Here in the West we tend to think of philosophers as stodgy eggheads holed up in university offices, engaging each other in tedious pedantic disputes. In India the picture could hardly be more different. There the greatest philosophers were often advanced yogis who weren’t so much interested in arguing about their views as in describing their experience of reality based on their meditation practice.
One of the most influential of these Indian philosophers was Shankaracharya, an incisive thinker who was also known for his yogic abilities (such as the power to transfer his awareness from his own body into another). Western scholars have long debated Shankara’s actual dates; today they usually suggest somewhere around 800 c.e. According to the Indian tradition, however, this great master lived much earlier—a number of centuries before Christ, in fact.
Shankara compares the power of consciousness to a voluptuous young woman whose desire is the root cause for the creation of the cosmos.
In India, Shankara is also recognized as one of the culture’s great poets. His most famous poem is the Saundarya Lahari, Ananda Lahari (“Wave of Beauty, Wave of Bliss”), 103 exquisite verses in praise of the Goddess of Consciousness. There is some stunning imagery here. For example, Shankara compares the universal conflagration that will take place when our sun expands at the end of its life cycle and burns away the planets to camphor lights a priest waves before the image of a deity. In this way, even the ending of the world honors the Supreme Consciousness.
Shankara compares the power of consciousness to a voluptuous young woman whose desire is the root cause for the creation of the cosmos. Spontaneously and with great delight, he tells us, she emanates the cosmos out of herself like a playful, flirtatious girl.
My meditation teacher, Swami Rama of the Himalayas, considered the Saundarya Lahari one of the greatest yoga manuals ever written. But Western yoga students often miss the mystical significance Shankara packed into each line. Let’s take a look at a sample verse to explore some of the meaning hidden in the poetry:
You are the sun that illumines the inner darkness.To the ignorant, you are a blossoming flower, oozing streams of honey. To the poor, you are the jewel that grants everything one desires. And to those drowning in the ocean of death and rebirth, you are the tusk of the wild boar. (Verse 3)
You are the sun that illumines the inner darkness.
Was Shankara simply being poetic when he wrote those lines? Or did he have something specific to convey to the alert student? My personal experience with yoga masters is that they never waste words. If you pause to reflect on what they’re saying, the depth of wisdom hidden there can be astonishing. In this line, Shankara is not talking about the sun that shines above our heads, but the sun that shines inside our heads.
The experience of inner light is referred to over and over in the yoga scriptures. Entering that light is the mysterious experience the yogis call bindu bhedana, which is one of the most important practices advanced yogis undertake.
We’ve all heard of near-death experiences, when people are in a car crash or have a heart attack and are pronounced medically dead—but doctors manage to revive them. Some of these people tell us they experienced themselves leaving their body and moving towards a brilliant white light. The experience of inner light is referred to over and over in the yoga scriptures. Entering that light is the mysterious experience the yogis call bindu bhedana, which is one of the most important practices advanced yogis undertake. They don’t wait to die to enter the light—they spend their whole lives basking in its illumination.
People who’ve had this kind of near-death experience say the light emanates unconditional love, perfect guidance, and profound healing. In deep meditation (which to some degree mimics the experience of death physiologically), yogis connect with the light while they’re still in their bodies, and in this way they become channels for the flow of its healing, enlightening power into the world.
Several years ago I interviewed a yogi who was willing to discuss his experience of the inner sun with me. He’d been doing intensive practice of surya vidya, “the solar science” (a branch of yoga practice little known in the West), when suddenly he saw a light exactly as the yoga texts describe: brighter than a thousand suns, so intense it actually blinded his mind’s eye. This luminosity engulfed him and all the objects around him, and he was thrown into such a state of ecstasy that he could hardly breathe. He experienced everything and everyone near him as one with his own being. The state lasted for several days during which the other yogis in his community had to take care of him because he could barely function. Such was his state of ecstatic unity.
