In general, a person needs to go through increasingly progressive stages of spiritual evolution to reach union with the Supreme. The ancient Siddha masters of India have defined and devised a 4-stage path for self-realization. This path is a broad framework which describes the stages of spiritual evolution in an individual. They explained each stage in detail regarding the activities that need to be performed and the type of changes one experiences in different levels of consciousness. The four stages are Sariyai, Kriyai, Yogam and Jnanam. These four stages are a continuum, and there is often an overlap between them. As a spiritual seeker goes through these stages, he or she becomes increasingly closer to God and eventually becomes one with God.
The human mind is always engaged in a thought process, jumping from one realm to another, worrying about things. It continually deludes a person into thinking that the five sensory organs define the complete reality. Consequently, a person is caught up in everyday life, and there is little time or inclination to think about the real reason for their existence. The four-fold path of Sariyai, Kriyai, Yogam and Jnanam encourages a person to detach themselves from the sensory inputs and to go inwards. In the initial stages, a person needs tools and techniques to make progress on the spiritual path. As one gets closer to the end, in the Jnanam stage, the need for all such tools drops off. One can simply be. And that is the state of silence, of knowing, of being in Divine Bliss.
The seers in the Siddha tradition were able to transcend the limitations of the human mind and body and attain liberation. They reached supreme states of consciousness in which they became one with the primordial, Supreme Self, while still in the physical body. And in those states of consciousness, they realized that it is possible for any person to reach that state if they have the desire and is willing to walk the path. They devised methods and practices which, when followed, allow a person to become increasingly closer to God. Said another way, these ancient Siddha masters devised ways where anyone can become a saint by willfully pursuing the course of spiritual evolution. Anyone can attain Union with the Divine by following the four-fold path of Sariyai, Kriyai, Yogam and Jnanam. History has shown innumerable times that while some saints are born, they can also be self-made by pursuing a path of self-evolution.
Sariyai is the first step, where the spiritual seeker worships a deity. The deity can be anyone – Lord Krishna, Jesus, Kali Ma – whatever form of Divinity that connects with the devotee. The deity is considered to be a full representation of the Supreme Divine, and in fact, is deemed to be God in the full form. The devotee worships and serves the deity. This worship can take many different forms, such as cleaning the altar and premises, bathing the idols, decorating them with flowers, lighting a lamp and incense, helping other devotees in worshipping the deity, etc. The person continually engages in serving God in the form of a deity. They direct all their thoughts and actions towards this activity, which helps focus their mind. A deep love for God develops in the mind and heart of the devotee.
The spiritual seeker should adhere to the principles laid out for Yama (moral principles) and Niyama (discipline and responsibility) in the Eight-Fold Path. By paying attention to moral principles, developing discipline and accepting responsibility, purification at the external level starts to manifest.
Kriyai is the second stage in the spiritual evolution. As one matures in Sariyai, like a fruit which ripens on the tree but is not yet ready to fall off, the soul seeks a greater longing to be one with the Supreme Consciousness, and Sariyai falls short on this. Kriyai is characterized by a combination of external worship to a deity and devotion to Divinity within. In this stage, the devotee is advancing from worshipping a concrete and external form to recognizing that energy within him or herself. Consequently, this reduces the amount of time spent in external worship of the deity, making way for internal worship. This internal worship is in the form of Mantra Japa which means chanting of the mantras, often silently. This chanting helps calm the constant chatter of the mind and to go more silently inwards. Often, a realized teacher, a spiritual master or a Guru is needed at this stage to guide the devotee towards the correct mantras to use. In this stage, the devotee feels increasingly closer to the Divine, as it starts to blossom within.
In the Kriyai stage, the spiritual seeker needs to go deeper within, to begin the inner purification. Asanas (perfection and mastery of the body through yoga) as described in the Eight-Fold Path are recommended to help with the purification both at the external and internal levels. Developing a deeper spiritual discipline happens naturally in this stage.
Yogam is the third stage and is the maturation of Kriyai. It is a pivotal point for the realization of the Self. Yogam is not to be confused with Yoga, although Yoga can be one of the practices. In Yogam, there is a full maturity of the intuitive mind, and the spiritual seeker is able to bring the mind to a standstill, to total silence, and catch glimpses of the Supreme Divine God. There is a detachment from all things worldly, and one starts merging and becoming one with God.
The emphasis in Yogam is on the withdrawal from the external sensory stimuli to perform internal purification. The inner purification is done at several different levels: physical, mental, emotional and ethereal. The Eight-Fold Path describes methods such as Pranayama (harnessing and perfection of breath), Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses) and Dharana (single-minded focus) for this inner purification.
At this stage, the branch is ready to release the ripened fruit, and the spiritual seeker is set to enter the final stage, Jnanam.
Jnanam is the fourth and last stage of spiritual evolution on this earth. This stage is one of pure knowledge and knowing. This is not book-knowledge or intuitive learning but is knowledge gained through direct inner experience. One does not need to do rigorous practices such as prayers or Japa in this stage to go towards Moksha, liberation. They happen by themselves. One just needs to be still, sitting in one place. Everything is empty; the person goes into the Void, which is the source of creation and manifestation. One experiences real knowledge as it shows itself.
In this stage, the spiritual seeker effortlessly goes into Dhyana (uninterrupted meditation) and Samadhi as laid in the Eight-Fold Path. This stage is absolute bliss, Sat-Chit-Ananda. The spiritual seeker and the Supreme Self and the Universal Spirit become One, there is no difference. This union, this Ekatvam is similar to melting of an earthen pot which separates a handful of the water in the ocean.
Ekatvam is about unveiling the truth of the totality of spirituality. It is about striving for everybody to reach the stage of Jnanam, to lead everyone to Moksha, or liberation.