Meditation in Indian Philosophy

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Meditation as a distinct practice in Indian philosophy appears in a variety of texts from the third century before the common era as well as in sculptural depictions that date from 3500 BCE. The quintessential manual on meditation, the Yoga Sūtra, was composed by approximately 200 CE and includes philosophical positions and meditation techniques from the Sākhya, Jaina, and Buddhist traditions.

Early depictions of meditating figures were found in the excavations of Mohenjodaro and Harappa, Indus Valley cities that date from 3500 BCE Sculptures and steatite seals show people with half-closed eyes sitting in the lotus posture. In some seals, animals surround a meditating figure, indicating a shamanic, totemic origin of this tradition.

The earliest text of Indian literature, the g Veda, which dates from at least 1500 BCE, mentions longhaired ascetics and, amidst hundreds of hymns extolling various gods and goddesses, lays out the philosophical foundations for later traditions of meditation. g Veda (1:164.20) describes two birds in the same tree, one eating sweet berries while the other merely witnesses. This theme repeats itself in the Muaka Upanishad (3:l:l) and the S̄vetas̄vatara Upanishad (4:6) and is expressed in the Bhagavad Gītā themes of the lower nature subject to constant change and activity (pakrti ) and the higher nature or inner true self (purua or ātman ). The worldview presented in this early metaphor delineates two major modalities of engagement with the world. One aspect freely and unreflectively participates in and contributes to the world. The other aspect remains aloof and transcendent, as a spectator or onlooker.

Sākhya philosophy, articulated by the philosopher Ishvarakrishna in the early centuries of the common era, delineates a cosmology based on this dynamic tension between the processes of activity and witnessing. The realm of activity includes psychological states (bhāva ), operations of the mind (manas ), sense and motor capacities (indriya ), as well as the subtle and gross elements (bhūta ) that manifest as discrete, concrete objects. By understanding and harnessing the karmically influenced outflows that arise when the witnessing consciousness becomes intrigued and defined by the particularity found in the manifest realm of activity, one gains mastery over and release from compulsive behavior, resulting in liberation (kaivalyam ). This philosophy undergirds the system of Yoga, which presents a variety of meditation techniques to accomplish the goal of liberation. Yoga also appears within non-Vedic traditions such as Jainism, Buddhism, Sufism, and Sikhism.

The Yoga SŪtra

The Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali (c. 200 CE) defines Yoga as the restraint of the fluctuations of the mind (yogaś-citta-vtti-nirodha? ). The application of Yoga allows for the gradual diminishment of karmic influences, referred to as seeds (bīja ) or residues (saskāra ). Yoga specifies five aspects of defilement that must be controlled: ignorance, egoism, attraction, repulsion, and a desire for life to continue. By following the practices of Yoga, including meditation, karma dissipates. The practitioner reshapes his or her identity, abandoning attachment to fixed behaviors. By drawing inward, one reaches deeper self-understanding and approaches a state of lucidity and purification.

Numerous meditation practices can be found in the texts of Yoga, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Different objects of meditation are listed, including fixing one's attention on Īśvara through the use of mantra. Patañjali defines Īśvara, sometimes referred to as a deity, as a special soul or purusa who has never been tainted by the actions of karma. By fashioning such an ideal through the imagination, one can then strive to emulate this rarefied being. For a Jaina, this state of Īśvara is symbolized through the twenty-four great teachers (Tīrthakāra). For a Buddhist, Lord Buddha serves the same function. In the Hindu bhakti or devotional tradition, fixing one's attention on any one of a variety of deities can result in karmic purification, with Krishna and Rama being the most frequently worshipped Vaisnava deities and Siva and Ganesh and the Goddess Kāli the object of devotion for Saivites. For the Sikhs, the highest soul cannot be named and exists outside time (akal ). However, the ten Sikh gurus, beginning with Guru Nanak, serve as objects with worship because of their teachings. Patañjali, through his concept of chosen deity (i a devatā ), suggests that the meditative procedures engaged in order to purify oneself carry more significance than the actual object of one's meditation.

Several other practices are listed in the Yoga Sūtra that do not require the presence of an inspirational, theistic object of devotion. They include becoming one-pointed in one's activities, regulating one's breath, experiencing inner radiance, reflecting on an auspicious dream, or "meditation as desired" (1:39). Patañjali puts forward a progressive technique, where one begins with a gross, outward object (vitarka ) and then takes it inward, seeing its relationship with and grounding in one's mental constructs. One then moves on to more subtle aspects of one's psychological conditioning (vicāra ), focusing on the patterns of past karma that tend to govern one's personality. By applying meditation techniques of focusing and calming the mind, and by probing into the root causes of one's motivations, one gradually gains the ability to move into a seedless state of pure being, referred to as nirbīja samādhi.