The greatest masters, according to the yoga tradition, are those who are able to enter that supreme state at will and then come back and be fully active and useful in the world.
The greatest masters, according to the yoga tradition, are those who are able to enter that supreme state at will and then come back and be fully active and useful in the world. You are the sun that illumines the inner darkness means that the inner sun of consciousness grants enlightenment and removes ignorance and fear. In this verse Shankara is pointing his disciples toward that experience.
To the ignorant, you are a blossoming flower, oozing streams of honey.
The blooming flower is the sahasrara chakra, the spiritual center at the crown of the head where advanced yogis focus during meditation. According to the tradition, soma (divine nectar) begins to flow in deep states of meditation and produces a state of bliss. The yogis I asked about this told me that soma is an inner experience of the energy of consciousness itself—intensely blissful and evoked through one-focused attention, not through ingesting external substances.
In India there’s an esoteric form of spiritual practice called madhu yoga (“the yoga of honey”), in which the yogi connects with the supreme inner sweetness. They say that when kundalini begins to flow there’s a buzzing sound in the inner ear very much like the sound of a swarm of bees. And when this sound arises deep in meditation, it means you’re approaching the thousand-petaled lotus at the crown of the subtle body, which overflows with soma. The inner knowledge and intense rapture experienced here is the brimming energy of Self-awareness.
To the poor, you are the jewel that grants everything one desires.
Many yoga texts mention a chintamani or “wish-fulfilling gem.” You simply hold it in your hands, make a wish, and your wish comes true. Yogis know the chintamani isn’t actually a gemstone, however. It’s something much more subtle and far more powerful—the focused mind. This is why Swami Rama often spoke of the importance of cultivating sankalpa shakti, the power of will, so that we could attain the one-pointed attention yogis call the state of samadhi. Students who’ve read Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra know that yogis consider samadhi to be the door to all kinds of psychic and material powers as well as spiritual realization.
The oldest surviving yogic text, compiled around 5,000 years ago, is the Rig Veda,which says that God created the universe by focusing his mind and concentrating intently. As a result, all the worlds and all their inhabitants came into being. We can shape our own world by doing the same thing. In the authentic Indian tradition, students are usually tested severely before being initiated in the practices of yoga. Their teachers know that success in yoga can give disciples tremendous physical and mental power. It’s important for them to have purified their desires before they reach this stage, so that the things they choose to do with the wish-fulfilling gem of their minds are unselfish, and a source of blessings to everyone around them.
And to those drowning in the ocean of death and rebirth, you are the tusk of the wild boar.
According to an ancient Indian legend, ages ago the landmass of Earth was disappearing under the ocean, and people all over the world cried out to God to save the planet. Suddenly a gigantic boar appeared in the sky. He drove his immense tusks into the ocean and lifted the sinking landmass back up to the surface of the planet. (Disappearing back into space, the great boar left his son in the sky as a reminder of his strength and grace: the planet Mars.)
The Saundarya Lahari portrays our universe as a field of delight in which the Goddess of Consciousness plays. But we mortals don’t always experience our world as such a benign place. We have to struggle to make a living, we’re subject to debilitating illnesses and serious accidents, we sometimes lose the people we love, and finally every one of us is forced to confront death. Life can begin to seem like the endless playing out of karma, periods of relative happiness inevitably followed by sorrow, and birth and death trailing each other indiscriminately.
Shankara is saying to yoga students who’re growing tired of living at the mercy of natural and social forces that the power of consciousness is the rescuer. Ever-increasing awareness lifts us out of the sea of karma like the great boar raising the continents back above sea level.
Living with greater awareness is of course exactly what yoga is about. In his famous philosophical treatises, Shankara mapped out the nature of reality in nitpicking detail. But in his poetry he celebrated the beauty and majesty of the intelligence behind nature, the power of consciousness that makes our bodies operate and our minds function. He also hinted, to those yoga students who are alert enough to read the verses carefully, at the spiritual techniques great masters like himself actually used to elevate and transform their lives.