YogavAsiShTa vs. Bhagavad-Gita

A question that is often asked of me is why YogavAsiShTa is not as popular as Bhagavad-Gita.

[Frankly, I am not sure if that is true and if so why it is so. I spell out a few of my thoughts to start a healthy discussion.]

 In my own case, it was Bhagavad-Gita that I was first exposed to, even as a teenager, and it was much later in my life after my pate turned bald and the few hairs that remained acquired a silver gray hue, that I happened to study YogavAsiShTa. I can say with certitude that both books must have been equally present in my house when I was growing up with my parents. Could it be that my parents somehow conspired to see that I did not get access to read the YogavAsiShTa in my youth because of my mother’s apprehension or belief in an adage that was popular in those times that one who reads YogavAsiShTa would surely fling the family life and retire to a forest as a Sannyasi (renunciate)?

Perhaps, I would have? I do not know to this day. Could that be a reason enough for YogavAsiShTa being not that widely popular among the modern spiritual aspirants?

Whatever may be, without a doubt, YogavAsiShTa is a very powerful and profound text, a treasure house in fact, on Advaita Vedanta that comes with the bold and unabashed declaration that anyone reading it diligently cannot but clearly see the falsity of the phantasmagoric world and realize his/her true nature.

For example, we have in YogavAsiShTa:

सुखदुःखक्षयकरं महानन्दैककारणम् |

मोक्षोपायमिमं राम वक्ष्यमाणं मया शृणु || —     Ch II, sarga 10, verse 7.

“[YogavAsiShTa] takes one to the highest Bliss which is beyond pleasure and pain. It’s the means to Liberation, I shall narrate to you, Rama, listen.”

यस्मिन्श्रुते मते ज्ञाते तपोध्यानजपादिकम् |

मोक्षप्राप्तौ नरस्येह किंचिदुपयुज्यते ||   —   Ch II, sarga 18, verse 35

“Having studied, understood and realized its philosophy, one does not stand in need of any other performance (askesis, meditation, mantra chanting etc.) for liberation.

मोक्षोपायानिमान्पुण्यान्प्रत्यक्षानुभवार्थदान्

बालोप्यकर्ण्य तत्ज्ञात्वं याति का त्वादृशे कथा || —  Ch VI, Part 2, sarga 215, verse 6.

“Having learnt the methods of liberation, expounded in this work which brings about direct Intuition, even a child comes to realize the Self.”

Swami Ramatirtha, one of the greatest saints of modern India and a great Vedantin, said in lecture in the USA:

“One of the greatest books, and the most wonderful, according to me, ever written under the Sun is Yogavasishta, which nobody on earth can read without realizing God-Consciousness.”  (Ref: In Woods of God realization, Delhi Edition, Vol III, p: 295).

He also added that “This work is clear, comprehensive and written in a real and true poetry.” (Ref. ibid, p: 327).

Prof. B.L. Atreya in his commendable work, “The Philosophy of The Yogavasishta – A Comparative, Critical, And Synthetic Survey of the Philosophical Ideas of Vasishta as Presented in the Yogavasishta Maharamayana” (published by The Theosophical Publishing House, India, 1936), alludes to a saying about YogavAsiShTa among the Vedantins. He writes that “it is a work of siddhAvasthA, i.e.  for the Philosopher-Yogi, who having mastered the theory, is passing on to the practice of it, while the other well-known works, even the Gita, Upanishads, brahma-sUtra-s are works of sAddhanAvasthA. i.e. for those who are yet trying to master the theory.”

Dr. Atreya was certain that YogavAsiShTa played a significant role in the thought process of the Advaita philosophers throughout the history of its development. He said that “a comparative study of YogavAsiShTa with the vairAgya shataka and vAkyapadIya of Bhartrihari, with the mANDUkya kArikA-s of Gaudapada, with the vivekacUDAmaNi of Shankara and with the mAnasollAsa of Sureshwara will clearly reveal the influence which the YogavAsiShTha exercised over these illustrious thinkers of the Advaita school of thought.”

