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Types of Meditation--Part 1, By Swami Bhajanananda

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  • Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati
    TYPES OF MEDITATION—PART ONE Swami Bhajanananda Swami Bhajanananda was the editor of Prabuddha Bharata from 1979 through 1986, and has contributed many
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 16, 2006
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      Swami Bhajanananda

      Swami Bhajanananda was the editor of Prabuddha Bharata from 1979
      through 1986, and has contributed many articles to various Vedanta
      journals. Swami Bhajanananda is an Assistant-Secretary and Trustee of
      the Ramakrishna Order. This article was published in the May, 1981
      Prabuddha Bharata.


      Before we begin the study of different types of meditation it is
      necessary to keep in mind two important points. One is that
      meditation is not just ordinary concentration but a special type of
      internal concentration.

      The second point is that meditation is not an entirely independent
      discipline but a stage in concentration common to almost all
      spiritual paths. Each path of sadhana or spiritual discipline begins
      in a different way. But every path has a stage which corresponds to
      meditation. The name given to this common stage varies from path to
      path. But whatever be the name given, it means some form of
      meditative awareness.

      Patanjali's Yoga begins with purification of the mind, posture and
      breath control followed by withdrawal of the mind from external
      objects (pratyahara) and fixing the mind (dharana) at a particular
      center. Then comes meditation (dhyana). The path of jnana begins with
      hearing scripture (sravana) and reflection (manana). This leads to
      inquiry (nididhyasana) which corresponds to meditation. In the path
      of bhakti, the aspirant moves from prayer, singing of hymns and
      worship to meditation which is known under different names like
      abhyasa (Ramanuja), smarana and bhavana. Even in the path of karma
      one finds the need to maintain self-awareness in the midst of work.
      In fact the Zen masters speak of "action meditation," "walking
      meditation," etc. Buddhism gives more importance to meditation than
      any other religion does. In Christianity the main spiritual
      discipline is called prayer. It consists of several stages
      or "degrees." First comes vocal prayer, then discursive prayer (which
      corresponds to manana or reflection in Vedanta), then affective
      prayer (prayer proper, done with intense longing). Then follows the
      fourth degree of prayer which is variously called prayer of
      simplicity, prayer of the heart, etc. This fourth degree corresponds
      to Hindu meditation or dhyana. In Islamic mysticism (Sufism) also
      meditation, known under different names, plays a central role.

      In every path the aspirant begins with a large number of thoughts in
      the mind. These gradually become reduced, and the aspirant reaches a
      stage when there exists only a single pratyaya or thought in the
      mind. This is the state of meditative awareness. It is the common
      highway which every aspirant has to travel in order to realize God or
      the Supreme Self. Beyond this common path lies the luminous realm of
      the Spirit.

      Then why are there so many different techniques of meditation? These
      are really techniques of dharana or fixing the mind. They are like
      different gates which open to the same highway. These techniques only
      teach you how to begin meditation, they only open different doors to
      meditative awareness. But they do not teach you how to maintain
      meditation, which is something you have to learn through practice.

      This does not, however, mean that the goal of meditation is the same
      for all. The goal is determined by the beginning, that is by the
      dharana technique that you follow. Each technique of dharana leads
      you through meditation to a certain experience. The beginnings and
      ends of meditation are different. But the process of meditation
      itself is the same in so far as a single thought is maintained. The
      nature of this single thought (pratyaya or vritti) may also vary from
      person to person. For instance, one may meditate on Siva or Krishna
      or Jesus or an impersonal object like light or the sky or the sun.
      Nevertheless, the essential meditative process—the maintenance of a
      single pratyaya or vritti—is the same whatever be the object
      meditated upon.

      Meditation thus acts as a great junction where all spiritual paths
      converge, meet, go together for a short distance—and then diverge
      again to their respective goals. Meditation may also be compared to a
      broad road having several tracks or "lanes" marked on them for the
      guidance of motorists. Each meditator keeps to his or her own "lane"
      but all the lanes are parts of one great highway.


      Meditation is of two types: subjective and objective. Objective
      meditation is concentration of the mind on an object. The object may
      be the form of a deity, light, sky, etc. or some qualities like love,
      compassion, strength or one's own self objectified. Consciousness is
      focussed on the object by an effort of will. Objective meditation is
      called upasana.

