The Role of the Intellect in Sadhana

An Exposition by Swami Akhandananda

For millennia, great beings have taught that refinement of the intellect is essential for a seeker of the Truth. The intellect plays a central role in our life, directing our actions, perceptions, and thoughts. A refined intellect is one that has been developed through grace, sādhanā and constant reflection on the unity behind all creation.

One spring evening I had a vivid experience of the intellect’s role in sādhanā as I was walking on the grounds of Shree Muktananda Ashram. The breezes were gentle, and the sky seemed to expand with its sunset colors. I glanced to my left and saw a deer grazing just a few paces away. I paused so I wouldn’t startle this creature, and it looked up at me with its big brown eyes.

I gazed back into the eyes of the deer, recalling something Gurumayi Chidvilasananda said in one of her talks: although the eyes of living beings come in many shapes and sizes, the Consciousness within all these eyes is the same.

The remembrance of Gurumayi’s teaching brought me to a deeper stillness. Although I was still looking at the deer, my field of awareness expanded inwardly, into a still space behind my eyes. After a few minutes, I continued my walk, savoring the glimpse of the Consciousness I had shared with this gentle animal.

Over the next few days on the Ashram grounds, I had encounters with other creatures—two chipmunks, a cardinal, a hummingbird—in which I became momentarily aware that the same Seer looking through my eyes was looking back at me through these other sets of eyes.

Because I was engaging with Gurumayi’s teaching to see beyond differences in order to contact the Truth—pondering this teaching, honing my understanding of it—I was able to glimpse this oneness again and again, if only for an instant.

Gurumayi has often taught us that in order to experience the universal Truth, we have to be aware, we have to wake up. Gurumayi speaks about how, in the scriptures of India, the sages describe the limited individual as being asleep—that is, ignorant of their true nature.

Waking Up and Knowledge

Asleep. It is such an apt analogy. Each morning when we awaken from sleep, the world of our dreams dissolves as we resume our familiar identities and roles. In the face of our lucid perceptions and the general concreteness of the waking world, it’s obvious that our awareness is limited when we’re asleep. Keeping this analogy in mind can help us to better understand Gurumayi’s teaching to wake up to the Truth.

And what does it mean to wake up to the Truth? It means to leave the state of being spiritually asleep in which we identify with our body and mind. We then enter the state of spiritual wakefulness where we recognize the Self as our true nature and live in the awareness of seeing the Self in all. In Sanskrit, this higher, spiritual knowledge is called jñāna, which can be understood on several distinct levels.

Most Siddha Yogis are aware of having flashes of recognition that the underlying nature of the universe is Truth—pure being, Consciousness, and bliss.  All such perceptions and cognitions are forms of jñāna. According to the Kashmiri Śaiva sage Abhinavagupta, these flashes of recognition are significant in reaching the most expanded state of jñāna—enlightenment, in which we become established in the experience of the one Truth that is the deepest nature of both ourselves and of everything around us. In other words, all these forms of jñāna are a part of waking up to our true nature.

Abhinavagupta speaks about two types of spiritual knowledge that are necessary to be fully awake:

  1. Pauruṣa-jñāna, “direct or innate knowledge.” This knowledge is inherent in the individual Self and is awakened in a seeker through the grace bestowed in śaktipāt dīkṣā, spiritual initiation. It is Self-awareness beyond the level of thought. Although a disciplined practice of meditation supports pauruṣa-jñāna, since this type of knowledge is revealed by grace, it is not controlled by our conscious effort.
  2. Bauddha-jñāna, “knowledge rooted in the intellect. This knowledge comes about through perceiving, pondering, and studying accurate descriptions of the nondual Truth taught by one’s Guru and the scriptures. This, of course, is fully under our control and dependent on our own effort.1

It is the latter—intellectual knowledge—that we’ll examine now, at least in part because this is the form of knowledge we can decide to develop.

What Is the Intellect?

Let me begin by clarifying what“ intellectual knowledge” means in this context. Among the various mental functions identified by the Indian philosophies, the intellect is the part of our mental apparatus that reasons—that understands, discerns, and categorizes all experiences, both inner and outer. It is our intellect that tells us the animal before us is a dog and not a fish, a frog, or a fox.

Let me point out that my recognition of Truth in the eyes of the deer happened because I had been contemplating this teaching from my Guru. Moreover, as the intellect becomes increasingly refined, it can more reliably steer us toward what is most beneficial in both practical and spiritual life.

Importantly for us as seekers, it is the intellect that can discern Truth from non-Truth, the Real from the not-Real, and the Self from the not-Self. It is this capacity that makes a strong and refined intellect indispensable on the spiritual path.

Bauddha-jñāna includes the ways that we apply the intellect to sādhanā by developing our discernment of Truth and reflecting on how our right understanding is verified through our experiences of the Self.

An aphorism of the Śivasūtra, one of the seminal Śaiva texts, puts it this way:

dhīvaśāt sattvasiddhiḥ || 3.12 ||
By the power of the intellect, there is the realization of the pure Reality [of the Self].2
dhī:    intellect, understanding, insight
vaśāt:    by the power
sattva:    pure Reality, existence, true essence
siddhiḥ:    realization, attainment

Note that the Sanskrit word dhī has been used for “intellect”; another frequently used term is buddhi.

The Śaiva sage Kṣemarāja comments on this sūtra, saying, “The intellect is most proficient in reflecting the true nature [of the Self] in one’s awareness.”3 The intellect is “most proficient” because it is subtler than the body, the senses of perception, and the other aspects of what Indian philosophies call the “mental apparatus.” These aspects are manas, the mind, which collects sense impressions, and ahaṃkāra, the ego, which appropriates to ourselves certain experiences. Of all these aspects, it is the intellect that is in a position to best reflect the Self.

