Seven Stages of Wisdom & Self-Realisation

Reflections on the teachings from Yoga Vasistha

By Swami Nirgunananda

The path to personal transformation or the spiritual path is outlined in seven stages by Sage Vasistha to his student, Lord Rama, in the scripture Yoga Vasistha. These are referred to as the seven bhumikas (stages) of Jnana (Self-knowledge). Nowhere in the teachings of Yoga and Vedanta has the stages of self-realization been elaborated as it has been done here.

In Yoga Vasistha it is shown that the ultimate perfection is as much a reality now and the processes are only for clarity in knowledge and the removing of ignorance of one’s true nature. Thus, the seeming journey through the seven stages cleanses the mind of its agitations, impurities, and erroneous notions so that it may abide in the ever-existing Bliss of one’s true nature. These stages are as outlined in the diagram below and are further detailed out in the steps that follows:

Seven Bhumikas (stages of Self-realisation):

  1. Shubbecha is literally translated as positive intention but can be broadly interpreted as the desire to improve oneself and discover lasting sources of happiness.

Personal transformation of any kind requires that one has a progressive intention. Shubbecha is that wish for self-improvement that comes when one finds that the way one has been living one’s life, or the mere pursuit of worldly pleasures alone is not satisfying. Then the searchlights of one’s attention turns inwards.

It takes only a little bit of introspection to see that the all forms of joy or sorrow is not something that is out there in the world. Although it takes our senses to experience anything tangible in the world, the actual experience of it takes place within one’s own mind. If objects perceived by senses were the real source of joy, such as if joy is only in the that what we crave—the pizza or rasgolla, the movie or video games, then we would be happy by being with it all the time. But when we get a bad stomach or are really sleep, we drop all those objects readily. Even our most favourite movie is no longer appealing to us then. So evidently it is the mind that determines and experiences the joy regardless of the presence or absence of the objects.

Joy is determined by the nature of our own limitations with regard to three aspects: time, space and object. This gives us a sense of incompleteness. It is probably then that we begin to inquire, why am I feeling a sense of bondage or incompleteness?

Our priorities begin to change and we are no longer riveted on the rat race of life. This is when we start looking for books or learned people who can give us some counsel on how to live better and think wiser? The wise are humble to learn through others experiences rather than learning only through the sorrows brought by the mistakes they make.

The teachings of Yoga promise us that when we don’t agitate our minds, our actions are positive, our speech and thoughts are harmonious. A calm mind that is not subject to impulsive actions embraces others and their wellbeing as well. This then is the first state of spiritual wisdom wherein one’s wishes are positive for oneself and others, and one’s attention is towards stabilizing the mind rather than agitating it through sense indulgences.

Summary of the first stage:

  • Turning the mind’s focus inwards, away from sense joy to inner joy.
  • Having a positive intention towards wellbeing of oneself and others.

2. Vicara is self-inquiry, introspection, association with the wise and those adept in scriptures.

Vicara can be better translated in this context as contemplation on higher truth or self-enquiry. Association with the wise or the study of scriptures can lead one towards such right contemplation. This is the essential step towards understanding one’s true nature.

At the ultimate level, one has to learn to discern between what is the ultimate reality from that what appears to be reality in our daily lives. Due to our reliance on our senses for information we go by the axiom ‘seeing is believing’ in deriving our knowledge. But the means of true knowledge cannot just be through our senses. For instance, I look at the sky during a bright day and come to the conclusion that the colour of the Sky is blue. But we know well from scientific findings that this is caused due to the sunlight getting dispersed by air particles and of which the blue light comes out predominantly. Thus, a higher source of deductive knowledge is what we yield to in such cases even though our senses give us contrary information.

Similarly, the scriptures and the sages tell us that the reality that we consider our life to be is not the ultimate reality. They urge us to step out of darkness into the light of Self-knowledge. By discriminating between our subjective Self and the objective appearances, we begin to see that our true nature is the unchanging reality. All objects that appear to the Self are subject to the modifications of having birth, growth, decay and death. Discriminating between that what is changing and that which is constant is the process of Self-enquiry for a practitioner. To aid in this process, he takes the assistance of the Wise who have gone through such investigation and have arrived at a conclusion that is consistent with the sacred scriptures.

3. Tanumanasa is the subtlety of mind or the turning away from sense objects

Another source of knowledge for the Yogis and the wise ones is ‘intuitive intelligence.’ In our daily life decisions, we often find that mere information from the senses or reasoning lacks the ability to help us make right choices. Most of us have had some ‘gut-feel’ at times that has turned out to be accurate. One may have even made choices related to career or life partner based on these. Sometimes such understanding comes by itself. At other times, it comes from tuning into one’s conscience.

Even to be able to appreciate a sense of peace or the feeling of goodwill towards others, the mind has to be made subtle. If we are constantly engaged in gross objects, from which we derive our pleasures, then we are less likely to appreciate these sublime joys in our life, which in reality is the true source of happiness.

Our habituation with sense objects and the constant sense of likes and dislikes we derive from it numbs us. For wisdom to mature or for intuition to unravel itself, one’s mind had to be detached from sense objects to some extent.

