The Yogavāsiṣṭha and Heart Health

By Christopher Key Chapple

One text often not included in discussions of the healing powers of Yoga is the Yogavāsiṣṭha, a text that, building on its earlier forms including the Mokṣopāya, reached its current form probably in the 12th century in Kashmir. It blends Advaita Vedānta with Vijñānavāda Buddhism and includes a type of therapeutic Yoga that emphasizes the importance of attentiveness to one’s dreams and the practice of prāṇāyāma. The sixty four nested stories told by the sage Vasiṣṭha to the young prince Rāma teach the importance of the mind in the shaping of reality.  This essay takes up a topic that remains constant in the human condition: dealing with grief. A heart broken by grief can become irreparably damaged. And it can, through Yoga, become healed. This narrative gives advice on how to understand the passing of life from this realm into the next, and how to find solace in the process.

Many heart problems arise when grief and uncertainty taint the human condition. By examining the placement of the heart in the Yoga Sūtra as the landing place for elevated energetic work (YS II:34) it can be surmised that Patañjali suggests that the heart holds the key to living a life of balance and insight. The author of the Yogavāsiṣṭha uses heart felt narratives that evoke deep emotionality and tender vulnerability to prompt entry into a more expansive sense of care and who is worthy of care.

One major illness that strikes the human condition is heart disease, often related to conditions of stress. Issues that touch the heart, including stress and doubts about self-worth can cause illness and even death. Reducing stress through Yoga can enhance and improve human health. The heart, more than merely a mechanical pneumatic and hydrologic pump, serves as the seat of thought and emotions.  Havoc in the heart arises in the person with uncontrolled thoughts and emotions. Through Yoga, one can take control of the reins leading through the emotions to the senses and the body and one’s place in the world.

How might a Yoga attuned to the heart be useful in each of these situations? How might the Yoga teacher be an adequate resource? The psychological substratum of Yoga recognizes that actions of the past leave residues known as saṃskāras that condition one’s experience of the present and the future. Many of these residues take root in the body, which can become tight and contorted, and in the breath, which can become irregular and shallow. Yoga practices work at healing and releasing body and breath, which in turn improves mental outlook and emotional state.

The level of stress has risen throughout the globe. Many people, when they compare themselves to others on social media at the micro-level or mass media on the macro-level, feel inferior, thinking others to be more powerful, more good looking, more wealthy, and more worthy. This comparing-mind syndrome can lead to states of depression, frustration, and anger toward oneself and others. Loneliness and alienation are widespread in modern industrialized cultures. Yoga and meditation teach check-in skills, tools that can promote connectivity with the body and breath and a calming of the mind. This experience can help ameliorate some of the most damaging effects of stress upon the body and the heart.

In addition to stress holding the capacity to inflict harm upon the heart, the process of grieving the death of a love one can itself be a cause of illness. The Buddha, on his death bed, urged his grieving disciplines to maintain their composure. He reminded them that all things are made of parts, even the human person, and eventually those parts fall apart. This wisdom continues to inspire thoughtful persons to seek understanding and acceptance regarding the final days of life. The Jain tradition developed an art of embracing death that requires many decades of preparation. Jains generally fast at least twice a month and attempt a much longer fast of seven days each fall. This fasting strengthens members of the Jain community for the eventual  loss of the mortal body. In the Bhagavad Gītā, Krishna reminds Arjuna repeatedly that neither Arjuna nor his relatives can ever be killed. He states that the soul is eternal. At the point of death this body takes on another body just as a person changes clothes. “Winds cannot dry it, rains cannot wet it, weapons cannot slay it” (II:23-24). He further counsels Arjuna that all occurrences have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Why lament over the inevitable?

The Yogavāsiṣṭha, a profoundly psychological text, uses narrative to heal the grieving, doubting heart of the young warrior Rāma. Rāma had fallen into a deep depression after his father requested him to clear the forest of marauding hooligans who were disturbing the quiet ashrams overseen by the sage Viśvamitra. In order to calm Rāma’s uncertainty, Daśaratha asks the sage Vasiṣṭha to provide good counsel. Over the course of 64 story telling encounters, Rāma gains clarity of mind and certainty of heart. The Yogavāsiṣṭha, a favorite of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Sivananda and so many others, tells the story of human freedom through the device of 64 nested tales. Swami Venkatesananda rendered many wonderful versions of this magnificent work, which reached its present form nearly a thousand years ago in Kashmir.

