Meditation (Dhyana) in Yoga and Vedanta
by Georg Feuerstein
27 May 1947 – 25 August 2012
1. Introductory Statement
Meditation is central to the spiritual endeavor in many schools of Hinduism, notably the Yoga tradition. The Bhagavad-Gita (12.12) ranks meditation above intellectual knowledge, and the Garuda-Purana (222.10) states: “Meditation is the highest virtue. Meditation is the foremost austerity. Meditation is the greatest purity. Therefore be fond of meditation.” This exhortation expresses a sentiment that is widespread in the sacred literature of Hinduism.
However, meditation is by no means universally regarded as the principal means of attaining Self-realization. For instance, the Bhagavad-Gita (13.24) states that some behold the Self (atman) by means of meditation, while others approach it through samkhya-yoga and karma-yoga. Here samkhya-yoga stands for the spiritual practice of discernment (viveka) between the real and the unreal, and karma-yoga is the practice of dispassionate action. In the Trika school of Kashmir, the yogin is given alternatives to meditation like mantric recitation (japa), observing vows (vrata), and ritual sacrifice (homa).
The Sanskrit word dhyana, derived from the verbal root dhyai (“to contemplate, meditate, think”), is the most common designation both for the meditative state of consciousness and the yogic techniques by which it is induced. The Vedanta tradition also employs the terms nididhyasana, which stems from the same verbal root, upasana (literally “dwelling upon”), and bhavana (literally “cultivating”).
The term dhyana is widely used to refer to the contemplative process that prepares the ground for the ecstatic state (samadhi), though occasionally the term is also employed to signify that superlative state of consciousness.
3. Historical Review
The underlying idea of dhyana, though not the word itself, is found already in the Rig-Veda (see dhi, brahman). The expression dhyana is first to be met in the upanishadic literature, starting with the archaic Chandogya-Upanishad (7.6.1,2; 7.1; 26,1) and Kaushitaki-Upanishad (3.2,3,4,6). In the Brihadaranyaka-Upanishad (4.5.6), which is generally held to be the earliest scripture of this genre, the verbal form nididhyasitavyah (“to be contemplated”) is used in in the sense of deeply pondering the Self (atman), whereupon the Self becomes known.
It is in the Chandogya-Upanishad (7.6.1) that we read “meditation is more than thought (citta),” and that “the earth meditates as it were (iva), the heavens meditate as it were, the waters meditate as it were, the mountains meditate as it were, deities and humans meditate as it were.” This suggests that meditation is a form of abiding, of simply being present, which certainly describes an important feature of the meditative state. In the same upanishadic passage, we learn that true greatness among men is a result of having obtained “a share of meditation as it were.”
In the oldest Upanishads, dhyana is not yet recognized as a formal component of the spiritual path. It is, however, beginning to be referred to as one of the means of acquiring knowledge of the Self. In that context, it usually stands for the contemplation of the revealed truth, the Vedic teaching about the Self deep within the human psyche.
Thus dhyana can be considered as having evolved out of the prescribed study of the Vedic revelation. Another contributing element in the evolution of dhyana was undoubtedly the extensive ritual practice of the brahmins, which called for tremendous mental concentration.
4. The Meditative Process
According to the eightfold path of Patanjali, as outlined in his Yoga-Sutra, dhyana forms the penultimate stage of the spiritual process. It is immediately preceded by the consciousness-altering efforts of sensory inhibition (pratyahara) and concentration (dharana). All “limbs” of Yoga are part of an attempt to restructure the yogin’s consciousness. Even posture (asana) has this purpose and effect. However, in meditation this inner reorganization is greatly enhanced, creating the basis for the eventual ecstatic breakthrough (samadhi), the eighth and final “limb” of Classical Yoga.
In the Yoga-Sutra (3.2), dhyana is defined as the “single flow of ideas” (pratyaya-ekatanata). That is to say, in the meditative state all arising ideas tend to naturally revolve around the chosen object of meditation to the exclusion of sensory stimuli. In this sense, dhyana is a deepening of the preceding process of concentration, or single-mindedness. The Mahabharata (13.294.16) characterizes the meditating yogin in the following pertinent way: “He does not hear; he does not smell. Neither does he taste or see, or experience touch. Likewise his mind ceases to imagine. He desires nothing, and like a log he does not think. Then the sages call him ‘yoked’ (yukta), ‘one who has reached Nature’ (prakritim apannam).”
