By Adi Shankaracharya (788-820 CE)
Fifteen Steps To The Attainment Of Knowledge
100. Now, for the attainment of the aforesaid (knowledge) I shall expound the fifteen steps by the help of which one should practise profound meditation at all times.
= The fifteen steps here inculcated are the means which, if earnestly followed, will gradually lead the initiate to the desired goal.
101. The Atman that is absolute existence and knowledge cannot be realized without constant practice. So one seeking after knowledge should long meditate upon Brahman for the attainment of the desired goal.
= Should long meditate upon Brahman—The realization of Brahman does not come in a day; it requires years of strenuous effort. One should not, therefore, give up one's practice even if one meets with failure in the initial stages, but should continue it with renewed vigour. Sri Ramakrishna used to say: a bona fide cultivator never gives up his cultivation even if there is no crop for a few years; he continues it with ever-increasing zeal till he reaps a good harvest. So should a true aspirant.
102-103. The steps, in order, are described as follows: the control of the senses, the control of the mind, renunciation, silence, space, time, posture, the restraining root (Mulabandha), the equipoise of the body, the firmness of vision, the control of the vital forces, the withdrawal of the mind, concentration, self-contemplation, and complete absorption.
= The steps—These fifteen steps include the eight steps of Patanjali, but with a reorientation of meaning as will be evident from the following.
104. The restraint of all the senses by means of such knowledge as “All this is Brahman” is rightly called Yama, which should be practised again and again.
= Yama—Patanjali describes it as " non-killing, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, and non-receiving " (II.30); but when one knows everything to be Brahman all of these follow as a matter of course.
105. The continuous flow of only one kind of thought, to the exclusion of all other thoughts, is called Niyama, which is verily the supreme bliss and is regularly practised by the wise.
= One kind of thought—Thought relating to the unity of the individual self with Brahman such as “ This Atman is Brahman,” and “I am Brahman.” Niyama—According to Patanjali Niyama is ” internal and external purification, contentment, mortification, Vedic study, and worship of God ” (II.32). These, however, are easily accessible to one who constantly dwells on Brahman.
106. The abandonment of the illusory universe by realizing it as the all-conscious Atman is the real renunciation honoured by the great, since it is of the nature of immediate liberation.
= The real renunciation—Some explain renunciation as the giving up of all kinds of actions whether scriptural or mundane, and thus attaining to a state of inactivity. This, however, is far from what is really meant by renunciation which, in its deepest sense, is all positive. It is when one realizes Atman everywhere and thus covets nothing, that one is said to have real renunciation. The Sruti also declares, “Clothe everything in this transitory world with God and thus maintain thyself by that renunciation," etc. (Isa. I).
107. The wise should always be one with that silence where from words together with the mind turn back without reaching it, but which is attainable by the Yogins.
108-109. Who can describe That (i.e. Brahman) whence words turn away? (So silence is inevitable while describing Brahman). Or if the phenomenal world were to be described, even that is beyond words. This, to give an alternate definition, may also be termed silence known among the sages as congenital. The observance of silence by restraining speech, on the other hand, is ordained by the teachers of Brahman for the ignorant.
= Even that is beyond words—Even this world, when one attempts to describe it, is found to be inexpressible, since it cannot be called either Sat (existent) or Asat (non-existent). If it were Sat it would not disappear in deep sleep, and if Asat, it would not at all appear now. Therefore this world is also Anirvachaniya (inexpressible).
110. That solitude is known as space, wherein the universe does not exist in the beginning, end or middle, but whereby it is pervaded at all times.
= That solitude—Here it is Brahman that is indicated, for Brahman alone is solitary since It admits of no second at any time.
111. The non-dual (Brahman) that is bliss indivisible is denoted by the word 'time,' since it brings into existence, in the twinkling of an eye, all beings from Brahma downwards.
= It brings into existence, etc.—The whole creation is nothing but a resolve in the mind of God. When He has a desire for Creation the universe is produced in no time. A parallel case we find in our dream when the whole dreamworld is brought into being in an instant by a mere wish.
