What is Svadyaya, “self-study” and self-knowledge?

What is Svadyaya: Self-Study, a key pillar of yoga?

At the first Orinda Citta Chat session we just held we began by reading a quote below by my teacher through this path of svadyaya, self-study, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, as it beautifully describes and honors this kind of gathering in the tradition of self-study and what what we can reach for in ongoing study in comparison to programs in parts. Swami Dayananda Saraswati’s message closing a three year course. We meet every other Sunda at 2:00 pm in a private home, ongoing indefinitely. Get in touch if you would like to attend anytime.

Desire to inquire.

What is svadyaya, self-study?
And why are we talking about it?

The whole second section in the Yoga Sutras on sadhana, on practice, committed lifestyle, begins saying svadyaya is one of the key practices of yoga, then further elaborating in the section on Niyamas.

And this is what we do in the weekly Citta Chats, in Orinda and SF,and what I teach in the various teacher training programs recently. When I do these 2-4 hour segments in teacher trainings we cannot go adequately into things I explain here. In our weekly discussions we do get to discuss fully the tapah and kriyas, what is is we are doing the teachings, and what are the qualities in the heart/mind of student to be prepared and so on.

The following verse sets up the whole Sadhana Pada, second chapter, where really most of what we practice as yoga is described; which is all a further expounding on these kriya, or activities. If one is curious about yoga, seeking to know yoga this is to be known.

“tapah, svadyaya isvara pranidhanani kriya yogaḥ”

Willful, conscious practices, a committed lifestyle (tapaḥ), self-study (svadyaya) and understanding myself in the order of creator and creation, laws of cause and effect, (Isvara Pranidhanani) are the activities of yoga.
Yoga Sutras 2:1

To what end?
For that ultimate end, or mokśa, liberation, freedom… from what exactly?
From all sorrows, sarvadukaḥ says the sruti, and all limitations.
For that ananda, that fullness, tranquil, comfortable disposition; sounds yummy.
All of which are gained how?

When “the self abides in it’s essential nature”, says Yoga Sutra 1:3, “tada drastuḥ svarupe avasthanam,” naming the ultimate end of yoga, which of course raises the question ”What is the essential nature of the self?” that svarupa of the drastuḥ, the seer, the knower, the subject, me?

And where do I look for it’s essential nature, if it is me? How to abide in that svarupa, which is my essence? What is the obstacle? Do I look outside myself for my essential nature? Is there an “essential nature experience? A satcitanananda experience? Don’t I look at me to know my own nature? Who then is the “I” looking at me, doing the svadyaya, the self-study? Do you see the challenge?

What are the means, the sadhana, the kriyaḥ, through which my essential nature is known to me? What does the seer look at to know something of itself, me? This is yoga. This is to be known.

Patanjali so gracefully sets up the Yoga Sutras to answer these questions in sequence for us, provided they are handled by the teacher as a pramana and to fill in what comes from the sampradaya, the oral teaching tradition, what is not in the text. The śastra, the texts, are hyperlinks to the sampradaya, the oral teaching tradition, for the teacher to draw on the existent body of the knowledge, the preceding texts, in the tradition.

Of course to study anything we must first seek how, what are the means to gain the desired knowledge? To know my svarupa I must know the means of knowledge available to me to know the svarupa of atma, the essential nature of “me.”

So Patanjali then names how we know what we know. Vrrtis, thought modifications, are classified into five types, as are types of cognition, ways we know what we know. Each pramana, or means of knowledge is then to be unfolded by the teacher in such a way so when we are inquiring into my assumptions about “me”I can see where the errors are and what are the tools for resolving the errors. Yoga Sutras 1:6, 7 introduce pramana, knowledge; that which is, and thus cannot be refuted. Patanjali points to, links to, the preceding texts recognizing a pramana, a valid means of knowledge that tells me something about my experience of the objective empirical world, must come from one of two sources: sense perception and witness perception, or cognitive inference.

I find this is a common misconception about the study of the Upaniśad in the yoga circles I have been studying and teaching in for 30 years; that many think the study is one of theology, or faith, or a construct, or belief.. Or whatever many think it is, they do not think it is an analysis of my direct experience, discussion about me, thus readily verifiable as I am always present for every experience. We will discuss this further.


Through what means of knowledge, pramana, is the self, me, available for study by me? Anything I study is an object of perception available for study by me, the subject, through sense perception and/or cognitive inference; for instance, where there is smoke, there is fire. Yoga Sutra 1.7

Anything I study is an object of study available to me through sense perception or inference as a means of knowledge, or pramana. Anything the seer, the drastuḥ knows is a known object, the kṣetra, the field known, an object of perception, this distinct from the seer, the ksetrajña, the subject.

