Sadhana Panchakam – The Fivefold Spiritual Practice, Chapter 1

Isvara, the Supreme Self

Translation and Commentary by Jayaram V

Introduction

About 35 years ago, I happened to listen to a three-day discourse on Sadhana Panchakam by Swami Chinmayananda. I was then working as a direct recruit officer for a major public sector undertaking, and was posted to a remote town in Andhra Pradesh on my first assignment. A colleague of mine invited me to the event, and I thought it would be a good diversion.

I forgot everything the Swamy said or I heard. All that I remember was sitting cross legged on the floor in open, listening to his strong and forceful voice, and the advice I was given at the beginning of the discourse, each day for three days. All the attendees were to remain totally silent and make no noise. If the Swami heard even a little sound, he might stop speaking and walk away.

Decades later, I chanced upon the small booklet, containing the five slokas of Shankaracharya, which was given to the attendees at the beginning of that event. I do not even remember how and why it followed me to the USA, and how it remained with me all these years. Probably it was inside some other book. I thought it was divine providence that I should return to it and reexamine it in my own way in the light of my previous studies and my current understanding.

Therefore, I am now presenting this ancient teaching of Adi Shankara, known as Sadhana Panchakam or the fivefold spiritual practice. Each sloka contains eight suggestions or instructions. The five slokas together contain 40 useful instructions. They are sufficient for any initiate or a yogi to engage his or her mind and body in spiritual practice and experience oneness with the true self.

The fivefold knowledge is a transformative yoga of wisdom and enlightenment (jnana yoga) in itself. It is simple, direct, easy to understand, practical, and rooted in the wisdom of the ancient rishis, munis, yogis and masters. Most instructions are universal which can be practiced by anyone belonging to any spiritual tradition or religion. It is also a holistic approach, which aims to transform the mind and body for the ultimate experience of mental absorption, unified consciousness, oneness or self-realization.

There are numerous translations of Sadhana Panchakam. As I have done in the past, I have done this translation and commentary as a part of my own sadhana and contemplative, spiritual inquiry. It was also an opportunity for me to practice satsang with the wisdom of Adi Shankara. I dedicate this work to Maha Shiva, the teacher of all and my very soul and consciousness.

Jayaram V
Hinduwebsite.com

First Verse

Vedo Nityamadheeyataam taduditam karma swanushtheeyataam
theneshasya vidheeyataamapachitih kaamye matihsthyajitam
Paapaughah paridhuuyathaam bhavasukhe dosho'anusandheeyataam
Aatmecchaa vyavaseeyathaam nijagrihaatuurnam vinirgamyataam

Translation

veda = vedas, nityam = always, adheeyatam = must be studied, taduditam = in that manner or as instructed there in, karma = actions, swanushtheeyataam = you must sincerely perform, tena = by such actions, eeshasya = of Isvara or the lord, vidheeyatam = dutifully according to the procedure, apachitah = expiation, atonement, worship, kamye = kamya karma or desires and desire-ridden actions, matih = thought, intent or mind, thyajitam = give up or renounce, paapaughah = the flow or the flood of sinful karma, paridhuuyathaam = arrested or blocked, bhavasukhe = in worldly pleasure or the pleasure in this world, dosha = impurity or imperfection, anusandheeyataam = investigate, inquire or examine, aatmecchaa = the will to know the self, vyavaseeyathaam = cultivated, nijagrihaat =  current home, tuurnam = quickly, vinirgamyataam = leave behind with dispassion.

Meaning

The Vedas must always be studied; actions must sincerely be performed as instructed by them; by such dutiful actions the lord’s forgiveness must be sought; the thought of desire-ridden actions must be given up; the flood of sinful karma shall be arrested; the impurities of worldly pleasures must be inquired into or examined; the will to know the self must be cultivated, and the current home must be left behind quickly, with dispassion.

Explanation

The instructions in Sanskrit were originally composed in the passive voice, as if they were delivered by a teacher and memorialized by his students for practice. Therefore, the translation may look rather roundabout. The first verse contains eight instructions. They are meant to be practiced in an orderly and sequential manner, with the first instruction to be followed first and the second instruction to be followed next, and so on. Since they reinforce each other and have a synergetic effect, in advanced stages they have to be remembered together and practiced together for better and quicker results. Most instructions are simple and straightforward. They can be used for practice as well as contemplation, so that they become firmly implanted in the consciousness. Each of them is briefly explained. For convenience, they have been presented in the instructive mode.

