Sutra Journal Logo

A curated journal on art, culture and dharma

Yogavasistha II:
Reflections on Action and Dispassion

by Mary Hicks October, 2015

Rama and Sita

This is part two of a twelve part series. Click here to read part one

The YV expands its scope beyond the political history, but many of the puzzles that MB raised provide the foundation for the philosophical reflection in the YV.


Near the end of the Mahabharata (MB), the author Vyasa says, “Whatever is found elsewhere in other texts is also found in this book. Whatever is not found in this book is nowhere else to be found.” The Yogavasistha (YV) falls in the genre of MB in terms of the wisdom contained therein. Instead of the historical narratives and genealogies in which these nuggets of wisdom are embedded in the Mahabharata, the YV chooses parables and fanciful stories to describe the same reality. Just like the epitome that holds the deep wisdom in the MB is the Bhagavadgita, YV contains the Siddhagita, the Song of the Siddhas. Although only one third in size of the MB,

the YV expands its scope beyond the political history, but many of the puzzles that MB raised provide the foundation for the philosophical reflection in the YV.

Among the many that have been raised in the Bhagavadgita, (BG) the most essential issues are those that address the human destiny and the human struggle to find its relevance in time and its quest for the transcendence over temporality. In my reading, the most essential question that surrounds the BG is the issue of action and wisdom. The intricate balance between these is at times perplexing, and one can read the BG as either instructing the primacy of action or of wisdom. The exegetical traditions have exploited this ambivalence and have buttressed their own theological positions. At times, the text appears to accommodate a God-centric worldview, unsettling other philosophers who read the text as simply stressing one’s own duties and rightful actions.

YV is a response to questions such as, if everything is predestined and all that happens is because the God wants it so, why should an individual bother with any action? And the response found in the text has given rise to philosophical perspectives that have evolved over a millennium.



This is just one side of the narrative. The frustration Arjuna feels in the beginning of the BG is the same that Rama expresses in the initial sections of the YV. By evoking the memory of Ramayana and introducing the protagonists such as Rama, Janaka, Vasistha, and Visvamitra, the YV is also setting the stage in the cultural paradigm woven in the fabric of the Ramayana. The first two sections of the YV, on Dispassion and on the Behavior of a Seeker, are the subtexts for the narratives on which the protagonist Rama finds himself engaged with the enlightened masters such as Vasistha.

The text is entirely grounded on the premise of Advaita philosophy, and the very first question of the first section is an effort to respond to a consequently emerging question: if the self is eternally free and subjects are not really bound, what is the requirement for the guru or the scriptures?

YV responds to this self-imposed question with the narrative of Suka, a major character in the Bhagavata Purana and the son of Vyasa, the author of MB. All the conversations regarding Suka depict him as an enlightened being. In this narrative found in the YV, Suka appears at the gate of King Janaka, and while waiting, enters the highest meditative state of absorption. Janaka comes and affirms that what Suka has realized is in fact the highest state of the self. The text is suggesting is that although the self is eternally free and in reality we all are enlightened at the core, we need a master to confirm our experience. Without guidance, our experience takes us in different directions, and we are confused as to which one is to be seen as the absolute.

Running parallel to the stage of the MB, the YV begins with the disillusionment of Rama, the noble hero and the incarnation of Visnu. Rama summarizes life as a sequence of frustrations: the child desires and is constantly thwarted, the adolescent desires and his heart is broken, the adult desires and regrets at the same time, and in old age regret for lost desire and unfulfilled desire dominate. Although staged differently, the central driving thrust is the same – a recognition of the meaninglessness of the human condition and an ardent desire to transcend the laws of nature that keep us bound, finite, and ignorant.



In the BG, Krishna explicitly identifies himself with time. In the YV, the author categorizes temporality in three different ways by which the seekers can find their temporal relevance. The first is metaphysical time, the time that is experienced in the form of days and nights or the seasons. The other time is that which makes us finite, the embodied time that results in the form of our death, and the time that is deified as Yama, as Kala, the god of death. The third is the time for the fruition of actions, the time that reveals the consequences of what we do, and this time has to come for everybody. The questions, whether our actions are required, or are things predestined, are linked with our temporality.

Countering the fatalistic consequences that had swept the survivors of the battle of the MB, Vasistha critiques fatalism and repeatedly urges Rama to stay focused on action. Although it may seem that things are there just the way they are supposed to be, and things will happen in the way they are destined to happen, the overarching position of the YV does not share this metaphysical worldview. The protagonist Rama is an action-hero, bound within the world, embodied here to seek for self-realization and not a fatalistic individual who has succumbed to depression with his philosophy of subjective illusionism.

In other words, things are in dynamism and while things change, it is incumbent on the individual to make change a reality.

The issue of action and wisdom that repeatedly appears in the BG is also the issue that is at the backdrop of the narratives that permeate the YV. If the narratives here are closely read, and if the philosophical stanzas are analyzed properly, the underlying philosophy that comes to prominence balances between action and wisdom. An integration of action and wisdom (jnana-karma-samuccaya) is not just possible but mandatory.

The text unfolds metaphorically, describing the paths to self-realization as the gateways to self-knowledge. The four fundamental qualities that are to be cultivated are self-control, inquiry, contentment, and the company of the wise people. In this section the text is more concerned about practical philosophy rather than describing the nature of reality. What we understand from this is that the texts such as YV are not composed merely to describe what the truth is, but also to prescribe what the path is to recognize this reality.



