Prayer versus Yoga
By Marshall Govindan Satchidananda
Prayer is not an activity which is mentioned in the Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, nor the Yoga Upanishads. Why? This is an intriguing question whose answer requires an understanding of not only the nature of prayer, and how it differs from the yogic practice of meditation, auto-suggestion and mantras, but also the purposes of Yoga, how you answer the questions “Who Am I?” and “What is my relationship to God?” In our tradition of Yoga, it also requires an understanding of the word “Guru.”
What is prayer? How does it differ from the yogic practices of meditation, autosuggestions and mantras?
Prayer is a solemn request for help, forgiveness or an expression of thanks addressed to God or an object of worship. It has four main types: adoration, contrition, thanksgiving and supplication. It is also an earnest hope or wish, and therefore contains an element of doubt as to its efficacy. It is one of the principle activities of any religion. It is a mental activity often mixed with emotion. Its absence in the literature of Yoga distinguishes Yoga from religion.
Meditation in Yoga does not include any request for help, forgiveness, nor any petition directed to God or a Supreme Being. It does not include an expression of hope or desire, nor any feeling of doubt. Concentration brings stillness and penetration of the ordinary mental and emotional activities to the eternal, infinite spiritual dimension where the yogin experiences absolute being, consciousness and bliss.
An autosuggestion is a positive statement of change to motivate the subconscious, expressed in the present tense, and repeated when one is in a state of deep relaxation. Patanjali tells us in Yoga Sutra II.33: “When bound by negative thoughts, cultivate their opposite.” To use an analogy, if the subconscious is like a computer filled software or analogously, with mental habits, conditioning and memories that direct ones thoughts, words and actions, then an autosuggestion is a program which is installed deliberately by the owner of the computer to effect a positive change. Much of what fills the subconscious was not put there deliberately. Life experiences leave impressions or memories automatically. When often repeated these impressions become stronger and become habits. So, if you want to remove them, the best way is not to fight them or try to suppress them, but to simply replace them with new programming.
Many persons believe in the power of prayer. Its effectiveness has been studied by science. Scientific studies at Duke University have confirmed that prayer is effective in accelerating the time required for someone to recover from surgery. But few make the connection between the power of suggestion and the effectiveness of prayer.
The yogic practice of autosuggestion makes no appeal to a higher power, a Supreme Being. Prayer does. Prayer often implies a feeling of helplessness or even doubt, despair, fear, regret, guilt or unworthiness. As such, it may be sabotaging the very power of suggestion. Like autosuggestion, prayer is most effective when it is expressed without any hint of doubt. For this reason, the preacher's admonition to pray with full faith, even certainty, that the Lord will do what is best, protects the prayer from the effects of doubt on the subconscious mind.
While autosuggestions work at the level of the subconscious, they can help remove many of the bad habits and negative thinking which make your life difficult. However, there are spiritual practices such as mantras, that link us to superconscious levels, and which enable you to align yourself with the Will of your higher Self. By "superconscious" I mean the capacity to receive knowledge without using the five senses or memory. By "spiritual," I refer to that dimension of one's existence, which transcends time and space; that which is a constant, which never changes. It is formless and limitless. It is pure consciousness. It is the ground of your existence. All thought and events have their ultimate origin and destination there.
Unlike prayers, mantras are not petitionary. You ask for nothing, save the Lord or "That" itself. As such they help to free you from the grasping nature of egoism, the habit of identifying with the body-mind complex and all of its inherent movements. By definition, mantras are sound vehicles of consciousness, which can transmit a higher level of consciousness to the recipient in a process referred to as initiation.
Mantras are a language between levels of consciousness, so it is important to repeat them with so much concentration that your consciousness both deepens and widens, like a seed, which grows into a tree. You suspend ordinary mental movements while repeating the mantra. In ordinary physical consciousness, your consciousness, even your identity is absorbed in the phenomena being experienced through the five senses. You are preoccupied with what we are seeing, reading, hearing, feeling on the skin etc. In ordinary dream consciousness, which includes daydreaming, your consciousness is also contracted and absorbed in memories and imaginations like anxiety, desire, judgments. To gain the benefit of mantra practice, therefore, you need to concentrate on the sound or pronunciation of the mantra in order to penetrate the ordinary movements of the mind to the spiritual dimension. The benefit will be even greater if you can remember the sacred, higher state of consciousness experienced during the initiation into the mantra. That state of consciousness is a wide calm, and energy rich with presence, love, peace and silence.
