The sublime Vedantic text showcases how a young Rama was nurtured by his guru, Brahmarshi Vasishtha, to fulfill his future role.
Almost everyone is aware of the Adi Kavya Ramayan, the most definitive work of Valmiki, but not many may have heard of the other renditions of this story purportedly written by the same man – the Adbhut Ramayan and the Yoga Vasishtha. The Adbhut Ramayan highlights Sita’s prowess in the story of Rama after they return from Lanka, giving it a more Shakta tone than the original text. The Yoga Vasishtha on the other hand, is a more esoteric work, set within the timeline of the traditional narrative.
Even though it is said to be written by Valmiki, the name of the book is derived from that of Vasishtha, the chief preceptor of the Suryavanshi or Solar Clan to which Rama also belonged.
Most readers of Ramayan would remember the incidence of Vishwamitra’s arrival in the court of Maharaj Dashrath to ask for his son’s help in eliminating the demons of the forest. Dashrath is not quite eager to send his adolescent son to the forest but ultimately gets convinced by the guidance of Brahmarshi Vasishtha. While in the traditional Ramayan, the princes then leave with Vishwamitra, the Yoga Vasishtha introduces a new element in the story here.
After the king has been convinced, a new problem emerges – Rama, we are told, has been oblivious to everything happening around him since the time he has returned from a tour of the various parts of the country and is almost in a state of mourning. Brahmarishi Vasishtha asks Rama to explain the reasons for his melancholy and the response that Rama gives and the counter reasoning given by Vasishtha form the major chunk of this brilliant book. The Yog Vasishtha therefore is the record of how the young avatar of Lord Vishnu is prepared by his guru for the role he has to play in the future.
What exactly was bothering Rama would be clear from the following words that show his detached state of mind –
“The hollow desert that appears as the dried bed of a sea today will be found tomorrow to be a running flood from the accumulation of rainwater. What today is a mountain reaching the sky covered with extensive forests is in course of time leveled to the ground, and afterwards is dug into a pit. The body that today is clothed with garments of silk, decorated with garlands and fragrance, tomorrow is to be cast away naked into a ditch.….
Thus the world with all its contents composed of wood, grass and water becomes something else in course of time. Our boyhood and youth, bodies and possessions are all only transient things. They change from one state to another like the ever fluctuating waves of the ocean. Our lives in this world are as unsteady as the flame of a lamp placed by the draft of an open window. The splendor of all objects in the three worlds is as flickering as the flash of lightning. As a granary stored with heaps of grains is exhausted by its continued waste, so is the stock of life spent away by its repeated respirations.” (I.28)
As would be clear from the above excerpt, Rama had developed a sense of complete detachment after his excursions. He was convinced that living itself was a futile activity since everything is bound to die one day but he has doubts about his conclusions and proceeds to ask his guru for instruction. Readers may find some parallels here with the way Arjuna had asked Krishna for directions in the Bhagvad Gita, and they wouldn’t be too off the mark, but the Yog Vasishtha is more strongly Vedantic in tone with focus on Gyan Yoga rather than Karma or Bhakti Yoga.
“Know, O son of Raghu’s race, that this world is a display of the vast kingdom of your imagination. It will vanish into nothing when you come to good understanding by the grace of your God. Then you will see the whole as clearly as the light of the rising sun, and you will know this world is like a creation of your dream.” (VIA.28.29-31)
“[T]he primary cause of spiritual light is a man’s intelligence, which is only gained by exertion of his mental powers. The secondary causes may be the blessing and grace of a god, but I wish you to prefer the former one for your salvation.” (V.43.11)
Over the course of twenty-two days, Rama keeps on asking questions and Vasishtha, his spiritual mentor, keeps on answering diligently using stories that could help the young boy understand the esoteric concepts in an easier way. The Brahmarishi gives Rama several examples of enlightened kings who ruled their nations without any sense of attachment and teaches him not to be fatalistic.
“Present acts destroy those of the past life, and those of the past life can destroy the effect of present acts, but the exertions of a man are undoubtedly successful. Of these two powers, that of the present is manifestly superior to the past. Hence it is as possible for the present to overcome the past just like it is for an adult to overcome a boy.” (II.6.18-19)
“Wise men escape from great difficulties by means of their efforts, but not so the mistaken fatalist by his fruitless inertia.” (II.7.18)
“It was by means of his actions that Vishnu conquered the demons and established the order of the world. It was by this that he created the worlds, none of which could be the work of fate.” (II.7.31)
The Brahmarishi even gives Rama the example of the guest whose arrival had started this discourse – Vishwamitra – the protagonist of my own mytho-fiction book, as the living example that Vasishth asks his pupil to emulate:
“Mark, O Rama, how the sage Vishwamitra has cast away his destiny and attained the state of Brahmarishi by his own efforts. Look at us and others who have become sages. It was by our industry that we became wanderers in the ethereal regions. Remember, O Rama, how the chiefs of the Danava race discarded their destinies altogether and used their prowess to establish their empires on earth. Look again how the chiefs of the gods have wrested the extensive earth from those demons by their valorous deeds of slaying and harassing them (in battle).” (II.8.20-23)
Even though it is focused more on the intellectual pursuit of enlightenment, the Yoga Vasishtha is a repository of some really fascinating stories that can put many other story compilations to shame. There are stories about humans, animals, gods and even pious demons. In effect, the entire book is a story within a story within another story – the conversation between Rama and his guru is actually narrated by Valmiki to his student Bharadwaja as a story (Narad sharing it with an Apsara), within a story (Rishi Agniveshya telling the story to his son), within yet another story (Rishi Agastya narrating the events to his student)!
The beautifully complicated plot is a treat to anyone who loves stories and the reason for so many tales becomes evident with the following words:
“But because the human mind is like a child, it must not be forced. The training of a child is like that of the mind. It is done slowly by gentleness and indulgence, and not by force or hurry.” (II.9.32-33)
There are tales that transcend the constraints of space and time and take the reader into fantastical possibilities. For example, in the story of the ten Aindava bothers, all ten of them become the Creator, the sole God of the Universe, at the same time. Then there is a certain King Vipashchit who through a Yagna, splits himself into four, and successfully wages wars in four directions.
The story of Queen Leela and King Padma, has elements of time travel where the queen pleases Goddess Saraswati who takes her into the past. The two then end up witnessing the couple’s prior life to show Leela her husband’s desire to possess an empire and its consequences. In another fascinating tale, a Brahmin called Gadhi experiences another lifetime within a dream which is so real that he cannot distinguish it from reality even after waking up.
The flow of the book is quite non-linear and in fact the book ends with Vasishtha telling Rama of his previous births. There is also a strong message of universal brotherhood and Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. All the stories narrated to the young impressionable prince serve to make him aware of how to fulfill his Dharma in the world.
I conclude my post with a sincere request to the readers of this article to pick up this unexplored yet fascinating book and the words of American author Thomas L. Palotas that capture the essence of the Yoga Vasishtha quite succintly:
Significantly enough, Yoga Vasishta has only happy endings. It is the ultimate self-help book. But we do create our own waking-dreams, our lives, and whether we like our lives or not, they are our own expressions of staggering growth, beauty, symmetry and structure. Neither our acts nor knowledge alone produces liberation, but both together are the means.
Perhaps this book could become a guiding force for at least some of the readers and lead them to a better future.