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Meanwhile, back in the Philosophers’ Lounge…

If you look on the bookshelves in the Philosophers’ Lounge, you’ll find Yoga filed under several categories: dualistic, theistic, soteriology (the study of religious doctrines of salvation), darshana. As you know, philosophers love to classify things and discriminate between details.

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks looking at the opening aphorisms of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It’s the central foundational text of a philosophical system known as Yoga but it was not written in a cultural void. Yoga is one of six major schools of Indian thought (called darshanas) and Patanjali could reasonably assume his original audiences were familiar with them all. Such is not the case in twenty –first century North American culture, and a little explanation goes a long way to clearing up the muddied waters.

I’ve taken these points from the first chapters of Mircea Eliade’s Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. It was originally published in French in 1954, first published in English in 1958. It was just recently re-released with a new introduction in 2009. Although the language is slightly dated in its style, I quickly adjusted to its formality and really enjoyed the parts of the book I’ve read thus far. I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in deepening their understanding of Yoga as a philosophy and how it fits into the rest of classical Indian thought. Professor Eliade was a yogi. Originally a student at the University of Budapest, he studied yoga under Professor Surendranath Dasgupta at the Sanskrit College in Calcutta for a number of years before returning to the West. Dr Eliade was a distinguished scholar at the University of Chicago for a number of years serving as a Professor of the History of Religion.

In his book, Dr Eliade explains that overall, there are four ideas central to the whole of Indian spirituality:

  1. Karma – the law of universal causality which connects people with the cosmos and condemns them to indefinite transmigration. This is not fate as it is sometimes ascribed in the West. Rather, it is a rendition of my Mother’s famous words: Behaviour has consequences, young lady!!
  2. Maya – cosmic illusion that is endured (or worse yet, considered valid) by people who are blinded by their ignorance.
  3. Nirvana – an absolute reality “situated” somewhere beyond the illusion of Maya and the effects of karma, also referred to as Self, atman, Brahman, the unconditioned, the transcended, the immortal, the indestructible. This is the goal, the whole enchilada. This is the raison d’etre for these practices: to end or be liberated from the cycle of karma.
  4. Yoga – the means of attaining Being. In general, it refers to any ascetic technique and any method of meditation. Most famous is the ‘classic’ yoga, expounded by Patanjali in the Yoga-sutras. Yoga implies a preliminary detachment from matter and emancipation with respect to the world. Yoga is characterized by its practical side, as opposed to study or ritual.

Philosophically, yoga is most closely aligned with the oldest of the darshanas, samkhya. In fact, the theoretical framework for the Yoga Sutras is a restating of the Samkhya philosophy in the broadest of outlines with an emphasis on the practical value of meditation and the importance of God. The two systems are so similar that most affirmations made for one are valid for the other. The primary place they disagree is on the subject of God. Samkhya is an atheistic school whereas Yoga is clearly theistic, working with the premise of a supreme God (Ishvara).

And back to that God thing, … that needs a little ‘splaining as well. Patanjali is not referring to the God of Abraham, or any of the 330 000 plus Gods in the Hindu pantheon. Ishvar, the word he’s selected, refers to the concept of a god. It’s an important distinction. The word literally means “Lord or Master” (isa = ruler, master, lord; vara = enclosing), making ishvar the word to use when denoting the concept of the Supreme Consciousness of the universe, however you chose to define it. Without being flippant about it, it’s a bit of a plug and play system. If you’re Hindu, the concept of God refers to your tradition. If you’re from one of the Abrahamic traditions, you use those concepts. Yoga acknowledges the existence of a Supreme Consciousness in the universe but it doesn’t define it. Does God have children, write books, is involved in the day-to-day running of the planet? These questions aren’t addressed in yoga. There is simply as statement that Ishvara is and knows and then the door is shut and yoga walks away. This is why yogis from all over the world can lay down their mats next to each other without getting into a fight. And if you don’t believe in God, yoga’s cool with that as well.

The whole Ishvara concept is one of the points of distinction between the Samkhya school of thought and Yoga. Yoga and Buddhism also parted over this point.

