Svadhyaya, know your Self, know God


Svādhyāya (स्वाध्याय) is commonly translated as “self-study”; a combination of “sva”, which means “one’s own”, or “self”, and “adhyāya” which means “chapter (as in a book)”, “lesson”, “study”, or “reading”.  In the context of yoga, self-study does not necessarily suggest studying alone, or a mere intellectual exercise, but the use of the intellect to study the Self.  It is a profound process of self-discovery, not a skin-deep survey.  It may begin with the body, but it must pass through the breath, progress to the mind, into wisdom, bliss, eventually to the very core of the Self.

Verily, to know yourself at every level of your being, you must grapple with the various aspects of yourself – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual; a rigorous examination of body, breath, mind is required to reveal every facet of your personality and situation.  Endeavor to follow the actions of your past to their present fruition, try to see how the thoughts and actions of your past shape the experiences you have now.  Stay on track, remember, this is self-study, not someone else-study!  Blaming someone else for your condition is contrary to the infallible law of karma!  Besides, in doing so you make yourself a defenseless victim of the luck of the draw – don’t squeal like a pig when you were made to roar!

Classic eternal questions should also be pondered: Who am I?  Why am I here?  Where did I come from?  Where am I going?  What is my purpose in life?  What is the meaning of my life?

Self-study should yield knowledge and understanding, and not vainglory and spiritual pride.  Take meticulous care that svādhyāya does not descend into a self-indulgent, narcissistic meandering of the mind, or meaningless mental gymnastics.  To help guard against this very likely occurrence, self-enquiry and self-reflection must be undertaken in conjunction with mantra japa, and the contemplation of sacred texts known as mokṣa śāstra (मोक्ष शास्त्र).

Mantra japa is vital because the power and energy (śakti शक्ति) of the mantra will guide and protect the mind of the one who repeats it, providing clarity, and spiritual focus to self-study.  Do note that different mantras have different energies, therefore, not all mantras are appropriate for this particular purpose.

Mokṣa śāstra are texts primarily concerned with the release of the soul from the bondage of karma, they include the Yoga Sūtra (योगसूत्र), Bhagavad Gītā (भगवद्गीता), and the Upaniṣads (उपनिषद्).  They serve as landmarks, reference direction, and compass, to help us navigate through the tricky and often treacherous terrain en route to the Self.

Without bearing, milestones, and detailed description of the destination, it is easy to get sidetracked and lost.  It is not difficult to get distracted and deceived by the sights and sounds along the way (especially if you stumble onto the scenic route), thinking that you have reached the ultimate destination.

For example, you may have examined yourself and come to the conclusion that you have mastered ahimsā (अहिंसा) because you are a strict vegetarian.  Yoga Sūtra 2.35 provides a reality check –

अहिंसाप्रतिष्ठायां तत्संनिधौ वैरत्यागः ।
ahiṁsāpratiṣṭhāyāṁ tatsaṁnidhau vairatyāgaḥ

When one is firmly established in non-violence, violence verily vanishes in his presence.

Therefore, a master of ahimsā would have no qualms walking into a den of hungry lions.  If that thought gives you the jitters, perhaps it is time to re-examine your conclusion, and to search for lingering traces of hurtful thoughts or behaviors in your personality.

In the light of this Yoga Sūtra, if M.K. Gandhi was truly established in ahiṁsā, would his assassin still have the determination and willpower to pull the trigger as he came into Gandhi’s presence?

But we digress.

Ultimately, svādhyāya – careful, conscientious self-enquiry and reflection, accompanied by the practice of mantra japa, and contemplation of sacred scriptures lays the foundation for īśvara praṇidhāna (ईश्वरप्रणिधान) –

स्वाध्यायादिष्टदेवतासम्प्रयोगः ।

By self-study, we connect with our desired deity

– Yoga Sūtra 2.44

For without first establishing contact with your deity of choice (iṣṭadevatā इष्टदेवता), how could you possibly surrender to Him or Her?