Samadhi, or contemplative absorption, is the highest state of mental concentration thought possible by Hindus while still existing in the cycle of samsara, and is achieved through yogic meditation. Samadhi is a state undisturbed by all emotions and thoughts originating with the ego, and the achievement of such mental clarity is said to indicate significant progress in one’s meditation practices (Sarbacker 57). Samadhi, literally meaning “together—joining” (Kesarcodi-Watson 79), has been described as the means by which one “goes beyond the human condition” (Eliade 52) and is finally able to achieve the liberation that Hindus ultimately aim for. Some have described the objective of yoga as the development of a consciousness qualitatively different from one’s normal state of mind that is able to thoroughly understand metaphysical truth (Eliade 51); this new consciousness is samadhi. Other terms used to describe this mental state include “enstasis,” “ecstasy,” and “supreme concentration.”
The concept of contemplative absorption was first described as one of the eight limbs of yoga outlined in the Yoga Sutra written by Patanjali, who is sometimes equated with the famed Sanskrit grammarian of the same name, but was probably a different person (Eliade 13). The Yoga Sutra consists of four books, each of which is devoted to a unique topic: “yogic ecstasy,” realization, “miraculous powers” (siddhi) and isolation (Eliade 13, 100). One of the critical features of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is the description of the eight limbs of yoga as a path to liberation. These eight limbs (astanga) are discipline (yama), restraint (niyama), posture (asana), breath control (pranayama), sense-withdrawal (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and ecstasy (samadhi) (Feuerstein 2002:324). The final three limbs are sometimes grouped together and called “constraint” (samyama) because concentration, meditation and ecstasy are considered phases of a single process of mental deconstruction (Feuerstein 2002:335). Patanjali understands this eight-limbed path of yoga as the path to achieving liberation, more often referred to by him as kaivalya, from samsara or the cycle of rebirth (Kesarcodi-Watson 78). An understanding of the eight limbs of yoga is important to be able to recognize the position of the attainment of samadhi in one’s journey towards liberation from samsara, because it allows one to recognize that samadhi can only be achieved once the turnings of the mind (vrtti) have been restricted through the other aspects of meditation (Feuerstein 2002:335).
The diversity of ways in which samadhi can be experienced is as varied as the multitudes of people who will experience it, and it has been said that no amount of description could convey the nature of this condition (Feuerstein 2002:335-336). However, samadhi can be defined informally (Feuerstein 2002:336) and there are certain generalizations that can be made about the experience of samadhi as a whole. Firstly, those who have actually experienced the various states of samadhi claim that mental lucidity is inherent to the experience, despite some perceptions of the experience as a state of trance or unconsciousness. In fact, spiritual teachers state that any instances in which unconsciousness is a factor cannot be considered a form of enstasis (Feuerstein 2002:335). Samadhi is also said to always include a feeling of “suprawakefulness” and is a progression towards the greater reality or good, despite some critics describing contemplative absorption as a “diminution of consciousness” (Feuerstein 2002:336). Physically, the experience involves bodily rigidity and a cessation of visible breath in the yogi (Feuerstein 1972:27). Other feelings described as associated with this experience of mental ecstasy include wakefulness, a “mood of bliss” or a sense of “pure existence” (Feuerstein 2002:336).
Although the concept of samadhi can be described as a whole, yogis also describe multiple types of samadhi and ways it can be experienced. Patanjali and his commentators differentiated among many types and stages of this supreme form of concentration (Eliade 93). The two varieties of samadhi discussed by Patanjali were samprajnata samadhi, that which is achieved with the assistance of an object or a thought, and asamprajnata samadhi, which is achieved without any relation to a physical or mental aid (Eliade 93). Asamprajnata samadhi is considered to be of a higher level of accomplishment than samprajnata because it is the only means by which one can recover awareness of the transcendental self (purusa) and its eternal freedom (Feuerstein 2002:337). While asamprajnata samadhi is said to exist in only one type, samprajnata samadhi can be experienced in various forms (Feuerstein 2002:336). As one achieves succession through the various stages of samprajnata samadhi, they begin to achieve the capacity for the absolute knowledge that will lead them to the accomplishment of asamprajnata samadhi, the achievement of contemplative absorption without the use of a meditation thought or object (Eliade 100).
