The Four Stages of Saivism
The path of enlightenment is divided naturally into four stages or padas: charya, virtue and selfless service; kriya, worshipful sadhanas; yoga, meditation under a guru’s guidance; and jnana, the state of enlightened wisdom reached toward the path’s end as a result of Self Realization through the Guru’s grace. These four padas are quite similar to the four yogas of Vedanta: karma yoga, bhakti yoga, raja yoga and jnana yoga. However, there is one key difference. Whereas in Vedanta you can choose to follow just one of the yogas, in the Saiva Siddhanta school of Saivism we need to pass through all four stages, or padas.
Let’s say the path of life is rocks across a shallow stream. Vedanta gives us four separate rock paths to choose from, one for each of the four yogas, all of which lead across the river. Saiva Siddhanta gives us one path for crossing the river which consists of four stones: charya, kriya, yoga and jnana.
The four stages are not alternative ways, but progressive, cumulative phases of a one path, much like the natural development of a butterfly from egg to caterpillar, from caterpillar to pupa, and then the final metamorphosis to butterfly. The four stages are what each human soul must pass through in many births to attain its final goal of moksha, freedom from rebirth. In the beginning stages, we suffer until we learn. Learning leads us to service; and selfless service is the beginning of spiritual striving. Service leads us to understanding. Understanding leads us to meditate deeply and without distractions. Finally meditation leads us to surrender in God. This is the straight and certain path, the San Marga, leading to Self Realization, the inmost purpose of life.
Charya, literally “conduct,” is the first stage of religiousness and the foundation for the next three stages. It is also called the dasa marga, meaning “path of servitude,” for here the soul relates to God as servant to master. The disciplines of charya include humble service, attending the temple, performing one’s duty to community and family, honoring holy men, respecting elders, atoning for misdeeds and fulfilling the ten classical restraints called yamas which are: noninjury, truthfulness, nonstealing, divine conduct, patience, steadfastness, compassion, honesty, moderate appetite and purity. It is the stage of overcoming basic instinctive patterns such as the tendencies to become angry and hurtful. Right behavior and self-sacrificing service are never outgrown. The keynote of charya, or karma yoga, is seva, religious service given without the least thought of reward, which has the magical effect of softening the ego and bringing forth the soul’s innate devotion.
Saivism demands deep devotion through bhakti yoga in the kriya pada, the softening of the intellect and unfolding love. In kriya, the second stage of religiousness, our sadhana, or regular spiritual discipline, which was mostly external in charya, is now also internal. Kriya, literally “action or rite,” is a stirring of the soul in awareness of the Divine, overcoming the instinctive-intellectual mind. We now look upon the Deity image not just as carved stone, but as the living presence of the God. We perform ritual and puja not because we have to but because we want to. We are drawn to the temple to satisfy our longing. We sing joyfully. We absorb and intuit the wisdom of the Vedas and Agamas. We perform pilgrimage and fulfill the sacraments. We practice diligently the ten classical observances called niyamas which are: remorse, contentment, giving, faith, worship of the Lord, scriptural listening, cognition, sacred vows, recitation and austerity. Our relationship with God in kriya is as a son to his parents.
Yoga, “union,” is the process of uniting with God within oneself, a stage arrived at through perfecting charya and kriya. God is now like a friend to us. This system of inner discovery begins with asana—sitting quietly in yogic posture—and pranayama, breath control. Pratyahara, sense withdrawal, brings awareness into dharana, concentration, then into dhyana, meditation. Over the years, under ideal conditions, the kundalini fire of consciousness ascends to the higher chakras, burning the dross of ignorance and past karmas. Dhyana finally leads to enstasy—the contemplative experience of Satchidananda, God as energy-bliss, and ultimately to nirvikalpa samadhi, the experience of God as Parasiva, timeless, formless, spaceless. Truly a living satguru is needed as a steady guide to traverse this path. When yoga is practiced by one perfected in kriya, the Gods receive the yogi into their midst through his awakened, fiery kundalini, or cosmic energy within every individual.
Jnana is divine wisdom emanating from an enlightened being, a soul in its maturity, immersed in Sivaness, the blessed realization of God, while living out earthly karma. Jnana is the fruition of yoga and tapas, or intense spiritual discipline. Through yoga one bursts into the superconscious mind, experiencing bliss, all-knowingness and perfect silence. It is when the yogi’s intellect is shattered that he soars into Parasiva and comes out a jnani, a knower. Each time he enters that unspeakable nirvikalpa samadhi, he returns to consciousness more and more the knower. He is the liberated one, the jivanmukta, the epitome of kaivalya—perfect freedom—far-seeing, filled with light, filled with love. One does not become a jnani simply by reading and understanding philosophy. The state of jnana lies in the realm of intuition, beyond the intellect.
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