The Steps to Self-Inquiry
The organization of themes as presented in the Gita is not always easy to follow. Topics are often introduced in one chapter, only to be reintroduced in another. When new topics are presented, they aren’t always done in a way that is conducive to understanding the big picture. In fact, the Gita can sometimes appear like a beautifully fragmented puzzle and is why proper guidance is so important. (As much as it is my hope that this book helps provide a better understanding of the Gita and its means to liberation, it’s no substitute for receiving direction from a qualified teacher who can assess where you’re at and help clear up any doubts.)
To help navigate the Gita, the steps of Self-inquiry can be summarized as follows:
1. Karma yoga (purification of the mind)
2. Upasana yoga (steadiness of the mind)
Jnana yoga (yoga of knowledge):
3. Shravana (listening)
4. Manana (reflecting)
5. Nididhyasana (assimilating)
The method for realizing and actualizing the Self is often referred to as Self-inquiry. Self-inquiry isn’t about asking “who am I?” This sort of questioning doesn’t work because you cannot know what you don’t know, and unless you’re a spiritual genius, the knowledge probably won’t come to you by itself. Instead, Self-inquiry is to investigate the true nature of reality based on our experience using a valid and objective means of knowledge.
The five steps of Self-inquiry represent the process necessary to arrive at moksha. The first two steps and the combined last three steps are classified as yogas, or disciplines, and should be done in sequence. The Gita’s contents are structured in such a way as to support this progression. The first shatka, or set of six chapters in the Gita, focuses on karma yoga and spiritual practice applied externally through action. The second shatka has its concentration on upasana yoga or internal spiritual practice via the mind. While the last shatka focuses on jnana yoga, or Self-knowledge based on scripture.
Karma yoga (the yoga of action) focuses on proper attitude and action. It’s an external means for preparing for moksha that is applicable to everyday life, including work and other duties. The benefits of karma yoga is a mind which is less bound by attachment and aversion, as well as any expectations set by the ego. Binding likes and dislikes are a big obstacle to spiritual growth and therefore, require management as part of karma yoga. Karma yoga also helps establish a prayerful attitude toward life, therefore setting up the individual for the next phase—upasana yoga.
Upasana yoga (the yoga of spiritual discipline) is an internal means of preparing for moksha. It’s the practice of gaining mastery of the mind through self-control and steadiness. Upasana yoga includes many of the same elements found in Patanjali’s “Eightfold Path” (ashtanga yoga) which culminates in samadhi, or access to subtle meditative states. Other examples of upasana include japa (the repetition of a mantra often leading to meditation), visualization, and devotional meditation. A principle of upasana yoga is measuring self-control by both quality and quantity, in other words, through the practice of moderation. The four disciplines associated with upasana yoga include physical discipline (maintaining good health), verbal discipline (avoiding habits such as argument, gossip or idle speech), sensory discipline (avoiding that which holds sway over the mind or causes attachment) and mental discipline (concentration and mindfulness). In short, upasana yoga is about having an intelligent attitude toward life. It’s what Buddhists describe generally as “mindfulness”—acknowledging one’s feelings, thoughts and sensations on a moment-to-moment basis.
While not listed or considered a discipline per se, bhakti yoga is defined as “devotion toward God” or union between jiva and Ishvara. It encompasses karma yoga, upasana yoga and jnana yoga and is regarded as the atmosphere or spirit in which they are practiced. Thus, Vedanta generally does not consider it a separate yoga, but one that is always existent, nevertheless. Another meaning of bhakti is having God-knowledge and understanding the relationship between jiva and Ishvara. While the word “devotion” might turn off some Westerners who are just looking for the answers to life’s biggest questions, God-knowledge is important to understanding the bigger picture. It is “God-knowledge“ because devotion doesn’t have to mean mindless adoration but rather, an understanding and respect for how the forces of nature work. That said, having an appreciation for God can’t happen without first having some understanding of God. In the Gita, God-knowledge ranges from God as an external deity, to God as myself. However, to arrive at the latter, we need Self-knowledge.
The next three steps of Self-inquiry are categorized as jnana yoga (Self-knowledge). Up until this point, the inquirer has been cultivating a pure and steady mind in preparation for knowledge. Without any of the previous steps, the mind will be too agitated and distracted by attachments and aversions to gain Self-knowledge. It’s for this reason that Vedanta doesn’t promote itself or seek followers. Like running a marathon or swimming an open-water race, you’re either ready for it or you’re not. Due to their lack of curiosity or because of their karma, some people who are spiritually inclined never graduate from karma yoga or upasana yoga. But moksha isn’t a race. Even if you don’t accomplish your highest spiritual goal in this lifetime, according to scripture, it just means you’ll be born into another body, picking up from where you left off.