Samprajnata samadhi, sometimes referred to as enstasis “with support,” is said to involve an inhibition of all mental functioning with the exception of the portion of cognition that focuses on the object by which samadhi was attained (Eliade 93). There are various forms of this type of samadhi, which bear the designation “coincidence” (samapatti) because the subject and the object on which they meditate are said to coincide (Feuerstein 2002:336). The least complex of these forms is vitarka-samapatti, which is said to occur when the subject unifies himself or herself with the “coarse” aspect of the meditation object (Feuerstein 2002:336). Once the subject is able to end all ideation about the object, they purportedly enter nivitarka samadhi (Feuerstein 2002:336). The next, deeper level of “ecstatic unification,” gurus claim, comes when the meditator is able to understand the subtle aspects of the object and experience themselves on a progressively less different plane of existence with the object. This condition has two forms, which are dependent on whether or not spontaneous thoughts are present. The two forms are reflective (savicara) and suprareflective (nirvicara) ecstasy (Feuerstein 2002:337). According to an interpretation of the Yoga Sutra outlined by Vacaspati Mishra in his work Tattva-Vaisharadi, four additional levels of this unification with the subtle aspects of the object exist. They are: coincidence with bliss (sanandasamapatti), coincidence with “I-am-ness” (sasmitasamapatti), coincidence beyond bliss (nirananda-samapatti) and coincidence beyond “I-am-ness” (nirasmita-samapatti) (Feuerstein 2002:337). Succession through each of the stages is marked by progressive loss of mental awareness as the participant begins to lose access to memory and abandons any attempts at reason or logical thought, accepting that their meditation object cannot be possessed and must be grasped as concrete fact rather than positioned in relation to the rest of the physical world (Eliade 95-96). It is questionable whether the scholar Mishra actually experienced these types of samadhi for himself or whether he inferred their existence, and it must be noted that the adept yogin Vijnana Bhikshu rejected the types of samadhi that Mishra described (Feuerstein 2002:337).
In addition to the types of samadhi discussed in the Yoga Sutra, some gurus have developed their own teachings on the different ways samadhi can be experienced. For example, the spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy used a system of classification that divided different experiences of samadhi into major and minor types (Chinmoy 257-260) and was based on Vedanta philosophy (Feuerstein 2002:336). This system, listed in order of increasing accomplishment, includes: savikalpa, nirvikalpa, and sahaja samadhi, which Chinmoy claims is the highest state of consciousness achieved by most spiritual masters (Chinmoy 257-260). Other sources explain that the attainment of nirvikalpa samadhi is synonymous with liberation itself (Feuerstein 2002:529), but according to Chinmoy it is the attainment of sahaja samadhi that indicates, “one has become the soul . . . and is utilizing the body as a perfect instrument” (Chinmoy 259). Within each of these levels of consciousness, there are varying “grades” of experience and each of the samadhi can be attained at “higher” or “lower” levels. Chinmoy differentiates between these different types of samadhi based on the varying degrees of consciousness and abilities to interact with the physical world experienced by the participant in each form of contemplative absorption (Chinmoy 257-260). Studying the teachings of gurus can be a very effective means of understanding the multitude of diverse ways that samadhi is experienced. [For information regarding other classification systems of various types of samadhi, consult individual discussions of yoga by spiritual teachers.]
Although some gurus claim that there are no specific methods to attain this supreme form of consciousness (Chinmoy 261), in the Yoga Sutra Patanjali discusses some of the challenges one must overcome in order to achieve samadhi. One of the primary obstacles preventing one’s attainment of supreme consciousness is the interfering mind (Kesarcodi-Watson 85). Certain scholars, such as Ian Kesarcodi-Watson (1982), state that it is difficult to explain the steps leading to samadhi because these steps occur at a level of being that is difficult for rational minds to grasp. The state which samadhi inhabits is considered one where there is no “making;” a state that is difficult to affect (Kesarcodi-Watson 89). However, it is stressed in discussions of this state of supreme consciousness that samadhi cannot be achieved through a mere exertion of will, but rather, requires the subject to empty themselves and become open to the higher reality beyond their own ego (Feuerstein 2002:337). Experts on the subject explain that actions taken to achieve samadhi can be attempted, but there is little to be said about how, or even if, they will work (Kesarcodi-Watson 89) because the extraordinary condition that is samadhi is one for which “there is no reference point in our everyday life” (Feuerstein 2002:336).
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Chinmoy, Sri (1989) Meditation: Man-Perfection in God-Satisfaction. Jamaica: Aum Publications.
Dasgupta, S.N. (1979) Yoga Philosophy in Relation to Other Systems of Indian Thought. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.
Eliade, Mircea (1975) Patanjali and Yoga. New York: Shocken Books.
Feuerstein, Georg and Jeanine Miller (1972) Yoga and Beyond. New York: Shocken Books.
Feuerstein, Georg (2002) The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice. New Dehli: Bhavana Books & Prints.
Fort, Andrew O. (2006) “Vijnanabhiksu on Two Forms of ‘Samadhi’.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 10 #3 (December): 271-294.
Kesarcodi-Watson, Ian (1982) “Samadhi in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.” Philosophy East and West 32 #1 (January): 77-90.
Osho (1976) The Path of Yoga. Pune: Tao Publishing Pvt Ltd.
Sarbacker, Stuart Ray (2005) Samadhi: The Numinous and Cessative in Indo-Tibetan Yoga. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Venkatesananda, Swami (2008) The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.
RELATED TOPICS FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION
Eight Limbs of Yoga
Yoga Sutra of Patanjali
NOTEWORTHY WEBSITES RELATED TO THE TOPIC
Enlightened Master Acharya Shree Yogeesh explains his understanding of samadhi:
Spiritual Teacher Sri Chinmoy demonstrates his experience of samadhi:
Article written by Madison Martens (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.