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From Karma to Dhyana: Meditation According to the Gita

Article of the Month - May 2013
Viewed 19718 times since 15th May, 2013

The overuse of the word ‘meditation’, spanning a multiple layer of meanings and contexts – often divergent ones, has sapped out the essential essence from this word. Meditation is often interpreted as a translation of the Sanskrit word ‘dhyana’. The word ‘dhyana’ actually literally translates as ‘careful concentration’, implying an effort on the part of the one attempting to meditate. The effort to be made here consists of not only the actual process of dhyana, but also, more importantly, a lot of groundwork too is needed to prepare oneself for meditation. As usual, it is the Bhagavad Gita which comes to our rescue by providing us with the authentic and easy to understand description of not only how to obtain the capacity for dhyana, but also how to practice it.

In particular, it is the sixth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita which dedicates itself exclusively to answer all our queries regarding mediation. This chapter is befittingly titled ‘Dhyana Yoga’. Here Shri Krishna clearly differentiates between the two levels of spiritual practitioners - the lower being called karma-yogis and the upper ones dhyana-yogis. The karma-yogi is defined in the very first verse as follows:

‘The one who performs the karma prescribed for him by the scriptures, without bothering about their fruits, such a person is a karma-yogi’ (6.1).

Then, Lord Krishna goes on to show how the same karma-yogi evolves into a dhyana-yogi, becoming capable of meditation:

‘The one who has not yet evolved to the stage where he can meditate (dhyana yoga), but wants to do so, such a person should perform his prescribed karma. However the same person can give up karma when he has reached the stage of dhyana-yoga’ (6.3).


Sandhya (A Karma Prescribed by the Scriptures)

This verse clearly states that dhyana-yoga or meditation is not for everybody. To evolve to the stage where we can do dhyana, it is necessary to first become a karma-yogi by performing nishkama-karma (action without attachment to its fruits). Nishkama-karma means not indulging in what we think is right, but doing what God knows is right, by unquestionably obeying His commands like a dutiful servant. Such a path (karma-yoga), leads to an inner cleansing - purifying the mind, making it a fit vehicle for meditation.


How do we know to which stage we belong – karma-yoga or dhyana-yoga? In all probability, if one is reading (or writing) this article, one is entitled to karma-yoga only. Look at it this way: we carry our cell-phones even to satsangs; given such a state of mind, can dhyana be possible for us?

Another important point to be observed here is that this verse is not speaking of two different people. It is talking of the same person who first has to calm his mind by performing his prescribed karma, and then gives up karma to sit in meditation. This effectively rules out all ordinary grahsthas (householders) from the ambit of meditation. This becomes clearer as Lord Krishna carries us along the sixth chapter. Describing the characteristics of the person who has evolved to the stage where he can meditate, Krishna says:

‘When a person is not attached to sense-objects, nor to karma and has given up all desires; such a person is said to have evolved to the stage of dhyana-yoga’(6.4).

After having thus described the one who is entitled (adhikari) to meditate, Lord Krishna then informs us how to go about it:

‘For dhyana one should be alone in solitude; keep the mind steady; the body under control and be free from any hopes and material possessions’ (6.10).

This verse clearly rules out the ‘group meditation’ sessions which are becoming the norm today. Meditation has to be done alone in solitude. The qualification of being devoid of material possessions shows the difficulty of a householder indulging in meditation.

Thereafter Shri Krishna gives us the actual procedure for meditation:


Lord Hanuman as Yogachara

‘Establish your asana (seat) in a pure and clean spot which is neither too high nor too low. To prepare your asana, first spread the sacred kusha grass on the ground, then a deer skin over the kusha and finally spread a cloth. Then sitting on this asana, withdraw your mind from all external objects. The body during this process should be as follows: It should be firmly held and the head and neck should be still. The meditator should look at the tip of his nose without looking at the directions around him’ (6.11-13).


The phrase ‘look at the tip of the nose’ is not to be taken literally to mean that one should direct one’s eyeballs towards the tip of one’s nose. According to Shri Shankaracharya, this statement implies that one should not divert one’s attention in any direction. Actually nasa-agra (tip of one’s nose) is a technical term in yoga, meaning that the light (eye sight) which otherwise works divergently from the two eyes, should during meditation converge as if looking at a single point, like the tip of one’s nose.

And then, according to Krishna: ‘With his mind at supreme peace; the meditator should be without any fear; he should be situated in the strictest vows of ascetic celibacy. He, with a controlled mind, should think of Me only and take Me as his supreme goal’ (6.14).

Next the Gita speaks of how a meditator should eat, and other regulations regarding his lifestyle etc: ‘Meditation is not possible for him who eats too much. Nor is it possible for him who does not eat at all; Nor for him who sleeps too much, nor him who sleeps too little’ (6.16).

What then should be the habits of a yogi to achieve dhyana-yoga? ‘He should be moderate in his eating and recreation. He should exert himself only moderately while performing karma (like begging for his food etc). He should also be moderate in his sleep and wakefulness’ (6.17).

Further on, Lord Krishna enumerates the fruits of dhyana-yoga, inspiring us to aspire towards it:

‘Dhyana-yoga removes all dukha. The meditator’s mind remains unflickering, like a lamp in a windless place. When the mind, having become transparent through the practice of dhyana, reveals in itself the True-Self, the yogi achieves the state of absolute self-contentedness. This bliss transcends the senses. Having achieved this bliss, the yogi realizes that there is nothing more superior to be gained. Established in such a state, even the mightiest sorrow is unable to shake the yogi. Indeed, this state means a complete severance from sorrow’ (6.17-22).

Finally, Shri Krishna shows the ultimate fruit of yoga – the realization of the essential oneness in a pluralistic world:

‘Situated in dhyana, the yogi sees the Self in all and the all in Self. He who sees Me in everything and everything in Me, he is never separated from me, nor do I ever get separated from him’ (6.29-30).


Meditation is not done to calm the mind. It is to be done after the mind has been calmed. To achieve this required calmness of the mind, one first needs to fulfil one’s karmic destiny, i.e. perform karma according to one’s station in life - the karma which has been prescribed by God Himself.


References & Further Reading:

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