), and aparigraha (non-grasping), each of which he then goes on to define in detail. In the Aparokṣānubhūti however:
सर्वं ब्रह्मेति विज्ञानादिन्द्रियग्रामसंयमः ।
यमोऽयमिति संप्रोक्तोऽभ्यसनीयो मुहुर्मुहुः ॥१०४॥
sarvaṃ brahmeti vijñānād indriya-grāma-saṃyamaḥ |
yamo ’yam iti saṃprokto ‘bhasanīyo muhur muhuḥ || 104 ||
From the understanding that “All is brahman,”
There is the restraint of all of the senses.
This is said to be yama, restraint,
To be practiced again and again.
Similarly, Patañjali defines niyama as śauca (cleanliness), santoṣa (contentment), tapas (discipline), svādhyāya (self-study), and īśvara-praṇidhāna (surrender to the Divine). But the Aparokṣānubhūti defines it in terms of brahman once again.
सजातीयप्रवाहश्च विजातीयतिरस्कृतिः ।
नियमो हि परान्दो नियमात्क्रियते बुधैः ॥१०५॥
sajātīya-pravāhaśca vijātīyatiraskṛtiḥ |
niyamo hi parānando niyamāt kriyate budhaiḥ || 105 ||
The continuous flow of one type of thought (about brahman),
And the disappearance of other types of thought,
Is niyama, observance, the highest bliss,
Practiced regularly by the wise.
And Patañjali defines āsana as sthira and sukha, “comfortable and steady.” The Aparokṣānubhūti adds to this, again putting the focus on brahman.
सुखेनैव भवेद्यस्मिन्नजस्रं ब्रह्मचिन्तनम् ।
आसनं तद्विजानियान्नेतरत्सुखनाशनम् ॥११२॥
sukhenaiva bhaved yasminn ajasraṃ brahma-cintanam |
āsanaṃ tad vijānīyānn etarat sukha-nāśanam || 112 ||
In which, comfortably, there might be,
Meditation on brahman forever.
One should know that to be āsana,
And not any other posture that destroys happiness.
I want to now draw your attention to a couple of verses where the author appears to be making a direct jab at haṭha yoga. Because of this blatant criticism, it seems clear that the text was written in the 13th or 14th century at the earliest, partly in response to the increased output of haṭha yoga texts.
अङगानां समतां विद्यात्समे ब्रहमणि लीनताम् ।
नो चेनन्नैव समानत्वमृजुत्वं शुष्कवृक्षवत् ॥११५॥
aṅgānāṃ samatām vidyāt same brahmaṇi līnatām |
no cennaiva samānatvam ṛjutvaṃ śuṣka-vṛkṣavat || 115 ||
Equilibrium of the limbs should be known as
Absorption in the complete brahman.
If not, mere straightening of the body, like a dried-up tree,
Is not samatā, equilibrium.
दृष्टिं ज्ञानमयीं कृत्वा पश्येद् ब्रह्ममयं जगत् ।
सा दृष्टिः परमोदारा न नासाग्रावलोकिनी ॥११६॥
dṛṣṭiṃ jñāna-mayīṃ kṛtvā paśyed brahma-mayaṃ jagat |
sā dṛṣṭiḥ paramodārā na nāsāgrāv alokinī || 116 ||
Having made one’s vision full of insight,
One might see the world full of brahman.
That dṛṣṭi, gaze, is the most noble,
Not that which looks at the tip of the nose.
All of the aṅgas are really just different ways of learning to see the Self everywhere. As another example, Patañjali defines pratyāhāra, sensory-withdrawal, as occurring “when the senses do not come into contact with their own sense objects, but instead follow the true nature of the mind.” But in the Aparokṣānubhūti:
विषयेष्वात्मतां दृष्ट्वा मनसश्चितिमज्जनम् ।
प्रत्याहारः स विज्ञेयोऽभ्यसनीयो मुमुक्षिभिः ॥१२१॥
viṣayeṣv ātmatāṃ dṛṣṭvā manasaś citi-majjanam |
pratyāhāraḥ sa vijñeyo ’bhyasanīyo mumukṣubhiḥ || 121 ||
Seeing the Self in all objects,
The mind is immersed in understanding.
That is to be known as pratyāhāra,
To be practiced by those desiring liberation.
The Aparokṣānubhūti appears to be one of the earliest texts to mention rāja yoga, using the term to indicate the fifteen-part system it describes, which is only suitable for those who are devoted and whose minds are completely mature. Haṭha yoga is mentioned as an alternative but lesser practice, for those practitioners whose afflictions are only partially burnt (paripakva).
एभिरङ्गैः समायुक्ती राजयोग उदाहृतः ।
किञ्चित्पक्वकषायाणं हठयोगेन संयुतः ॥१४३॥
ebhir aṅgaiḥ samā-yuktī rāja-yoga udāhṛtaḥ |
kiñcit pakva-kaṣāyāṇaṃ haṭha-yogena saṃyutaḥ || 143 ||
Rāja yoga has been described,
Together with these parts.
