The following article and information is from the web site www.vedanta.org and from the book Vedanta: A Simple Introduction by Pravrajika Vrajaprana, a member of the Vedanta Society of Southern California.
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Hinduism does not have a single founder, a specific theological system, a single system of morality, or a central religious organization. It consists of a conglomerate of diverse beliefs and traditions with many different religious groups that have evolved in India.
Vedanta is the philosophical foundation of Hinduism. Vedanta is one of the world’s most ancient religious philosophies and one of its broadest. Based on the Vedas, the sacred scriptures of India, Vedanta affirms the oneness of existence, the divinity of the soul, and the harmony of religions.
While in recent years the word "yoga" has been heard more in gyms than in religious discourse, "yoga" in its original sense has little to do with exercise. "Yoga" comes from the Sanskrit verb yuj, to yoke or unite. The goal of yoga is to unite oneself with God; the practice of yoga is the path we take to accomplish this.
There are four basic types of yoga or paths to God:
Bhakti yoga is the path of devotion, the method of attaining God through love and the loving recollection of God.
Jnana yoga is the yoga of knowledge—not knowledge in the intellectual sense—but the knowledge of Brahman (God) and Atman (collective soul) and the realization of their unity.
Karma yoga is the yoga of action or work; specifically, karma yoga is the path of dedicated work: renouncing the results of our actions as a spiritual offering rather than hoarding the results for ourselves.
Raja yoga, is the royal path of meditation. As a king maintains control over his kingdom, so can we maintain control over our own "kingdom"—the vast territory of the mind.
The basic premise of raja yoga is that our perception of the divine Self is obscured by the disturbances of the mind. If the mind can be made still and pure, the Self will automatically, instantaneously, shine forth. Says the Bhagavad Gita:
When, through the practice of yoga,
the mind ceases its restless movements,
and becomes still,
the aspirant realizes the Atman.
If we can imagine a lake that is whipped by waves, fouled by pollution, muddied by tourists and made turbulent by speedboats, we’ll get a fair assessment of the mind’s usual state.
Should anyone doubt this assertion, let the intrepid soul try to sit quietly for a few minutes and meditate upon the Atman. What happens? A thousand different thoughts fly at us, all leading the mind outward. The fly buzzing around suddenly becomes very important. So does the thought of dinner. We now remember where we left the keys. The argument we had yesterday becomes even more vivid and powerful; so does the perfect retort that we’ve cleverly composed during our "meditation." The minute we stop thinking one thought, another jumps in with equal force. Were it not so dismaying, it would be funny.
Most of the time we remain unaware of the mind’s erratic movements because we are habituated to giving our minds free reign: we’ve never seriously attempted to observe, let alone train the mind. Like parents whose indiscipline has created children that everyone dreads, our lack of mental discipline has created the turbulent, ill-behaved minds that have given us endless difficulty. Without psychological discipline, the mind becomes the mental equivalent of the house ape. And all of us, sadly enough, have suffered mental agony because of it.
Mastering the Mind
While we may have grown accustomed to living with an uncontrolled mind, we should never assume that it’s an acceptable, if not inevitable, state of affairs. Vedanta says that we can master the mind and, through repeated practice, we can make the mind our servant rather than being its victim. The mind, when trained, is our truest friend; when left untrained and reckless, it’s an enemy that won’t leave the premises.
Now, instead of the polluted lake we previously envisioned, think of a beautiful, clear lake. No waves, no pollution, no tourists, no speedboats. It’s clear as glass: calm, quiet, tranquil. Looking down through the pure water, you can clearly see the bottom of the lake. The bottom of the lake, metaphorically speaking, is the Atman residing deep within our hearts. When the mind is pure and calm, the Self is no longer hidden from view. And, Vedanta says, that mind can be yours.
How? To again quote the Bhagavad Gita:
Patiently, little by little, spiritual aspirants must free themselves from all mental distractions, with the aid of the intelligent will. They must fix their minds upon the Atman, and never think of anything else. No matter where the restless and unquiet mind wanders, it must be drawn back and made to submit to the Atman alone.
The mind is cleansed and made tranquil through the repeated practice of meditation and through the practice of moral virtues.
Popular wisdom aside, there is no way to practice meditation without practicing moral virtues in tandem. To try to do otherwise is as effective as sailing the ocean with a leaky boat.
For such a Herculean task as realizing the Atman, all areas of the mind must be fully engaged. We cannot compartmentalize our life and assume that we can have both a "secular" area (in which we can live as we please) and a "spiritual" area. Just as we can’t cross the ocean in a leaky boat, so we can’t cross the ocean with two legs in two different boats. We must fully integrate all aspects of life and direct our energies towards the one great goal.
This doesn’t mean that in order to realize God a person must totally renounce the world and live in a cave, monastery or convent. What it does mean is that all aspects of our life must be spiritualized so that they can be directed towards attaining the goal of God-realization.
Because raja yoga is the path of meditation, it is—when practiced exclusively—generally followed by those who lead contemplative lives. Most of us will never fall into that category. Raja yoga is, however, an essential component of all other spiritual paths since meditation is involved in the loving recollection of God, mental discrimination, and is an essential balance to selfless action.
As for directions on how to meditate and what to meditate upon, such issues must be taken up directly with a qualified spiritual teacher. Meditation is an intensely personal matter; only a genuine spiritual teacher can accurately gauge the student’s personal tendencies and direct the student’s mind accordingly.
Further, spirituality is caught, not taught. A genuine spiritual teacher ignites the flame of spirituality in the student by the power of his or her own attainment: the student’s candle is lit by the teacher’s flame. Our candles cannot be lit by books any more than they can be lit by unqualified teachers who speak religion without living it. True spirituality is transmitted: only pure, unselfish teachers who have achieved some level of spiritual awakening can enliven our own dormant flame.
That said, some basic guidelines can be given:
- Any concept of God—whether formless or with form—that appeals to us is helpful and good.
- We can think of God as being present either outside of ourselves or inside. Ramakrishna, however, recommended meditating upon God within, saying "the heart is a splendid place for meditation."
- Repetition of any name of God that appeals to us is good, so is repeating the holy syllable "Om."
- It’s helpful to have a regular time for meditation in order to create a habit;
- It’s also helpful to have a regular place for meditation that is quiet, clean, and tranquil.
A brief history of Vedanta
Throughout the centuries, India has produced many great saints and illuminated teachers. One of the greatest of these was Ramakrishna (1836-1886). His intense spirituality attracted a group of young disciples who, on his passing, formed a monastic community, later to be called the Ramakrishna Order of India. One of the young monks, Swami Vivekananda, came to America as the representative to the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. His success was so great that for several years he toured the United States lecturing and holding classes. With the help of his brother monks, he started a number of Vedanta Centers in America.
There are different approaches as this Sanskrit hymn professes:
As the different streams
Having their sources in different places
All mingle their water in the sea,
So O Lord, the different is which men take,
Through various tendencies,
Various though they appear
Crooked or straight, All lead to thee.
Thus Vedanta teaches respect for all religions.
There are now 20 Vedanta Societies in the US & Canada which are the Western branches of the Ramakrishna Order of India. There are many Vedanta Societies and, or, branches of the Ramakrishna Order throughout the rest of the world and more information on the Order may be found at http://belurmath.org/home.htm.