1. Study the Vedas

Everyone is not born with the aspiration or motivation to pursue self-knowledge or liberation. It happens in rare cases only when one spiritually evolves through numerous births. In others, it is rekindled through effort and self-study (svadhyaya). They have to sustain and reinforce their spiritual curiosity through the regular study and recitation (abhyasa) of the Vedas and other spiritual texts. It is especially important in the early stages, when the mind is still scattered and distracted. One can study any spiritual text to which the soul is drawn.

The Vedas are specially mentioned here because they are considered revelations (sruti) and Brahman in knowledge form. Of the Vedas, the Upanishads are the most important; of the Upanishads, the 12 or 13 principal ones have to be studied; and of them, seekers should study and contemplate upon those verses which speak about the self (atman), Supreme Self (Brahman) and liberation. Through their study and understanding the initiate shall acquire the knowledge (vidya) of Brahman or self.

However, one should not mistake it for true knowledge. Its source is not the transcendental self. By acquiring it, one does not become a knower of Brahman. He just gets an idea of what it is or what can be expected. True knowledge (sahaja vidya) arises from knowing the self by the self (atmanubhuti), in which one experiences oneness (ekatvam) and becomes absorbed in pure consciousness.

If you want to keep your spirit of inquiry and spiritual fervor alive, you have to study the scriptures and keep your mind filled with their light and wisdom. Knowledge is a purifier. It will purify your mind and elevate your thoughts. The practice of acquiring knowledge through various means is commonly known as jnana yoga, the sacrificial pursuit of knowledge, which is also the starting point for many other yogas, including karma yoga, bhakti yoga and sannyasa yoga.

Again, it is not necessary that you should study the Vedas only. You can pick any text in which you have faith or to which you are naturally drawn due the predominance of your gunas. In a broader sense, any sacred knowledge which leads you to God or higher wisdom is Veda only. Isvara manifests in creation in numerous forms, sometimes as a text or as a guru, teacher, saint or seer.

2. Perform your actions accordingly

Mere acquisition of knowledge is useless, unless it is put to practice. That knowledge must be used in every aspect of your life to become a better and wiser human being. It shall have a transformative effect upon your thinking and actions. Only then it becomes wisdom, which will help you hasten your spiritual progress and remain equal and indifferent to the dualities of pain and pleasure or happiness and sorrow. From wisdom arises discernment by which you can distinguish truth from falsehood, right means from wrong means and practice actions with right attitude so that you can be free from the ill effects of karma.

The Vedas distinguish three types of actions, good actions (karma), inaction (akarma) and bad actions (vikarma). Good actions are obligatory for a householder in fulfilling his duties and responsibilities. They cannot be neglected since they are meant to be performed for the order and regularity of the world as ordained by God. All righteous actions which nurture and support life upon earth and in the heavens and promote order and regularity fall into this category. By performing them one can ensure a place for oneself in the ancestral heaven and a good birth in the next life, but not liberation. Liberation (moksha) is the ultimate goal of human life, but in worldly life it comes in the end, after one has fulfilled all obligations.

Inaction means not performing such obligatory duties, or neglecting them, or not performing them when they are needed. Willful inaction produces sinful karma, just as willful actions. The third type of actions are bad actions or evil actions which produce negative consequences for oneself and others. The last two types of actions lead to prolonged suffering in the lower worlds and continuation of samsara or even a lower birth. They have to be avoided by all means.

It is not always possible to perform good actions only or avoid actions altogether. Therefore, the scriptures suggest a safer approach, known as karma yoga. According to it, one has to perform actions without any desire for their fruit, with a sacrificial and selfless attitude, as an offering to God. The actions of a karma yogi arise from the knowledge and wisdom gained through study and practice. They do not produce karma. Therefore, they are the safest. God himself exemplifies them by his actions which he performs to uphold the order and regularity of the world. Those who follow him and perform their duties similarly are forever liberated from the cycle of births and deaths. Devout householders, devotees, yogis and ascetics practice it for their self-transformation and liberation.

