The mind is by its very nature fickle and restless. Hence it is extremely difficult to keep our mind fixed on the Supreme God (Para-Brahman), who is without form and of extremely subtle essence. To help out the aspirant therefore, the Upanishads prescribe certain focused meditations known as Upasanas which gradually help him make progress on the spiritual path.
What is Upasana?
support which helps in keeping the mind fixed on one particular thought is known
as ‘Alambana’. For example, the sound of Om, the inner recess of the heart,
or the Prana etc. (Chandogya Upanishad 8.1.1). The scriptures prescribe many
Alambanas according to the competence of the aspirant. Choosing any one Alambana
prescribed in the scriptures, and meditating upon that with only the flow of
thought as delineated in the Vedas, without allowing any other thought not related
to it from coming in the way, is known as Upasana. This leads to purification
of the mind (chitta-shuddhi), and is also easier than concentrating directly
on Parabrahman. However, it eventually leads to Advaita Jnana in due course
(Shri Shankaracharya’s introduction to the Chandogya Upanishad).
An Alambana is but God only. Even then, because of being qualified by different features, they are known by various names.
Basically Upasana is keeping the mind in only one mental form over a long period of time. This does not mean that there should be no movement in the mind at all and it should be fixed only on a given shape or sound. On the other hand, the mind should be pondering over the Alambana and its connection with the ‘Chaitanya’ (consciousness) it represents and the essential nature of the Chaitanya – all as delineated in the scriptures. For e.g. as one is uttering AUM he should be ruminating over its syllables (matras: A-U-M) in the following manner, as outlined in the Mandukya Upanishad:
‘A’ is the waking state (Vaishvanara). ‘U’ is the dream state (Taijasa). ‘M’ is the state of deep sleep (Prajna). The waking and sleeping states both merge into deep sleep; and when we get up the two states emerge from it. Similarly, when the articulation of aum terminates in m, a and u enter into m. When aum gets repeated, a and u emerge out of m. (Mandukya Upanishad 1.9-11)
This is the correct, scriptural method of meditating on OM. When the mind is ruminating over the ideas in this manner there is fickility because the mind is by nature very unstationary. However, the important point is that no other thoughts should be entertained during this rumination. When another thought enters the mind it should be forcefully subdued.
Doubt: It has been said in the scriptures that the Alambana represents God Himself and the ultimate purpose of Upasana is to attain identity with Him. Therefore, the question is: Should I take Him to be myself or not?
Resolution: Bhagavan Veda Vyasa answers this in his Vedanta Sutras (Brahma Sutras) as follows: One should take Him to be oneself because ultimately that is the truth. The Jabala Upanishad says: Oh divine devata, I am you and you are me. In the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Yajnavalkya says: It is that Indweller who is your atman (3.4.2). In the Chandogya Upanishad Aaruni tells his son Shvetaketu: You are that atman (6.8.7). Not only this, the scriptures even deprecate the view which sees a difference: He who feels “that is different, I am different” and worships another devata simply does not know. As an animal is to man, so is he to the gods. (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10). Therefore, the worshipped devata is to be taken as oneself in the case of using an Alambana for Upasana.Objection: What are you saying? Upasana is done to cross over sin and merit (paap and punya), whereas God is always free from these two taints. So how is it possible to think of God as non-different from oneself?
Resolution: Though it is true for now that there seems to be a difference, but it is only due to one’s Avidya. However, as time progresses this Upasana helps us in obtaining Vidya by slowly and steadily cleansing our minds (chitta-shuddhi). Afterwards he himself will know that there is no difference (Shankaracharya’s Commentary on the Brahma Sutras 4.1.3).
The Difference between Upasana and Nidhidhyasana
The scriptures speak of a three-layered sadhana (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad: 2.4.5)
1). Shravana: Listening with full faith and concentration to Vedanta from the mouth of the Guru.
2) Manana: One who has an exceptionally powerful reservoir of Samskara can achieve Moksha by merely listening (Shravana). However, ordinary people need to reflect and think upon what they have heard. This is known as Manana.
3). Nidhidhyasana: On continued reflection one understands that the aim of the Vedas is to make us realize the ultimate unity of Jiva and Brahman. Meditating on this conviction born out of Manana is known as Nidhidhyasana.
