TYPES OF MEDITATIONPART TWO
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 first published in the June,
1981 Prabuddha Bharata.
TYPES OF MEDITATIONPART TWO
UPASANA AND DHYANA
Concentration can be practiced on any object. In fact, in our daily
life we are concentrating on something or other most of the time.
This kind of concentration is more or less unconscious and is done
under the compulsion of desires. True meditation differs from it in
being a conscious process involving the detachment of the will from
lower desires and its focussing at a higher center of consciousness.
We have seen that meditation is a stage in concentration common to
all spiritual paths. We have also seen that meditation is of two
types: subjective and objective. Subjective meditation is of the
nature of an inquiry into the Atman and is called nididhyasana.
Objective meditation is concentrating the mind on an object.
Objective meditation is known under different names. Patanjali calls
it dhyana. In Vedanta a more common term is upasana. Both these terms
are, however, met with in the Upanisads.
In ancient India meditation was a subject of deep study, research and
experiment. The followers of the Samkhya philosophy developed it into
an independent science of mental life. When properly concentrated on
an object, the mind undergoes certain changes. These changes are the
same for a particular degree of concentration whatever be the object
chosen. In other words, concentration follows certain universal laws.
These laws were discovered by the great yogis of ancient India.
Patanjali codified and compiled them in his famous Yoga Aphorisms.
These laws form the basis of upasana also. So Sankaracarya defines
meditation as "a process of unwavering application of the same
thought on some object, such as a deity prescribed by the scriptures,
without being interrupted by any alien thought."1 However, there are
some important differences between Yogic meditation and Vedantic
The immediate aim of Yogic dhyana is to discover the functions of
mind at higher levels of consciousness. Its ultimate aim is the
separation or isolation of Purusa from prakriti. As Bhoja points out,
Yoga is really viyoga, disunion.2 On the contrary, upasana aims at
union. Its immediate aim may be to unite the meditator with a deity.
But its ultimate aim is to unite the individual self (jivatman) with
the Supreme Self (Paramatman).
Another difference is that in Yogic meditation the choice of God is
optional. According to Patanjali, meditation can be practiced on any
object one likes.3 Bhoja in his commentary points out that in Yoga
the object of meditation (bhavyam) is of two types: God and the
tattvas [elements of the differentiated universeed.]. The tattvas
again are of two types: Purusa and the twenty-four categories of
prakriti.4 Dhyana may be practiced on any of the tattvas. But in
upasana God alone is the object of meditation, and not the tattvas.
The third difference is that in order to practice yogic meditation it
is not necessary to have any preconceived ideas about Reality. But
upasana is based on the Vedantic conception of Reality and operates
within a definite conceptual framework. What upasana does is to
convert the conceptual or indirect (paroksa) knowledge into intuition
or direct (aparoksa) experience.
DEVELOPMENT OF UPASANA IN THE POST-VEDIC PERIOD
These two types of meditationYogic dhyana and Vedantic upasana
became united in the post-Vedic period. It was shown last month
[see "Types of Meditation" archived here] how upasana evolved in the
Vedic period from ritual-bound meditations (angavabaddha) into
substitution meditations and finally into the vidyas. In the meantime
the Yoga system was getting perfected. It was then that the Tantras
arose, probably a few centuries after the Vedic period had ended.
The Tantras combined the monism of the Upanisads with the theism of
the puranas. Secondly, they united Yogic meditation with Vedantic
upasana. Apart from this, the Tantras made independent discoveries
about mantras, kundalini, etc. The all-round harmony and synthesis
effected by the Tantras opened a new era in the history of
spirituality in India. This continues to this day. The meditation
techniques now prevalent show the strong influence of the Tantras.
FORM, NAME AND THE SELF
One of the important changes that the Tantras introduced was in the
field of symbols. The images of different gods and goddesses have
completely replaced the Vedic images of fire, sun, air, etc. In the
Vedic period the approach to ultimate Reality was direct. The Tantras
made it indirect: the aspirant first attains the vision of a god or
goddess and then through him or her realizes the ultimate Reality.