Although the senses are inhibited in meditation, this state has nothing in common with drowsiness or dullness. Rather, it is a highly dynamic condition, accompanied by heightened inner lucidity in which the contemplated object looms large in the space of awareness.
According to the Yoga-Sutra (1.39; 2.11), the initial purpose of meditation is to intercept the flux of ordinary mental activity (vrtti), of which he distinguishes five categories: sensory knowledge (pramana), misconception (viparyaya), conceptualization (vikalpa), sleep (nidra), and memory (smrti). Whereas the first two types of mental activity are, by and large, disposed of through the technique of sensory inhibition and concentration, the conceptualizing or imaginative aspect of the mind, as well as sleep, are gradually brought under control through the meditative process. The final obstacle to inwardness (pratyak-cetana) is the ever-active memory, which gives rise to thoughts and internal imagery. However, memory is only fully disabled in the highest type of ecstatic realization (i.e., asamprajnata-samadhi). Here the restriction of the subliminal activators (samskara), which are ultimately responsible for the generation of mental activity, is accomplished.
5. The Objects of Meditation
The Yoga-Sutra (1.39) leaves it open what objects are suitable for meditation. In Patanjali’s own words, meditation can be “as desired” (yatha abhimata). As Vyasa explains in his Yoga-Bhashya (1.39): “Let him contemplate whatever object he chooses. Having reached stability in that [meditation], the mind reaches the stable state in respect to other [objects] as well.” Vijnana Bhikshu in his Yoga-Varttika (1.39) cites meditation upon the images of Vishnu and Shiva as an example.
Anything can be made an object of meditation, including phenomena that are not usually deemed desirable, such as wrathful deities, or negative states of mind, like anger or jealousy. The ancient king Hiranyakashipu, the father of the saintly Prahlada, achieved fame for his dvesha-yoga or spiritual practice of hatred. According to puranic legend, he hated Vishnu with such fervor that he constantly thought of him&emdash;thereby gradually becoming transformed into the object of his negative emotion. However, preferred meditation objects are those that evoke feelings of harmony, beauty, and tranquility.
Further valuable information about the nature of meditation may be found in the commentarial literature on the Yoga-Sutra, the Puranas, the manuals of Hatha-Yoga, and the sacred writings of the Shaivas and Vaishnavas.
For instance, Vijnana Bhikshu in his Yoga-Varttika (3.3) refers to the following, as yet untraced verse of the Garuda-Purana: “Of that [yogin], meditation upon the Ultimate (brahman) is said to be twelve concentrations.” As Vijnana Bhikshu explains, concentration consists of twelve controlled breaths (pranayama) and twelve such concentrations constitute dhyana. This definition shows the integral connectedness of breath control and meditation&emdash;a link that is greatly emphasized in the literature of Hatha-Yoga.
The twelfth-century Yoga-Yajnavalkya (9.2), which hails meditation as the cause of either bondage or liberation, mentions two types of meditation&emdash;saguna and nirguna. The former type consists in contemplating the Divine in various forms, whereas the latter is the unmediated recognition of oneself as the Self. The saguna type of meditation can be characterized as meditative visualization&emdash;the kind of practice that is prevalent in the Tantric schools.
In the Gheranda-Samhita (6.1-3), a seventeenth-century manual of Hatha-Yoga, a distinction is made between sthula- (“coarse”), jyotir- (“luminous”), and sukshma-dhyana (“subtle meditation”). Sthula-dhyana is meditation upon a particular form, such as one’s teacher or a deity, who is visualized in great detail. Jyotir-dhyana is the contemplation of the Divine as a mass of light either in the lowest psychospiritual center of the body, the muladhara-cakra or in the ajna-cakra. Sukshma-dhyana is meditation upon the awakened kundalini force, after it has merged with the Self and exited from the body. Meditation upon light is said to be a hundred times superior to meditation upon a particular form, while sukhsma-dhyana is said to be a hundred thousand times superior to the contemplation of light.
The Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika (4.93), a fourteenth-century manual of Hatha-Yoga, recommends meditation upon the inner sound (nada), which is a technique that may have arisen out of the chanting practice of the Sama-Veda schools. It is formalized in the widespread tradition of Mantra-Yoga. This approach involves regular and prolonged recitation (japa) of certain sacred or numinous sounds (mantra): Sound is used as a vehicle for internalizing consciousness and achieving contact with the reality represented by a particular sound. The sacred syllable om, which symbolizes the Absolute, is the best known example of such a vibratory vehicle. It is often used in conjunction with other similar sounds or strings of sounds.
