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Thursday, November 3, 2022

Upasana, Vidya, Puja and Dhyana

 The word Upasana (aupasanam) came to my attention when reading Chandogya Upanishad. The straightforward translation from Sanskrit to English is “seated next to”. But I did not realize that Upasana is also referred to as Vidya in the Upanishads with such examples as Madhu Vidya and Pranava Vidya (Swami Sivananda lists 28 vidyas. See Brahma vidya is one of them. 

Brahmavidya is all about Brahman including knowledge about Brahman and methods to attain Brahmagnana. According to Bal Gangadhar Tilak, these include pravritti marga  which is a renunciatory path and nivritti marga which is a path of action. . 

Pravritti marga is also called Samkhya in Bhagavad Gita. This path leads to sannyasa or asceticism. One renounces everything in this world including the body and its needs.

Buddha tried this path before he went on his way. He thought that one needs the body and the mind to meditate, understand the universe and reach a state of bliss. He rejected torturing the body. He rejected indulgence of senses also. That is why his path is called the middle way. 

Bhagavad Gita suggests a similar path, a path of action but without attachment to worldly rewards. This is Nivritti marga. This path is like several roads going to the same destination. These include doing one’s assigned duty according to sruti also called srouta karma, which is performing yagnas and aupasana as recommended by the Mimamsa school;  performing one’s assigned duties (such as ashrama dharma, kula dharma etc) according to the smrithi, also called smartha karma; and pujas, rituals, japas and penances as explained in the Puranas, also called pauranika karma.

Coming back to the topic, the words Upasana, Vidya, yoga, and karma are inter-related. 

Adi Sankara defines Upasana as: “ consisting in making a current of similar ideas to flow continuously”. The similarity of this definition to Patanjali’s definition of Dharana which is translated to mean “unbroken stream of concentration” is striking. This is concentration and complete exclusion of all other ideas, as defined in the Buddhist teachings on mindful meditation. 

At this stage of concentration (dharana), duality is still there. It is still knowledge about a thing and not an experience. One example given is that of looking at crystals of sugar. The eye sees the crystals and thinks it is sugar. It may indeed be sugar. But it is the taste that tells you for certainty that it is sugar. It is by using the appropriate sense one can experience the truth. 

It is the same with understanding and becoming one with Brahman. You can learn, meditate and be still at the state of duality and knowledge. That is the state of Upasana. Only by going beyond that state of duality (of upasana, puja and japa) can one reach gnana, the ultimate truth which is Brahman. 

Historically, Upasana transformed into nama smarana after the Vedic period. Meditation on OM and Gayatri Japam, both to be performed with full understanding of the meaning came later. Initially meditation was about Brahman without form and attributes – Nirguna Brahman. Then came the concept of Ishvara, Brahman with a form or Saguna Brahman.  Saguna Brahman may be Shiva or Vishnu or Rama or Krishna or any one of the Ishta devatas (chosen deity). Meditation can be and often is on one’s chosen deity with a form. Nama smarana became a dominant mode with the arrival of the puranas and the emphasis on Bhakti marga. 

Although the path of devotion (bhakti) was always there, this path became prominent particularly after the writing of Puranas. Puranas together with the advent of Tantric ideas which emphasized mantra, yantra, tantra and mudhras formed the basis for puja and japa with mantra towards one’s favorite deity - variation of Saguna Brahaman (Brahman with a form). They are meant to purify one’s mind and to help merge with the object of worship. This is a state of siddhi or reaching or getting close to the Divine. But the subject still stands apart from the object of worship. The heaven reached is impermanent whether it is Kailasam for those who worship Shiva or Vaikuntam for those who worship Vishnu. 

But Bliss is when Nirguna Brahman (Brahman without form) is experienced- state of Sat Chit Ananda. That is Samadhi. 

One path (deep devotion) leads to siddhi (reach the object  of focus) and the other (deep meditation) to samadhi (absorption into the object of focus). 

One other point to make about meditation. If the goal of meditation is to control the mind from its running after impressions and thoughts generated by the functions of our sense organs, the first four steps of Patanjali’s Yoga Sastra will be helpful. In Buddhism, it is Mindful meditation with focused attention on the breath and body. 

If meditation is about inward journey, the second four steps Patanjali’s Yoga Sastra point the way. This is “deep looking” or Vipassana in Buddhism. 

The problem for a beginner is that he or she often gets stuck with the first four steps or stops after controlling the mind. 

If Upasana is “making a current of similar ideas to flow continuously”, puja is an eminently suitable method. Performed with full understanding, puja can help the mental current to flow continuously towards a form, our chosen deity, the object of the puja. Similarly, during japa the mental current flows continuously towards a sound. 

In puja and japa, the focus is on Saguna Brahman with a form but as an object of realization. It is to obtain siddhi  or obtaining what one desires. 

In meditation or dhyana which is also mental activity, Brahman is not an object to be known, but the essence to be realized and experienced as one’s own. It is brahma gnana which in Advaita is the same as atma gnana. The end stage is eternal bliss, samadhi. 

Upasana and puja are easier to practice since they use props to focus on. In Adi Sankara’s words: आलम्बनविषयित्वात् सुखसाध्यानि. Meditation on a formless, quality-less abstract called Brahman, which requires control of the mind, focused attention, and avoidance of distractions, is much harder. That is why Lord Krishna says in Bhagavat Gita (12:5) that “it is very difficult for embodied beings to reach (to think of, to meditate on) the unmanifest”.

It is easy to write a thesis or give a discourse and sound erudite. But am I qualified to express these thoughts? What is my current state – siddhi or samadhi? Or, nowhere near both of those states? 

Yet, cannot help sharing useful, helpful insights and in the process guide my own inward journey. 

Thank you for listening. 

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