The first phase in the process of learning Self-knowledge is called shravana and involves just listening. Just listening can be a difficult task for most people. We all have beliefs about who we are, about the world and how we got here that we’ve carried with us since childhood (not to mention a certain reluctance to letting them go). Vedanta asks inquirers at this stage to sit down, keep quiet, and ask questions later. Needless to say, it requires an open mind because much of what Vedanta and the Gita teach is counterintuitive.
The second phase is manana. During this phase the inquirer reflects on what they have heard and asks questions to clarify what, up until now, might have only been accepted based on faith. Inquirers are encouraged to eliminate every doubt until they see for themselves, the truth of the teachings. Vedanta can be challenging, not because of its seemingly encrypted content, but because ignorance is hard-wired and tenacious.
The last phase of jnana yoga is nididhyasana, or assimilation of the teachings—and yet, it isn’t final. There is no enlightenment certificate of achievement once you have some Self-knowledge, because as the wise like to say—eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. Nididhyasana can be summed up as the constant meditation on the teachings until such a time the mind is convinced of its true nature. This phase also includes the removal of any habitual tendencies which may still be blocking one’s spiritual progress. During the nididhyasana phase we continue to neutralize bothersome tendencies, allowing their momentum to dwindle and their influence to gradually weaken or disappear all together.
Regarding how long one should spend on each of the steps of Self-inquiry—that all depends on the individual. For example, some individuals may spend 15 - 20 years practicing karma yoga and upasana yoga before starting with jnana yoga, if ever. This doesn’t suggest a weakness or lack of intelligence on the part of the seeker, it just takes that long or longer to get through all of one’s stuff (i.e. psychological obstacles and attachments), especially after years or perhaps even lifetimes of accumulating karma. It can also take that long to cultivate a dispassion for the world and recognize it’s a zero-sum game, where for every up, there’s a down. There’s a reason most people who get to jnana yoga already have more than a few gray hairs. Throughout our youth and into middle-age, samsara continues to hypnotize us with bright, shiny objects that distract us from looking within. Even when we’re older and a little wiser, by the power of maya, we can still be mislead by the empty promises the world has to offer. In the end, there are no shortcuts to spiritual progress. It, like everything in nature, evolves slowly and in its own sweet time.
The steps of Self-inquiry ultimately, lead the inquirer to moksha—for which there are said to be four qualifications:
Discrimination - Clear vision or the ability to tell the difference between that which is true and that which isn’t.
Dispassion - Seeing things as they are, free of projections. Dispassion isn’t about having an aversion to all sense objects but instead, evaluating them intelligently. Dispassion isn’t a “giving up“ but more a “growing out of.“ It’s the result of having Self-knowledge.
Discipline - The six-fold mastery of the sense organs and mind. The ability to (1) control the mind (2) control the senses (3) withdraw from sense objects (4) have forbearance (5) have faith in the teaching and the teacher and (6) concentrate. We “control” the mind and senses through understanding our relationship with objects, as well as with our thoughts and feelings. Discipline also includes the upkeep of the body-mind (our instrument for achieving spiritual success).
Desire (for liberation) - The individual, frustrated by worldly experience and multiple failed attempts at finding lasting peace and happiness, begins to look for it inwardly. With the gained understanding that true happiness can only to be found within, the desire for moksha becomes strong and the seeker, dedicated.
It is said that if you don’t understand the scriptures it’s not because the scriptures are wrong. It’s because you’re not ready for the teaching and may need to first focus on the qualifications (or even re-qualify). What this implies is that a certain readiness is needed for gaining Self-knowledge. Swami Paramarthananda likes to compare the utility of Vedanta scripture to an information counter in a railway station—it’s there for when you need it and could save you a lot of time. However, Vedanta isn’t going to find you, you find it—usually after much exhaustion reading hundreds of self-help and spiritual books, trying out various practices with moderate results, and going through a handful of teachers (some authentic, some not). For many people, Vedanta is the last stop. They’re at their wits end and no longer afraid to confront the truth and do the work. This is where the last qualification, desire, comes from.
To summarize, the typical course for a seeker is to (1) follow karma yoga for purity of mind, (2) follow upasana for steadiness of mind, (3) find a teacher to gain Self-knowledge and (4) be free.