In addition, an examination of the many of the minor Upanishads reveals that several of them are wholly or partially composed of the shloka-s quoted verbatim from YogavAsiShTa.

Examples are Maha-, annapUrNa-, akShi-, muktika-, varAha-, brihat  samnyAsa-, sandilya-, yAjnavalkya-, maitreyi-, pingal-, yogakunDali-, tejobindu-, jAbAladarshana-, tripuratApinI-, yogasikha-, amritabindu-, saubhAgyalakshmi-, etc. Upanishads.

Swami Vidyaranya, the 12th Pontiff of Shringeri quotes hundreds of shloka-s from YogavAsiShTa in many of his well-known works like pancadashi, jIvanmukti viveka, brahmavit AshIrvAda paddhati etc.  Swami Prakashananda Saraswati extensively quotes from Yogavasishta in his vedAnta siddhAnta muktAvali.

It is interesting to note a significant contrast between these two highly revered texts. Bhagavad-Gita is the spiritual teaching by the Lord Himself (who was born as Krishna, an avatar, in the Yadava dynasty) to a human being (Arjuna – a Pandava Prince of the Lunar dynasty). Arjuna was almost in his eighties when he received Krishna’s instruction.

In contrast, YogavAsiShTha is a teaching by a human being (Sage Vasishta, the first son of Brahma, the Creator) to the Lord Himself (who was born as Rama, an avatar, a Prince of Solar dynasty). Rama was hardly a lad of 12 years when he was taught the supreme philosophy.

Both the texts have, however, one commonality. The teaching was to an ardent seeker who was mentally dejected, depressed and indecisive about the future course of action.

Krishna begins his teaching about the Ultimate Self to Arjuna beginning with a few of the shlokas from KaTha Upanishad. YogavAsiShTha structured its teaching about the attributeless brahman based on a mantra from taittirIya Upanishad.

Bhagavad-Gita encouragingly allows a seeker even to meditate on a personified form of a God-head. Krishna admits:

क्लेशोऽधिकतरस्तेषामव्यक्तासक्तचेतसाम् 
अव्यक्ता हि गतिर्दुःखं देहवद्भिरवाप्यते       — Ch 12, verse 5

Meaning: For those who are set on the unmanifest (attributeless brahman), the path of realization is full of tribulations. Worship of the unmanifest is exceedingly difficult for the embodied beings.

In the later verses, He concedes worshiping Him (in the form of Krishna) will help the seekers to transcend the world.

YogavAsiShTha, though not averse to adopt diverse approaches towards the full realization of the Supreme Self, observes categorically that the worship of a form is gauNa (inferior). It also does not hesitate to say that the Oneness of the worshiper with the worshiped is necessary in order that the worship is meaningful. We have from YogavAsiShTha:

अविष्णुः पूजयन् विष्णुं पूजाफलभाग्भवेत्

विष्णुर्भूत्वा यजेद्विष्णुं अयं विष्णुरहं स्थितः   — shloka 40, sarga 31 –  upasama prakaraNa.

Meaning: The prayer of a Non-Vishnu to Vishnu will not yield any result. Yes, I am Vishnu now. One has to become a Vishnu and then worship Him.

Shankara also supports this view in his introduction to his commentary on  विष्णु सहस्र नामस्तोत्र (viShNu sahasra nAmastotra) citing the shloka:

अविष्णुः कीर्तयेत् विष्णुं अविष्णुः  विष्णुं अर्चयेत्

अविष्णुः संस्मरेत् विष्णुं अविष्णुः  विष्णुं आप्नुयात्

Meaning: One who is not himself ViShnu cannot sing about viShNu, cannot worship viShNu, cannot meditate on viShNu, will not attain to viShNu.