      Subjective meditation is called nididhyasana or atma-vicara. Here
      there is no focussing of consciousness or effort of will. It is
      rather an attempt to seek the source of consciousness, to trace
      one's "I" back to its roots. It is a process in which the ego,
      instead of rushing towards objects as it constantly does, withdraws
      into its own original source—the Atman.

      The majority of spiritual aspirants find nididhyasana, subjective
      meditation, difficult to practice. They succeed in tracing their "I"
      back only up to a certain point. To penetrate further backward is
      possible only for a mind which is properly sharpened through training
      and strengthened by the observance of continence. Upasana or
      objective meditation gives the mind the necessary training. After
      practicing upasana for some time it becomes easier to practice
      nididhyasana. In fact, Madhusudana Sarasvati in his Advaita Siddhi
      classifies aspirants for jnana into two groups: kritopasti (those who
      have attained proficiency in upasana) and akritopasti (those who go
      directly to inquiry without practicing upasana).

      According to Mandana and some of the earlier schools of Advaitins,
      upasana can give rise to direct realization of Nirguna Brahman (the
      Absolute without attributes). But Sri Sankara and his followers hold
      the view that upasana will lead only to the realization of Saguna
      Brahman (Reality with attributes). Sankara states that the benefit
      derived from upasana is either worldly prosperity (abhyudaya)
      or "gradual liberation" (krama-mukti). In other words, upasana is
      only a preparation for nididhyasana. On the other hand, Sri Ramanuja
      holds the view that upasana can lead to full liberation. He even
      identifies it with bhakti.

      The difference between upasana and nididhyasana as two different
      disciplines has also been clearly pointed out by Ramatirtha in his
      well-known commentary on the Vedanta Sara.1 Vidyaranya too has made
      this distinction by describing upasana as vastu-tantra (object-
      oriented) and nididhyasana as kartri-tantra (subject-oriented).2

      A similar distinction is found in Buddhism. Buddhist meditations are
      of two types: One is samatha (samadhi in Sanskrit) or mental
      concentration of various kinds leading to different mystic
      experiences. Tibetan Buddhists are specialists in this kind of
      meditation. These meditation techniques existed even before Buddha
      who himself practiced them. But he was not satisfied with them
      because they did not lead to total liberation. He regarded these
      mystic states only as "happy living in this existence" (dittha-dhamma-
      sukha-vihara) and nothing more. According to him mystic experiences
      are created or conditioned by the mind. He therefore went further and
      discovered the other form of meditation known as vipassana
      (vipasyanam in Sanskrit) or "insight." It is an analytic method which
      involves constant mindfulness and awareness of all experiences, good
      and bad. It is not a withdrawal from life but an attempt to
      understand life and thus enlarge one's self-awareness. The most
      authoritative scripture for vipassana is the Satipatthana-Sutta
      included in the Buddhist Tripitaka. (The "choiceless awareness"
      technique of the well-known contemporary teacher J. Krishnamurthy
      comes close to this method.) It was more or less a similar
      distinction between objective and subjective meditations that gave
      rise to the two schools of Japanese Zen: Soto and Rinzai.

      What is common to both subjective and objective meditation is a
      distinct awareness of a higher center of consciousness, the higher
      Self. In both, awareness is not allowed to move too far away from
      this center. But whereas in objective meditation a circle of
      consciousness is created around the center and there is a struggle to
      shut out distracting thoughts from this inner circle, in subjective
      meditation there is no such struggle: the aspirant just holds on to
      the "I" center. Strictly speaking, nididhyasana is not meditation
      though it is translated that way. It is more correctly called "self-
      inquiry" and belongs to the path of knowledge (jnana marga). Here we
      are concerned only with upasana.


      It is, however, important to keep in mind that these two types of
      meditation are not mutually contradictory. They actually complement
      each other and can be practiced together.

      Most of the meditation techniques taught to aspirants are upasanas.
      Spiritual initiation (diksa or upadesa) usually means initiation into
      some form of upasana. In the path of bhakti this is the only type of
      meditation practiced. Even those who study books on Advaita seldom
      attempt self-inquiry in practice and remain satisfied with objective
      meditations. But though nididhyasana is mainly followed in the path
      of jnana, there is nothing wrong in following it in the path of
      bhakti also. Indeed it is better or even necessary to combine self-
      inquiry with upasana.

