To Whom Should I Pray? (Meditation and Devotion – Yoga Vasishtha)

As we enter 2021, the world is grappling with some great changes and upheavals. As so many of our systems, routines and ways have been disrupted, it can be a time of much uncertainty and anxiety. Perhaps many may be asking some deeper questions about existence and God. But even temples and places of worship have largely remained with closed doors and it is almost as if humanity is being pushed (locked-down and quarantined) to search within for answers. 

Through a recent conversation, I was forced to try to clarify what we refer to as “God” in India. Is it the trinity Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva? Is it the Shiva-Shakti paradigm? Is it the various gods and deities? Then what is Brahman, the Impersonal representation of God? And why do we say that you may even worship a rock or tree in your garden? Somehow this inability to pin things down into a logical and analytical process is something that Indians have been naturally comfortable with. This un-pin-downable nature of the spiritual tradition and culture has served well to keep the intellect in a subservient role so that something else, more ‘living’, the ‘essence’, can remain the focus. This also keeps alive the tradition of spiritual transmission as one that goes from one living being to another where knowledge is conveyed not as mechanical answers or by reference to an authority but more as water finding its own level – something is conveyed and transmitted more naturally to answer an individual seeker.

Sharing an excerpt below from the Yoga Vasishtha which expounds on what is God and the highest worship. It also nicely and seamlessly merges what are often seen as two different paths – meditation and devotion (Bhakti). In its highest, devotion is also meditation, Atman-nishtha.  Bhakti is not an eternal perpetuation of the name and form of the object of devotion but quietly merges into abidance in the Self as the devotee loses her individuality.



P.S. I’d also like to recommend the annual talks that are held at Ramanasramam (Tiruvannamalai) by Sri Nochur Venkataraman. They are beautiful commentaries on verses of the Aksharamanamalai composed by Sri Ramana Maharshi and include many references to various Advaita texts and anecdotes from the lives of sages. 


In a manner of speaking, the supreme being (the infinite consciousness) is the father of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and others. That infinite consciousness alone is fit to be adored and worshipped. However, there is no use inviting it for the worship; no mantras are of any use in its worship for it is immediate (closest, one’s own self) and hence does not need to be invited. It is the omnipresent self of all. The realisation of this infinite consciousness (which is totally effortless) is alone the best form of worship.

This infinite consciousness can be compared to the ultimate subatomic particle which yet hides within its heart the greatest of mountains. It encompasses the span of countless epochs, but it does not let go of a moment of time. It is subtler than the tip of a single strand of hair, yet it pervades the entire universe. No one has seen its limits! It does nothing, yet it has fashioned the universe. Sustaining the entire universe, it does nothing at all. All substances are non­-different from it, yet it is not a substance; though it is non­-substantial it pervades all substances. 

The supreme being is formless, and yet the following five are its aspects—will, space, time, order (or destiny) and the cosmic unmanifest nature. It has countless powers or energies or potencies. Chief among them are knowledge, dynamics, action and non­-action.

All these are but pure consciousness; because they are called the potencies of consciousness, they are apparently regarded as distinct from consciousness, though in fact they are not.

This entire creation is like a stage on which all these potencies of consciousness dance to the tune of time. The foremost among these is known as ‘order’ (the natural order of things and sequences). It is also known as action, desire or will­ to­ do, time, etc. It is this potency that ordains that each thing should have a certain characteristic— from the blade of grass to the creator Brahma. This natural order is free from excitement but not purified of its limitation: that (the natural order) is what dances a dance—drama known as the world­ appearance. It portrays various moods (compassion, anger, etc.), it produces and removes various seasons and epochs, it is accompanied by the celestial music and the roaring of the oceans, its stage is illumined by the sun and the moon and the stars, its actors and actresses are the living beings in all the worlds—such is the dance of the natural order. The Lord who is the infinite consciousness is the silent but alert witness of this cosmic dance. He is non­-different from the dancer (the cosmic natural order) and the dance (the happenings).

The LORD continued:

Such is the Lord who is fit to be worshipped constantly by holy ones. It is he indeed who is worshipped by wise men in various ways and in various forms such as Shiva, Vishnu, etc. Now listen to the ways in which he is to be worshipped.

First of all, one should abandon the body­-idea (the notion that ‘I am this body’). Meditation alone is true worship. Hence one should constantly worship the Lord of the three worlds by means of meditation. How should one contemplate him? He is pure intelligence, he is as radiant as a hundred thousand suns risen together, he is the light that illumines all lights, he is the inner light, the limitless space is his throat, the firmament is his feet, the directions are his arms, the worlds are the weapons he bears in his hands, the entire universe is hidden in his heart, the gods are hairs on his body, the cosmic potencies are the energies in his body, time is his gate­keeper and he has thousands of heads, eyes, ears and arms. He touches all, he tastes all, he hears all, he thinks through all though he is beyond thinking. He does everything at all times, he bestows whatever one thinks of or desires, he dwells in all, he is the all, he alone is to be sought by all. Thus should one contemplate him.

This Lord is not to be worshipped by material substances but by one’s own consciousness. Not by waving of lamps nor lighting incense, nor by offering flowers nor even by offering food or sandal­-paste. He is attained without the least effort; he is worshipped by self­-realisation alone. This is the supreme meditation, this is the supreme worship: the continuous and unbroken awareness of the indwelling presence, inner light or consciousness. While doing whatever one is doing—seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, moving, sleeping, breathing or talking—one should realise one’s essential nature as pure consciousness. Thus does one attain liberation.

Meditation is the offering, meditation is the water offered to the deity to wash his hands and feet, self­-knowledge gained through meditation is the flower—indeed all these are directed towards meditation. The self is not realised by any means other than meditation. If one is able to meditate even for thirteen seconds, even if one is ignorant, one attains the merit of giving away a cow in charity. If one does so for one hundred and one seconds, the merit is that of performing a sacred rite. If the duration is twelve minutes, the merit is a thousand-fold. If the duration is of a day, one dwells in the highest realm. This is the supreme yoga, this is the supreme kriya (action or service). One who practises this mode of worship is worshipped by the gods and the demons and all other beings. However, this is external worship.

The LORD continued:

I shall now declare to you the internal worship of the self which is the greatest among all purifiers and which destroys all darkness completely. This is of the nature of perpetual meditation—whether one is walking or standing, whether one is awake or asleep, in and through all of one’s actions. One should contemplate this supreme Lord who is seated in the heart and who brings about, as it were, all the modifications within oneself. One should worship the ‘bodhalingam*’ (the manifest consciousness or self­awareness) which sleeps and wakes up, goes about or stands, touches what is to be touched, abandons what should be abandoned, enjoys and abandons pleasures, engages in varied external activities, lends value to all actions and remains as peace in the vital organs in the body (deha­lingam in the text may also refer to the three ‘lingams’ associated with the psychic centres). This inner intelligence should be worshipped with whatever comes to one unsought. Remaining firmly seated in the stream of life and its experiences after having bathed in self­-knowledge, one should worship this inner intelligence with the materials of self­-realisation.

~ Yoga Vasishtha VI-1 (translation by Swami Venkatesananda, p.254)

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