The Advayataraka-Upanishad favors meditation upon light phenomena, or photisms, which are all considered to be manifestations of the Absolute. Three kinds of photistic phenomena distinguished: The first kind is known as the “inner sign” (antar-lakshya), which is the radiant serpent power (kundalini-shakti), located at the lowest psychoenergetic center (cakra) at the base of spine. The kundalini is a favored object of meditation in Hatha-Yoga and many Tantric schools. The second variety is made up of the “external sign” (bahir-lakshya), which consists in the perception of luminous ether-space (vyoman) of variant color perceived at variable distances close to the face. The third kind is known as the “intermediate sign” (madhya-lakshya), which consists in the experience of differently colored ether-space at a distance from the body.
The same meditative path is expounded in the Mandala-Brahmana-Upanishad. Ultimately, meditation upon these photisms is intended to lead to the “nondual deliverer” (advaya-taraka), which is none other than the transmental (amanaska) and formless (amurti) Being itself. That Reality is said to be “resplendent like the effulgence of ten million suns.”
It is clear from the Yoga-Sutra that Patanjali accepted a wide range of meditation objects. Thus he furnishes a long list of possible objects for the practice of “constraint” (samyama), which is the combined application of concentration, meditation, and ecstatic merging with reference to one and the same object. For example, Patanjali mentions various bodily locations (such as the solar plexus, throat, heart, etc.) as focal points for the meditative consciousness, as well as concrete external objects as sun, moon, and pole star.
He also speaks of samyama upon abstract entities such as the three transmutations (parinama) of matter; the smallest temporal unit (kshana); the relationship between word, idea, and intended object; the relationship between the body and the ether-space (akasha); the two types of karma (one in rapid progress, the other slow like a smouldering fire); the form of the body; the feelings of friendliness, compassion, and joy; the power of specific creatures (such as the elephant); and the knowledge process itself. All these exercises are thought to yield paranormal powers or insights.
In a similar vein, the Uddhava-Gita (10.1ff.), which is embedded in the Bhagavata-Purana, mentions eighteen paranormal powers (siddhi) that are the product of sensory control, regulation of the life force (prana), and intense concentration upon the Divine. Eight of these powers are said to pertain to Krishna himself&emdash;i.e., the great powers of miniaturization, magnification, levitation, etc. The other ten powers are said to result from the yogin’s perfection of the sattva or luminosity aspect of the human personality or mind. Lord Krishna, who instructs the sage Uddhava, captures the esoteric principle underlying these practices when he declares in stanza 10.26: “Whatever a person who is attached to Me contemplates with his higher mind (buddhi), with the lower mind (manas) being firmly yoked in Me, that he will attain.” In other words, we become what we contemplate with sufficient intensity.
In guru-yoga, it is one’s teacher who is made the constant object of the disciple’s thought, worship, and meditation. In this way, the practitioner hopes to merge with the teacher and thereby duplicate within himself or herself the teacher’s illumined state. Of course, this approach presumes that the teacher is fully enlightened, or liberated&emdash;a sad-guru. Such a teacher is explained in the Kula-Arnava-Tantra (13.106ff.) as one “by whose very contact there flows supreme bliss (ananda).”
The Svacchanda-Tantra (4.288-290), a medieval Shaiva work, recommends meditation on the six types of void (shunya). The same practices are also listed among the 112 yogic means mentioned in the Vijnana-Bhairava, a wonderful eighth-century treasury of Yoga in the spirit of Shaivism. Here the five voids are the intangible sources of the five senses. The sixth void is Bhairava, the Absolute itself, which is realized when the emptiness of phenomena is realized.
In the Vedanta tradition, the preferred object of meditation is the Self directly. This is borne out by the Vedanta-Paribhasha (Chapter 8), a seventeenth-century Vedanta manual, which contains this definition of meditation, here called nididhyasana: “Meditation is a mental operation helping to fix the mind upon the Self by withdrawing it from objects, when it is drawn toward them by negative impressions (vasana), which are beginningless.”
In his seventeenth-century work Dasha-Bodha (14), Ramadasa defines true meditation as the contemplation of the Divine and false meditation as the contemplation of everything else. He also states that picturing specific images with the mind’s eye does not lead to liberation, because this practice merely entraps the mind in a vicious cycle of imaginings. True meditation, in his view, consists in the union of the meditator with the true object of meditation, which is the divine Self.