      One of the aims of upasana is to establish a living relationship with
      God, "an eternal relationship between the eternal soul and the
      eternal God," as Swami Vivekananda puts it. The ordinary ego of which
      we are all so painfully aware is not eternal but is constantly
      undergoing change. Only the Atman, our true higher self, is
      unchanging and eternal. This means that, in order to establish a
      truly loving relationship with God, it is necessary to be aware of
      one's higher self. Self-inquiry leads the aspirant away from the ego
      towards the true self.

      There is a second reason why a combination of objective and
      subjective forms of meditation is desirable. Meditation is usually
      done at a definite center of consciousness, by which is meant the
      point where the aspirant is able to feel the higher self or Atman. It
      is there that the mind is to be fixed first, and it is there that the
      chosen deity is to be worshipped. What most aspirants attempt is to
      visualize a point of light or a lotus in the region of the heart or
      the head. But many people find this too unreal or abstract. A little
      nididhyasana or self-inquiry will, however, greatly help in locating
      the center of the true self and make the lotus or light meaningful
      and real. Before the aspirant starts actual meditation, if he or she
      spends a few minutes in tracing the "I" back to its source, the
      aspirant will find it easier to fix the mind at the right center of
      consciousness. And every time the mind wanders away from this center,
      the aspirant may apply the same method. Once the mind is tied down to
      the true center of consciousness, meditation on one's chosen deity
      becomes easy. This is a much better form of mind control than the
      conventional ones. Those who do not feel intense devotion will find
      this combination of nididhyasana and upasana helpful.

      Then there is a third point in favor of such a combination. Upasana
      increases one's power of concentration but does not necessarily
      increase one's power of self-control to an equal degree. As a result
      the aspirant may find it difficult to remain unaffected by the
      contact of other people and the cares and distractions of daily work.
      Nididhyasana enables the aspirant to abide in the real abode within
      and remain calm and unaffected by the environment.

      Further, it prevents the aspirant from mistaking strong imaginations
      and hallucinations for genuine spiritual experience, as often happens
      in those who practice only objective meditation. A true spiritual
      experience transforms one's consciousness and produces some knowledge
      of the higher self. Self-inquiry is necessary to recognize this.
      Lastly, combining nididhyasana and upasana satisfies both the head
      and the heart.


      It is possible that even during the early Vedic period there were
      independent thinkers and groups of people who practiced meditation as
      their chief spiritual discipline. That was perhaps how the Samkhya
      and Yoga systems developed independently of the Vedas.

      In Vedic literature upasana first appears as a part of rituals in the
      Brahmanas (the part of the Veda which deals with rituals). The
      emphasis then was on sacrificial rites (yajna). In the Brahmanas we
      find a few meditations prescribed along with these rites. The
      sacrifice was regarded as most important and sufficient in itself to
      produce the desired results. The meditation that was practiced along
      with it was only an auxiliary part of it and had no independent
      existence. The purpose of such meditations was to gain some
      additional merit and their omission in no way affected the
      sacrifices. This kind of upasana was called angavabaddha
      meaning "connected to parts (of the sacrifice)."3

      Gradually, upasana became separated from the rituals. In the
      Aranyakas we find meditations replacing actual sacrifices. But the
      meditations still resembled the sacrifices. They were mostly symbolic
      representations of external rituals. The whole external rite was, as
      it were, transferred to the mind. These upasanas may therefore be
      called "substitution-meditations." A well-known example is found in
      the very beginning of the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad which is an
      Aranyaka as well as an Upanisad. Here the sacrificial horse is to be
      meditated upon as identified with the Cosmic Being (Virat or
      Prajapati), the horse's head standing for the dawn, its eye for the
      sun, its prana for the air and so on.4

      The next stage in the evolution of upasana is found in the Upanisads.
      Here meditations are in no way connected to rituals nor even
      symbolically resemble them. They directly deal with Brahman, the
      ultimate Reality. But Brahman is a transcendent principle which
      cannot be known through the ordinary senses and mind. So the great
      sages of the Upanisads used various familiar objects of the
      phenomenal universe like the sun, akasa (space), vayu (air), water,
      prana (the vital energy), manas (mind), words, etc. to represent
      Brahman.5 However, what the sages attempted was not mere
      concentration of mind on one of these symbols. In that case it would
      have become only a form of the yogic exercise known as dharana. What
      they actually did was to connect each symbol to a certain framework
      of meaning—a spiritual formula. Upasana in the Upanisads are
      meditations on these spiritual formulas. These formulas are devices
      to guide the mind from the symbol to Reality. When a mind which is
      sufficiently purified meditates on such a formula, its true meaning—
      the ultimate Reality—will be revealed to it. These meditation
      formulas were called vidyas.