For those whose afflictions have been only partly burnt,
It can be joined together with haṭha yoga.
In contrast to the common modern identification of Patañjali’s yoga with the more elevated rājayoga, which was largely made popular by Vivekananada, Vidyāraṇya in his commentary on this verse, identifies haṭha yoga with Patañjali’s aṣṭāṅga yoga, an association he makes in the Jivanmuktiviveka as well.
For Vedāntins, yoga was necessary not to perfect the body but to eradicate the vāsanās and annihilate the mind. In a Vedāntic setting, yoga was used as a means to prepare the mind for the ultimate non-dual realization, whereas in the more strictly haṭhayoga texts, there is an emphasis on using yoga to prepare the body as well. The trend of incorporating Advaita into yoga started in the early haṭhayoga texts around the beginning of the second millennium CE. These new formulations of yoga combine haṭha and Pātañjala yoga and teach it as an essential counterpart to jñāna in the pursuit of liberation, joining it together with Vedāntic soteriology. Rather than a metaphysical tension between yoga and Advaita in need of resolution, yoga is seen divorced of its classical metaphysics and therefore able to incorporate the language of any dominant system it encounters. It makes sense that integrating Advaita teachings into the haṭhayoga texts may have been done in an attempt to interest the Vedāntins.
The Aparokṣānubhūti seems to have had little direct influence on later texts until the Yoga Upaniṣads, where it begins to be quoted at length. These texts are of particular interest as they are really Advaita Vedānta texts, which incorporate yoga practices, invoking the older tradition of Upaniṣads in order to invest ancient authority into their new ideas. The later Southern recensions, composed between the 17th to 18th centuries, expand upon the earlier more aphoristic Northern versions, from the 9th to 13th centuries, and add to them, resulting in 21 Yoga Upaniṣads. These later texts draw on haṭhayoga and tantric traditions, particularly from the Nāth Siddhas, although they seem to have arisen within a Brahmanical context. These syncretic texts can be considered a bridge from the earlier traditions to modern yoga, incorporating verses and whole sections of earlier texts, although without citation or attribution.
Three of the Yoga Upaniṣads – the Nādabindu Upaniṣad, the Tejobindu Upaniṣad and the Yogaśikhā Upaniṣad – borrow a significant number of verses from the Aparokṣānubhūti in their southern recensions. The Nādabindu Upaniṣad builds upon the Aparokṣānubhūti’s ideas about the disappearance of both previous karma and the illusion of the phenomenal world upon the attainment of knowledge of the true reality, but rather than continuing with the fifteen aṅgas, it then describes a Vedāntic practice of nādayoga, leading to the realization of brahman and liberation.
The southern recension of the Tejobindu Upaniṣad repeats the fifteen-part system introduced in the Aparokṣānubhūti, as well as the obstacles that arise along the path. Although it quotes almost the entire end of the Aparokṣānubhūti, it concludes its first section with verse 142, emphasizing that a wise person should see all forms as brahman, omitting the last two verses of the Aparokṣānubhūti which name this method rājayoga and mention haṭhayoga as a lesser possibility.
The southern recension of the Yogaśikhā Upaniṣad is mainly a yogic Śaiva Āgama work, drawing on tantric and Nāth sources, which incorporates some Advaitic teachings. The fourth chapter quotes the Aparokṣānubhūti exclusively, beginning with the idea that everything is brahman and ending by emphasizing how ignorance causes the misidentification of the body with the Self. While the Aparokṣānubhūti continues in this vein, the Yogaśikhā Upaniṣad jumps into a chapter talking about the body as a means to realization through haṭhayoga practices, discussing cakras, kuṇḍalinī, nāda, bindu, mudrā and bandha. This juxtaposition would be surprising if it wasn’t the norm of this time. It seems that the text uses the Advaitic understanding of oneness with brahman and the misidentification with the body to then use the body to get beyond the body. Another text which includes the fifteen aṅgas of the Aparokṣānubhūti and Tejobindūpaniṣad, giving details and descriptions and adding other parts and practices throughout, is the eighteenth-century Haṃsavilāsa, which rejects the forceful approach of haṭhayoga (here also identified with Pātañjala yoga) and teaches a rājayoga that incorporates sexual practices. This period of synthesis was very important for the consolidation and dissemination of these teachings.
In modern yoga, the ideas of Yoga, Sāṃkhya and Vedanta have become inextricably intertwined – ask most modern practitioners for a definition of yoga and they will tell you it means “union,” even though this is the exact opposite of the isolation (kaivalya), which is the traditional goal of Patañjali’s Yoga. Much of the credit for this goes to Swami Vivekananda, whose identification of rājayoga with Pātañjala yoga is still the foundation of much of the popular understanding of yoga today. His 1896 book “Rāja Yoga,” included a translation of the Yogasūtra, detailing the eight-limbed path of aṣṭāṅga yoga, which he describes as a path to liberation (mokṣa). Vivekananda repeatedly emphasized experience and direct perception as the fundamental means to attain liberation, as opposed to Śaṅkara’s focus on Upaniṣadic knowledge. For Vivekananda, samādhi is the only real source of the knowledge of brahman, whereas for Śaṅkara this was only a stepping stone. This emphasis on direct realization – anubhāva or anubhūti – rather than on book learning as fundamental to knowledge helped to pave the way for modern yoga. I want to turn now to the modern life of this text, which is still taught in both a Vedāntic and Yogic context.