Ethics plays a crucial role in the meditation systems of India. Buddhists refer to these practices as perfections. Yogis and Jainas share a list of common vows. By holding to nonviolence (ahisā ) one engenders an atmosphere of well-being that brings calm and solace to others. By holding to truth, one's word corresponds to reality. Through not stealing, one gains appreciation of all that exists without seeking to appropriate or horde it for oneself. By abandoning sexual obsession, one makes the world safe from one's designs and manipulations. By giving up the acquisition of things, one can learn to understand one's motivations and past predilections. These five vows, common to nearly all India's meditative paths, allow for the deconstruction of destructive habits and the active construction of a safe, ethically-grounded world. For the Buddhists and the Yogis, a purified person naturally exhibits enlightened behavior and is friendly (not jealous) toward successful people, compassionate (not scornful) toward those who suffer, happy (not envious) for those who are meritorious, and retain their equanimity (do not become hateful) in regard to those who lack virtue.


Meditation enables the practitioner to avoid the repetition of behavior that can be harmful to oneself and others. Indian philosophy, particularly as found in Buddhism, Sākhya, and Yoga, claims that due to desire or thirst (kāma/ta ) one engages in actions (karma) prompted by the residues of past actions (saskāra ) that lead to repeated difficulty, darkness, and even despair (dukha ). By the application of meditation and meditative ethical practices, one can cultivate an alternate way of being (prati-paka-bhāvanā )rooted in purity. By withdrawing the outward flows of the mind and the senses and reversing the tendency to be defined by external objects and realities, one can become free of psychological entanglements and social expectations, achieving the status of a solitary hero, in charge of one's own reality. The word Jina, an epithet for Vardhamana Mahavira, the twenty-fourth and most recent Tīrthakāra of the Jaina tradition, indicates that he was a great vanquisher, one who conquered his past karma to establish himself as a model for others to emulate. Similarly, the enlightenment of the Buddha is cloaked with martial symbolism, with Siddhartha defeating the evil Mara in a great test of wills.

Meditation results in the accumulation of powers, ranging from enhanced language-learning abilities and physical beauty to memory of one's past lives. Through focusing on the interior energy of the body, one gains intimacy with the various subtle energy centers (cakras ) that correlate with locations along the spine. These include vortexes of the earth-connected eliminative function, sexuality, and power found in the respective areas of the anus, the sexual organs, and the solar plexus. Above these three lower functions, one finds the seat of compassion in the heart, an array of emotions in the area of the throat, the third eye representing insight between the eyebrows, and in the area above the skull, a magnificent lotus. Through meditation techniques associated with Tantra and popularized from the eighth century forward, one systematically advances from the lower cakras toward the higher ones, bring about the ascent of a force known as the kundalini. However, whether the philosophy originates from Yoga, Buddhism, or Jainism, all traditions state that the powers (siddhi ) must not distract one from the ultimate goal of self-purification.

Indian systems of meditation mandate the presence of a qualified teacher guru in order to engage in this variety of techniques. A well-qualified guru, in addition to knowing the mechanics, guides the student through the pitfalls of self-aggrandizement and periodic disappointment. Discovering one's past history can be fraught with frightful memories; the guru assists the disciple in this process of self-discovery. The Jaina tradition of past-life stories and the Buddha's narration of his past births in the Jataka tales, demonstrate that human action derives from ignorant, self-serving motivations, unless one has made a commitment to strive for purification. As shown in the paradigmatic case of the life of the Buddha, a realization of the fleeting nature of reality will often prompt a potential meditator to seek out instruction on how to achieve and maintain peace of mind. In the case of the Buddha, he studied various techniques for six years under two different renowned teachers before he entered into nirvāa and subsequently decided to teach others how to overcome their own personal difficulties through meditation. Guru Nanak (14691539), living in a time of great strife between Hindus and Muslims, underwent a miraculous transformation that prompted him to develop a new way of meditation that transcended both traditions. Modern day Yoga and meditation practices offer pathways of self-cultivation through the purification of the body, the emotions, and one's way of being situated in the world. These traditions all trace their origins back to an original teacher, whether Swami Vivekananda or Krishnamacarya for many schools of Yoga or to the Buddha himself for Buddhist meditators.

The philosophical texts on meditation in each of the traditions outline different paths and offer different catalogues of the karma that must be overcome. The Yoga Sūtra and its commentaries outlines five states of mind, five afflictive karma categories, seven levels of samadhi, a threefold path and an eightfold path of practice, and a tenfold ethical system. The core texts of Buddhism set forth an eightfold path and a fivefold assessment of the nature of reality that further subdivides into either seventy-five or one hundred constituent features. The Theravada texts outline nine meditations on objects with form and four formless meditation states. The Tattvārtha Sūtra, the foundational meditation text of Jainsim, describes 148 forms of karma known as pakrtis and a fourteen-step analysis of states of increasing purification.

Meditation constitutes an important aspect of Indian philosophy. It requires an active engagement of the world through ethics. It requires the cultivation of a body that can sit for long periods of time. It also requires protracted states of introspection in order to gain mastery over the mind. Meditation comprises a comprehensive system of purification that, regardless of the particular theological context or philosophical point of view, serves to diminish negative karma and bring about states of equanimity.

See also Brahman; God in Indian Philosophy; Knowledge in Indian Philosophy; Liberation in Indian Philosophy; Mind and Mental States in Indian Philosophy; Negation in Indian Philosophy; Self in Indian Philosophy; Truth and Falsity in Indian Philosophy.


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Christopher Key Chapple (2005)