In today’s context, good actions mean any actions which you perform with a clean heart and good intentions and which lead to peace and happiness. Our scriptures encourage people to perform virtuous actions which uphold dharma, exemplify divine laws and lead to peace and harmony. They are beneficial and auspicious and conducive to spiritual growth. In contrast, all selfish and egoistic actions, which are rooted in ignorance, egoism and delusion are deemed evil (vikarma). They arise from demonic qualities and cause decline of Dharma, spiritual downfall and prolonged suffering. According to the Vedas and other scriptures they should be avoided by everyone.

3. By such actions seek the Lord's forgiveness

Apachiti means loss, decline, destruction, expiation of sin, atonement, worship, etc. Why should we seek God’s forgiveness? It is because we are supposed to live upon earth abiding in the eternal laws and performing God’s duties, acknowledging that all this belongs to God, and we can claim neither ownership nor doership of anything or any action. When we fail to do so, we incur sin. The best way to neutralize it is by seeking his forgiveness, through prayers, supplications and expiatory and sacrificial actions. In the Bhagavadgita we have the assurance that God loves his devotees and forgives them if they seek refuge in him with faith and turn their minds towards him.

The purpose of spiritual practice (sadhana) is twofold. One is to seek divine intervention to lessen our suffering through supplication, and the other is to escape permanently from it through liberation. Both the approaches are approved by the Vedas. One is the way of the householders, and the other is that of the renouncers, yogis and ascetics. The former is achieved through sacrificial actions, and the latter through the renunciation of desires that are hidden in actions and their fruit. It is up to the devotees to choose what is appropriate for them according to their faith and essential nature. 

The two paths lead to different ends. Those who seek God’s forgiveness by performing obligatory duties and making sacrificial offerings go to the ancestral heaven upon death, travelling by the path of the ancestors (pitryana), when the sun is in the southern hemisphere. They stay there until their karma is exhausted, and return to earth to take another birth. Those who achieve liberation, renouncing desires, practicing austerities and withdrawing their minds and senses, travel by the path of gods (devayana) to reach the world of Brahman, where they will stay forever and never return to take another birth.

One should atone for sin through dutiful and desireless actions, devotion, sacrificial worship, righteous conduct and renunciation as suggested by the scriptures. A householder has to seek God’s forgiveness by performing duties as ordained in the Vedas and abiding in virtuous conduct. If you perform your obligatory actions, fulfill your obligations to your family and society, keep your commitment to God, without abandoning Dharma and virtuous conduct, you qualify for the forgiveness of God since it is worship in itself. By that, he may grant you a better life in this life and in the next or a permanent release from the mortal world.

4. Give up the thought of desire-ridden actions

It may be noted that the previous three instructions require physical practice, whereas this one is purely mental. It also strikes at the very root of samsara and suffering. Desires are the root cause of suffering and bondage. This is stated not only in the Vedas but also in several other scriptures. They strengthen selfishness, egoism and the delusion of name and form, and fill the mind and body with many impurities which prolong the existence of embodied souls upon earth and delay their liberation. If desires are not controlled, it will be difficult to control the mind and senses and withdraw them from the objective world.

This instruction aptly reminds us that renunciation must be complete in both thought and deed. One should give up not only the world but also all desires that are associated with it. While performing dutiful actions, one shall give up the very thought of desire for their fruit so that the offering or the sacrifice remains pure and sincere, untainted by egoism, selfishness and attachment. It shall permeate into every action and aspect of a yogi’s life so that his very living becomes an offering in itself, a great sacrifice in which he becomes the sacrificer, the sacrificed and the object of sacrifice.

Karmas are mainly of three types, nitya karmas, which are daily sacrifices, naimitta karmas, which are performed on occasions when needed and kamya karmas, which are performed due to the desire for something such as spouse, children, marriage, victory, peace, prosperity, fame, name, happiness, etc. All these karmas are important for householder, and shall not be renounced since they uphold Dharma and ensure the order and regularity of the world.

What needs to be given up is desire for them or their results so that one remains free from the cause and effect of karma. Desires in all its forms shall be mentally renounced with detachment, dispassion, sameness and indifference, restraining the mind and senses and withdrawing them from the objective world. The practice has to be continuous and shall not be abandoned even when a yogi has gained enough control and progressed far, since the mind is vulnerable and may revert to older habits in unguarded moments.