Sage Vasishta gives much more importance to dispassion and detachment in the pursuit of liberation, compared to meditation. He says:

“Meditation is useless without Detachment. Meditation is meaningless with Detachment. Total Detachment is fundamental for Nirvana.” – Ch 6, Part 2, sarga 46.

The main focus in “YogavAsiShTha is on conveying the Non-dual message clearly to the seeker anticipating all his possible doubts. It avoids polemical arguments and is not concerned with debating other systems. A wide spectrum of models are used in imparting the Non-dual teaching – from the most traditional shravaNa-manana-nididhyAsana to Neo-advaitic concept of none to teach or to seek.”

(http://www.advaita.org.uk/discourses/Yogavasishta/yogavasishta_contents.html ).

Sage Vasishta foresees and presents what Shri Krishna would be teaching Arjuna in a future epoch (Yuga) – (vide the sarga-s  52 to 58 of YogavAsiShTa, Chapter 6, Part 1). About 27 verses of YogavAsiShTa in these sarga-s are exactly or almost the same that one finds in the present day Bhagavad-Gita. These 27 verses occur distributed in different chapters of the Gita – from the 2nd to the 18th chapters.

The presently available Bhagavad-Gita comprises 700 verses. The authorship for the compilation for the 700-verse version of the Gita is usually attributed to Shankara. Some experts opine that the original Bahgavad-Gita had 745 verses whereas some others claim that it was much shorter. Whatever it may be, it looks that Bhagavad-Gita has become much more popular only after Shankara. It may also be noted that Shankara did not group the verses into the 18 chapters. That was done by later people.

Bhagavad-Gita’s popularity could also have been due to a historical quirk. The invading religious zealots propagating Islam and Christianity during the Medieval period in the history of India had one God to follow and one book as an authority for their belief systems. The ancient Indian spiritual tradition was based on a number of sometimes even vastly divergent texts. The sanAtana dharma in vogue was more of an umbrella term holding the followers of several doctrines under it. Therefore, sanAtana dharma of India had no single text to represent what it stood for.

Also, there was no one sacred book, something comparable to the Bible or Quran, for the natives to swear by in the legal jurisprudence dispensed by the Muslim and the British rulers in the courts. Bhagavad-Gita which is considered to be an essence of  Vedanta quickly filled that gap. Thus Bhagavad-Gita did become much more known and commonly accepted spiritual text for the Hindus.

Shankara developed a graded system of teaching the Advaita philosophy, grouping the canonical texts into three categories. First came the Instructional group (upadesha prasthAna) consisting of the Upanishads. Next was the nyAya prasthAna (logical and analytic group) of brahma sUtra-s that helped the seeker in reflecting on what was learnt by him/her. Bhagavad-Gita came at the end as the sAdhana prasthAna, which was a guide for living the spiritual life of a committed aspirant. Bhagavad-Gita is like a life-strategy manual for the seeker after s/he has listened to and understood the teaching without having an iota of doubt left in him/her on the principle of jIva-brahmaikya (Oneness of the individual and the Supreme Self). The following table summarizes the teaching methodology promoted by Shankara:

Table: 1: The Three Phases in the Study of Advaita (based on brihadAraNyaka up):

Phase Objective Text followed Understanding to be achieved.
shravaNa Learning the message (upadesha) Upanishads with bhAShya-s and special Advaitic Monographs tat tvam asi’ (You and brahman are the same)
manana reflection on what is learnt using logic (yukti) brahmasUtra bhAShya and Monographs and Treatises aham brahmasmi’ (I am brahman)
nididhyAsana Unbroken abidance in the Knowledge of Self (sAdhana) Bhagavad-Gita neha nAnAsti kincana’ (There is no multiplicity here preceded by total ‘padArtha abhAvana’ (Non-configuration of objects)

 

The multidisciplinary approach in the Bhagavad-Gita makes it amenable to a range of interpretations that are attractive to the students of different tastes. The lilting lyrical style of the verses in the Bhagavad-Gita is quite appealing to a large cross-section of the people. These also could have been the contributing factors for its wider popularity, though in Shankara’s own scheme of things, it occupied the third palce.