I first encountered the Aparokṣānubhūti in a small conference given by Śrī K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India. I was immediately struck by its non-dual emphasis. Śrī K. Pattabhi Jois began to study yoga with Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, often considered the father of modern yoga, at the age of 12. Jois was born into the Smarta Sampradaya tradition and his family guru was Śaṅkarācārya. Having grown up immersed in these ideas, this Advaita outlook naturally was incorporated into his understanding of the practice. Pattabhi Jois called his system of yoga, Ashtanga yoga, connecting it to the eight-part path described in Patañjali’s Yogasūtra, even though there is strong emphasis on the third limb of āsana or postural practice. Jois always said that this provided an entryway and that from there, the other limbs would follow. The opening mantra, chanted before practice every day, combines two verses: the first is from the Yoga Tārāvalī, attributed to Śaṅkarācārya, and the second is a dhyāna śloka to Patañjali. So, implicit in the Ashtanga yoga practice is this confluence of Advaita Vedānta and yoga. Some of Jois’ senior students, such as Richard Freeman, continue to teach this text, passing its verses on to their own students.
Another modern teacher who emphasized this text was Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati (Ramamurti S. Mishra, M.D.), whose translation and commentary is entitled “Direct Experience of ‘I-AM.’” Brahmananda Sarasvati founded the Yoga Society of New York in 1958 and the Ananda Ashram in Monroe, NY in 1964, as well as a center in San Francisco. His life’s work was devoted to a modern synthesis of Yoga and Vedānta and he was the author of translations and commentaries on other texts, such as the Yogasūtra and Śaṅkara’s Ātmabodha, which were also taught at his ashrams. In his preface, Sarasvati says “May this book help to establish world unity and world peace through ahiṃsā (non-violence) and understanding. The principle of absolute Godhead in the form of absolute “I-Am” is always residing within you, physically, mentally, and spiritually.” For him, the ultimate realization leads towards world peace and understanding, rather than spiritual isolation.
The Aparokṣānubhūti with a translation by Swami Vimuktananda was published in a small printed edition in 1938. While admitting the authorship is unclear, Vimuktananada nonetheless says in his preface, “To those, therefore, who have neither the time nor the opportunity to go through the classical works of Śaṅkarācārya, a treatise like the present one will be an invaluable guide in their quest after spiritual truths.” In his summation, “The central theme of the book is the identity of the Jivātman (individual self) and Paramātman (Universal Self). This identity is realized through the removal of the ignorance that hides the truth, by the light of vicāra or enquiry alone.” This encapsulates the importance of this text – it explains complex concepts in a concise and understandable way and gives practical tools for attaining its goals. It is this vicāra that sets the stage for the fifteen-part path leading to samādhi and ultimately to the realization of brahman, which is the culmination of rāja yoga.
The Aparokṣānubhūti is also taught as a fundamental text at Vivekananda’s Vedānta centers, which makes sense, given his emphasis on realization. I discovered recently that around the corner from me, on the Upper West Side in New York, is the first Vedanta Society Center founded by Swami Vivekananda in 1894, in association with the Ramakrishna Order of India. Every Friday night for the last year, the resident Swami Sarvapriyananda has been reading the Aparokṣānubhūti, reciting its verses and discussing its meaning with all who want to attend as well as live-streaming all of the sessions on Youtube. In the session I attended, which began to discuss the aṅgas in verses 100-105, Swami Sarvapriyananda told his audience not to discount yoga practice, that it was a useful tool. In this modern environment – there are five yoga centers on West 72nd Street alone – his words were quite striking. In the midst of the contemporary obsession with physical form, perhaps this text can serve as a reminder that the body is meant to just be a vehicle to get beyond the body.
स्वात्मानं शृणु मूर्ख त्वं श्रुत्या युक्त्या च पुरुषम् ।
देहातीतं सदाकारं सुदुर्दर्शं भवादृशैः ॥३०॥
svātmānaṃ śṛṇu mūrkha tvaṃ śrutyā yuktyā ca puruṣam |
dehātītaṃ sadākāraṃ sudurdarśaṃ bhavādṛśaiḥ || 30 ||
Listen you fool! Learn about your own Self, your Spirit,
By means of sacred knowledge and reasoning.
Beyond the body, the form of true existence:
So difficult to be seen by someone like you.
 YS 2.54: svaviṣayāsamprayoge cittasya svarūpānukāra ivendriyāṇāṃ pratyāhāraḥ |
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