As the Bhagavadgita states, when yogi becomes skillful in performing actions without seeking their fruit, he remains untainted even when he is engaged in actions. By conquering desires and disrupting the flow of karma, he uplifts himself by himself and becomes his own best friend. Established thus, he thinks that he does nothing even when he is actively performing his duties and natural functions. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.4.6) affirms that when a man is completely free from desires, he goes straight to Brahman.

5. Stop the flood of sinful actions.

The flow of karma is unending and ever flowing, as long as the soul is caught in the play of the tattvas and gunas. Since karma arises from both good and evil actions, no one can avoid it in the embodied state. It inexorably follows each soul from one birth to another, until the chains of bondage are broken. As the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.4.5) states, as one acts so does one becomes. One becomes good by good actions, and bad by bad actions. The flow of karma cannot easily be arrested. It keeps accumulating as long as a jiva is caught in the samsara. Karma is an aspect of Kala (Time) only. It is through karma that a being is bound to Death, which is again an aspect of the same Kala.

The Vedas suggest various ways to cultivate good karma with which one can neutralize or balance bad karma. Performance of daily and occasional sacrifices, fasting, penitence (prayaschitta), expiatory ceremonies, charity, seeking the blessings of enlightened masters, propitiating gods, giving gifts to Brahmanas, etc., are some of the well-known ways by which it can be done. Suffering is also a form good karma only since it can cleanse the sufferer by washing away a lot of bad karma. However, these are temporary solutions only, since they do not arrest the flow of karma. They help you accumulate good karma, but do not save you from further accumulation of karma or from rebirth and suffering.

The best way to deal with the problem of karma is to engage in desireless actions (nishkama karma), for which one has to suppress desire in all its forms. Desires mainly arise from the impurities of the mind and body due to the play of maya and the triple gunas namely sattva, rajas and tamas. They can be resolved through self-cleansing, which results in the predominance of sattva and its resultant virtues, and the suppression of impurities and evil qualities.

The virtues are nonviolence, nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, non-coveting, etc. They have to be practiced while performing actions with detachment, dispassion, indifference, sameness and renunciation. When a yogi is purified thus, he sets the stage for his liberation from samsara. Liberation is achieved when the gunas are fully suppressed, when the tattvas are silenced and when the mind and ego are dissolved in the unified consciousness of the Self. Only in the liberated state, when the latent impressions are fully burnt in the knowledge of the self, the flow of karma is completely arrested, and one becomes a jivanmukta, a free soul in a mortal body. 

6. Inquire into the impure nature of worldly pleasures

Worldly pleasures are impermanent. They are rooted in desire-ridden actions. They also lead to attachments and bondage. Therefore, whatever pleasure or happiness which arises from our desire-ridden actions do not last for long. The same is true with suffering and all the dualities. Life upon earth alternates between the polarities of pain and pleasure and of happiness and sorrow. Each of the polarities is preceded as well as followed by its opposites. Thus, happiness precedes as well as follows sorrow, and vice versa, and so is the case with all other polarities.

All these experiences arise and subside in the objective realm, which is filled with impurities and subject to decay and impermanence.  A yogi contemplates upon the transient nature of worldly pleasures, how they are replaced by their opposites, disturbing the mind and body, and how they strengthen egoism, attachments and delusion by inducing desires and attachments. By that he develops discernment and detachment, and remains on guard from the attractions and distractions of the world, knowing that they are the traps set in by the forces of maya.

Keeping his mind steady and in control, knowing that he is the true self, he examines how worldly pleasures strengthen the delusion that the physical self is the true self and keep him bound to the mortal world and sensual pleasures. By constantly examining the ways of the world and the activity of the senses, he realizes that worldly pleasures in the end lead to pain and suffering only. While others may enjoy worldly life and sensual pleasures, a yogi watches them with wisdom as the play of maya.  

Worldly pleasures arise and subside in the impurities of not-self. They are not evil in themselves. Enjoyment is also not an evil in itself since it is the essential nature of the self. Therefore, one does not have to renounce them, but the desire and attachment to them, which makes them problematic. A yogi seeks neither happiness nor sorrow. He is attached to neither of them. Amidst pleasure and pain and other the dualities of life, he remains fixed in the contemplation of the self, renouncing desires and attachments and remaining equal and indifferent to all conditions and circumstances which life offers to him. He arrives at this when he realizes the transient nature of mortal life and all the conditions that are associated with it.