The purpose of Yoga is to weaken the causes of suffering and to cultivate Self-realization, or samadhi according to Patanjali’s in his Yoga Sutras II.2. The original cause of suffering, he states, is ignorance of our true identity. From this, originate the other kleshas, or causes of suffering: egoism, attachment, aversion and fear of death. (Yoga Sutras II.3-9) Your answer to the question “Who am I?” evolves as you identify less with the physical body, personality, thoughts, emotions, our past, and more with a witnessing consciousness. As your identity evolves your conception of God also evolves. The practice of Yoga brings about an evolution in your identity: from I am my body, I am a mother, father, professional, male, female, fan of that team, member of that political party, I am cold, I am hungry, to simply I am. You identify with the Seer, or Self, not the Seen. You identify with That which never changes. You experience more and more a sense of unity with everything. I am in everything, everything is in me is experienced. As your identity so evolves, you realize that egoism, with its attendant attachments or desires, and aversions or fears, is the cause of your suffering, and you learn to “let go” of them.
In the ordinary egoistic state of consciousness, God is viewed as one who can help me to satisfy my desires or to avoid what I fear. Prayer is a means to communicate these wants. But when your aim is no longer to try to satisfy the ego’s manifestations, but rather to rise above these and to identify with your true Self, to let go of them, to remain as a Witness, and merely to fulfill your duties and follow a path which will enable you to remain in a higher state of awareness, then your relationship with God changes. Meditation replaces prayer. Seeking for a state of spiritual communion with the Lord or seeking guidance or wisdom replaces petitionary prayer. You trusts that the Lord loves you and is guiding you. Therefore, you seek to listen to the Lord’s wisdom and guidance by turning inwards.
What is my relationship with God?
This is the subject of theology, the study of the relationship between God, the soul, and the world. The belief in their reality is referred to as theism. The belief that these distinctions are not real, but illusionary, and that there exists only One, referred to often as Brahma, in the Indian literature of Vedanta, is referred to as monism. The former is dualistic, and is embraced by all Western religions, Yoga, Tantra and the major sects of Hinduism: Saivism, Vaishnavism, and Shaktism. The latter is non-dualistic, is referred to as Advaita, and is embraced by the ten major Hindu renunciant orders, the dasami, founded by Adi Sankara, as well as by Ramana Maharshi, and a growing number of Westerners. In these nondualist traditions, as in Buddhism, there is no God, no soul, and the world is illusionary.
Patanjali clearly answers the above question in Yoga Sutra I.24:
Ishvara is the special Self, untouched by any afflictions, actions, fruits of actions or by any inner impressions of desires.
And he tells us the purpose of this relationship in the previous verse, I.23: (Note 1).
Or, because of one’s surrender to the Lord, one successfully achieves samadhi, that is cognitive absorption.
Unlike both Samkhya, much of Vedanta, and Buddhism, Classical Yoga, as expressed in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, affirms the existence of God, Ishvara. This God is no creator. The cosmos, life, and man are created by prakriti, or Nature, from primordial substance. But Ishvara can hasten the process of realizing samadhi. He is therefore a god of yogis. He can come to the help of only a yogi, that is, one who has already chosen Yoga as his or her path. But Ishvara’s role is comparatively small. He can bring samadhi to the yogin who takes him as the object of his concentration. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna makes similar assertions, and exhorts Arjuna to concentrate on “Me” alone.