Again, in the Vedic period words were used primarily for their
meaning (abhidhana). The Tantras have, however, shown that certain
mystic words have an intrinsic power to produce changes in
Symbols play an important part in human life. Other than pure
consciousness, all our thinking is based on symbols. These symbols
can be divided into two groups: rupa (form) and nama (name). These,
along with the self, constitute the knowing process. Emotions are
also of course a part of mental life. But they are not essential to
knowledge. In fact, they very often distort the knowing process. A
person overcome by anger, envy, fear and other emotions has a
distorted view of other people. That is why Patanjali regards
emotions as "false knowledge" (viparyaya).5 They are great obstacles
in spiritual life, and the aspirant is advised to rid himself or
herself of them before attempting real meditation. True knowledge
arises only when the mind is freed from emotional disturbances. It
is, however, important to note here that bhakti, love of God, which
is a great help in upasana, is not an emotion and is therefore never
regarded as an obstacle. True devotion is a property of the self, its
longing for union with the Supreme Self.
When the mind is freed from the hold of instincts and emotions, there
remain in it only three elements of pure cognition: form, name and
the self. These are the only factors that constitute the meditative
act. Spiritual aspirants show great variation in their ability to
manipulate these three factors.
When we speak of differences among people we usually mean their
emotional make-up. Some people are more loving and kind, some cruel
and harsh. Some are arrogant, some humble. And so on. One of the
important tasks in spiritual life is to level up these differences
and make every aspirant pure, virtuous, calm.
However, these are not the only differences among aspirants. The very
structure of the mind and the way names, forms and the self influence
it vary from person to person. Some people find visualization of
images very easy but find it difficult to manipulate abstract ideas,
especially mathematics. Their thinking is a kind of inner seeing and
they have what is called a "photographic memory." The minds of these
people are form-oriented. Some others find it difficult or even
impossible to visualize forms and do their thinking mostly through
sound symbols. These are the people who benefit most from listening
to talks and lectures. Their minds are name-oriented. There are yet
others who find both names and forms a great botheration and prefer
to hold on to the self without any visual or ideational support.
Their minds are self-oriented.
To meet the needs of these three different mental types, three kinds
of upasana have been developed: pratikopasana (meditation on visual
images), namopasana (meditation on sound symbols) and ahamgrahopasana
(meditation on the self). Each aspirant should know which type of
mind his or hers is: form-oriented, name-oriented or self-oriented.
This the aspirant can easily find out by a little self-analysis and
practice in meditation. The aspirant must then choose that type of
upasana which suits him or her most.
It may be surprising to know that there are some people who are
totally incapable of visualizing forms. Such people find it very
difficult to meditate on the image of a deity. When they close their
eyes they only feel a blank with various ideas moving somewhere
inside. It is like listening to the gurgling of a stream in the dark.
They, however, find repetition of a mantra very easy and producing
great harmony in them. Whereas there are others who find such
repetition difficult, distracting and unrelated to their basic
Fortunately, however, most people have a mixed type of mind. They can
make their minds form-oriented, name-oriented or self-oriented as
they wish. So they can easily combine all the three types of upasana
in their practice. Nevertheless, during the early stages of spiritual
life even they may find it easier and more beneficial to give more
emphasis on one type of upasana according to their individual
temperaments, while not neglecting the other two. Meditation is a
difficult task for beginners but they can make it a bit easier by
following the line of least resistance, their own natural orientation
of mind. Once the aspirant acquires proficiency in any one method, he
or she will find it easy to practice all the other methods.
Pratika means a symbolliterally, "going towards," something upon
which the mind is focussed. Though words are also symbols, pratika is
generally used to mean visual symbolsimages, pictures and natural
objects used as symbols. During the Vedic period fire, the sun, the
air, the mind, etc. were treated as pratikas to represent Brahman.
