Yoga: Theory, Culture, and Practice
Raja Yoga at Brahma Kumaris
The Brahma Kumaris World Spirituality University's site indicates that the organization began with a small group of men, women, and children living together in Hyderabad, Sindh, which at the time was a part of India (now Pakistan). A respected and wealthy man by the name of Dada Lekhrai, later known as Brahma Baba, experienced a series of vision in 1936 which inspired this group of people to transform their lives Dada Lekhrai’s visions opened his mind and his heart to the true nature of the soul, God, and time. His visions were so profoundly meaningful to him and those he shared them with that the group, naming themselves “Om Mandali”, devoted their lives to intense spiritual study, meditation and self transformation. Four hundred members founded the group and lived as a self-sufficient community for fourteen years. Brahma Baba formed a committee of all women and girls to act as the spiritual teachers and administrators of the group. He saw that the traditionally feminine qualities of patience, kindness, sacrifice, acceptance, and love, would be the heart of personal growth and community unity. They adopted the name Brahma Kumaris World Spirituality Organization; Brahma Kumaris meaning “daughters of Brahma” (Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual Organization, n.d.).
Two years after the partition of Pakistan and India, in 1950, the group moved to Mount Abu, a secluded, quiet and serene spot in the Aravali Mountains of Rajasthan. Here they formed Madhuban (translated to Forest of Honey), which began and remains as the headquarters of the organization. Due mainly to the wounds that the partition had left on people’s lives, Brahma Baba decided it was time to share with India the knowledge he had received. Young women were sent to establish centers throughout India to teach Raja Yoga. Since the fifties the organization expanded to the UK, Hong Kong, and eventually worldwide. Today there are thousands of centers in hundreds of countries with hundreds of thousands of students attending to experience meditation (Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual Organization, n.d.).
The Brahma Kumaris Centers offer courses and lectures in raja meditation and personal development. All the services, including the retreats, are free of charge, keeping in alignment with the founder’s wish to spread spiritual knowledge and peace to humanity. Everyone is welcome regardless of age, race, or gender. Although the organization is run by women it is not considered a “women’s group”. The center has expanded across the world and reached many people throughout the decades since its foundation. Susan, who donates her time primarily to the Brahma Kumaris retreat center in Haines Falls, NY, is a woman I met who came upon the center soon after it reached the Boston area in 1984. She found meditation and personal development as a life changing experience and has been dedicating her time to Brahma Kumaris ever since. It is a completely volunteer run organization, yet still has tremendous impact and prominence worldwide (Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual Organization, n.d).
The teachings of Brahma Kumaris are based on Raja Yoga meditation. Sri Swami Sivananda writes that Raja means king. A king acts with independence, assurance and self-confidence. The idea is to become a master of the self through meditation. Through this you access authority of your own life and you are able to assess and discern your own knowledge of the self and the world. The basic understanding in the practice is that our original nature is full of the highest qualities of peace, love, joy, and power. However, most people are disconnected from these internal qualities and are seeking happiness from external forces. Through the practice of meditation you can become one with the self, therefore mastering the self, as the term Raja Yoga implies (Sivananda, n.d.). The goal of Raja Yoga is to have a one pointed mind. If you study the mind and have achieved thought consistency, focusing on thoughts of only one subject, it is considered a great achievement. To those in Western culture, this seems absurd. Thinking about food, clothing, and money is part of the accepted culture in the Western world. Multi-tasking skills are considered vital in America. However, in Raja Yoga, one should reduce worldly desires and activities and meditate for hours each day in order to increase one’s ability to concentrate. Only then can the mind easily concentrate (Sivananda, 1996).
The mind thinks. This causes worries, doubts, and troubles. The mind has both conscious and subconscious thought processes taking place. We are aware of some of our thoughts and others we are not so aware of, which can lead to conflicting and draining feelings that arise with these thoughts. In the positive thinking lecture Soni, the speaker, referred to the subconscious mind as our personal memory bank. She said that there are four types of thoughts: waste, neutral, negative, and positive. Waste thoughts are thoughts of the future and the past. They are a waste because we cannot change the past and we cannot know the future. We only have the present moment and to think of the past or future is a waste of energy. Neutral thoughts are the mundane thoughts we have everyday, such as thoughts that go towards eating, brushing our teeth, etc. Positive thoughts are those that bring well being to the self and to others. Negative thoughts come from the subconscious memory bank. The mind emerges these thoughts and our intellect, a different part of our self, brings these thoughts into actions. Habits originate from our subconscious, which is much stronger than ordinary conscious. Therefore we need strong awareness to understand our thoughts and have control over them (Sivananda, 1996). Our intellect is what observes, discerns, and discriminates. Our intellect can decide what to do with the thoughts that we have. So we can use our intellect to decide to bring in positive thoughts from our memory bank. Thoughts are like seeds that grow into positive actions, which grow into positive habits, which lead to positive character, which lead to a happy destiny. You begin by finding thoughts of peace, not necessarily from past memories, but from your inner self. If your mind is always going back to negative thoughts in the memory bank of failures, doubts, and fears, then these thoughts can grow into negative habits and a life of fear and doubt.
Our mind tends to be married to our habits, which can be negative, old, worn, and unconstructive, but the goal is for our mind to be married to our intellect in order for us to shape our thoughts, actions, habits, and destiny into one of peace and harmony. In order for us to master our mind, and marry it to our intellect, we need to practice. The practice is called meditation. Through meditation we can achieve yoga. Yoga is mastering, or uniting, us with our own true nature and thoughts. To master the self we should ask ourselves where our thoughts come from. By reconnecting with our inner being we find peace. Peace bring positive thoughts, which slow the mind down and draw us back to ourselves. Instead of reacting to external forces, we step back into ourselves and are able to observe ourselves and the world. Then we can respond, rather than react. This lets us steer ourselves to our own destiny. Soni described the acronym “S.O.S” to mean stop, observe, and steer. We need to apply awareness to our thoughts and situations in order for this system to work. You have to be aware of your negative thoughts, what they are, and where they are coming from in order to steer your thoughts towards positive ones. Sivananda writes that this is swimming against the mind’s natural state of sensual currents (Sivananda, 1996).
