“When all the senses are stilled, when the mind is at rest but alert, when the intellect wavers not, then is known the highest state of Divinity.”
—Katha Upanishad 77
Meditation—Dhyana—in Hindu theology, is the art and technique of experiencing the “divine” within. Many a sage sat on mountaintops, in caves, in forests, and on riverbanks and meditated deeply, for long periods of time. Even so, meditation is essentially an esoteric practice. An inert mountain or forest cannot be a substitute for an awakened and spiritual mind. In the sages’ vast sojourns, varied ingenious techniques were discovered, which were then passed on to the disciples, thus creating a chain of guru/shishya, or the teacher/disciple relationship.
Yoga and meditation are first mentioned in the earlier Upanishads, such as Brhadarayaka, Katha, and Svetavatara. So, too, these are described in the ancient epic scripture of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita.78 It was Patanjali (240–180 BCE), however, who compiled the famous Yoga Sutra, which outlines the eight-point program of Ashtanga yoga:
- Yama (the don’ts): This deals with ethical restraint. The instinctive and impulsive behavior of the individual enrolling in meditation and yoga needs to be ethical and full of consideration for others. Nonviolence in thought, word, and action becomes the code of conduct. Truthfulness, non-stealing, continence (brahmacharya), patience, firmness, compassion, honesty, moderate diet, and purity are other necessary requirements.
- Niyama (the do’s): This deals with the cultivation of virtuous and spiritual qualities. Observance of remorse, contentment, chastity, faith, worship, study of scriptures, spiritual intellect, japa (uttering God’s name), and austerity are all prerequisites in this category.
- Asanas: the practice of body postures, exercising with relaxation.
- Pranayama: control of breathing techniques, to concentrate thoughts and usher vitality to all parts. Pranayama, or breath control, has earned much attention. Pranayama is essentially directed toward purifying and quieting the mind, which is the seat of all emotions. Watching the breath by itself, in inhalation and exhalation, is considered an effective antidote to stress. In the opinion of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, “The mind is ever wandering; breathing control may be an effective whip to guide it on the right path.”79
- Pratyahara: to internalize attention without any distraction. Search of the Divine within one’s own self has always occupied the attention of Hindu seers. The mind needs to be pure and spiritual, in the turiya state. Turiya, which literally means “fourth,” represents the higher mind, beyond the waking, sleeping, and dreaming states.
- Dharna: to focus on a chosen object Spiritual Divine, disregarding any other interruption.
- Dhyana: to meditate on the field of inquiry, with laser beam attention. Often, the answers to many difficult questions sprout from within. Gradually, one may learn to tap knowledge from the cosmic consciousness of the Divine.
- Samadhi: to ultimately unite and merge with the source; the state of self-realization. The final step, samadhi, literally means “union with God” (Sam: with; adhi: Lord). There are two stages of Samadhi. One is savikalpa samadhi—savikalpa means separateness; in this Samadhi, the devotee feels himself at a separate and lower level than God. The second is nirvikalpa samadhi—nirvikalpa means having no separateness. In this higher stage of samadhi, the devotee completely merges with the Divine.
The role of the awakening of chakras through mind concentration and subtle visualization has been the subject of intense study and has occupied the attention of both spiritual and scientific scholars in recent times. The art and science of Raja yoga, or the meditation yoga, is closely associated with the awakening of the chakras in tune with various breathing exercises (pranayamas). There have been many different techniques, such as Kundalini yoga, Kriya yoga, Siddha yoga, Nirvana-Sahasrara, and Sudarshan yoga etc. with some variations. The seven chakras—the Muldhara chakra at the base of the spine, the Svadishthana chakra at the base of the genitals, the Manipura chakra at the navel level, the Anahata chakra at the level of the heart, the Visuddha chakra at the level of the medulla oblongata opposite the throat, the Ajna chakra between the eyebrows, and the Sahasrara chakra above the topmost point of the head—symbolically represent an ascending degree of higher spiritual consciousness in an individual. There are also seven chakras below the muladhara; these reflect the lower animal tendencies.
Hindu sages also envisaged a system of subtle channels, or prana, which traverse throughout the body and mind. These are not anatomical channels like blood vessels and nerves. According to learned sages, alongside the physical or anatomical channels of body, there exist the invisible energy channels, through which the vital current of life force, the prana, flows. In a subtle and spiritual way, the deep-breathing exercises, the pranayamas, have a nourishing effect on the prana energy channels. Prana channels represent the ultimate micro-tissue life activity. It is believed that pranayamas have a major effect on the body through tissue microcirculation at the brain and other parts of the body. Modern medicine has endorsed the beneficial effects of many of these meditation techniques in countering the harmful effects of stress on the human system. Many leading medical authorities now recognize that through the practice of meditation and yoga, one can regulate heart rate, blood pressure, and other vital phenomenon, hitherto considered as beyond the influence of voluntary control.