How were the pratikas related to Brahman? There were two ways of
doing this, and accordingly Vedic pratikopasana was of two types:
sampad and adhyasa.
In sampad upasana an inferior object is used as a symbol to represent
superior Reality.6 The symbol is unimportant, the attributes of the
higher reality dominate the meditative field. (To give a modern
example, when a stone idol or salagrama is worshipped as Visnu, the
worshipper forgets the stone and thinks only of the luminous splendor
of Visnu. This may be regarded as a modern form of sampad upasana.
In adhyasa upasana the symbol chosen is itself a superior object and
dominates the meditative field. Upon this symbol the attributes of
the Reality are superimposed, but the symbol is as important as the
attributes. Meditation on the sun (one of the most beautiful
meditations ever conceived) is an instance of this. The Upanisad
teaches, "The sun is Brahman, this is the instruction."7 The sun with
its dazzling brightness has a striking resemblance to Brahman and can
itself be directly meditated upon as Brahman. All that one has to do
is to superimpose upon the sun the attributes of Brahman like
infinity, consciousness, bliss, ultimate causality, etc.8
With the disappearance of the Vedic tradition these ancient pratika
meditations are no longer in vogue. There is at present a great need
to revive them.
In modern times the images of various deities and the symbols
connected with them have almost wholly replaced the Vedic pratikas.
Not only that. The conception of the connection between the symbols
and the Reality has also changed. Vedic symbols directly connect the
meditator with the ultimate Reality. But in Tantric symbols this
connection is indirect. First of all, the deity behind the symbol is
to be realized, and then through the deity the ultimate Reality is to
Pratikas used in modern times may be divided into two groups:
aniconic and iconic. The former group includes yantras (mystic
diagrams), mandalas (psychic diagrams), salagrama, siva linga, water
pot, etc. These are used more in ritualistic worship than in
meditation. The lotus symbolizing a chakra or center of
consciousness, the flame symbolizing the self, the sky symbolizing
space and similar impersonal symbols which are often used in
meditation may also be included in this group.
The second group of pratikas includes the anthropomorphic images of
gods and goddesses which are called pratimas. A pratima may be a
picture drawn on paper or cloth (pata) or a three-dimensional idol
(vigraha) made of stone or metal. The Brahma-Sutra clearly teaches
that the pratika is to be looked upon only as a symbol of Brahman.
God should not be lowered to symbols, but symbols are to be exalted
to God.9 In other words, the purpose of a pratima is to serve only as
a visual aid (dristi saukaryam) to concentration. This may be true in
the case of meditation but not necessarily so in the case of worship.
The widely accepted belief is that a properly consecrated pratima
which is daily worshipped, acquires a special sanctity and power and
becomes a center of divine grace. According to Sri Ramanuja there is
a special manifestation of God known as arca in the idol.
In this context two points are to be kept in mind. The statement that
pratikas are only symbols of God does not imply that the gods and
goddesses of Hinduism are only symbols. Hundreds of illumined souls
have directly realized these divinities. Even the great Sankaracarya
has not denied their existence. Each deity represents a particular
aspect of Saguna Brahman, the Personal God, and is at least as real
as a human being, if not more.
The other point to note is that though pratikas are mainly used as
aids to concentration, the purpose of upasana is not mere
concentration of mind but the direct vision of the deity represented
by the pratika. The pratika may be a picture or idol made by an
artist. Upasana does not mean simply transferring the artist's
imagination to our own minds. It is not merely an exercise in memory,
trying to remember the picture we have seen outside. Upasana is an
attempt to go beyond the symbol and meet the real god or goddess in
the depths of consciousness. It is a search for the soul's eternal
Beloved. For this a living image must first of all be implanted deep
inside the heart. It is the continuous interior gazing at this living
image in the depths of consciousness that really deserves to be
called pratikopasana. As concentration deepens, the image sinks into
consciousness drawing the mind with it deeper, deeper
touches the undercurrent of pure consciousness and bursts into
True pratikopasana, then, is a process of converting imagination into
Reality. It is a technique for the transformation of consciousness.