The Yogavāsiṣṭha devotes one episode to a universal human heart ailment: grief. In the story of Puṇya and Pāvana, the wise elder brother brings solace to his younger brother who has been plunged into a deep depression by the death of their beloved parents. With steadiness and from a place of great compassion, Puṇya urges Pāvana to consider the many births taken by all beings, including themselves. Through this wise counsel, peace comes to the heart and mind of Pāvana.

Why mourn your parents? They have attained their true nature.

31. Child, our mother and father have passed through thousands of births,

as numerous as the streams running deep in each and every forest.

33. Our parents had innumerable distinguished sons who have passed away long ago,

just as the branches of a creeping vine give forth many flowers and fruits.

35. Son, if parents and children are to be mourned out of affection,

Then why should the thousands who die continually not also be mourned?

V.20.5. Son, reflect on yourself through your mind.

Ask, ‘Who am I? What could I be? Something other than the body?

A bony skeleton? A heap of blood, flesh, and bones?’

7. Who is your father, who is your friend?

Who is your mother? Who is your enemy?

In regard to the endless luminosity of space,

What can be proclaimed to be the Self? Or not the Self?

8. You are consciousness in the midst of many other prior births

where you have had friends and properties.

Why do you not grieve for them also?

9. Those many deer in the flowery meadow,

born of their mother does, were your relatives.

Why do you not grieve for them?

10. Regard the swans in the bouquets of lotuses on the riverbank.

Why do you not grieve for those swans who were your relatives?

11. Those fine trees in the splendid beautiful forests were also your relatives.

Why do you not grieve for them?

12. Those lions on the awe-inspiring peaks of those mountains

were also your relatives. Why do you not grieve for them?

13. Those fish among the beautiful lotuses in the clear lakes

were also your relatives. Why do you not grieve for them?

14. You were a monkey in the brown woods of the Ten River Land,

a prince in the land of snow, and a crow in the forest of the Pundras.

15. You were an elephant… a donkey…. a puppy…. and a bird in that tree.

16. You were a fig tree… and an insect… a hen… and also a Brahmin.

17. … You were a partridge in Bengal, a horse in the land of snow.

And you were the beast killed at the Brahmana sacrifice.

22. For thousands of prior births in these many woods

you were born of various wombs, my son,

And now you are born on Jambudvipa.

31. So many thousands of relatives who have now gone were born in those worlds: fathers, mothers, siblings, and friends. 

32. Whom shall we two grieve? Whom shall we not grieve?

We grieve all relatives that die. This is the way of life in the world.

35. Having renounced all cultivation of outward manifestation in the mind,

abiding in the Self, go happily to that place, that place where the wise ones go.

36. Inactive beings fall away. Active persons rise again.

Those with good thoughts do not grieve. They move gradually toward freedom.

37. Be free of confusion. Be free of [attachment to] existence and nonexistence.

Escape from old age and death. Be cool, always remembering your true Self.

38. You are not your suffering. You are not this birth.

You are indeed the Self, not this intellect.

Indeed, how could you be other than true Self?

40. One can attain the goal of being the witness,

self-possessed in the midst of all that can be seen.

Such persons are established in the dharma of the observer,

being the knower and spectator at all times.

41. Whether engaged in action or inactive,

such persons regard actions as if they were the fading light

at the start of the night. The knower stands unperturbed by the world.

43. Through moving away from all this self-made darkness, dwell in your true Self, which is like the radiant moon in the middle of your heart.

44. Son, find the Self in the Self. Be a sage like the great sages.

Having renounced all impure perplexity, be content!”​*​

Just as Patañjali invoked the heart as the final abode for understanding the human condition, so also Vasiṣṭha leads Rāma to his true Self, described as “a radiant moon, the middle of your heart.” This culmination of wisdom and insight brings Rāma to a place of contentment, a place that in our modern world, can be seen as a place beyond stress, a place of great health, well being, and being well.

  1. ​*​
    A full translation of this narrative can be found in Christopher Key Chapple, Living Landscapes: Meditations on the Five Elements in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain Yogas (Albany: State University of New York, 2020), pp. 136-144.

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Christopher Key Chapple
Christopher Key Chapple

Christopher Key Chapple is Doshi Professor of Indic and Comparative Theology and founding director of the Master of Arts in Yoga Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He has published more than twenty books, including Living Landscapes: Meditations on the Elements in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain Yogas (SUNY Press, 2020). 

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