According to the above verse, reaffirmed in verse II.45, Patanjali tells us that this divine aid is not the effect of a “desire” or “feeling” – for God can have neither desires nor emotions – but of a “metaphysical sympathy” between the Lord, Ishvara and the soul, purusa. In essence, Ishvara is a purusa that has been free since all eternity, never touched by the causes of suffering. Commenting on this verse, the sage Vyasa tells us that God does not submit to being summoned by rituals or devotion, or faith in his mercy, but that his essence, consciousness, collaborates with us the Self that seeks emancipation through Yoga. This relationship is therefore one of sympathy, born of Nature’s purpose or design, to collaborate in the deliverance of the many “selves” (purusa) entangled in the illusory meshes of existence. (Note 2: Eliade).
However, what is for first importance in the Yoga Sutras is technique and the yogins will and capacity for self-mastery and concentration. Why, you may ask, did Patanjali, nevertheless, feel the need to introduce Ishvara? The answer is because Ishvara corresponds to an experiential reality: Ishvara can in fact, bring about samadhi, on condition that the yogin practices complete surrender or Ishvaraprahnidhana or devotion to Ishvara. Yoga Sutras II.45. Having collected and classified all the yogic techniques whose efficacy had be confirmed by the classic tradition, he could not ignore the experiences made possible by the single process of concentration on Ishvara, (and affirmed in the Bhagavad Gita.)
In other words, as Eliade points out: “alongside the tradition of a purely magical Yoga – one that called upon nothing but the will and personal powers of the ascetic – there is another, a “mystical” tradition, in which the last stages of Yoga practice were at least made easier by devotion – even though an extremely rarefied, extremely ‘intellectual’ devotion – to God….All in all, Ishvara is only an archetype of the yogin – a macroyogin.” (Note 3).
Unconditioned by time, Ishvara is the guru of the most ancient gurus.” Yoga Sutra I.26.
What is my relationship to God according to Yoga Siddhantha, the teaching of the Yoga Siddhas?
Siddhantha, as expressed in the Tirumandiram, teaches that your conception of the Lord evolves as your psychological identity evolves. (Note 4).
These relationships include the following stages:
Charya: the servant, who is seeking, serving, and beginning to associate with others who are seeking the Lord;
Kriya: the friend, one who has found a path to the Lord, familiar with the Lod, and who performs rituals, either external ceremonies or internal practices;
Yoga: the son or daughter, the yogi, in which one begins to manifest the qualities of the Lord; and
Jnana: oneness; the sage, the wise one, or siddha, the perfected one, with knowledge of unity with the one, eternal, blissful, Siva.
These relationships all include aspiration for grace, and a progressive purification of the stains or impurities: ignorance, egoism, karma and delusion or maya. They are represented metaphorically in the change in your perspective as you look at a distant mountain (charya), then find a path up the mountain (kriya), become familiar with the mountain as climb higher (yoga), and finally reach the top of the mountain (jnana). The seeker of God or Truth initially “sees” God as remote and unknowable, but after finding a spiritual path, and concentrating on its discipline, one finally realizes union with That. This expresses monistic theism, in which one begins by considering God to be other than oneself, and ultimately to being the essence of oneself, Conscious-Energy, Siva-Shakti. The Tirumandiram refers to a progressive descent of divine grace through these stages of purification. (Note 5).
The Tirumandiram describes the five functions of the Lord: creation, preservation, dissolution, concealment, and grace. These manifest through His Shakti or power, according to 36 tattvas or principles of Nature, as well as through karma.
Grace pervades all of the five functions of the Lord and consequently everything that is created, preserved, dissolved, obscure and gracious in our personal lives. When we can perceive and appreciate this, moment to moment, our suffering ends immediately, and we see the face of the Lord. (Note 6).
The Siddhas teach that the Lord’s grace is what leads the soul up the ladder of spiritual experience, easing the soul from the world slowly and revealing the greater light of wisdom and Self-knowledge. Grace is the compassion of the Lord. Unlike karma, it does not depend upon the merits or demerits of one’s activities. It is the response of the Lord to the soul’s aspiration for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.
“His cosmic form no one can grasp;
But the body composed of the five elements
He pervades so finely like milk in water,
The wonderful bliss I learnt to experience tirelessly.”
- Tirumandiram verse 450 (Note 7).
