Dreams, the act of dreaming, and the elusive identities of the dreamer play a central role in the philosophy of the Yogavāsiṣṭha. Reality in this text is always virtual; nothing has fixity. The only constant is change, tempered and formed according to the principles of karma. What has happened in the past influences the present; what is not dealt with in the present will continue to assert itself in the future. Knowing this, one must seek to become virtuous.
This study begins with a brief history of the text and research on the text. It then focuses on the role of dream in two segments of the Yogavāiṣṭha: the story of King Lavana and the centrality of dream in the teachings of sevenfold Yoga. Other studies on dream are also presented, including the role of dream in tribal cultures, the work of Jeremy Taylor, and other scholars’ views on dream in the Yogavāsiṣṭha. In summary, the Yogavāsiṣṭha posits that by exploring the realm of dream one can gain mastery within the waking realm.
The Story of the Yogavāsiṣṭha
The Yogavāsiṣṭha tells the story of the youthful Rāma, prince of Ayodhya. His father, King Daśaratha, is approached by the sage Viśvamitra, who requests help in protecting his hermitage from marauders. Though Rāma is still a teenager, the sage points out to the King that the young prince is strong and competent, and old enough to perform the police action needed to guarantee the safety of the ashramites. Rāma resists, complaining that it would be better to simply renounce the world himself than to be drawn into a conflict not of his own making. He refuses to cooperate. A second sage, by the name of Vasiṣṭha, is brought to the court to provide philosophical and psychological instruction to the recalcitrant prince. In 64 nested stories, Vasiṣṭha teaches Rāma about the realm of action, the ways of meditation, the flimsy nature of what we call reality, and how to reconcile one’s will with the demands of dharma.
This text reached its current form by around the 11th century in Kashmir. It builds on narratives found in the Mahābhārata and other texts. One of the earlier forms, known as the Mokṣopāya, is being newly edited by a research team in Europe headed by Walter Slaje. An abridgement of the text, the Lāghu Yogavāsiṣṭa, was redacted and translated sixteen times into Persian in the 16th century, serving as an important resource through which the Mughal rulers of India could learn about Vedānta philosophy. The emperor Jahangir (1569-1627), son of Akbar and father of Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal), commissioned an illustrated version of the text in Persian translation three years before he ascended the throne in 1605 that can be viewed at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin.
The Yogavāsiṣṭha has retained popularity for the past thousand years. In the later years of the British colonial rule, it was studied and taught by Paramahamsa Ramakrishna, Ramana Maharshi, and Swami Sivananda. A seven volume translation was rendered in the 1890s that has since been newly edited and republished. A Sanskrit version of the text with commentary was published in 1918 by V. L. S. Pansikar. B. L. Atreya completed his doctoral dissertation and wrote several books on the text in the 1930s. Surendranath Dasgupta includes an eighty page analysis of the text in his five volume History of Indian Philosophy. Swami Venkatesananda, a disciple of Swami Sivananda who taught in South Africa and Australia, rendered at least three versions of the text. Vasiṣṭha’s Yoga (SUNY 1993) is particularly helpful in that, although a summary, it provides chapter references that correspond with the Sanskrit original.
Modern scholars have noted the intersections between Śaiva, Vaiṣṇava, and Advaita Vedānta ideas within the text. Trimbak Govind Mainkar has published a thorough analysis of ideas contained within the text, noting its influence on Abhinavagupta (950-1016) and Kashmir Śaivism in particular. Rāma, as noted by Phyllis Granoff, is venerated as an incarnation of Viṣṇu; she links the text with Vaiṣṇavism. Sthaneshwar Timalsina explicates the Yogavāsiṣṭha’s influence on the Dṛṣṭi-Sṛṣṭi (perception is creation) school of Advaita Vedānta. My own studies of the text explores its emphasis on the efficacy of human will (pauruṣa) and its descriptions of elemental meditations. Like the persons described in the stories itself, the Yogavāsiṣṭha is a bit of a shape-shifter, reflecting its own message that reality is not fixed. Wendy Doniger (O’Flaherty), who began her career with a co-study of hallucinogens in the Ṛg Veda, considers her study of the Yogavāsiṣṭha to be her most thoughtful work.
Several stories with the text describe dream and dream-like realities, including the story of Līlā and Sarasvatī (III:15-67), the story of Jīvaṭa and the Hundred Rudras (VI:1:62-69), Gādhi (V:44-50), Bhuśuṇḍa (VI.1:14-29), Cūḍālā (VI.1:77-109) and others. One story will be analyzed here that epitomizes the Yogavāsiṣṭha approach to dreams: the story of Lavaṇa (III:103-122). The centrality of dream awareness in the sevenfold path of Vasiṣṭha’s Yoga will also be discussed.
