Svadhyaya - Scriptural Study, Self-Study

Daniel White
April 27, 2023
Svadhyaya - Scriptural Study, Self-Study
स्वाध्यायाद् इष्टदेवतासंप्रयोगः ॥ २.४४ ॥

svādhyāyād iṣṭadevatāsaṃprayogaḥ || 2.44 ||

From study and repetition of the scriptures, communion with the desired deity is established.

Svādhyāya is a compound Sanskrit word composed of sva + adhyāya. Adhyāya means “lesson, lecture, chapter; reading", and svā means "one's own  self, the human soul". Therefore, Svādhyāya literally means "one's own lesson", or “the study of one’s own self”. Generally, svadhyaya is translated as the discipline of sincere inquiry into the nature of our own existence and our fundamental purpose of life. 

Svadhyaya can be interpreted in two ways. The first means that we must enquire into our true nature, that is to say, we must study ourselves. The second aspect is the study of wisdom through the scriptures. Both result in knowledge, which cures the dis-ease of not knowing what we are doing here. 

Let us look at the first aspect, the practice of self-study, self observation. Like a vigilant night-watchman, svadhyaya means to always be alert and watchful, observing the play of emotions, egoism, desires, cravings and aversions in the mind, and also observing the sensations of tightness, heat, contraction and elation in the body. Svadhyaya means to be aware of the inner experience, recognising patterns, reactions, triggers, fears and ego-stories for what they truly are, and instead making a resolve to interact with the world from a place of love and inner truth in accordance with the essence of our being. 

In this way, we see that svadhyaya is closely linked to the second yama of satya (truthfulness, authenticity), in the sense that perfect self-study can only come when we genuinely know what pertains to us best, and thus study the right thing. For example, if we are under the impression that we should be a policeman, and are thus studying the philosophy of being a policeman in relation to our true nature, we will be trying to fit ourselves into a mould that is not meant for us, and the study will therefore be in vain, it will not bear fruit, much like trying to bake scones using a muffin recipe will not bring the desired result. Rather, for example, if you know that your truest expression comes when you are tending to a vegetable garden, then all subsequent study about gardening will pertain very adherently to your own nature and thus will bear fruit of self-knowledge and self-realisation, as a gardener. 

As previously mentioned, swa-dharma means one's own unique life purpose, the gift we are destined to share; our reason and sole purpose for coming to this world. Some of us are meant to be teachers, others nurses, painters, musicians, politicians, gardeners, midwives, shoe makers, soldiers, priests, maids and cleaners. Some of us are meant to train elephants, that is our unique gift, and we may rightfully know nothing else, for we are born for that. Some people are meant to bring a story into the world, to write a children's book, to invent a new mechanism, to start an organisation. Some people only know computer coding, and if you put them anywhere else, their life will be a torture. 

There is a unique role for each unique being. This is swadharma. God has put us on earth to discover our swadharma, our unique gift, the special purpose for us to share with the world. Much in the same way that God dreamed a flower to elude its unique fragrance, God scattered his essence within all sentient beings as vehicles, as instruments for his variegated expression. It was Bill Gates' swadharma to give the world Microsoft. It was Arjuna’s swadharma to go into battle against the forces of evil. It was Tolkien's swadharma to write Lord of the Rings. It is my swadharma to write this paper for you. 

As is the microcosm, so is the macrocosm. As is swadharma on a personal, individual level, so is dharma on the universal level. As swa-dharma means individual nature, dharma means universal nature, pertaining to the macrocosm, the entire phenomena of the universe. Essentially dharma is the swa-dharma  of God, of the entire creation. We simply drop the swa now, as it is no longer personal - now it pertains to the entire cosmos and thus it just becomes dharma. What is the inherent natural function of the universe? What is the nature of this creation, of this existence? This is the dharma

Dharma, in Hinduism, is spiritually worshipped as that which is beyond permutation, that which is always constant, unchanging, eternal and infinite. Dharma is righteousness, religion, virtue, harmonious duty, social thriving, inherent goodness. Dharma is the flow of joyous life and is all that promotes harmony, beauty and social peace on earth. 

The relationship between dharma and swa-dharma is such that if every being finds their own swa-dharma, the result will be perfect dharma in society. Disharmony only arises when society is not following the dharma, because individuals are not following their swa-dharma. A bee-hive operates harmoniously when all the bees are doing their individual swadharma, their own duty, according to their inborn nature. For example one type of bee builds the hive due to his special equipment. Another type collects pollen. Another type protects the hive from invaders, and as a result, the whole hive flourishes in harmony. If one bee were to arrogantly or ignorantly take the role of another, there would be disharmony and inefficiency, and the whole hive would suffer as a result. 

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says: “It is far better to perform one’s natural prescribed duty, though tinged with faults, than to perform another’s prescribed duty, though perfectly. In fact, it is preferable to die in the discharge of one’s duty, than to follow the path of another, which is fraught with danger” [3.35]. 