      So then, angavabaddhas (in the Brahmanas), substitution-meditations
      (in the Aranyakas) and vidyas (in the Upanisads): these were the
      three stages in the evolution of upasana during the Vedic period. Sri
      Sankara says that lower upasanas do not deserve to be called vidyas.6

      Therefore, vidyas represent the highest forms of upasana. The entire
      knowledge of the Upanisads came out of the meditations of the great
      rishis on these vidyas. It was through these meditations that they
      discovered the great truths that underlie the phenomenal universe. A
      scientist tries to understand the ultimate truth through a series of
      steps, meticulously analyzing each step. But in ancient India the
      sages went straight to the Reality with the help of certain mental
      paradigms. Says Deussen: "That India more than any other country is
      the land of symbols is owing to the nature of Indian thought, which
      applied itself to the most abstruse problems before it was even
      remotely in a position to treat them intelligently."7

      Vidyas are paradigms of Brahman. In ancient India each teacher
      developed his or her own concept model of Brahman and taught it as a
      meditation technique to his or her disciples. That was how so many
      vidyas came into existence. Some of the Upanisads, especially the
      Brihadaranyaka, Chandogya and Taittiriya, are a rich storehouse of
      these vidyas. The importance attached to the vidyas was so great that
      the Brahma-Sutra has a whole section dealing exclusively with them.8
      The vidyas really hold the key to the Upanisads, and no one can
      properly understand the Upanisads without understanding the vidyas.

      The vidyas are said to be thirty-two in number,9 but many more must
      have been known to the ancient sages. Among these gayatri-vidya,
      antaraditya-vidya, madhu-vidya, sandilya-vidya and dahara-vidya are
      well known. It is beyond the scope of the present article to deal
      with these vidyas in detail. They are to be learnt directly from
      competent teachers who have attained illumination through them. But
      long before the beginning of the Christian era the lineage of Vedic
      rishis had ended. And in the absence of a living tradition, the
      vidyas ceased to be practiced and their true inner meaning was soon

      One major cause for the neglect of the vidyas was the rise of
      Buddhism and its influence on Hindu thought. A second reason was the
      crystallization of Hindu philosophy into six schools or darsanas and
      the triumph of the Advaita system. Nondual experience was originally
      sought through a gradual expansion of consciousness attained by the
      practice of vidyas. But gradually the goal became more important than
      the means. Vedanta neglected its mystical roots, became more
      speculative and polemical, and thus moved farther away from life and
      experience. A third reason for the neglect of the vidyas was the
      popularity of Yoga and, later on, of the Tantras.

      Under the influence of Yoga and Tantra new techniques of meditation
      were developed during the Middle Ages which survive to this day.
      Meditation techniques in modern times are strongly influenced by Yoga
      and Tantra. We are now witnessing a great revival of mysticism, and
      ancient methods are being adjusted to suit the needs of modern
      aspirants. Some enterprising people are experimenting with new
      techniques of meditation.

      We shall next discuss the traditional methods of meditation which are
      still surviving and are suitable for modern times.


      1. Upasananam jnanad bhedam darsayati manasavyapararupaniti /
      Nididhyasanad bhedamaha saguneti. Vidvanmanoranjani on Vedanta Sara
      1. 12.
      2. Vastutantro bhaved bodhah kartutantramupasanam. Pancadasi 9. 74.
      3. Cf. Brahma-Sutra 3. 3. 55.
      4. Om usa va asvasya medhyasya sirah . . . Brihadaranyaka Upanisad
      5. See Paul Deussen, The Philosophy of the Upanisads (New York: Dover
      Publications Inc., 1966), pp. 99-125.
      6. Sankara, commentary on Brahma-Sutra 3. 4. 52.
      7. The Philosophy of the Upanisads, p.120.
      8. Brahma-Sutra 3. 3.
      9. Cf. K. Narayanaswami Aiyar, The Thirty-two Vidyas (Madras: The
      Adyar Library and Research Centre, 1962). Also cf. Swami
      Gambhirananda, "Upanisadic Meditation," in The Cultural Heritage of
      India (Calcutta: Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, 1965),
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