So how can I study the subject, which is by definition only one?

The subject, my own conscious presence, is known to me through immediate experience, not sense perception nor inference. What am I going to taste, see, hear, smell, or touch to know that I am? That I exist needs no object to be verified. What do I look at to infer that I am here? What other object can confirm my existence?

The subject is the only thing that is self-evident, and thus not available for study through sense perception or inference.

What then is the means, the pramāna, for svadyaya, for self study, self-knowledge, which is mokśa, freedom from sorrow and becoming?

Patanjali mentions a third pramāna in verse 1.7, āgamāh, knowledge from the śastra, the texts. The śruti, the text, the Upaniśad and the Bhagavad Gita, are the pramāna, the means of knowledge to know something about me not available for me to know by any other means, not the sense perception nor witness perception. The śruti are intended to function as pramāna, and may function as pramāna provided the words and teachings are handled with care as a pramāna, not a school of thought, by one to whom they were taught as a pramāna, within the sampradaya, the oral teaching tradition of unfoldment of the texts as a means of knowledge to reveal something about myself not available through other means.

The topic is near and available to be known
While not available to this mind on its own, once seen, the teaching can be validated or verified by my own experience during the time of teaching, and is nota t odds with my experience, nor can it be refuted. Thus the mind is able to learn and see what was not apparent before, because it is always near, nearest, and available for understanding and confirmation through knowledge, which lasts; ignorance, not knowing, cannot return in the face of knowing.

For the student the teachings are not available to see without a teacher, as there are no tools to reveal the subject other than sense experience and inference, which will always be centered on an object by definition constrained by space and time, attributes the sruti tells us, we find upon inquiry do not belong to “me”, my svarupa, my essential nature,

The sruti, the texts, say my svarupa, my essence is sat-cit-ananda: whole, present, consciousness. Well how then am I to know this, which not constrained by space or time, nor subject to change, which is all I know in this world?

What does this mean exactly, in one’s own, my own, personal experience of daily life which is constrained by time and space? “C’mon now.” says Arjuna to Krsna, “really? yeesh…. Tell me more?”

Is not everything about me available to me to know, on my own?
Once pointed out, yes.
Left to existing pramāna prior to teacher and text, the sampradaya, no.

Even when available, Krsna says to Arjuna the knowledge is known as the King of Secrets, as it is often mistaught and misunderstood, hard to grasp in the face of what the mind sees and thinks it knows, even when it is right in front of us to be seen. That is why i is a secret, apparently so well hidden in plain sight.

So Krsna spends the entire eighteen chapters of the Bhagavad Gita answering two key questions asked by Arjuna and so concisely restated and summed up asked by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras:

What is the svarupa of atma, the essential nature of “me?”
What are the means to abide in, to know this essence, this svarupa avasthanam?

All of the Bhagavad Gita is answering those two questions.

The Bhagavad Gita is about two things:

1. Brahma Vidya: knowledge of the self, of Being, and by extension, of All.
2. Karma Yoga: An understanding, an attitude present in every action; not a quality or particular type of action.

1. Brahma vidya is knowledge of brahman, seeing what is there, not the mithya, the snake projection, or superimposition of pot onto clay; which starts with knowledge of me, because I am here, available as a direct experience, not speculation or hypotheticals or unverifiable belief.

Thus svadyaya is not philosophy, as philosophy is often speculative, and not used as a pramana, a means of knowledge to reveal something to me not available to me through other means of knowledge; not through the 5 senses nor through cognitive inference, or witness perception. Philosophy is an object of study, we study a school of thought, not a means or reveal something not otherwise available about the subject. Here the topic is the subject, not any object of study.

Svadyaya is not history. When we talk about authors, or historical personalities, dates of texts, other schools of thought (-isms), comparative study and so on that is not svadyaya. When studying history  the topic is not the subject, me. The topic is history. The object of study, means of study, is not a pramana, a means of knowledge turned on “me.”

Svadyaya is not science, while svadyaya uses scientific methods at times (obervation, deduction)  it is not science, which is a study of the empirical world through sense perception and inference. Self-knowledge, atma-jñana, knowing one’s essential nature, svarupe avasthanam, fits well with the sciences, is not at odds with the sciences, and scientific vocabulary and findings help a lot in the teachings. The sciences cannot disprove or refute non-dual self-knowledge, as the topic (my conscious presence) is not available for study through the five sense or cognitive inference, which is science.