How does this transformation take place? Three principles are
involved in it: the principle of khyati [knowledgeed.], the yatha-
kratu principle ["As is one's will, so does one become." Chandogya
Upanisaded.] and the theory of mantra.
If in pratikopasana meditation is practiced on a visual symbol, in
namopasana it is done on a sound symbolthe name of a deity or a
mantra. This, however, is not the only difference between the two.
There are much deeper differences based on certain basic properties
of the human mind.
Here we wish to mention only two or three points. The repetition of a
mantra or a name of God is called japa. When the words used are many,
it may take the form of stuti (hymnody), bhajan (singing of songs set
to music) or samkirtana (group singing). These are better regarded as
forms of worship though, when properly done, they produce a
It should be kept in mind that mere mechanical repetition of a mantra
hardly deserves to be called upasana. As true pratikopasana is
visualizing a "living image," so true namopasana is the repetition of
an "awakened mantra." The mantra becomes awakened (chetana) when it
becomes connected to the basic rhythm of consciousness in the depths
of the heart.
Another point should be noted here. In popular usage only
pratikopasana is known as meditation, while namopasana is known as
japa. As a matter of fact, both come under meditation. To make the
distinction between these two types of meditation more clear it is
better to describe pratikopasana as bhavana (visualization), a term
more commonly used in the Tantras and Buddhist scriptures. As a
general rule japa is accompanied by bhavana (visualization) of a god
or goddess. But several sects in Hinduism and especially the Sikhs
practice japa without visualizing the form of any deity. They are
pure namopasakas. In their case japa itself becomes meditation.
Ahamgraha literally means "self-grasping," that is "self-
identification." Unlike the two types of meditation described above
which are purely objective techniques, ahamgraha-upsana is a
subjective-objective meditation technique. It is a meditation on the
self as the object. But it is not mere concentration of mind on the
object as the other two meditations are. It means the "grasping" of a
vaster whole by the Self. It is an attempt of the self to identify
itself with the Supreme Self.
Since the pure Atman cannot be an "object" of meditation, various
symbols are used to enable the self to "grasp" the supreme Self. Thus
like the other two upasanas described above, ahamgrahopasana is also
a kind of symbolic meditation.
Objectivity and the use of symbols, these are precisely the two
points which distinguish ahamgrahopasana and nididhyasana or
subjective meditation. In nididhyasana no symbols are used, nor is
the self objectified. It is a negative process of neti, neti ("not
this, not this") by which the self cuts asunder all identifications
and withdraws into its own locus. The distinction between these two
techniques is important though it may not be so obvious to an
The simplest form of ahamgrahopasana is to visualize the Atman as a
point of light and meditate on it thinking "I am this light."
However, as the individual self is part of the infinite Supreme Self,
ahamgrahopasana usually means meditation on the union of the
individual self with the supreme Self. Again, as the Supreme Self is
all-pervading, this meditation necessarily involves an awareness of
divine immanence in creation. Thus ahamgrahopasana actually takes the
form of double meditation: meditation on the self as a part of God
and meditation on God as present in all beings.
It is now clear that some of the vidyas, if not all, discussed in the
Upanisads are really ahamgraha meditations. In fact this is the only
way contemporary humanity can understand and practice the vidyas, for
their original esoteric tradition has been lost. One of the most
famous of these meditations is the antaryami vidya. Uddalaka, the son
of Aruna asks the sage Yajnavalkya about the Inner Controller. In
reply the latter describes the immanence of Brahman in the earth, in
the sky, in the sun etc.
He who dwells in the earth, but is within it, whom the earth does not
know, whose body is the earth, and who controls the earth from
within, is the Inner Ruler, your own immortal self.
