‘Hindu’ Approaches to Meditation

Defining Hinduism is difficult. As Klaus Klostermaier notes, “The long history, the vastness and the heterogeneity of Hinduism offer enormous challenges to each and every description of the tradition.”[1] Some scholars argue that the term ‘Hinduism’ covers such a diversity of traditions that it has no meaning.[2] However, for the purposes of this article, the most useful way to define Hinduism is as an umbrella term for all the traditions that adhere to the sacred scriptures of the Vedas; ancient Indian texts in Sanskrit that cover psychology, religion, and philosophy, and that date back to approximately 3500 B.C.E.[3] The Vedas, the Upanishads (c. 800 – 600 B.C.E.), the Bhagavad Gita (c. 500 – 300 B.C.E.), and the Yoga Sutras (c. 200 B.C.E. – 300 C.E.), are the major source texts regarding Hindu forms of meditation.[4] These scriptures contain references to meditation practices embedded within a religious and philosophical context that addresses issues such as ethics, prescriptions for living, and theories regarding the existence of God.[5] In Hinduism, this combination of meditation and context is often referred to as yoga. It should be noted that this usage of the term ‘yoga’ is different to modern postural yoga as it is taught in the West today, which has its origins in techniques of proprioceptive relaxation developed in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe and America.[6]

Traditional Hindu texts refer to a variety of meditation practices. For example, the Upanishads mention techniques that utilise cosmic contemplation, Vedic religious symbolism, avataras (images understood to be a physical presence of a deity or God), and mantras (words or sounds that have special religious significance) like the OM.[7] Various positive physiological and psychological effects are also mentioned in the Hindu scriptures, however health benefits tend to be the outcome of preparatory and purification practices (kriya) rather than of meditation itself.[8] For example, body postures (asana) and breath control (pranayama) are preparatory cleansing techniques used to maintain health, prevent disease and increase the life span.  However, the intention behind the cultivation of these health effects is religious; that is, the primary goal of asana and pranayama is to prepare the individual to sit comfortably and motionless for protracted periods of meditation.[9]

Sometimes kriyas contain meditative elements, such as in the case of trataka, which is both a purification practice and a form of concentration meditation.[10] Trataka involves concentrated gazing at an object (usually a candle flame) and is said to confer a wide range of health benefits, including the treatment of eye conditions, depression, insomnia, allergies, anxiety, and postural problems.[11] When practiced correctly, trataka also induces a meditative mental state and, with time, is said to improve memory and concentration.[12] However, like the other kriyas, while trataka has many alleged therapeutic effects, its primary purpose as a cleansing technique is connected to a religious goal; that is, to purify and prepare the body for the demands of prolonged meditation.[13] Hence, while meditation is utilised in contemporary Western secular settings primarily for health promotion and symptom relief, in the traditional Hindu context, physical and mental wellbeing are prerequisites to begin meditation practice, not its goal.

Scholars note that although many discrepancies exist between traditional Hindu texts, they all point towards a common theme; that is, if an individual practices meditation with dedication, for a prolonged period of time, it should eventually lead to a state of enlightenment (moksha, or mukti, liberation). This is the primary goal of Hindu meditation.[14] Although described as a state of being that is ultimately ineffable, in Hinduism, the term ‘enlightenment’ refers to both liberation from the cycle of rebirth (samsara),[15] as well as the ability to gain access to and dwell in ‘pure consciousness’ (purusha; also sometimes translated as true person or true self).[16]  According to Vedanta philosophy, all human suffering results from ignorance of, and separation from, the pure consciousness state. Pure consciousness is always present, but the conscious mind, with its constant fluctuations (vritti), presents this state from being accessed.[17] If, however, the mind is able to be stilled via meditation, then the connection between the limited human intellect and pure consciousness can become strong enough to enable the individual to access the pure consciousness state and abide there. There is a complex religious literature that details the process that leads to enlightenment, however for the purposes of this thesis it is suffice to say that meditation works by intercepting the flux of ordinary mental activity and allowing the mind to access states of meditative absorption and concentration (Sanskrit: samadhi) that lead to eventual liberation.[18] Koneru Ramakrishna Rao summarises:

Meditation in the classical tradition has a single acceptable application, which is the transformation of the person to realise herself in a state of total transcendence and freedom from all the existential constraints.[19]

[1] K.K. Klostermaier, A Survey of Hinduism 3rd Ed. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007), 15.

