The following is an interesting answer given by Sri Atmananda on the various spiritual paths adopted by seekers, with some interesting observations on devotion.
SOME OF THE PATHS USUALLY ADOPTED
1. The path of meditation, as enjoined by the Acaryas of old, has three distinct and
a) ‘Pratika-dhyana’ (dhyana or meditation in strict conformity with the gross model
before the disciple): Here, by mere concentration, the aspirant tries to make a
mental picture of the gross model in front of him.
b) ‘Dhyeyanusrita-dhyana’ (allowing full freedom to the creative and decorative
faculties of imagination, without impairing the skeleton of bare fundamentals):
Here the gross model is completely dispensed with. The attention is slowly di-
verted from the dead form to its live features. All kinds of dualistic visions are ex-
perienced at this stage. All aspirants guided by ‘karya-gurus’ (those dealing only
with any particular aspect, art or trade) get stranded here, not knowing the way be-
yond, and satisfied with the limited experiences of happiness accompanying the
visions. But the fortunate few, who happen to get a Karana-guru at least at this
stage, slowly enter into the third state.
c) ‘Aham-griha-dhyana’ (in consonance with one’s own experience): There is neither
gross form nor subtle quality in one’s experience. Experience is knowledge or
Peace alone. Therefore, one gives up here the mental part of one’s meditation as
well, and one is directed to cling on to the substance (knowledge) behind all ap-
pearance. This is possible only if one has already become familiar with the same
knowledge or Self behind the mind. The aspirant, under positive instructions from
the Guru, visualizes the Self and, by clinging on to it, is gradually established
2. Devotion is the most popular method adopted all over the world; but unfortunately,
for the vast majority of aspirants, it is left incomplete.
It is usually inspired by phenomenal religion, ethics and blind faith; and therefore is
inevitably blind in its application. It takes into consideration only the physical and
mental aspects of the object of its devotion. These two aspects are transitory and
therefore yield only transitory pleasures and transitory powers, though all this is in all
humility attributed to the Lord. Most devotees usually get enamoured of this pleasurable state; and being afraid of losing the glamour of it, they stubbornly refuse to examine the content of their experience in the light of right discrimination. Thus they get stranded in that state of empty and fleeting pleasurableness.
Even Shri Caitanya was no exception to this. His super-mystical experiences were
the result of blind devotion, which kept the world spellbound for years, but at last they
faded away. For a period of about twelve years, he was immersed in virtual stagnation. He is then reported to have approached a Sage (from a Shri Shankara order),
who initiated him into the ultimate Truth. The path being beautifully prepared and his
heart being sublime as a result of his former experiences of selfless devotion, he could
imbibe the spirit of vedantic instruction and instantly visualize the Ultimate.
This is the one path of liberation open to all devotees, if they earnestly desire to
visualize the Truth, which alone can be called real salvation or liberation.
3. The path of sound is yet another common approach. Here, the chanting of a ‘mantra’ is the exercise adopted. It is done in four distinct stages.
a) ‘Vaikhari’: Here the mantra is pronounced repeatedly in clear audible tones, and
attention concentrated on the audible sound.
b) ‘Madhyama’: Here the gross, audible part of the exercise is given up, and the
mantra is chanted silently or mentally. Late in this stage, one gets pleasurable ex-
periences through the realm of sound, by way of ecstatic music, agreeable sounds
etc. If the aspirant emphasizes the sound part of the mantra alone, he will be
stranded in this harmony of sound. But if he is fortunate enough to secure a
Karana-guru, the attention of the aspirant will immediately be directed to that
which manifests itself as sound. The meaning of the mantra and the source of
sound are explained to him, and thus he is lifted up to the next stage.
c) ‘Pashyanti’: Here the objectivity completely vanishes, and he visualizes the imper-
sonal Truth which stands as the background of the harmony of sound.
d) ‘Para’: Where the aspirant gets established in this Truth, by clinging on to it.
4. Yogas (e.g. Kundalini yoga): Still another class of aspirants take to the path of
meditating on the various nerve centres or adhara-cakras – gross as well as subtle –
assumed to be situated along the course of the spinal chord. This exercise is supposed
to arouse the vital energy called ‘kundalini’ – which lies dormant at the lower ex-
tremity of the spinal chord – and to raise it in gradual stages to the crown of the head.
The aspirant obtains a variety of phenomenal experiences, as the kundalini passes
from centre to centre.
The whole process depends upon the concept of the centres; and the centres in turn
depend upon the body, even for their very concept. Therefore, this exercise can never
be expected to yield anything but relative results in the dual plane. This exercise also
falls short of the ultimate goal.
On reaching the crown of the head ( ‘brahma-randhra’ ), the yogin finds his progress
blocked by a blank wall of ignorance or nothingness. Therefore, he seeks a Karana-
guru, and under his instruction visualizes the ultimate Truth and gets established in it.
Comparing all these so called paths and exercises, we come to the conclusion that
they only prepare the ground for the aspirant, by purifying his mind and heart. He can
then imbibe the ultimate Truth. The real light can be imparted only by the Karana-guru, ‘in person’. There is no exception to this.
( Karana-guru : A Sage who is established in the ultimate Truth and undertakes to
guide spiritual aspirants to the same goal.
Karya-guru is a teacher who, having not reached the Ultimate, guides students in the
study of anything below the ultimate Truth.
Also see http://kalki.benegal.org/atmananda_i