Without bogging down in too many details, here are some of the basic, shared premises Patanjali assumes but doesn’t say this early in the sutras. He writes to an audience familiar with them in considerable finer detail than provided here:

  • Suffering is a universal condition but is not final. Emancipating oneself from suffering is the goal of all Indian philosophies and mysticisms.
  • The universe is real – not an illusion as is held by other schools of thought.
  • Neither divine punishment nor original sin is the cause of human suffering but ignorance of the true nature of Sprit (called Purusha, in Sanskrit). This ignorance makes us confuse Spirit with our physical and mental experience. We are ‘enslaved’ because we identify with the material changing world, instead of Spirit.
  • Emancipation from suffering can only be obtained when this confusion is cleared up
  • In the yoga system, self-discipline and a technique of meditation are indispensable in the quest for emancipation.
  • Yoga is a dualistic philosophy that divides the Universe into two categories: Spirit (Purusha) and the rest (Prakriti). Purusha (Spirit) is defined as that which is unchanged and unchangeable. It is not defined with any other attributes or relations with the exception that it is and it knows.
  • The rest of the universe is prakriti (matter or substance). Unlike Purusha, defined as unchanging and unchangeable, prakriti is dynamic and creative. It is the primordial, material and energetic substance of the universe. Mental states, because they are capable of changing, are included as prakriti.
  • All phenomenon of prakriti can be described by their intersection of three attributes: sattva (luminosity, intelligence, clarity, space); rajas (motor energy, mental activity, fire, movement) and tamas (inertia, physic obscurity, heaviness, physicality of matter).

So there you have it – a bit of background that helps explain why the philosophers in the lounge filed Yoga under the labels of “theistic”, “dualistic” and “soteriological”. As an overall discipline, yoga concerns itself with means of salvation (liberation/emancipation) and operates under the assumptions that there is a Supreme Consciousness, however limited we may be at knowing it, and there is a difference between Spirit and the material world.

Thanks for reading and Namaste,



About Kate MacKay

I'm a certified Viniyoga teacher, in Fredericton, NB. I was a 9-1-1 operator and emergency services dispatcher for 22 years. Surprisingly, the two worked well together, or as I liked to put it, from the sublime to the ridiculous -- all in a day's work. I'm currently off work as a result of a stress-induced cardiac condition that's thrown a few crimps in my lifestyle. I'm not actively teaching yoga in the classroom right now and probably won't for several more months. That said, this blog is one of the forms of practice I can do and I thank you for joining me in this exploration of all things yoga.

3 responses »

  1. Hi Kate,

    Good ‘splaining. I found the idea of Ishvara very interesting. The acceptance of others’ concepts, or lack thereof, regarding a supreme, all knowing, universal Grand Pooba is remarkable. From the uni-God concept to total universe consciousness, the fact that all are accepted is a true reflection of tolerance and coexistance.

    Then there is Maya: Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” But, I can see both passive vs. active ignorance as an application of the Maya concept, though at times the result is about the same. Ignorance in any form is a trap sprung on those unaware of the potential harm.

    I call adhering to a belief or concept in error: the arrogance of ignorance.

    This “arrogance” – whether born from blind or wrongly informed ignorance -does little to support the yoke.

    Reflecting on the impact of this, I realize that though there are many things many people want, there is only one thing in life virtually all people want, and that is the need to be right. It seems therein is the basis of Mr Twain’s comment and the concept of Maya… rightness based in ignorance is wrong!

    Thanks for the lesson… Namaste.
    Lawson Meadows

  2. Good to hear from you again, Lawson. Thanks for the encouragement.

    I agree with you. It is remarkably tolerant and always a lesson to me in my 21st century smugness when I delude myself into thinking “we’re” the hip and happening version of humanity. These ideas are 2500-2000 years old. Tolerance and respect for others isn’t a “New Age” idea.

    Partly, I think, is because Indian society at this time was a great melting pot of ideas. There were the Aryans, the Buddhist, the Hindus, the Persians, the Greeks, the Pathians all mingling and exchanging ideas about everything. Intellectually, it must have been very exciting times.



  3. Pingback: Bhakti– by the Grace of God: YSP 1.23 « Dharmayoga’s Weblog

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