King Lavaṇa’s Alternate Reality
The story of Lavaṇa serves to underscore the radicality of the Yogavāsiṣṭha’s philosophical approach. In this rather remarkable tale, Lavaṇa, ruler of a northern kingdom called Uttarapandava, holds court, surrounded by courtiers, petitioners, and servants. A court jester enters the hall with a great flourish. Waving peacock feathers, he invites King Lavaṇa to climb upon the back of a beautiful horse and to close his eyes. Lavaṇa falls into a deep reverie that lasts for two hours, as if in dream-filled sleep. When he finally opens his eyes and regains waking consciousness, he looks about in fright, slowly coming to awareness that the palace holds familiarity for him. He cautiously chastises the jester, suggesting that he may have cast a spell upon him that lasted for seven years. During those long years, several events transpire. The horse brings him to a dry desert and then to a desert beyond the first desert. The horse disappears. A girl with food appears and the King, very hungry and cold, agrees to marry her in exchange for food. He becomes a member of a destitute family and soon sires four children. They survive by selling pork and other meat, trapping and selling birds and other game. At times the cold becomes unbearable, only to be replaced a few months later by scorching heat that burns everything. No food could be found. Some members of the tribe resort to cannibalism. Others flee to other places. Many die and many are killed by wild animals. His youngest son, driven by hunger pains, begs his father for food. The father throws himself on a funeral pyre to provide cooked flesh for his son and wife and other children and, at the moment of his death, he awakens back into the court. At that moment, to the amazement of everyone, the jester disappears.
Vasiṣṭha takes this occasion to insert himself into the narrative. He proclaims that he was there and witnessed the event first hand: the king, the jester, the horse, the trance-state, the awakening, and the jester’s disappearance. As translated by Swami Venkatesananda, he proclaims, “the mind veils the real nature of the Self and creates an illusory appearance with many branches, flowers, and fruits.” But the story does not end there. The next day, King Lavaṇa seeks out his former village in the desert, the place where he had lived in his dream. He finds his mother-in-law, who laments that when he disappeared her daughter and their children also perished. He consoles her and gives the village enough money to sustain itself even in times of drought. The line between dream reality and waking reality disappears. Lavaṇa no longer can live with his old assumptions in regard to himself and his place in the world. As he returns to his comfortable kingdom, remote, tribal people remain his concern. He expands his circle of care into these distant lands, and carries with him into old age an open, inclusive approach as he rules, making him beloved of all.
Vasiṣṭha uses this tale to instruct Rāma in regard to the complexity of kingship, inviting him to think beyond his own petty comforts. He shows Rāma the power of the mind, the central importance of paying attention to dreams, and the efficacy of human desire and will. He links all this to a cosmic intelligence that undergirds, anticipates, and transcends all activities:
When the mind travels from one county to another, between them is cosmic intelligence. Be that always. Your true nature is distinct from the limited wakeful, dreaming, and sleep consciousness: it is eternal, unknowable, not inert—remain as that always… without cravings and hatred and without getting tangled in body-consciousness.
The transformation of Lavaṇa took place as he recovered from a dream-like trance. He entered a state of greater self-understanding and developed a wider circle of compassion. Beyond the very important insights and understanding that dream work can yield in regard to one’s personal life, dreams hold the potential to break down the frames that must be dismantled to provide a glimpse of a much larger sense of self, a self beyond the constraints imposed by personal and societal narratives. For Lavaṇa, this resulted in a direct commitment to improve the lot of the poverty stricken people who became his family for what seemed to him many years. His reverie on the horse became an epiphany, an event that broadened his perspective and stirred up feelings of deep compassion for persons who would otherwise have remained in the shadows, nameless, and reviled. Rather than resting in the Advaita trope that “all is one,” this experience of “becoming the other” reminded Lavaṇa of the common source of all being. And, rather than getting stuck in the awesomeness of “we are all connected,” Lavaṇa comes to understand that the “one” differentiates into many forms, some blessed and kingly, others humble and wracked with suffering. He takes responsibility, expanding the dharma of his realm to the previously unknown and disenfranchised. Through his dream experience he becomes an advocate for tribal people.