We see how important swadharma is for spiritual progress. One should strive to discover their swadharma, and one should prioritise it at all costs, in all situations. Now, back to Patanjali; svadhyaya, (meaning self study), is the virtue that reveals our swadharma. By studying ourselves and by sincerely experimenting with different tasks, we may obtain knowledge that dispels the clouds of confusion and despair of our estranged existence in this world. From this knowledge, clarity and understanding of our own nature is born. That is how svadhyaya leads to swadharma

So, as aforementioned, the first aspect of svadhyaya is to study ourselves closely, to be interested in our own nature. The second aspect of svadhyaya is to study specific religious or spiritual texts that help us to realise the spiritual ideal of life; of transcending all limited conditions and attaining the blissful, infinite consciousness known as sat-chit-ananda

A remarkably vast ocean of vedic literature contains the answers to all philosophical dilemmas. They are the ancient repository of enlightened thought, they contain the word, the essence and the philosophical grounding of God. They contain the meaning of life, and they have the power to dispel all existential doubt. They promote the truth and oneness of existence. The one self in all beings, all beings in the one self. 

In our current state, where we do not so much study words of wisdom, we are blinded by avidya, which is the ignorance of our real, eternal nature. Literally a-vidya means “not wisdom”, aka ignorance. This ignorance is false identification; we often identify with the limited body and mind. It is as if we are covered by a thick cloak, we can not see where we are or what we are, and we can not see the nature of the universe around us. Why am I trapped in a body? What is this world? Where did I come from? Why am I having this experience? What is my purpose here? What should I do? 

Our predicament is such that we have woken up in the middle of a dream, with no memory of how we got here or how the dream began. This is the avidya (ignorance) that I am referring to. All of a sudden we are conscious that we are in the middle of some story in which we are apparently the central character. Even looking around as you walk down the street, you will see others who have not woken up in their dream yet. They are still unaware of the dream, still under its spell. So, it can be helpful for us to know, atleast, at this point in our spiritual path, we have woken up to the fact that we are in a dream. 

So then, what must we do to untangle this situation? The prognosis is avidya, and what is the cure? The cure is knowledge, is svadhyaya. We must inquire as to the nature of this dream. I am reminded of those video games where you are a character running around a fictional world asking people here and there what's going on. You stop and talk to them and they give you some clues, some hints, some options which you may follow. And maybe at the end of the game you find some grand treasure. 

At the end of this game, this game that is your life, the treasure is the knowledge of your true self. And we must inquire around us to be pointed towards the treasure. Now try to think about when you are playing these games, what is your compass? What would you follow? Always when we are playing, it is the sense of intrigue and curiosity that is followed. We go where there is fantasy, where we feel compelled and inspired to explore. This is inevitably the compass of our playful exploration. So, this should absolutely be the same in the real-world dream we find ourselves in. Let inspiration and intrigue guide you, and always go where it is interesting, colorful and fresh. 

This waking dream is no more real or imaginary than the dreams we have when we are asleep. Both are projections of the mind. One is a projection made of the five gross elements, while the other is a projection made of the five subtle elements. Both are projections of consciousness. The difference is, most of us have invested much more emotion into the waking projection than into the dream projection, and as a result, we take the waking state to be more important, more permanent and more pertinent to our real nature. We believe that this world is the be-all and end-all of our existence, and that success here is everything. We believe we are nothing unless we are something in this world. 

As a result, we take this world very seriously and we forget the fact that it is also a projection of the subconscious. We think it is a projection of God, a field that is external to us, that we are subject to, much like a goldfish is subject to the aquarium that we set for it. But reality is not like that. This world is our very own projection, projected through the lens of our psyche onto the screen of consciousness. Everything that is projected; all of the content of this dream is already within us, being shown to us so that we may make sense of it, to reconcile it and understand the nature of our own projection, which is not separate from us. 

 Spirituality is not different from reality. Being a realist is the purest form of spirituality. Being aware as to the nature of your dream is the most spiritual thing you can do in this life. Understanding the content of your own being is the deepest quest in the revelation of the Spirit. Spirituality is making sense of the reality that is right in front of you. 

So then, why must we take this so seriously? Rather, we should play in this projection, following our inspiration, curiosity and intrigue, much in the same way we would if we were playing a game. By keeping a light heart and exploring this world, we gently unravel our own psyche, gradually discarding, unravelling and reconciling ideas to realise deeper and deeper, the psycho-spiritual nature of the world, and our inherent place within it. This knowledge is the cure for all confusion about our existence, and whether we are aware of it or not, this knowledge is the only desire of our soul, far deeper than any fulfilment that could come through the material world. 

Therefore, perfection in svadhyaya can also be understood as the moment where the mind hears the soul’s deepest desire, the mind hears the soul’s longing for internal recognition, reverence and sincere celebration. This is a monumental moment in spiritual life, the moment where the desire for self-knowledge overcomes the desires of worldly enjoyment. At this moment, the mind becomes steadfast in the pursuit of clarity, in curing the disease of ignorance that has confused us for so many lifetimes. We see clearly, perhaps for the first time, that we do not want, and we have never wanted to grovel around in this world of sensory indulgence, distracted from what is truly important, distracted from what is truly real, what is unchanging, what is eternal, what is pure, what is true. This is svadhyaya, revelation of the soul’s true nature and true function, to again become one in spirit with the eternal source of this world.

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