Na jāgare naiva sushuptibhāvah na jīvitam no maranam vicitram ||
Neither awake nor in the state of sound sleep. Not living, and not dead. For those practicing Rāja Yoga here and now the act of seeing has been abandoned and there’s nothing to see [anyway]. It is indeed strange!
Na drashtrtā nāsti ca drśyabhāva sā jrmbhate kevalasamvideva ||
For those steady-minded in sacred Raja Yoga [who], having relinquished everything stemming from the sense of “I” or “mine,” not in the state of seeing, nor having anything to see… She, [who is] only the knower of all, indeed unfolds into existence
Śloka 14 reads a bit like one of Adi Śankaracarya’s most famous and lovely hymns, the Nirvana Shatkam. The legend goes that when he was just eight years old, Adi Śankaracarya met his guru on the banks of a river. The guru asked him the Big Question: “Who are you (really)?” And in true Vedantin form, Adi Śankaracarya responded by stating everything he wasn’t— not the body, nor the senses, nor the mind, etc., over the course of six stanzas (hence the “shat,” in shatkam for those of you who pay attention to the count in led classes). The last line of each stanza is a refrain, and it states the only positive attribute Adi Śankaracarya concedes to possess: “The essence of pure consciousness and bliss: I am God, I am God.” So very beautiful. Incidentally, this was one of the first things I ever chanted in Sanskrit besides the opening mantra so I still have a very soft spot for it.
A closer look at the laundry list of have-nots from śloka 14 shows something a tad striking. Each one of the things that are not there when in the state of Rāja Yoga are in fact pillars of Rāja Yoga itself! Drishti, the seed for your meditation, breath control, tapas (or effort)… These are the things we use to get to a meditative state, aren’t they? They are, of course, but consider that they may also ultimately (and I really mean ultimately, none of this should be taken as a carte blanche to stop practicing) be a type of tragic flaw. How many times do we see the hero brought down by the very quality or qualities that made him a hero? The things that got you to the top are the very same things that will bring you back down again. Thus it behooves us to evolve, constantly. Every thing you used to get there should be sloughed off upon arrival. The religious scholar Alan Watts once said, “when you get the message, hang up the phone.” He was referring to psychedelic drugs, but it also applies to the techniques and practices of Yoga. A common metaphor used is that of a wash cloth. You use it to get yourself clean, but once you are clean, you let it go. It would be preposterous to continue scrubbing yourself ad infinitum. Worse than that, it would be bad for your skin. But I really can’t stress enough that the letting go of technique, practice, work doesn’t happen overnight. It rarely happens at all, for anyone. If you have to ask whether you’ve arrived in Kevala-kumbha, or Samadhi, or if your Kundalini has risen, it hasn’t happened. Keep working. And if anybody boasts to that you it’s happened to them, be skeptical. And if any teacher claims it, and hangs his authority on it, I’d say run, don’t walk away.
Śloka 15 reminds us of the strange, liminal state in which the accomplished Yogi or meditator resides. Neither awake nor sleeping, nor alive nor dead. The Yogi straddles the fence between life and death, between this world and the other. The notion of a holy person having a foot each in two worlds is quite common in religions throughout the world. Of course this status is earned through great sacrifice. Syleena Johnson had a great R and B hit called Guess What, and the refrain goes: “You wanna be the boss? (Guess what) You gotta pay the cost.” Eunuchs, for one horrific example, often defended temples and kings and queens because their condition symbolized being in two places (or genders) at once. Thus they could serve as intermediaries between the mundane subjects and the divine rulers. I’ve heard many people rail about how unnatural imposed celibacy is and that Catholic priests should be allowed to marry. They miss the point entirely. The very unnaturalness, the sacrifice, of celibacy is one of the fonts of the priest’s power. The shamans of Siberia also had to endure initiation rites that were physically and psychologically traumatic. The trauma induced a break in the psyche which was their connection to the “other” world. And so on.
The second line of śloka 15 concerns both the renunciation of vision and the futility of vision. Most Yoga students are aware of the term pratyahara, or sense withdrawal. It’s step five on the ladder of the eight limbs of Yoga. It is a crucial step because it is the last one which concerns the physical body before making the jump off into purely mental realms. However, Adi Śankaracarya offers a slightly different take on renunciation of vision than Patañjali. For Patañjali pratyahara is a means to the end of attaining samadhi. For Adi Śankaracarya turning your gaze inwards may help you attain a meditative state, but when you get there you realize that all disambiguation between yourself and the world at large is just an illusion. It’s all one thing, which is also nothing. Ergo, nothing to see.
Śloka 16 also touches on the renunciation and futility of vision, but it also reintroduces another very important concept: in order to attain success, or perhaps a result of success, in Yoga one will have to make a radical break from his or her concept of ego, or self. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not necessarily about annihilating the ego, but more about reimagining it. And again, Vedantins and Yogins have slightly different takes. The Yogin takes solace in knowing that the Self is not to be confused with the world of matter. It remains separate, untouched. The Vedantin takes solace in knowing that the Self and the world of matter are equally illusory, and part of the same whole. Either way, though, notions of an individual “I,” that does things and possesses things (“mine”) in a material world should be reconsidered, if not abandoned.
When this ego reshuffling is sustained, steadily for a period of time then “She, the knower of all” arrives. Or rather, unfolds into existence. There’s that great word jrmbh from śloka 9 again. This time, instead of ripples spreading over a pond, you could think of pouring paint onto the floor and watching it spread and coat and get into all the nooks and crannies. Who is She? What’s her name (or names)? What’s her deal? Stay tuned, because that’s what the next block of ślokas is all about…