7. Strengthen the will to know the Self

The purpose of sadhana (practice) is to know oneself or to see whether there is anything beyond the mind and body, which supports them and is better than the known self. It is to know your true self through inquiry and personal experience. Is this your only true identity? Is there is anything which is hidden and beyond your ordinary mind and senses? Questions such as these arise in your mind and dominate your thinking as you practice the previous six instructions and cultivate an abiding interest in spiritual matters and the state of liberation.

The wisdom to distinguish the not-self and the curiosity to know the self are the starting points of any spiritual quest. The idea that you are not the mind and the body shall be firmly implanted in your consciousness through study, inquiry and self-purification. From that conviction arises the strength and the will to renounce everything that you love dearly in your life and go an exciting spiritual quest to discover the truths and worlds that are hidden in your own consciousness. As the Upanishads suggest, one should always abide in the self and leave everything behind. It is by the self, for the self and with the self only one can enter the self and become dissolved in it.

At this stage, you do not have true knowledge, but only beliefs and assumptions about the endless possibilities that may await. You may be assailed by fear and doubt or feel discouraged by the actions and attitude of others. You do not know whether you will succeed or not, or what dangers and difficulties await you. Faith (shraddha) is your only raft in the sea of ignorance and worldly knowledge. If you have sincerely practiced the previous instructions, you will not turn back or give up. With abiding faith, you will surrender to the will of God or your guru and keep kindling your aspiration to persevere and persist.

The curiosity (jijnasa) to know the self (atman) or the supreme self (Brahman) does not arise in everyone. As the Bhagavadgita declares, only at the end of innumerable births does one develops the curiosity to seek God and know the self. Human birth is rare, and still rarer is the person who seeks self-knowledge through discernment and self-transformation. The self cannot be realized until one knows the boundaries of the not-self and remains detached from it.

8. Leave your home forthwith with dispassion

This instruction can be interpreted in different ways depending upon how we define the words griha and vinirgamyatam. “Griha” may mean your current home where you physically live or your body where the self-resides or the objective reality or the not-self where your mind and senses wander or this world (samsara) where you are caught in the cycle of births and deaths. Vinirgamyatam means “to go away from” or “to return to.” Therefore, it can mean that you must leave your current home and go away, or you must return to your true self, which is your true abode.

Both meanings are acceptable. Both meanings also point to the same instruction that one must give up attachment to the mind and body, to one’s home, to this world and to all things which one holds dearly, and return to the true self to abide in it. Spiritual practice is a transformative process in which you have to give up your old way of life and all the baggage associated with it and start anew as if all that happened was a dream you wish to forget.

The world is your current home. It is where your mind and senses dwell and where you develop attachments and remain bound. You must give up that home and withdraw into yourself to dwell in your own heart, which according to the Upanishads is the home of the self in the body. This is vinirgamya, the great return of the native self to its original abode or source. Truly speaking, spiritual journey is rather a retrogressive journey, in which you do not move forward, but return to the starting point from where it all began. You do not realize anything anew, but just remember what you forgot or lost sight of as if you woke up from a long and deep sleep.

A house is not a mere physical structure which is made of bricks and walls only. It is a living structure, which represents the life that happens there, all the past and present that happen in it and all that resides in it as its moving parts. It includes the family, relationships, memories, identity, comfort, security, status and belongingness. When you renounce your home and leave it behind, you are not just leaving its physical location or structure but everything that is associated with it. It is a permanent separation which if you are fully prepared can produce a lot of pain and suffering.

Renunciation can be physical or mental. The latter is superior to the former. When both are involved, it is complete and perfect. What needs to be given up is not necessarily the home, but your desire or attachment to it. One cannot truly escape from the world because the world exists everywhere, even in a forest. Your physical-self is also a part of the world only. You are never separate from it.

Therefore, renunciation is not about mere physical separation or the physical act of leaving the world behind and living in seclusion. It is about cultivating the attitude of indifference, detachment and sameness, giving up desires and attachment to all physical possessions and remaining equal to the dualities of life and the attractions of the world with abiding faith in God and in oneself. Liberation is a state of boundless aloneness (kaivalya) or oneness. It can also be achieved through aloneness only.   

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