The Yoga of Dream in the Yogavāsiṣṭha
Dream occupies an interesting niche in Vasiṣṭha’s description of the sevenfold path to liberation. Most delineations of the spiritual path describe progressive states of connectivity with reality. For instance, the eightfold Yoga path of Patañjali begins with ethics (yama and niyama), proceeds to control of body and breath (āsana and prāṇāyama) leading to a state of inwardness (pratyahāra) that allows one to concentrate (dhāraṇā), meditate (dhyāna) and enter into a state of samādhi, described as a state wherein the differentiation between grasper, grasping, and grasped dissolves. The sixfold Yoga of Haribhadra Virahanka’s Yogabindu follows a similar trajectory, moving from adopting a spiritual attitude (adhyātma) to the cultivation of good behavior (bhāvanā), meditation (dhyāna), leading to equanimity (samatā) and the dissolution of compulsive activity (vṛtti saṃkṣaya). This last part of the Yogabindu path seems to be the starting point of Vasiṣṭha’s sevenfold Yoga, which begins with restraint from activity (nivṛtti) leading to deep thinking (vicāraṇa) and non-attachment (asaṃsaṅga). After these three preliminaries, in an elegant and poetic description of a highly rarefied perceptual modality, Vasiṣṭha proclaims that in the fourth state one sees the entire world as if it were a dream. Just as Lavaṇa’s kingly life dissolved in dream, for Vasiṣṭha, this process of dissolution holds great lessons. Is the world real? Does the world stay real for long? According to Vasiṣṭha, the answer is a resounding no. Once one sees through the fixity of any given circumstance. In the fifth Yoga, one can descend (or ascend, depending on one’s perspective) into the realm of an experience of non-duality, wherein one operates as if in a state of deep sleep, translucent and transparent (advaita suṣupta) like the clear jewel as described in Patañjali. This catapults the individual into a state of true freedom (jīvan mukta), preparing one for the seventh Yoga, one’s final release from the body (videha mukta) at the time of death. Unlike any of the other Yoga systems, the Yogavāsiṣṭha process hinges on seeing the world as a dream.
Vasiṣṭha teaches through narrative and direct instruction that the world appears and disappears, that realities come and go like dream states. Expanding upon the four fold analysis of the Self found in the Upaniṣads, which delineate waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and the fourth state of liberation, Vasiṣṭha lingers on how negotiating the relationship between waking and dreaming can serve as a springboard toward liberation. Mindful that an abiding consciousness remains present in all states, Vasiṣṭha urges Rāma to see the evanescent nature of the waking state, learn from his dreams, and remain mindful of the pervasive presence of consciousness.
The Nature of Dream in Tribal and Contemporary Cultures
In many tribal societies of India, the dream world occupies a place of primacy. In a gripping description of the lifeways of the Savara people in Orissa, Elwin Verrier describes how shamans and shamanins (female shamans) operate in complex waking and dream worlds. The waking world is full of woe: many woman healers in the culture have leprosy with little opportunity for joy or even normal human interactions. However, in their dream life, they take a spouse with whom they parent children and lead a full life. This spouse becomes a source of insight in regard to the people who visit them for healing. The shaman (kuranmaran) has the tremendous responsibility to ensure “the placation of the vast other-world of invisible and often hostile beings.” The denizens of this other world, also known as the underworld (kinorai or jartanadesa), in addition to malevolent forces, include helpers called tutelaries. The tutelaries are Hindus and live in lavish palaces where they experience all manner of comforts. They “come to earth” and into people’s dreams and choose the person who will become a shaman or shamanin. Becoming a shaman entails performing rituals in the waking state both to one’s earthly family and the underworld family as well as adoption of a Brahmanical lifestyle, to satisfy the Hindu tutelary spouse and guide. One woman informed Verrier that she was married to three tutelaries who gave her marginal success as a healer: “So far I have only been able to treat simple diseases, as we are too poor to give a big enough feast to satisfy my three husbands… So far I have had six patients; I have cured four, two of them have died.” Verrier’s descriptions of the Savara attest to the rigors of the shaman’s life, who must return nightly in dream to maintain a family, and also to provide ritual offerings for that family in the waking state.
The centrality of the dream in the life of the Savara people bears similarity to the importance of dream in the Iroquois culture of what is now western New York State. Dreams effectively ruled the life of the Iroquois. Fremin, a Jesuit working in the region, wrote in 1688 that, “The Iroquois have, properly speaking, only one divinity—the dream… whatever it is that they think they have done in their dreams, they believe themselves absolutely obliged to execute at the earliest moment.” The Jesuits recorded instances where a man traveled to Quebec to find a dog he had dreamt. One man dreamt of being captured and tortured, and arranged his own torture to ward off the kidnapping. Sexual encounters in dream were sometimes staged in waking life. Through this practice, the Iroquois sought to regulate secret desires (ondinnonk) and re-establish personal and community equanimity.
