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Swadhyaya (Study of Self)

Continuing our discussion of the concepts from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, in today’s post I would like to focus on Swadhyaya (study of the self) which is the fourth of the five Niyamas.

The word Swadhyaya (स्वाध्याय) is a composite of two words – the prefix ‘swa’ and ‘adhyaya’. The word ‘swa’ is often used as a reflexive pronoun and, depending upon the context, could mean ‘one’s own’, ‘belonging to oneself’, ‘inherent’, ‘natural’, ‘self’ etc. The word ‘adhyaya’ means to study or to learn. So, Swadhyaya is usually translated as ‘study of the self’ or ‘study of the scriptures’ or a combination of the two.

Study of scriptures

As we know, the purpose of yoga is to understand the intricate functioning of the mind and learn how to calm the mind to the point that we get a revelation of our true nature. This is also called self-realization. How do we understand the functioning of the mind? This is where the study of scriptures comes in. Many of our ancient scriptures discuss not only the mind but all aspects of this material world which directly impact the mind. Scriptures like the Vedas, Upanishads, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, Quran etc are known to contain the truth about ourselves and the Supreme and provide guidance on how to attain self-realization. It must, however, be understood clearly that an intellectual learning through study of scriptures is only a stepping stone toward the ultimate goal. The goal of self-realization can be achieved only by practicing intense self-enquiry through reflection and meditation which leads to getting the true knowledge about the self.

Even though self-realization is the ultimate and a lofty goal of yoga, the practice of yoga provides us benefits at all levels – physical, physiological, mental, emotional and spiritual. In fact, most people are initially attracted to yoga primarily for the physical benefits or stress management that the practice provides. For those who are new to yoga, study of the ancient texts could pose intimidating challenges. This is so because some of the concepts discussed in these texts are intellectually stimulating and need deep reflection to grasp them properly. It is the responsibility of the yoga teacher to introduce these concepts very gradually, at a level that new students can understand.

Study of the Self

As mentioned earlier, the other commonly understood meaning of Swadhyaya is self-study. Deep reflection, contemplation and meditation are some of the terms that are commonly used to describe the means for self-study. These methods include both an audible recitation of scriptural hymns as well as quiet "japa" (mental recitation) of specific mantras. In sutras 1.27 and 1.28, Patanjali extols the value of the japa of "OM" which has been described as the sound that represents God (Ishvara). When we do this japa keeping its meaning and its significance in mind, it brings the mind to an inward focus and all obstacles to spiritual growth are removed (sutra 1.29). Reciting hymns from the Vedas or the Upanishads, shlokas from the Bhagavad Gita, yoga sutras of Patanjali etc are all a part of the practice of Swadhayaya. Vyaasa suggests the recitation of the name of one’s individual deity (ishta devata) as a form of Japa.

Need for a Guru

The need to have a personal teacher or a guru has been emphasized in most Hindu scriptures. A guru is needed both for explaining the deeper meaning of the concepts in scriptures as well as a personal spiritual guide to lead us on a spiritual path that may lead to self-realization. Once a sadhaka (seeker) reaches a stage where the mind has been clarified and the seeker can get guidance from his/her innate intuitive wisdom, the external guru is then needed purely for guidance. The "inner guru" is then used to guide us on the path to freedom.

Swadhyaya in the Yoga Sutras

Patanjali has advocated the use of Swadhyaya at two different places in the sutras. In sutra 2.1, Swadhyaya is listed as a part of the practice of "Kriya Yoga" –

तपःस्वाध्यायेश्वरप्रणिधानानि क्रियायोगः॥१॥

 tapaHsvaadhyaayeshvarapraNidhaanaani kRuyaayogaH (sutra 2.1)

"Tapas (Austerity Or Sturdy Self-Discipline—Mental, Moral And Physical), Svadhyaya (Repetition Of Sacred Mattras Or Study Of Sacred Literature) And Isvara-Pranidhana (Complete Surrender To God) Are Kriya-Yoga (Yoga In The Form Of Action)." – translation by Sw. Aranya

Subsequently, in sutras 2.32 it is listed among the five Niyamas as we have seen during the discussion of this ongoing topic.