A pramana has to be used.
To test the pramana, the means of knowledge – the sastra, the texts, I have to use them on me.
This is svadyaya, and may lead to self-knowledge, moksa, liberation from all sorrows and a life of becoming.

2. Karma yoga (see the sanskrit of verse 2.47 as you read this paragraph) again is an attitude of graceful acceptance of results of action (karmaphala, fuits of action); knowing I am have authorship adhikara, in action alone, not results, reaction. Karma Yoga is a means to neutralize the pulls of like and dislikes (ragas and dvesas, sukha and dukha) of mind/body/senses in regards to one’s sense of belonging, emotional comfort and wholeness. Karma yoga prepares the mind to better see what is, shedding subjectivity and cultivating objectivity.

The sampradaya, teaching tradition, methods, and lineage, teach us Karma Yoga is revealed as two things in the Bhagavad Gita:
1. prasada buddhi; graceful acceptance of results of action; of what is; this has to be unfolded more. Karma yoga is an inquiry into the cause of results of action, of natural laws, and in turn, a recognition of Isvara. Isvara is the recognition of the order in what is, a recognition of the karmaphaladata, author of results of action; a recognition of an uncaused cause, the word means “that which sustains all and is self-sustaining.”
2. isvara arpana buddhi: understanding all actions as offerings to Isvara, to the order of which I am a part, of which I am made, and in which I move and act.
Thus Bhakti, devotion is intrinsic to karma yoga and there is no separate path. Each karma, action is imbued with bhakti, an understanding of Isvara, and what expression of bhakti is not an action, a karma?
Karma yoga helps one neutralize the sway of the mind/body/sense likes and dislikes on sense of self, to better grasp the knowledge of one’s svarupa as satcitanananda. This is mokśa, requiring jñana, knowledge of the satyam, knowledge of the rope; there is no separate jñana path.

Thus Brahma vidya and karma yoga by very definition are inclusive of bhakti and jñana, and any range of practices that enable these, including the aṣtanga, or eight pillars of practice in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras; and the conversation between Krsna and Arjuna is always about one of these two things. The so-called four paths resolve into these two, which are not separate paths, but rather mutually reinforcing. All this has to be explored, questioned and understood.

For the Upaniśad to function as a pramana, a means of knowledge to inquire into my direct and immediate experience, several things have to be in place:

The Sampradaya, the oral teaching tradition of unfoldment of meaning so the text are held as pramana, a light turned on the subject, not an object of study; and so the appropriate prakriyas, or teaching methodologies, like Satyam/Mithya, Subject/Object and Action/Reaction illustrations and methods, drstantas and prakriyas we use in the teaching.). Access to the whole container of all the Upanisads, all the grammar, all the etymology, the methods of logic and cognition, and so on. Which is why we are so fortunate in our time and location to have access to a teacher like Swami Dayananda Saraswati and the methods he imparts.

The following three tools are the tapaḥ, the second essential pillar of yoga, Yoga Sutras 2:1, for the student to help assimilate the teachings:

Sravana: listening to the teachings, with focus (dharana), such that the words color my very understanding of that present moment; the topic is always present, as from what experience am I absent?

Nididhyasana: Guided meditation for contemplation upon the things you have recognized an understood in sravana, during the unfoldment, not seeking an experience, a state of mind that will come and go, as an end in itself. Nididhyasana is to give your mind time to slow down and let the teachings to be seen, step by step, and held by the mind as naming “me,” not some third person, but me, who am always present an available throughout the teaching and the nididhyasana.

Manana: Assimilation, (from manas): expressing doubt, questioning, dialog, applying to actions in daily life, integrating values in daily behavior and so on. All the Yamas and Niyamas fit within this category.

Orinda Citta Chat #1: An introduction to Svadyaya, self-study, the means and the desired end.

This class and meditation are good introductions.

The tradition, the sampradaya, teaches these three things as essential tapaḥ when unfolding the verses in the Yoga Sutras nd Bhagavad Gita on tapaḥ, among other, for instance yamas and niyamas, which also fall within these three categories.
There are other qualities and qualifications a student can cultivate to strengthen viveka, discernment, discrimination, which key for the path of mumuksu, one who seek to be a jiva muktaḥ, one liberated now in this life.

We will explore these in depth in the Tattva Bodha which I will start soon on the Wednesday evening Citta Chats at my house. This will be a good opportunity to start at the beginning, and not jump into the calculus whilst skipping the early math.

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