He who dwells in water ...
He who dwells in fire ...
He who dwells in the sky ...
He who dwells in the sun ... etc.10
Another important meditation is Sandilya Vidya, which runs as follows:
These passages are not meant to be understood theoretically. They are
meant for actual practice. It is not possible to have the experience
of Advaita all of a sudden. For this our consciousness must be
gradually expanded. These meditations are meant to expand our
consciousness. It is only when we try to practice them shall we
understand how difficult they are. Those who have reduced Advaita to
talking and writing will find these meditations a lesson in humility.
Apart from the vidyas there are many other splendid passages in the
Upanisads which may be used in meditation. The four mahavakyas, "That
thou art," "I am Brahman," etc. (which are supposed to produce direct
intuition of Brahman in highly qualified aspirants) may also be used
for this purpose. It should be noted that these mahavakyas are not
meant for repetition, for that would be a kind of namopasana. They
are actually meant for the practice of ahamgrahopasana. Some of the
great sannyasa mantras into which Hindu monastics are initiated also
belong to this category. Apart from these, some of the well-known
verses of Sankaracarya like the "Morning Remembrance Hymn,"12 "Six
Stanzas on Nirvana," etc. may also be used for the practice of
ahamgrahopasana for which they are really intended.
NEED FOR SYNTHESIS
The three types of upasana discussed above could be practiced
independently. But they are not contradictory to one another. Each
stands for a particular aspect of cognition and develops a particular
faculty of the mind. A combination of the three types of meditation
will lead to all-round development of consciousness.
There is especially a great need to include ahamgrahopasana in our
daily spiritual practice. It reminds us of our real nature as the
Atman. It is only when we understand that we are potentially divine
can we establish a loving spiritual relationship with the Deity.
Moreover, awareness of our higher self enables us to remain
unaffected by the external influences and maintain constant
remembrance of our chosen Deity and mantra. Even a devotee who
worships an idol can practice ahamgrahopasana. He or she may think
that the Deity dwelling in the idol dwells also in his or her own
self and meditate on the union of the two. In fact, this kind of
meditation is an essential part of Tantric worship.
To conclude: all preliminary spiritual disciplines end in some form
of meditative awareness, and all meditation paths lead to spiritual
illumination of some kind or other.
1. Dhyanam nama sastrokta devatadyalambanesu acalo
Bhinnajatiyairanantaritah pratyayasantanah ||
Sankara, Commentary on Chandogya Upanisad 7. 6. 1.
2. Patanjalamuneruktih kapyapurvat jayatyasau |
Pumprakrtyorviyogo'pi yoga ityudito yaya ||
3. Yatha'bhimatadhyanad va | Yoga Sutra 1. 39.
4. Bhavyam ca dvividhamisvarah tattvani ca |
Tanyapi dvividhani jadajadabhedat |
Jadani caturvimsatih | Ajadah purusah |
Bhoja, Vritti on Yoga-Sutra 1. 17.
5. Yoga-Sutra 1.8 and Vyasa's commentary on it.
6. Cf. Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 3. 1. 6 and Sankara's commentary on it.
7. Adityo brahma ityadesah | Chandogya Upanisad 3. 19. 1.
8. Cf. Swami Gambhirananda. "Upanisadic Meditation" in The Cultural
Heritage of India (Calcutta: the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of
Culture, 1970). Vol. 1, pp. 379-80.
9. Brahma-Sutra 4. 1. 4 and 5. See also Swami Vivekananda's comments
in his "Bhakti Yoga."The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda
(Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1973), Vol. 3, pp. 59-61.
10. Brhadarayanaka Upanisad 3. 7. 1-23.
11. Chandogya Upanisad 3. 14. 2-3.
12. Pratah smarami hrdi samsphuradatmatattvam
Saccitsukham paramahamsagatim turiyam |
Tad brahma niskalamaham na ca bhutasamghah || etc. Sankara,