YogavAsiShTha is addressed to a serious and advanced seeker focusing his/her attention on the ajAtivAda doctrine of the Advaita philosophy and does not get into the academic type of arguments or discussions with regard to the other philosophical concepts. It is not interested in popularizing or promoting any particular dogma and is devoted to expounding the ultimate Truth. The text does not aim at serving the normal run of the mill type of reader but concerns itself with deep philosophical expiation of the highest teaching as realized by the ancient Sages. A study of Yogavasishta thus requires a one-pointed attention and not mere curiosity and therefore, is not suitable for arm-chair philosophers or litigious debaters interested only in superficial discussions.

[P.S.: An aspect that is not considered here is whether the appeal in the character and life stories of Rama and Krishna and their relative popularity as Gods among the  public could have indirectly influenced the popularity of the two texts.

P.P.S:  I am thankful to my friend Georg who inspired me with his searching questions to prepare this Post .]

5 thoughts on “YogavAsiShTa vs. Bhagavad-Gita

  1. Excellent article, Ramesam! Not sure how much discussion it will provoke, though – it is bit too scholarly for me, I’m afraid. My studies have been a bit too haphazard to enable me to make deep observations on specific works (other than the Mandukya Upanishad and kArikA-s).

    One aspect that did surprise me though was your suggestion that the “Bhagavad-Gita is like a life-strategy manual for the seeker after s/he has listened to and understood the teaching without having an iota of doubt left in him/her on the principle of jIva-brahmaikya”. Surely this cannot be right? Arjuna certainly does not begin in this state. On the contrary, he suffers from rAga-dveSha-shoka-moha on the battlefield and turns to Krishna to teach him out of this state. My understanding was that the Gita was effectively a ‘condensed’ shruti, ‘summarizing’ the Advaita teaching. Also, you say that Shankara is thought to have written the Gita. Surely, the Gita was (is) the central part of the Mahabharata, which was supposedly written by vyAsa?

    I read the ‘Supreme Yoga’ – Swam Venkatesananda’s abbreviated ‘day by day’ version of the Yoga vAsiShTha many years ago and found some of the stories very revealing and helpful (and a few just plain fantastical). I have a ‘new translation’ of this in two volumes, as well as two parts of the ‘Musings’ translated by yourself from Sri Kuppa Venkata Krishna Murthy’s work, and I have been meaning for some time to read these. Coincidentally, though, I am currently reading the transcriptions of some of Swami Paramarthananda’s lectures on the Gita (as well as listening to a long set of his talks on this). Next on the list, perhaps!

  2. I have similar “problems” as Dennis mentioned, namely that there are too many great works to read: most of all Swami paramarthananda s Bhagavad Gita transcripts and Ramesam s Edition of the yoga vasishta! Both are simply excellent, the first maybe sometimes a little bit too repetitive and the second maybe sometimes a little bit too focused on the universe, multiverse, etc. both however is quite refreshing and helpful on the other hand!
    Thank you for the great work, Ramesam!

  3. The other reason why Krishna’s Bhagavad Gita is more popular than Rama’ Yoga Vasishta might be because of the second purusharta: Kama!
    How so?
    Krishna was a joyful person assumably who had several hundred wives to whom he made love at the same time, whereas Rama sent his pregnant wife Sita to the forest because of some public customs.

    Furthermore, both texts were written about 2000 years ago, at the same time when the Kama sutras flourished. They were written at a time when Bharat, India, was very liberal and open towards sex, 3rd gender, homosexuality, etc.
    Based on this it appears to make sense that Krishna and the Bhagavad Gita were more fitting than Rama who sent his pregnant wife away.

    Ps. There are many voices that the last part of Rama sending his pregnant wife away to be added later and not part of the original Ramayana.