4. Sattvapatti: Truth-attainment or realization of one’s true nature

The fetters of the heart are broken, all doubts are resolved and all actions are freed from its binding effect, when He (the ultimate truth) is beheld who is both high and low. 

(Mundaka Upanishad 2.2.8)

When one begins to shift one’s attention from the gross world to the subtle world, one begins to realise that the nature of experience is not limited to the senses. The subtle perception soon leads one on a deeper quest of knowing one’s true nature. Until then, one was engaged in various pursuits—sensual, material, social, emotional and intellectual—in order to gain happiness. Now those pursuits shift inwards as one gets a glimpse that true joy is within oneself. This insight into the ultimate truth is the first breakthrough into the reality of one’s true Self.

Consciousness is ever pure in nature and untouched by life’s experiences. Yet the identification with the world, body and one’s subtle instruments of perception makes one somewhat contaminated. The daily experiences of life create impressions that are stored in memory. The likes and dislikes generated from past experiences drive one’s actions and thus one is constantly directed away from one’s true Self. However, as one retraces one’s steps within, one gets a glimpse of one’s true nature and this is the turning point towards ultimate liberation. With an insight into one’s pure Self, the goal becomes the path. In vedic language, he or she is regarded as a Brahma Vid, knower of the ultimate reality.

5. Asamsakti is non-union or detachment from all the phenomena

The next stage on the path is breaking away with all objects that are fleeting in nature. Just as how our attention withdraws away from all distractions when we are deeply engrossed with something, so also a Yogi’s attention is withdrawn from the world and from his own body-mind complex. Worldly experiences, thoughts and emotions that used to earlier occupy his attention loses its priority as he gets more and more engrossed in one’s own Self. The reality of the inner life and ultimately his own supreme Self causes a natural detachment from worldly objects and its perception. There is a clear sense of separation of Awareness from that what it is aware of—the subjective Seer from all that which is objectively Seen (or perceived).

The Yogi no longer needs to forcibly practice detachment from objects and people that are inherently impermanent and potentially pain producing. In fact, such a natural detachment enables him to carry out his or her duties much more efficiently. At this stage, the senses still operate and give information to the mind but the mind no longer colours it with prejudices, likes, dislikes, etc. The secondary stage of thinking mind is no longer present – freed from restlessness (vikshepa), impurities (mala) and erroneous notions (vipareeta bhavana). All thinking happens automatically and all decisions are made spontaneously without the compulsion of one’s mental patterns. But it doesn’t mean that one is like a robot or a zombie now. Instead, he or she is bubbling with a sense of inner joy of infinity and completeness. In fact, it is only now that this individual is alive as the Consciousness has awakened to itself.

6. Padartha-abhavana is non-perception or non-ideation of external objects

When one realizes that it is Consciousness that is the essence and the reality of everything, nothing is perceived any longer as being distinct matter. The Yogi’s perception of the world changes and everything is perceived as one seamless Existence. In the earlier stages, the practitioner had insight and glimpses of deeper reality. Now, his outer reality of world also transforms. He no longer perceives the world from a limited human perspective. He realizes that everything is like a dream appearance. This kind of lucidity right within one’s waking state transforms his daily life as well.

All the restless energy spent in erroneous pursuits and all the mental energy expended in confusion and negativity comes to an end. In his or her pure perceptions, the world is perfect as it is as it fulfils a higher purpose which a deluded human mind can’t conceive.

From a Yoga philosophy, this ‘abhavana,’ or non-ideation, is the collapsing of the seer-seen relationship (the duality of subject and object). As long as the objective world exists, there is a subjective experiencer of it (Seen being the world and seer being the Individual). But when that what is ‘seen’ no longer has reality to the ‘seer’, then there is no longer the presence of ‘seer.’ The sense of ‘I’ as a separate individual, falls away.

7. Turiya-ga: ‘Going beyond’ is the highest state which no words can express and mind can’t conceptualize.

The Upanishads proclaim:

He who knows the bliss of Brahman from which all words return without reaching, It, together with the mind, is no more afraid of anything. Such thoughts ‘Why have I not done what is good? Why have I committed a sin,’ do not cause agitation for a man with direct experience of Truth. 

(Taittiriya Upanishad 2.9)

A state where there is no sense of bondage and we realize not just that we are free but that we were ever free. One who is in the waking stage knows that he was never a dreamer, even when he was caught up in the nightmares. Similarly, our Self is ever free and we were never bound. All else is and was mere superimposition on the mind caused by ignorance.

As Consciousness, mental activity doesn’t bind us. We are this space of consciousness that pervades all. This realisation is the true ‘going beyond.’ The body-mind existence of one who has attained this stage is only relative from the perspective of others. In reality, he never experiences the joys and sorrows of body and mind as before. There is no longer any sense of separate individuality. The Yogi’s journey being complete, he reposes back in his identity as being one with the universal Consciousness. In other words, he comes back home to his true Self.

Note: Yoga Vasistha is not just an ancient scripture but also a contemplative science that addresses all human dilemmas. Despite the use of the word Yoga and references to various Yogic practices, it’s core philosophy aligns with Advaita Vedanta. It is both scientific in its approach and spiritual in its purport. Through stories and direct pointers, the highest spiritual Truth is revealed.

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