A Preliminary Note
If experience is a means of knowledge, and even of higher and the highest degrees and kinds of knowledge by identity in which the subject and the object of knowledge are united, and if such experiences are a means of growth, of ennoblement of character and personality, of expansion, deepening and heightening of consciousness and will-force, then yoga stands out, — considering the methods that it has developed for attaining depths, heights and widenesses as also objectivity and certainty, — as a human endeavour of the highest value. For yoga is, at all levels of its stages, based on experience and it develops by accumulation of experience, and its highest peaks of knowledge, will-force and delight consist of experience. To understand yoga, therefore, we need to enter into the realm of yogic experiences.
Yoga is primarily and distinctly concerned with spiritual experience, and although in its integrality, it embraces all domains of knowledge, physical and supra-physical, its means are distinctively spiritual.
Distinguishing features of what we call spirituality are toe following:
(a) Awakening to the inner reality of our being, to a spirit,
Self, Soul, which is other than our mind, life and body;
(b) An inner aspiration to know, to feel, to be that;
(c) A quest for entering into the greater Reality beyond and pervading the universe which inhabits also our being, to be in communion with It and union with It;
(d) A turning, a conversion, a transformation of our whole being into a new becoming, or a new being, a new Self, a new nature.
In the literature relating to the realm of spirituality and spiritual experience, one of the relevant works that stands out is William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience that was published in 1902. Another work which is even more relevant and supremely illuminating is Sri Aurobindo's The Synthesis of Yoga, which was written during 1914-21.
William James uses the phrase Religious Experience, but it is clear that most of the accounts of the experiences given in the book such as those of conversion. Presence of the Unseen, saintliness and mysticism, can be regarded as yogic, considering that (i) they are not related to institutional aspects of religion, (ii) they are related to individual's inner lives, and (iii) they mark important stages of the discipline of spiritual practices, even though most of them are tied to Christianity, a few to other religions, and a few that are independent of any religion. If we maintain that every religion has a spiritual core which is its most important component, and if yoga is primarily concerned with spirituality and with .methodical and conscious effort directed towards spiritual development and realisation, then, a large number of experiences described in the book can be legitimately called yogic.
William James, in regard to the experiences that he has presented in his book, brings us certain vivid descriptions of certain stages and aspects of the inner yogic life and yogic fate and succeeds in inviting us to some kind of proof of the spiritual reality, its mystery, its wonder, and the vividity of the reality o-f the Unseen. One relevant experience, which is very vivid, and describes the Presence of the Unseen, is from a Swiss writer, and its description is being appended at Appendix I (p. Ill). There are three other important categories of experience which are indicated below:
Experience of Conversion
It is very well known that in every yogic practice that is to be found in religions as also in that which is independent of any religion, the experience of conversion marks a radical point of departure from ordinary life to a truly spiritual life. An important example of this experience of conversion, which William James has given, is that of Saint David Brainerd. The description of this experience is appended at Appendix II (p. 113).
Conversion is a movement as a result of which spiritual life becomes central to the seeker. But this centrality may be only ideative in character, in the sense that what becomes central is a cluster of ideas relating to spiritual life rather than the possession of the substance of the Spirit that makes spiritual life so very distinctive and beatific. Often conversions are temporary. At higher stages, not only the mind but also the very heart of the seeker is touched by the experience leads to conversion, and it is then that the conversion ends to become permanent and to ripen itself into mature fruits of the spirituality of religious life or of yogic life. One of these fruits is that of saintliness.
William James has analysed the state of saintliness and pointed out that there are four main features:
(i) A feeling of being in a wider life of the existence of an ideal power;
(ii) A sense of the friendly continuity of the ideal power with our own life, and a willing self-surrender to its control;
(iii) An immense elation and freedom, as the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down; and
(iv) A shifting of the emotional centre towards loving and harmonious affections.
William James has also described the practical consequences of the development of saintliness as (a) Asceticism, (b) Strength of Soul, (c) Purity, (d) Charity. See Appendix III (p. 116)
He has also given some concrete illustrations of saintliness. One of them is that of Saint John of the Cross. Another is that of Suso, a German mystic. Another still is that of George Fox. See Appendix IV (p. 120)
William James arrives at the summit of religious experiences in his chapter on Mysticism. He points out that there are basically two characteristics of Mysticism:
(i) Mystic experience is marked by ineffability, and
(ii) It has noetic quality and the mystic states are also states of knowledge. See Appendix V (p. 128)
He also points out that there are two other qualities,
which are less sharply marked but are usually found. The first quality is that of transiency, since mystical states cannot be sustained for long. The second quality is that of passivity, since the mystic feels in his experience as if he were grasped and held by a superior power. He points out that this latter peculiarity connects mystical states with certain phenomena such as prophetic speech, automatic writing, or the mediumistic trance.
It may be remarked that in the strict path of yogic experience, a distinction is made between subliminal experience or experience proper to occultism, and spiritual experience, — a distinction, which William James does not offer in his book. Strictly speaking, experiences of automatic writing or mediumistic trance are experiences related to the subliminal consciousness consisting of the inner mind, inner vital force and subtle physical consciousness. Spiritual experiences relate to the realm of super-consciousness or of psychic consciousness which is the consciousness of the inmost being which governs body, life and mind and which has the power of integrating body, life and mind under its own integrating power. Super-consciousness refers to the realm of the transcendental Spirit which, in its universal aspect, provides an entry into cosmic consciousness and increasing unity of diversity which culminates in what is called in Yoga, supramental consciousness or consciousness of vijnānamaya.
Again, it is true, as William James points out, mystical states are transient. But in Yoga proper, this transiency can e gradually removed, and higher states of mysticism can be made permanent. In the yogic language, the state of permanency of the higher and higher states of Yoga is called realisation.
William James has provided in his book extremely illuminating examples of mysticism. These include those of Malwida von Meysenbug, Walt Whitman, Dr. J. Trevor, Dr. R.M. Bucke, of Raja Yoga as expounded by Swami Vivekananda, Al-Ghazzali, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa, Saint Ignatius, and some others such as Sufi Gulshan-Raz and Plotinus. See Appendix VI (p. 131)