112. One should know that to be real posture in which the meditation of Brahman flows spontaneously and unceasingly, and not any other that destroys one’s happiness.
= That, etc.—i.e. a serene state of the constitution.
113. That which is well known as the origin of all beings and the support of the whole universe, which is immutable and in which the enlightened are completely merged—that alone is known as Siddhasana.
= Siddhasana—This is the name of a particular Yogic posture, but here it only means the eternal Brahman.
114. 'That (Brahman) which is the root of all existence and on which the restraint of the mind is based is called the restraining root (Mulabandha) which should always be adopted since it is fit for Raja-yogins.
= The restraint of the mind, etc.—It is through complete mergence in Brahman that the mind is truly restrained. Mulabandha—This is also the name of another Yogic posture.
115. Absorption in the uniform Brahman should be known as the equipoise [equilibrium, balance, evenness] of the limbs (Dehasamya). Otherwise mere straightening of the body like that of a dried-up tree is no equipoise.
116. Converting the ordinary vision into one of knowledge one should view the world as Brahman Itself. That is the noblest vision, and not that which is directed to the tip of the nose.
117. Or, one should direct one’s vision to That alone where all distinction of the seer, sight and the seen ceases and not to the tip of the nose.
= Not to the tip of the nose—It is said that while seated for meditation one is to gaze on the tip of the nose (Gita, VI.13). But one should not take it too literally, as in that case the mind will think not of Atman, but of the nose. As a matter of fact, one is to concentrate one's mind on Atman alone, leaving aside all external things. This is why meditation of Atman is here emphasized and mere gazing on the tip of the nose is condemned.
Pranayama (Control Of The Vital Forces)
118. The restraint of all modifications of the mind by regarding all mental states like the Chitta as Brahman alone, is called Pranayama.
119-120. The negation of the phenomenal world is known as Rechaka (breathing out), the thought, "I am verily Brahman,” is called Puraka (breathing in), and the steadiness of that thought thereafter is called Kumbhaka (restraining the breath). This is the real course of Pranayama for the enlightened, whereas the ignorant only torture the nose.
= Pranayama—Patanjali describes it as “controlling the motion of the exhalation and the inhalation” (II.49). There are three steps in it. The first step is to draw in the breath (Puraka), the next is to hold it for some time in the lungs (Kumbhaka), and the last is to throw it out (Rechaka). Patanjali holds that the mind will be naturally controlled if its communications with the external world are cut off by restraining the breath. But Sankara here maintains that the breath is entirely dependent on the mind and not vice versa; so that instead of frittering away one's energy in the attempt of restraining the breath one should always try to control the mind. When this is accomplished, the restraint of the breath will follow as a matter of course.
121. The absorption of the mind in the supreme Consciousness by realizing Atman in all objects is known as Pratyahara (withdrawal of the mind) which should be practised by the seekers after liberation.
= Pratyahara—“When the senses giving up their own objects take the form of the mind, as it were, it is Pratyahara” (Patanjali, II.54). But its consummation is reached only when the mind also is absorbed in the supreme Consciousness.
122. The steadiness of the mind through realization of Brahman wherever the mind goes, is known as the supreme Dharana (concentration).
= The supreme Dharana—" Dharana," says Patanjali, “is holding the mind on to some particular object '' (III.i). But when the mind is fully concentrated on every object it comes in contact with, realizing it as Brahman and discarding the names and forms that have been superimposed on it by ignorance, then alone one is said to have reached the culmination of Dharana.
123. Remaining independent of everything as a result of the unassailable thought, “I am verily Brahman,” is well known by the word Dhyana (meditation), and is productive of supreme bliss.
= Dhydna—"An unbroken flow of thought in some particular object is Dhyana " (Patanjali, III.2). But it is perfected only when one merges all thought in Brahman, realizing It to be one's own self.
124. The complete ‘forgetfulness of all thought by first making it changeless and then identifying it with Brahman is called Samadhi known also as knowledge.
* Translated & Commentary by Swami Vimuktananda