Swadhyaya (also spelled svadhyaya) is a compound word: Swa- self, or one’s own self, and Dhyaya- a lesson, lecture, reading. A basic translation is to ‘study the self.’ In the earliest stage of Indian philosophy and religion, Vedic Brahmanism meant to learn the Vedas, the teachings about the gods. A member of the Brahmin caste (one who could communicate Brahman) was expected to memorize one or more of the Vedas, the hymns and rituals through which one understood the gods and communicated with them.
Memorizing the Vedas was important because they were originally an oral tradition. They were not written down until about the 2nd Century BCE. It was the Brahmins’ place in society to know them so they could live an exemplary life, conduct rituals for the common people, and pass them on by teaching the Vedas to their children. A Brahmin’s duties were said to be study (svādhyāya) and teaching (pravacana). To have the Vedas available to you through memory was a high spiritual accomplishment. You had all the instruction and only needed to practice as the Vedas answered all questions.
With the composition of the Upanishads, emphasis shifted from the gods outside to Brahman inside. The Upanishads were considered sacred books of instruction, so memorizing them was still very important, but the books alone could not liberate the student. The student had to apply their teachings and ‘realize’ Brahman within themselves. The definition of swadhyaya expanded to mean both the study/memorization of the texts and the work of self-analysis to find the inner unchanging self.
From the Upanishads through Patanjali and into modern times we inherit this dual meaning of Swadhyaya. Sometimes there is a clear meaning (study texts or self-observation) but usually the meaning is vague and can be correctly interpreted both ways. Patanjali, for example, gives us:
By Swadhyaya comes communion with the desired deity. YS 2.44
Lectures have been composed to support either meaning. Swadhyaya as study can refer to any sacred text or spiritual teaching. It can also mean reciting these texts as a meditation or reciting mantra. As self-observation it can refer to any meditation technique or to observe the effects on the mind of any spiritual practice. Swami Kripalu speaks to both:
“Listening to the scriptures prescribed by the sadguru, meditation, and daily practice of sadhana is called svadhyaya. Svadhyaya is the second component of dhyana. To practice the eight limbs of yoga daily is also svadhyaya. Svadhyaya includes japa (repeated prayer), worship of God, and surrender to God.” Swami Kripalu, Asana and Mudra chapter 47
“As long as the sadhaks and sadhakas, they do not objectively study their problems, they will never find the answers. Self-observation and self-analysis are the tools to find out the entire treasure of mind. Through that you can find out what are your good qualities and what are your bad qualities.”
One cannot attain to this ability of self-observation all of a sudden. It is gradual. There is a need for constant practice. In order for you to successfully do self-observation, peace of mind or balance of mind and honesty are most important. If you haven’t done self-observation, then whatever decision you come to will not be true.
Yes, in the beginning you will have to accept faulty self-observation. Then you will be able to grow gradually. When a baby first begins to write one, it is very crooked in every different way. Then gradually he can draw a straighter line of number one. So also in your self-analysis you gradually progress.
One must learn to be objective, and if you do not know how to be objective, there is no possibility of self-analysis or self-observation. In that, you have to be your own judge. So gradually go on practicing self-analysis. Just as film catches the movements of the body, so also our self-analysis catches the movement of our mind.” ~ Lectures (unedited) 06-04-71 Part 2
For the modern seeker of yoga wisdom, practice is essential, but the road map of yoga is important to study also. For someone to have a deep practice, study of the historical teachings of yoga is essential. For someone seeking modern goals of yoga, inspirational reading may be valuable. And for everyone seeking to grow, the words attributed to Socrates speak volumes:
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Plato’s Apology