As long as obscuration lasts, one is unable to perceive the presence of the Lord within. But through the grace of the Lord, as one turns away from attachment to the body-mind-personality and purifies oneself of the stains, one begins to have spiritual experiences. With these, and the bliss they confer, one turns more and more towards the Lord within, in union. Ultimate bliss is found by the Lord’s grace.
The Siddhas never praised any of the Hindu deities, nor encouraged the “half way” houses of temple worship. They were radical, in the truest sense of the word, and encouraged everyone to seek the Lord within, and to manifest That. Their great sayings included Anbu Sivam or “Love is God,” and Jiva (the individual soul) is becoming Siva, and “They are not two”. Their favorite conception of the Lord was as vettavveli, or “vast luminous space”. (Note 8).
Babaji’s Kriya Yoga is a “guru yoga”
“Guru, God and Self are One,” is a great saying or mahavakya in the tradition of Yoga. It is one that I personally embraced from the moment that I glimpsed the greatness of Paramahansa Yogananda and Yogi S.A.A. Ramaiah. It became crystal clear to me when I heard the verse of the Siddha Tirumular:
The ignorant say love and Siva are two;
Love is Siva, they know not;
Love is Siva, once they know this;
Love abides as Siva. – Tirumandiram 270
It became the polestar of my life when I dedicated myself to the practice of Babaji’s Kriya Yoga and His mission to share Tamil Kriya Yoga Siddhantham, the teachings of the 18 Tamil Yoga Siddhas. I am reminded of it every time I repeat Babaji’s mantra “Om Kriya Babaji Nama Aum.”
The Yoga Siddhas worshipped their gurus. Nowhere in their writings do they praise any deity, or worship any smaller gods in temples, as they have realized their selves as Siva, the Supreme Being. Their Yoga is a Guru Yoga. Their poems typically begin with a salutation to their gurus. This is because they experienced God in the love of their gurus. They experienced the power of their love and in turn responded by manifesting love and even divine acts. I can attest to the power of this love and how it has acted through me since the day in when I first spoke the words of a pledge, “My own being and pleasures I surrender absolutely and entirely to Kriya Babaji.” The past 45 years has been one continuous karma yoga session which expresses this love and surrender to Babaji in everyone.
The word “Guru” literally means “dispeller of darkness”. “Gu” means darkness and “ru” means light. “Darkness” is a metaphor for ignorance. Ignorance is the inability to distinguish what is permanent from what is impermanent, the source of suffering from the source of joy, and the ego bound personality from the true Self. So, the Guru is one who shows us how to remove the darkness of ignorance and to realize wisdom. When the veil of ignorance is removed, love shines as an all-powerful light within and without.
The Guru is not a person. The Guru is a tattva, a principle of nature, by which Truth, Love, Beauty, Wisdom is revealed. It may manifest through anything which enables us to see profoundly the Truth behind nature’s veils, which purifies of the malas or stains of egoism, illusion and karma. It could manifest through a book, the eyes of a baby, a sunrise, a spiritual experience, a mantra. When it manifests as consistently through a person, we often refer to that person as a “guru” but you must not forget that it is not the “person” which is the “Guru”, but the teachings, the wisdom, the love which manifests though the person. The person is just the postman. By remembering this, you may avoid the confusion which arises when the person’s human limitations manifest.
The Guru tattva is also the principle by which Nature, creates, sustains and destroys all life in both our inner and outer universes, in whatever way is necessary for us pass from ignorance to wisdom, from egoism to Self-realization. It has existed since before the universe was created, and so transcends time and space. The Guru principle exists within everyone as the inner Self, so when we honor the outer Guru, we also honor our own Self. It is the impersonal Shakti, the spontaneous force which creates whatever is needed for the greatest expansion of sadhana. It is more powerful than the external guru because it always accessible.
The word Guru is also closed related to the word “Guna,” which refers to the three tendencies, modes, constituents or qualities by which Nature (prakriti) moves us physically, emotionally and mentally: (a) tamas (inertia, fatigue, discouragement, doubt), rajas (activity, courage, planning and executing) and sattva (balance, equanimity, clear understanding). So the Guru is the one who shows us how to liberate ourselves from dependency on the Gunas.