The YV repeatedly uses the terminology of maya, or avidya, and confirms that our recognition of the external world is grounded on one or another form of illusion. Although the first two sections are not as focused on this central metaphysics of subjective illusionism, the concepts are there to be found in the seminal form. In the first section, a single metaphor used, that of birds caught in a net, is sufficient to illustrate human conditioning: the more we try to free ourselves, the further we tie ourselves into the net. The fetters in this metaphor are our desires.

The objective of instructing illusionism is not even to teach inaction (dispassion), but rather to disentangle the subjects from their long association with desires.

With strong attachments, subjects transform their self-identity into the objects of their desire. Whatever one desires, one becomes that. In order to defend this position, the author follows an underlying philosophy of the creativity of consciousness. The most baffling position for the readers of YV to reconcile is its metaphysical stance that all that manifests is the self alone in its true form of bliss and awareness, with the examples that the text repeatedly uses stressing subjective illusionism.

To read the YV is to engage philosophical logic metaphorically. The YV depicts normal human conditioning in terms of the actions of a mad horse. Every day the individual wakes up in the morning and runs in every direction to find something that even he himself does not know what it is. Our relations, our emotional entanglements with our families and friends, they all give us this drunken madness and craving that becomes our defining force.



In describing his disillusionment, Rama also uses another metaphor, that of a tree, comparing the world with a forest. The individual’s body is compared to a tree wherein a restless monkey lies, and which hosts worries in the form of crickets, and which is constantly eaten and being turned hollow from within by the insects. It is the very image of suffering without limits. The body in the form of the tree also hosts the thirst that acts like a venomous serpent, and is the abode of a crow, the metaphoric anger. We do have the flowers of laughter and the fruits that sustain us, and good and evil, and the tree sways to and fro, moved by the wind of the life force. This tree sustains both the birds of the senses and shelters the traveller, the subject with desire who takes refuge beneath it. The wide canopy of the tree offers shade in the form of pleasure and is also a seat for the vulture of egotism. The hollowness of the tree depicts the vanity of life in all regards. The body, composed of flesh and blood, cannot support what the dweller seeks to extract from it. While one seeks eternal happiness by being in the body, the only thing one gets as a consequence is old age and death.

The fundamental human problem that the text reiterates is our fixation on permanence. We take things for granted; we assume that things continue as they are without any change. The two words the YV uses in these sections, jagat and samsara, are both meant to depict the transitoriness of the things with which we identify ourselves. These terms suggest the metaphysical dynamism that describes both the external cosmic reality and the mental reality embodied in the forms of imagination and memory. Reading the YV is to recognize that the self is the foundation for all that is in dynamism. Everything in the world is in flux. Actually, the world is flux itself and we stubbornly resist acceptance of this awareness. In order to describe this flow, the text uses the metaphor of a spinning wheel: just like the little insects caught in the wheel, we fail to recognize that it is spinning. We who are already inside the system that is solely defined by its dynamism fail to recognize this flux. The only reality in this depiction is the reality of momentariness. YV, however, seeks to ground this samsara, this dynamism, this jagat, on the foundation of the self, the pure awareness that is required for even the recognition of the dynamism.

Among all the characters, the author of YV shows Rama to be the person being tormented by the treacheries of life. Not only that Rama is the god, an incarnation of Visnu, the very name Rama derives from the verbal root √ram which means to enjoy: Rama is the subject who enjoys. The allegory is noteworthy, as in the Advaita paradigm, the self is the very supreme Brahman and the essential nature of the individual self is pure bliss and pure awareness.


How can the self suffer although its essential nature is quite the opposite? How can the self fall for illusion although it is comprised of pure consciousness?

These are the two central puzzles that the text strives to solve in more than thirty thousand verses. The heroism of Rama in the narratives of the YV does not depend on him killing some naughty demons but on his ability to reflect upon himself, and his ability to face the demons within that perturb his blissful nature. Rama’s narrative gives us hope that we all are capable of achieving liberation and that suffering is not unique to us.

Suggested Readings:

  1. Vasistha’s Yoga. by Swami Venkatesananda, SUNY Press, 1993.
  2. The Concise Yoga Vasistha, by Swami Venkatesananda, SUNY Press, 1995.

Reference Works:

  1. Yoga-Vāsiṣṭha of Vālmīki (4 volumes) edited by Ravi Prakash Arya. Parimal Publications, 2005.
  2. Seeing and Appearance, by Sthaneshwar Timalsina. Aachen: Shaker Verlag. 2006.
Mary Hicks

by Mary Hicks

October, 2015

About Mary Hicks

With undergraduate degrees in English (with Honors) and Art, and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Claremont Graduate University, Mary Hicks continues to work as an artist and as editor for scholars in religious studies. Her watercolor paintings draw on Chinese philosophy, art, and Song dynasty ceramics, and Japanese art. In addition to memorizing Saṇskṛit texts, she has recently studied Nāgārjuna at university.

Other Content by Mary Hicks

Get the One and Only Sutra Journal Newsletter

Sutra Journal Logo

© 2016 All Rights Reserved by Sutra Journal and Respective Authors.

Sutra Journal has readers from 170 countries.