Handsome Lake (1735-1815), experienced a conversion experience during a dream state after a calamitous life. Waking from this vision, he advocated the abandonment of alcohol, banished the beating of children, and other innovations, which were later codified and implemented. As a result, the Seneca Nation, one of the six tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy, survived and thrived into the modern era, its language and culture intact, at a time when the traditions of many other First Peoples were lost. Handsome Lake’s dream became a vision and a blueprint for the sustenance and flourishing of Seneca culture.
Dreams have also come to occupy an important niche within psychotherapy and the emerging field of spiritual direction. Jeremy Taylor (1943-2018), the renowned advocate for contemporary Jungian dream work in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, has posited “ten basic assumptions” in regard to dreams.
The Ten Basic Assumptions About Dreams
- All dreams come in the service of
health and wholeness.
- No dreams come just to tell the
dreamer what he or she already knows.
- Only the dreamer can say with
certainty what meanings his or her dream may hold.
- The dreamer’s “aha” of recognition is a function of previously unconscious memory and is the only reliable
touchstone of dream work.
- There is no such thing as a dream
with only one meaning.
- All dreams speak a universal language
of metaphor and symbol.
- All dreams reflect inborn creativity and ability to face and solve life’s problems.
- All dreams reflect society as a whole,
as well as the dreamer’s relationship
- Working with dreams regularly improves relationships with friends, lovers, partners, parents, children, and others.
- Working with dreams in groups builds community, intimacy, and support and begins to impact on society as a whole.
These ten points encapsulate aspects of the modern “dream work” movement. Although many traditional theologies have dismissed dreams as meaningless, Jungian and Freudian forms of psychoanalysis have regarded the dream to be important for understanding subconscious desires and, in the case of Jung, can be the door to discovering one’s relationship with archetypes and symbols. Both Freud and Jung had studied Yoga philosophy. Their method of sorting out of one’s childhood memories is grounded in karma theory. It requires a search to understand how experiences in the past, sometimes traumatic, shape and influence one’s current psychological state. Taylor’s work resides within a realm of psychology that has embraced many tenets of Indian philosophy, particularly the need to uncover and understand unconscious memories (vāsanās).
According to the Yogavāsiṣṭha, the ultimate goal of life is to overcome past tendencies that have caused pain and attachment in the past. The dream work advocated by Jeremy Taylor focuses on an individual’s quest for self-understanding and positively asserts that this process can benefit one’s entire web of relationships and the wider society as indicated in its culminating three premises given above. The Yogavāsiṣṭha is more radical. It seeks to go to the very roots of the human dilemma in regard to reality, unreality, the surreal, and the possibility of transcendence. This process, like the stories of Jorge Luis Borges, undermines the very premises and presuppositions of the human project. The freedom gained through the work of the Yogavāsiṣṭha does not merely entail feeling better about oneself and how others think about that self. Its freedom requires the loosening of all bonds of limited consciousness and an ascent to a space that soars above the confines of conscious and unconscious memories, both individual and collective. It also entails a return to responsibility. Taylor, quoting the Universalist roots of his dream work project, states that the goal is “the reconciliation of each with all.” For the Yogavāsiṣṭha, wisdom gained through dreams leads to the erasure of the “each” and the dissolution of the very concept of “all.” From this radical, cathartic, emptying, one can return with renewed energy to responsibly re-engage the world. Beyond the very important insights and understandings that dream work can yield in regard to one’s personal life, dreams hold the potential to break down the frames that must be dismantled to provide a glimpse of a much larger sense of self, a self beyond the constraints imposed by personal and societal narratives.
Modern Scholarship on the Nature of Dream in the Yogavāsiṣṭha
Two book length studies take up the nature of dream in the Yogavāsiṣṭha, Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty’s Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities and Engaged Emancipation: Mind, Morals, and Make Believe, edited by myself and Arindam Chakrabarti. Doniger O’Flaherty writes that “The Indian myths of dreaming dissolve the line between waking and dreaming reality… The philosophical goal… is to understand the reality of life through the insights that come from dreams.” In summarizing her work, Matthew McKenzie writes that she “points out that the Yogavāsiṣṭha wreaks havoc on some of our most deeply held philosophical distinctions” and that it “is an attack on hard assumptions. The text problematizes the lines between dreaming and waking, the real and the unreal, the dreamer and the dream, the self and the other.”