The best time for meditation is considered to be before dawn, brahmamuhurta, when the mind is in its most pure and receptive form. A second meditation before retiring, however, is also highly recommended, as it improves the spiritual quotient significantly.80 It has been said that while the modern science of psychology delves into the subconscious, traversing through myriad of past guilt and shame, meditation focuses on the super-consciousness, the treasure trove of divine virtues.
Paramahansa Yogananda wrote in his book The Divine Romance, more than half century ago: “The one thing that will help to eliminate world suffering—more than money, houses, or any other material aid—is to meditate and transmit to others the divine consciousness of God that we feel.” Hindus have an abiding faith that the meditations of sages protect the world in a subtle spiritual manner. Sitting in the high Himalayas and other places in their infinite solitude and purity, these Rishis send divine blessings in the form of vibrations, which have a profound and extraordinary effect, even when the Rishis appear to be doing nothing!
There have been many research studies on meditation at U.S. universities and elsewhere throughout the world. More evidence is accumulating that this technique “significantly helps in relieving stress and depression, builds up the positive mood, and actually contributes toward increase in the immune quotient.” No wonder, then, that in the United States alone, more than ten million adults practice meditation regularly. It is now offered freely in schools, hospitals, law firms, government buildings, corporate offices, and even prisons. There are specially marked meditation rooms at airports. At the Maharishi University in Fairfield, Iowa, even the young students meditate twice daily. There are even reports of brain changes, as observed by MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) techniques, after meditation.81 Scientists have discovered palpable thickening of some critical areas of the brain cortex in monks who perform meditation over prolonged periods.
The meditation and yoga system involving the chakras and pranayamas is often claimed to be associated with the attainment of many mystical, supernatural powers, or siddhas (miracles) also. In this regard, Charles Robert Richet, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1913, wrote “Metaphysics is not yet officially a science, recognized as such. But it is going to be….Our five senses are not our only means of knowledge.”82 Many yogis have demonstrated astonishing evidence of living without any food or water for extended periods of time. It is believed that they may draw their energy directly from the cosmos, just as plants get energy with the help of chlorophyll.
Modern science has proved that there are over 100 billion thinking neuron cells in human brain. Only 10-20 percent of these cells are in activity, the rest are lying dormant. Till very recently, it was believed that human brain does not grow after early age. This theory has now been discredited. Marian Cleves Diamond (1926-2017), a noted scientist from U.C. Berkley, studied part of Einstein’s brain, and discovered that human brain keeps growing with formation of new cells in favorable circumstances, repudiating the old theory that the brain stops growing after a certain age. (LA Times August 19, 2017 Orbituary Notes)
In Hindu philosophy, it is believed from the ancient times, “meditation” at any age, in fact more often in elderly age, may be performed with favorable results, and may bring about changes in the behavior patterns, making the person more spiritual and virtuous, with the regular and extended practice.
The art and practice of “Meditation” has truly been regarded as Hindu philosophy’s shining jewel. Its origin has been traced to most ancient prehistoric times, much before the formal establishment of Hinduism. There is evidence of monks practicing “austerity” and “meditation” in the “Sindhu-Saraswati civilization” (Harappa civilization); this was later named as the Sramana ideology. Sraman in Sanskrit means monk.
It is said that in “Prayer”, a person talks to God, and requests for help while in “Meditation”, God talks to the person, and prompts him toward the right path. In effect, the purpose of Meditation is to listen to the word of God with utmost attention, and then act in accordance with it in any situation. The most ancient scriptures of Hinduism – the Vedas and the Upanishads are compilations of such “words of God” as heard internally by the sages and Rishis as “Shrutis”, after extended meditations on river banks, in forests, and on hill tops. God in Hinduism is conceived as the epitome and embodiment of all truth and wisdom, of righteousness and knowledge. Meditation thus forms the very basis of religion; the search for such divine guidance becomes the purpose life. Hindu scriptures are generally developed and assembled around God’s tales in various manifestations, all in different situations and circumstances. Always Keeping God in mind, a human being may meditate to find the answer to all his or her problems and challenges.
In their deep meditation, ancient Rishis connected God with infinite knowledge, infinite virtue, and infinite power, beyond any human understanding. They comprehended that when we meditate and pray to God, we in effect seek His divine guidance in our own life situations. In prayer and meditation, we may seek divine direction and support, and in full faith and sincerity try to carry out our duty in accordance with God’s command. Gradually over a period of time, with diligence and practice, we may know what is sanctioned or not sanctioned by God.
In recent times, meditation has become a watchword of human endeavor in all walks of life, and in all places. Although Buddhism has been more associated with the ritual and method of meditation, its origin in Hinduism remains uncontested. Modern science has accepted the art of meditation as an important tool in combating disease and malady of different types. The Hindu concept of union of religion and science has been vindicated and supported by such efforts worldwide.