[2] See L. Williamson, Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 55.

[3] In Indian languages, the preferred description of Hinduism is Vaidika dharma, the “Vedic Law”. Klostermaier, A Survey, 15.

[4] The Yoga Sutras are widely accepted in most, if not all, Hindu schools that address meditation. P. Sedlmeier, et al. “The Psychological Effects of Meditation: A Meta-Analysis,” Psychological Bulletin 138, no. 6 (2012): 1139-1171. For an overview of these texts see G. Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition. Also, A.M. Simpkins and C.A. Simpkins, Meditation and Yoga in Psychotherapy: Techniques for Clinical Practice (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2011), 45-49.

[5] Feuerstein argues that in Hinduism, the distinction between philosophy and religion is not as clear-cut as it is in contemporary Western culture. Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition, 72.

[6] M. Singleton, “Salvation through Relaxation: Proprioceptive Therapy and its Relationship to Yoga,” Journal of Contemporary Religion, 20, no.3 (2005): 289-304.

[7] Klostermaier, A Survey, 164; 206-207. Also, Swami Jyotirmayananda, “Meditation on the Self and Superconsciousness,” International Journal of Humanities and Peace 22, no. 1 (2006): 58-61.

[8] Klostermaier writes: “That health and religion go hand in hand is a commonly accepted truism among the Hindus.” Klostermaier, A Survey, 140-141.

[9] The Yoga Sutras mention effects (vibhutis, or properties of yoga) such as the attainment of “an excellent body with grace, strength, perfect complexion and lustre” and a temperament that is “friendly and compassionate to all” however these are seen as side effects, not primary goals of practice. Klostermaier, A Survey, 346-350.

[10] Trataka is mentioned in the The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (c. 900 – 1000 B.C.E.), the first important written work to depict the asanas used in the Hatha Yoga tradition. See Swami Muktibodhananda (ed.), Hatha Yoga Pradipika: Light on Hatha Yoga (Munger, Bihar, India: Yoga Publications Trust, 2012), 212.

[11] Swami Muktibodhananda, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, 212.

[12] There is some scientific support for this claim. For example, B.R. Raghavendra and P. Singh, “Immediate Effect of Yogic Visual Concentration on Cognitive Performance,” Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine 6 (2016): 34-36.

[13] For an overview of the kriyas see Swami Muktibodhananda, Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

[14] However, Klostermaier notes that the terms moksa or mukti are hardly ever used by the Upanishads to describe the ‘ultimate condition;’ they prefer terms like immortality, bliss, or becoming brahman. Klostermaier, A Survey, 178.

[15] The general Indian and Buddhist worldview is that humans (and all sentient beings) are subject to an apparently endless cycle of rebirth or reincarnation. For example, R. Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998), 17-18.

[16] Sedlmeier and Srinivas write that “gaining access to pure consciousness and dwelling therein is, in fact, the highest aim [of meditation]… the result of having gained access to pure consciousness and dwelling therein is known in the literature as … ‘enlightenment’ or ‘realisation.’” P. Sedlmeier and K. Srinivas, “How Do Theories of Cognition and Consciousness in Ancient Indian Thought Systems Relate to Current Western Theorizing and Research?,” Frontiers in Psychology 7 (2016): 3-4. Many other definitions of this state exist including ‘to see reality as it is,’ or to realise the equivalence of the small individual self (Atman) with one’s true (eternal) Self (Brahman). According to yoga philosophy, Brahman is ineffable. In the Upanishads it is described as neti neti (not this, not that). For example, see Sedlmeier et al., “The Psychological Effects,” 1139-1171.

[17] Klostermaier writes: This freedom is “not a new acquisition, a product, an effect or result of any action, but it always existed as the Truth of our nature; we are always emancipated and always free.” Klostermaier, A Survey, 178.

[18] For an overview of Patanjali’s eight-fold path to enlightenment, see “The Eight Limbs of the Path of Self-Transcendence,” in Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition, 244-254.

[19] K.R. Rao, Cognitive Anomalies, Consciousness and Yoga (New Delhi, India: Matrix, 2010). Cited in P. Sedlmeier et al., “The Psychological Effects of Meditation,” 1142.

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