The “great sayings” (maha-vakya) of Vedanta&emdash;e.g., tat tvam asi, “Thou art That,” or aham brahma asmi, “I am the Absolute”&emdash;are all designed to turn the disciple’s attention upon the Self rather than any external object. The twentieth-century sage Sri Ramana Maharshi, of Tiruvannamali in South India, advised spiritual seekers to ponder the question “Who am I?”&emdash;a modern maha-vakya of great potency.
6. Preparations for Meditation
For meditation, which is based on intense concentration, to be successful certain prerequisites must be met. Above all, it calls for a steady and comfortable posture (asana). The lotus posture (padma-asana) and the adept’s posture (siddha-asana) are most frequently recommended in the scriptures of Yoga and Vedanta. But meditation can be pursued in any posture so long as it can be assumed for a prolonged period of time without discomfort. Many of the postures promoted in Hatha-Yoga qualify as meditation postures over and above their therapeutic purpose and merit.
Most neophytes have to battle physical discomfort, mental restlessness, and not least boredom. Hence the scriptures emphasize the need for emotional and spiritual maturity. For inner work demands a certain level of detachment from material life and a strong interest in higher values&emdash;the scriptural desire for liberation (mumuksutva). Without adequate moral preparation and genuine spiritual aspiration, meditation tends to be experienced as tedious or impossible. Hence Patanjali’s eightfold path begins with the five moral observances (yama) of nonharming (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), nonstealing (asteya), chastity (brahmacarya), and greedlessness (aparigraha).
A further important prerequisite for the successful practice of meditation is a clean and quiet environment, which is conducive to concentration and the cultivation of inwardness. The characteristics of such an environment are discussed in the scriptures under the rubric of “place” (desha). For instance, the ancient Shvetasvatara-Upanishad (2.10) stipulates that the ground should be level, free from pebbles, gravel, and without a fire place, and that it should be concealed, inoffensive to the ear and pleasing to the eye, as well as protected from the wind. The preferred location of yogins are consequently secluded spots in mountains, caves, and forests.
In his Bhavartha-Dipika commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita (18.52), the Marathi sage and poet Jnaneshvara says of the yogin that he “abandons buzzing and inhabited places and dwells in solitude in the woods, making the body and its organs his only companions.” Jnaneshvara also emphasizes that the yogin who seriously seeks to cultivate inwardness observes strict silence. Silence (mauna) has since ancient Vedic times been recognized as a powerful means of inner development.
Meditators are also asked to consider the right time (kala) for their efforts. Especially recommended is the “hour of Brahma” (brahma-muhurta), which is sunrise. Other auspicious times are sunset, the hour before noon and, in certain traditions (such as some Tantric schools) midnight.
Most teachers advise beginners to meditate twice a day for at least twenty minutes, so that the mind becomes habituated to this state. Subsequently these two periods can be extended to an hour and more.
7. Levels and Benefits of Meditation
Meditation encompasses many levels of depths, from meditative wakefulness during the performance of one’s day-to-day work (i.e., “remembrance of the Divine”) to most profound experiences of meditative absorption in which the yogin is unaware of external reality, unless a strong stimulus (such as a loud sound or physical touch) registers in his highly internalized consciousness and draws him back into experiencing the outer world.
Medical studies have shown what yogins have known for thousands of years: Meditation is beneficial to the body and mind. As it is accompanied by deep relaxation, it unstresses the body causing a feeling of physiological and psychological ease, rejuvenation, and heightened vitality. At more advanced levels, the practitioner experiences deep peace and tranquility, which carry over into everyday life. There is also a sense of getting in touch with one’s innermost truth, which aids the integration of the personality. Finally, at the highest level of meditation, the boundaries of the subject become blurred and the doorway opens to the experience of transempirical realms of existence (the lokas of higher nonhuman entities, such as deities).
But the spiritual purpose of meditation is neither physical or mental well-being nor higher forms of cognition but ecstatic merging with the object of meditation&emdash;samadhi. And the ultimate purpose of samadhi is Self-realization (atma-jnana, purusha-khyati), or liberation. Thus meditation is never an end in itself. It is simply intended to prepare the ground for the recovery of one’s true identity, which is the everlasting Self.
© 1996, 1999 by Georg Feuerstein
See more: Traditional Yoga Studies