Vyaasa, in his commentary on the sutras, seems to imply that the sadhakas (seekers) can be divided into three categories – lowest, middle and highest seekers – depending upon the level of spiritual evolution of the seeker. The practices described in chapter 1 which include abhyasa (extended practice), vairagya (detachment), Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender to God) etc are intended for the highest seeker. The eight limbs of yoga as given in chapter 2 are intended for the lowest seeker. The practice of Kriya Yoga given in sutra 2.1 is meant for the middle seeker. In fact, the three practices of Kriya Yoga – tapas, swadhyaya, and Ishwara Pranidhana – are the same as the last three of the Niyamas given in sutra 2.32.

What do we gain with Swadhyaya?

In sutra 2.44 Patanjali gives us the benefit of practicing Swadhyaya:


 svaadhyaayaadiShTadevataasaMprayogaH (sutra 2.44)

"From Study And Repetition Of The Mantras Communion With The Desired Deity Is Established."

As per the Hindu philosophical tradition God can either be represented as "nirguna" or without any attributes or labels and free of conditioning, or as "saguna",  a qualified, somewhat limited "devata" or celestial being that control the various powers in the cosmos (some examples are fire, water and wind etc). For a beginning sadhaka, it is much easier to meditate on a chosen "saguna" deity keeping in mind its significance. Most commentators have included the japa of a personal deity as a part of Swadhyaya. Patanjali, in this sutra 2.44 tells us that one can commune with the chosen deity as a result of the practice of Swadhyaya. Once the sadhaka has attained a level of purity of the mind through the japa of "saguna" devata, he/she can move on to the meditation on "nirguna" God which may lead to final liberation or self-realization.

My personal Swadhyaya practice

As a part of my ongoing ‘svadhyaya’ (self study), I have been participating in a Bhagavad Gita study program for many years. During these weekly group sessions, we are currently studying  the commentary on Bhagavad Gita by Yogananda. This commentary is based on the principles of yoga as given by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras as well as on the principles of Kundalini. Previously, we studied the commentary by Swami Dayananda of the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam of Saylorsburg, PA. This commentary is heavily influenced by the original commentary by Shankaracharya which is based on Vedantic concepts.

For the last over ten years, I have been learning the Sanskrit language, the language in which all the yogic scriptures including the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Bhagavad Gita, Vedas, Upanishads etc. are written. I am currently learning Sanskrit from two different teachers by attending two weekly classes. In these classes we generally take one of the ancient classics and study it in depth. Classics that we have done in the past or are currently working on include works by Kalidasa – Abhijnana Shakuntalam, Raghuvansha, Kumarasambhava; Mricchakatika by Shudraka, portions from Ramayana by Valmiki, and a few others. With a better understanding of the language I always make an effort to understand the original text in Sanskrit in the Yoga Sutras or Bhagavad Gita etc.

I am deeply influenced by the yoga philosophy as expounded by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. In order to understand the philosophy of yoga better, I currently facilitate a Study Group for Yoga Sutras of Patanjali which meets twice a month. I continuously strive to develop a deeper understanding of the underlying principles of the philosophy and incorporate the guidelines of the eight limbs of yoga (ashtanga yoga), including the yamas and niyamas (moral and ethical principles), into my day-to-day life.


2 comments to Swadhyaya (Study of Self)

  • Pedro Fernando Cardona Olarte

    Namaste. Recently I used to have access to the audio you provided of each mantra in order to know how to pronounce every Sutra correctly but right now there is no audio any more or at least in my case. I would be very grateful for any useful information to solve my problem. I apreciate very much all your help to achieve our ultimate goal in this life time by chanting the mantras you provide along with our meditation time each morning

    Love FERNANDO C.

    • Subhash

      Dear Fernando, thank you so much for alerting me to this broken link. Actually all my websites got infected with virus recently. So I had to delete all the sites and pretty much re-upload every file. In the process, I have missed out on several files which are now being reported by visitors to my site. I have recreated the audio links to the sutras. Please check them out.
      It is so nice to see that you have been able to make use of the audio recordings of the sutras. I would appreciate any feedback on the site. Thanks.