In this commentary Kṣemarāja goes on to say, “Through the power of that intellect, there is the realization or manifestation of the pure Reality (sattva), which is a subtle inner pulsation whose nature is shimmering light.”4 In other words, it is the pure knowledge of the intellect that allows us to perceive the highest experience.

One way of understanding this is to consider that the intellect is an aspect of our limited being that is quite close to the Self. Due to this proximity, once the intellect has become refined—purified—it functions as a mirror that reflects the light and joy of the Self. Here, “purified” refers to purification from the perception of duality.

So, what the Śaiva sages mean by a “purified intellect” is an intellect that is steeped in the understanding and perception of our oneness with God and the universe. Furthermore, they are saying that once we have purified the intellect, we awaken to the Truth.

Baba Muktananda, in his book Nothing Exists That Is Not Shiva, comments on the above sūtra by saying this: “When the intellect becomes established in the conviction of the unity of all things, Truth is realized.”5

Here, Baba has identified the process by which intellectual knowledge leads us to the realization of the Truth. When we repeatedly reflect on the teaching of the Guru and the scriptures that there is one Self pervading all beings and objects, the intellect becomes steady in its orientation toward unity, toward the Truth.

Once this happens, our deep-seated notions of duality, of our separateness from the Self, gradually dissolve and become replaced by thoughts of our unity with the one Truth, which is Consciousness. Eventually, even these thoughts give way to the wondrous apprehension of that unity, free of thought.

How to Employ Our Intellect

Take a moment now to reflect on this question: “What are some ways I can apply my intellect to recognize that one Self pervades all beings and objects?”

One way of employing your intellect is to make the effort to think about your oneness with the universe. You could practice perceiving one divine energy that is present in yourself, in the people you meet, in the forces and forms of nature you encounter, and in everything else that you see, hear, touch, taste, and smell.

Abhinavagupta refers to these thoughts of unity as śuddha vikalpa, “pure thoughts,” because such thoughts accurately represent the Truth.6 Śuddha vikalpa includes thoughts of unity like “I am the Self ” and “God has become everything” as well as sacred mantras (which themselves are one with God), divinely revealed scriptures such as the Śivasūtra, and the teachings of the Guru.

When you become steeped in these thoughts of unity, a firm conviction arises in your intellect concerning the unity of all things. Holding this viewpoint of unity refines the intellect so that it becomes aligned with the Truth. With this steady practice, the intellect does become subtler. It’s as if the intellect becomes transparent—so gossamer-fine that the unifying light of the Self that is always present within us can shine right through.

A glorious benefit of employing our buddhi to discern the unity underlying the diversity of this world is that this action, in and of itself, prepares us to have the direct experience of that unity. I had a glimpse of this, which I would like to share.

Several years ago, I participated in a weeklong course on a collection of sūtras, “aphorisms,” written by Kṣemarāja, called the Pratyabhijñā-hṛdayam, “The Heart of Recognition”—meaning our recognition of our own identity with the highest Truth. The course began, naturally enough, with sūtra 1, which states that the entire universe, including every aspect of our being, arises from and merges back into supreme Consciousness.7 For the rest of the day, I reflected on how Consciousness is the source of my every action, thought, and perception.

The next morning, I applied this understanding in meditation. Sitting with my eyes closed, I had the insight that since everything in my mind is ultimately Consciousness, I needn’t be attached to the thoughts, emotions, or desires that were coming up.

After an hour of persistently reminding myself that my thoughts arise from Consciousness, I found my thoughts dissolving into a subtler energy, and I was enveloped by a sensation of strong upward movement. Then, my inner vision opened up into what seemed at first like a vast twilight sky with cotton-ball clouds spread across it. My awareness was floating upward, toward this sky, which I began to perceive as an ocean. What I had first seen as clouds became vortexes of bluish energy, each pulsating in its own way. When I was finally close enough, I dove into this sparkling ocean, rose through it, and admired its surface—the dancing waves and contours formed of strings of blue-white spheres. Everything was Consciousness.

I knew then: everything is Consciousness!

When I came out of meditation, my body and mind were drenched in love and serenity.

Part of what I learned from this experience is that by refining the intellect to perceive and discern the true nature of creation, a spiritual seeker develops receptivity to the direct experience of the Truth.

1 Tantraloka, ch. 1; Swami Lakshmanjoo, Light on Tantra in Kashmir Shaivism, Abhinavagupta’s Tantraloka, Chapter One (Damascus, OR: Lakshmanjoo Academy, 2017), p. 47–48.
2 Śivasūtra 3.12; translation © 2018 SYDA Foundation.
3 Śivasūtra 3.12; Kṣemarāja’s commentary, translation © 2018 SYDA Foundation.
4 Śivasūtra 3.12; Kṣemarāja’s commentary, translation © 2018 SYDA Foundation.
5 Swami Muktananda, Nothing Exists That Is Not Shiva (S. Fallsburg, NY: SYDA Foundation, 1997), p. 42.
Tantrasāra, ch. 4; H. N. Chakravarty, Tantrasāra of Abhinavagupta (Portland, OR: Rudra Press, 2012), p. 70.
Pratyabhijñā-hṛdayam 1; Swami Shantananda, The Splendor of Recognition (S. Fallsburg, NY: SYDA Foundation, 2003), p. 23.