The Siddhas referred to their mission to do so as arrupadai: showing the path to Self and God realization. Patanjali refers to this liberation as kaivalyam, freedom from the Seen in the Yoga Sutras II.25, III.50, III.55, IV.26, IV.32 and IV.34. In the very last verse of the Yoga Sutras:
Thus, the supreme state of Absolute freedom (kaivalyam) manifests while the qualities (gunas) reabsorb themselves into Nature, having no more purpose to serve the Self. Or (from another angle) the power of pure consciousness settles in its own pure Nature. – IV.34
Seek Babaji to become Babaji
Each of us is a work in progress. Individually and collectively as sadhaks, those who are engaged in the sadhana, or discipline of Yoga we are discovering our potential power and consciousness, kundalini, as well as the restraints of human nature and egoism. The resulting transformation of this process, however, will depend upon the extent to which the sadhak’s mind and vital changes its allegiance to the soul or psyche, and away from the ego.
The ego cannot purify itself. It is only our higher Self, or soul, which is untouched by the ego’s manifestations, that is capable of doing so. But how to bring it forward into the foreground of our consciousness? How to bring its influence to bear upon the ego? Certainly, the five- fold path of Babaji’s Kriya Yoga provides many techniques which help to purify the subconscious, develop the necessary concentration, create positive mental imagery, and develop the intellect’s ability to find wisdom. Our soul, or psychic being, however, remains behind the veil of the mind, the emotions and sensations, until and unless the sadhak concentrates inwardly and finds the mystic light, the sweet presence of the Divine, the True, the Good, the Beautiful, which is immanent and transcendent. Guru, God and Self are One.
During the first initiation, there is the technique to communicate with Babaji, the Guru of Kriya Yoga. This technique of communion with Babaji permits our soul, our higher Self, or as Sri Aurobindo calls it, our “psychic being,” to come from behind the veil of egoism with increasing frequency, until there is a total identification with it. Complete Identification with our soul usually occurs only after a very long sadhana. This identification is marked by a very great joy which is present during all situations. One feels immortal, that is, eternal. One feels the sweet Presence of the Divine.
But in the meantime, until the long process of purification and identification with the higher Self, or soul, is complete, the sadhak must turn inwards repeatedly, concentrate, and listen to its directives, and then obey them. It will reveal everything that must be purified in one’s nature. It will shine its light on all that must be reformed or excised. The true sovereign that you are is waiting for you! It is not sufficient to be merely “mindful.” Aspire to be the servant of the Supreme. Concentrate and seek the Divine within yourself to resist the impulse to manifest anger, pride, jealousy and to let go of fear, desire, old negative habits.
With love and devotion to the Divine at all times and in all places, aspire to become its instrument, expressing kindness, performing actions with skills and calmness. See the beautiful face of the Divine everyone. Let your heart sing to it with love and joy. Your soul will come to the foreground as the mind and vital become quiet, and it will direct your life. (Note: 10)
1. Govindan, Marshall, Kriya Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and he Siddhas;
2. Eliade, Mircea, Yoga,Immortality and Freedom; pg. 74
3. Ibid, page 75;
4. Govindan, “How do we know whether we are progressing spirituality?”
KY Journal: Volume 14 Number 3 - Fall 2007 and in Kriya Yoga Insights Along the Path.
5. Ganapathy, The Yoga of Tirumular: Essays on the Tirumandiram, page 36
6. Govindan, “Seeing the Manifestation of Grace,” KY Journal: Volume 17 Number 2 - Summer 2010
7. Tirumular, The Tirumandiram: Classic of Yoga and Tantra.
8. Govindan, “They are not two,”KY Journal, Volume 20 Number 4 - Winter 2014
9. Govindan, “Love, Grace and the Guru,” KY Journal Volume 22 Number 3 - Fall 2015
10. Govindan, “Seek Babaji to Become Babaji,”KY Journal: Volume 24 Number 2 - Summer 2017
© Marshall Govindan 2020