Bruno LoTurco systematically explores how dreams serve as a source for knowledge, noting that they exist “for the purpose of clear comprehension.” According to the story of Līlā, which he closely analyzes, “the visionary world that unfolds during the intermediate existence is similar to the dream state… It is the person who dreams who invests what appears to him with objectivity.” Through the dream, one attains the Yogic state of “no separation between the knower, the process of knowledge, and the object known.” He quotes the text in this regard:
“There is no difference, as among waves in water, among the dream, the other world, and this one, all of which are nonexistent entities” (MU III:20:38). According to LoTurco, the net result of Līlā’s extended forays into dreams is that attachment “in the state of wakefulness dissolves by virtue of a weakening of the vāsanās” (MU III:22-1-2). Dreams reveal and thereby diminish the force and compulsion of past actions.
However, at the same time, Vasiṣṭha emphasizes that all the attention given to dreams does not diminish the importance of waking reality. Sthaneshwar Timalsina writes:
This identification of the appearance with dream is not intended to reject appearances as such, but rather, this analogy is applied to confirm that appearance is in truth ābhānamātra, [which Timalsina defines as] of the character only of awareness. Explicitly, the application of a dream in this interpretation of Advaita is not to negate entities by confirming their parallel to dream, but rather, it is to affirm their essential nature of awareness-only.
It is important to keep in mind that the context for the Yogavāsiṣṭha is the education of Rāma and his preparation for kingly duties. Vasiṣṭha coaches Rāma not to abandon the world and the responsibilities of his kingly duties, but to assume them in an enlightened, awakened way, implying that in order to be awake, one must first fully understand sleep and dream.
Arindam Chakrabarti underscores the inter-changeability of waking and dreaming life, noting that
Dream experience is fickle and discontinuous. But if one notices how ephemeral and momentary the objects of wakeful perceptions are, and if one can have the same or a continuous dream even at other times, then waking life would become dream, and dream life, because of its continuity, would become waking.
Like the Taoist tale of the man who dreamt of having been a butterfly questioning if in fact he was a butterfly dreaming to be a man, this similar inversion brings one to realize the precious and fleeting quality of experience itself.
Menaha Ganesathasan posits that Vasiṣṭha “argues that there are no crucial differences between the awakening, phenomenal world around us and the sleeping worlds inhabited in dreams.” She summarizes the Yogavāsiṣṭha’s meaning in a three fold manner. First, the world is a long dream. Second, the unfolding of the human drama weaves a tangled web. Third, the only way to untangle the web and hence find stability and meaning is to improve one’s moral conduct, a lesson conveyed by Vasiṣṭha relentlessly throughout the text. Rāma, and by extension, all those who learn from the Yogavāsiṣṭha, must eventually awaken from the dream and re-engage in the world of action. Knowing, as did Lavaṇa, that all things can and perhaps will disappear with the waving of peacock feathers, a person of wisdom will act from a place of integrity and concern, a place that remains playful and perhaps even lyrical.
The Yogavāsiṣṭha tells many stories that cause the reader to question one’s assumed “firm grip” on reality. In the case of Lavaṇa, who experienced a seven year alternate reality in the space of two hours, we learn the power of the human imagination and the possibility of effecting positive change in the waking realm. This lesson helps loosen his grip on thinking that the world is fixed as it appears, and opened him to reach out and provide material relief and solace to tribal people. The sevenfold Yoga of Vasiṣṭha places the awareness of the dream-like quality of reality in the center point of spiritual ascent. Only when we see that this seemingly fixed realm constantly changes can we become aware of our own participation, our own co-creation of our circumstances. Learning this lesson, we can understand the constant refrain chanted by Vasiṣṭha: follow the correct path (sadācāra), keep good company (satsaṅga), and cultivate your will (pauruṣa) for the sake of the greater good.
Hearing these teachings provides encouragement to learn from dream experiences. Do dreams show us patterns embedded in our behavior? Can they be instructive? Can they give insight into our personality? The answer, according to Vasiṣṭha, is yes: dreams provide a glimpse and a gateway into alternate realities and become an important tool for restructuring one’s perspective. Diving deep into a dream, like diving deep into a forest pond or snorkeling in a tropical coral reef, reveals new worlds. One can then resurface with new resolve, changing one’s mind and being of greater service to others.