  4. Dear Dennis,

    Thank you for the kind comments and observations.

    1. Re: Authorship:

    Let me first hasten to say that you are absolutely right that the author of Gita was Vyasa of Mahabharata fame and not Shankara.

    What I meant to say was that the presently known version containing the 700 (or 701 according to another count) shlokas was a compilation attributed to Shankara. I edited and recast my sentence in the Post in order to eliminate any confusion about the authorship.

    Incidentally, I also added a point which is not that commonly known. The division into 18 chapters of the 700 shlokas was a post-Shanakara development.

    2. Life Strategy Manual:

    My remarks arise from the fact that Shankara himself placed BG at the third position after upadesha and nyAya prasthana-s as a sAdhana prasthAna.

    It is a fact that the committed seeker after learning and ingesting the message through shravaNa and manana, finds that s/he still has a body to be taken care of and looked after (- including, sometimes even attendant paraphernalia of a shelter, family etc.). S/he has to attend to the needs of the body and support its existence in the society (paying taxes etc.). There may be some followers pestering him to guide them to liberation. More than all these things, there may be residual current sufferage (prArabdha) that had been the cause for the arising of the present body and it has to be still expended. These factors may keep coming in the way of his uninterrupted abidance as brahman. But in his heart of hearts he lost all interest in the world. How does such a seeker continue to function and interact in the world? How does one perform in his/her day to day life? How he should conduct himself and what steps can he take to abide as brahman without interruption?

    Shankara briefly advises the seeker in the 4th verse in “dhanyAShTakaM.”
    It reads:

    त्यक्त्वा ममाहमिति बन्धकरे पदे द्वे
    मानावमानसदृशाः समदर्शिनश्च ।
    कर्तारमन्यमवगम्य तदर्पितानि
    कुर्वन्ति कर्मपरिपाकफलानि धन्याः ॥

    The seeker has to give up the sense of doership and the sense of ownership, the concepts of “I” and the “Mine.” These are explained in detail in the 3rd, 4th, 9th, 12th, and 18th chapters of Gita.

    The second chapter is a psychological and psychiatric pep up talk where Krishna appeals to Arjuna’s sense of prestige, valor, image in the society etc. to goad him him not to forsake his immediate responsibilities and obligations.

    Thus taking a ripe, mature and ready seeker on the verge of realizing the Self-Knowledge as an example, Krishna offers many a practical tip to a seeker to live his/her life post-enlightenment.

    That is why I felt it is befitting to call BG as a Life Strategy Manual which touches on many aspects of daily living, conflict resolution, participation in actions etc..

    regards,

  5. Hi Georg,

    Many thanks, once again, for all the very interesting questions that need to be pondered in great detail and with attentive care.
    [Incidentally, I added a PPS to the Post and hope you have seen it.]

    I do not know how to answer your question about the social impact of the characters of Krishna and Rama as depicted in the purAna-s and the effect they have in the relative popularity of the two texts.

    Different regions in India exhibit a difference in their following of Rama or Krishna. One may perhaps take the number of temples dedicated to Rama and Krishna as a measure and then assess who is a more popular God amongst the public (not counting, of course the ISKCON temples). Unfortunately, I do not know if such numbers are available anywhere. My own gut feeling is that Rama may have more temples and mandirs. If that is correct, your contention that Krishna’s romantic life and escapades would have been found more attractive by the people at large will not hold.

    Therefore, I do not think that the contrasting life stories of the two heros would have been the cause for the higher popularity of one text over the other.

    The word “kAma” in the Four Pursuits does not necessarily mean the sexual activity. kAma in general is “desire.” Spiritual seekers in India give importance to celibacy when they are on the nivRiiti mArga and whether Vatsayana or not, they will despise sexual dalliances by a spiritually oriented person.

    The above are a few random thoughts only and I hope other readers can contribute more substantially on the points made out by you.

    regards,

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