Though in both Nidhidhyasana and Upasana the mental idea that one is himself Brahman is nurtured, even then there is an important difference between them. When this mental form is born out of conviction obtained after Shravana and Manana and then nurtured, it is Nidhidhyasana. However, if it is nurtured through an Alambana, even before this conviction is developed, then it is Upasana. Nidhidhyasana therefore represents a much higher state than that of Upasana.
Upasana on a Symbol (Prateeka Upasana)
are also Upasanas using a symbol, which are less difficult than the Upasanas
using an Alambana (support). The symbol is an effect (Karya) of Brahman like
the sun, Shalagrama etc, whereas an Alambana is Brahman itself qualified by
certain attributes (Upadhi). This is the difference between Alambana and Prateeka.
In Prateeka Upasana the Prateeka is deemed as God, which is really much greater
than that and Upasana is done through it. For e.g., one meditates on the sun
as Brahman or the Shalagrama as Lord Vishnu. Nowadays what people do in their
daily Puja is this kind of Upasana only.
Query: In Alambana Upasana the deity is thought of as oneself. Similarly, in Upasana on a symbol should the symbol also be thought of as one’s own self?
Reply: No, because the worshipper is as much an effect (Karya) of God as the symbol itself. Hence there is no gain in thinking of it as one’s own self. During meditation on the symbol, one should think of the symbol itself as the deity, the greatest of all. (Shankaracharya’s Commentary on the Brahma Sutras 4.1.4)
Doubt: Should the symbol be thought of as the deity or the deity be thought of as the symbol?
Answer: The symbol should be thought of as the deity. With this, one will be treating something smaller as big. There is gain in this thinking, just as the subordinate is treated as the chief. Doing it the other way round, i.e. treating the chief as the subordinate, is obviously wrong (Brahma Sutras Commentary 4.1.5).
Question: Should Upasana be done only in the sitting posture?
Answer: Yes, when one is standing or walking, the mind will have to pay attention to the body; or if one lies down it may lead to sleep. Therefore, one must be sitting only during Upasana. However, a few of the Upasanas to which some sort of Karma is also attached, cannot be performed while sitting. For e.g., when one has to do Namaskar, one will have to get up. One should do such Upasanas along with the corresponding Karmas as stipulated by the Shastras (Brahma Sutras 4.1.7).
Further Query: In all Vedic Karmas there are restrictions on direction, place and time. Are there such restrictions on Upasana also?
Reply: No; one can sit in any direction in any place and meditate anytime provided it is conducive for concentration. It can also be done for any length of time. (Brahma Sutras 4.1.11).
Doubt: For how many days should the Upasana be done?
Clarification: Upasana should be done till death. Repeatedly ruminating over the idea has the following gain: It causes the mental form corresponding to the Upasana to emerge at the moment of death. It is this mental form which acts as a blueprint for the next birth in which the fruit of this Upasana is experienced (Brahma Sutras 4.1.12).The Bhagavad Gita too says:
Whatever a person has meditated/thought upon his whole life, that is what he remembers at the time of his death, and that is what he obtains in his next birth. (8.6)
This article is based almost entirely on the teachings of Param Pujya Swami Paramanand Bharati Ji. However, any errors are entirely the author's own.
& Further Reading:
Baba, Bhole. Shri Shankaracharya's Commentary on the Brahma Sutras with the Sub-Commentary 'Ratnaprabha' (Text and Hindi Translation), Varanasi, 2006.
Bharati, Swami Paramananda. Vedanta Prabodh: Bangalore, 2008
Date, V.H. Vedanta Explained (Samkara's Commentary on The Brahma-sutras in Two Volumes): Delhi, 1973.
Goyandka, Shri Harikrishnadas. Translation of Shankaracharya's Commentary on the Eleven Upanishads (Hindi): Gorakhpur, 2006.
Goyandka, Shri Harikrishnadas. Shrimad Bhagavad Gita (Translation of Shankaracharya's Commentary into Hindi): Gorakhpur, 2006.
Gupta Som Raj. Upanisads with the Commentary of Sankaracarya, Five Volumes: Delhi.
Warrier, Dr. A.G. Krishna (tr.) Bhagavad Gita Bhasya of Sri Sankaracarya: Chennai, 2008.