The theory of Raja Yoga is implemented at Brahma Kumaris through the meditations held throughout the week. My first experience at Brahma Kumaris was at the center in Watertown. The center appears to be a normal house. To enter I rang the doorbell and a man by the name of Dave welcomed me in. He introduced himself in a friendly manner and told me to make myself comfortable. I took off my shoes at the entrance where there is a carpet and a shoe rack. I followed him down the hall where there is a coat closet and an entrance to the mediation room. I was the first to have arrived and the house was calm and quiet. I was asked to take my time and enter whenever I was ready. Once I got settled and entered, Dave joined me and we chatted about why I was there, what I wanted to know, and what Brahma Kumaris is all about. The room was tidy and had a few rows of tall cushioned chairs. It was decorated with a few flowers, paintings, and a selection of books which lined the shelves on the sides of the room. At the front and center of the room was an orange painting with a light fixture above it. At the center of the painting was a dot of very bright light, with orangeish hues spiraling outwards. Below the painting was a single chair facing all the other chairs in the room.
After talking for a while I asked Dave what I might expect the meditation to be like. He said that everyone is in a chair, facing the front of the room, with eyes open, gazing softly at the center of light in the painting. Soft music would start to play and a voice of a speaker would be heard to begin a guided meditation. Following this there may be periods of silence, more music, more silence, and someone might take a seat at the front of the room, meditating in the chair facing all the observers. The idea of the open eyed meditation is to keep the mind from wandering off, however Dave said if I needed to close my eyes to better focus that way it was of course okay to do so. The eyes focus on the central light, which reflects the river of light running through us all, as was said at some point during the guided meditation.
From doing further research on their website, I found that the open eyed meditation also mimics the idea that we have to face people, fears, and situations in life with our eyes open. There are no breathing exercises or postures during the meditation and the thoughts of peace are enough to create relaxation of the body. The practice at Brahma Kumaris is based on the self, not any guru or scripture. We learn to cultivate our own teachings of our own self through the practice of meditation (Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual Organization, n.d.).
Inner space near Harvard Square is one of Brahma Kumaris’s centers. Here I attended a lecture on positive thinking. It is an open, beautiful, and peaceful place with nice hardwood floors and art hung up around the room. There is a room in the back used for quiet meditation. Everything appears very simple, modest and clean. The perimeter of the main room has glass shelves with books for sale on display. Many of the books relate to the theme of positive thinking. The titles indicated that many were on overcoming fear and doubt, meditating for stress relief, living in the now, returning to the true self, the idea of love, Eastern Yoga philosophy for the Western mind, and even a variety of children’s books about feelings, emotions, and returning to “The Original Forest”. The books definitely seem to cater to a population of people who may be overworked, stressed out, and wanting to better themselves and feel happier and more self confident. While attending the lecture Soni kept saying “you all are here because you want to feel more positive about life”. Soni suggested that we take five minutes each day when we wake up and five minutes before going to sleep each night to silently reflect upon peace and joy. This is much more manageable for people in America than Sivananda’s suggestion of meditating for hours daily. Soni emphasized that although we can purchase a book or attend a lecture, the actual practice of positive thinking is what will bring about real change.
The core idea of Brahma Kumaris is that a spiritual transformation needs to take place for us to understand and become one with ourselves. This will lead us to higher consciousness and peace. Here in the United States, the Brahma Kumaris center has adapted the approach to finding peace of mind from the societal pressures such as work, school, and appearance. However, the core beliefs remain intact and anyone can take this enlightenment as far and as deep as they choose to. The idea is that we put these methods of peace into practice by actively thinking positive and taking the time from our busy lives to meditate. After the principles of studying, meditating, and practicing have been implemented in one’s life one should aim to serve the greater good by sharing with others the basis of one’s own life experiences.
Brahma Kumaris has a range of programs promoting education, gender equality and empowerment of women, mental, spiritual, and physical health, and environment sustainability. They aim to build bridges between divides and bring together communities such as different faiths and religions. Members of Brahma Kumaris serve on committees of interfaith groups, showing how their practice is very open and usable by all. Brahma Kumaris also does work within correctional facilities to help bring the practices of meditation, positive thinking, and self-esteem to people in these facilities to help them make meaningful changes in their lives. The leaders of the organization are all women from the Eastern world, mainly India. In the Boston center there was a mix of ethnicities in the staff running the events and those attending. There were young and old people both at the meditation in Watertown and the lecture in Harvard Square. The reach of Brahma Kumaris is not limited and it has proven to be an incredibly open, welcoming, and supportive environment for all. It continues to grow geographically, in membership, and in meaning and service to the world.
Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual Organization. (n.d.). Brahma Kumaris History. Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual Organization. Retrieved February 22, 2013, from: http://www.bkwsu.org/us/massachusetts/whoweare/history.htm/More.
Sivananda, Sri Swami. (1996) Thought Power. Retrieved from: http://www.rsl.ukans.edu/~pkanagar/divine/.
Sivananda, Sri Swami. (n.d.). What is Raja Yoga. The Divine Life Society. Retrieved February 22, 2013, from: http://www.sivanandaonline.org/public_html/?cmd=displaysection§ion_id=634.