While numerous Asian philosophical texts remain untranslated, a few suffer from a surplus of translations: the Bhagavad-Gītā, the Yijing, the Daodejing, and also Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra (YS). Why did Christopher Key Chapple, the Doshi professor of Indic and Comparative Theology at Loyola Marymount University and an experienced practitioner of yoga, consider it necessary to add one more presentation of the Pātañjala Yoga system?
Yoga and the Luminous: Patañjali’s Spiritual Path to Freedom, by Christopher Key Chapple, State University of New York Press, Albany 2008, 301 pp.
The most important new service the author renders to yoga practitioners and students of India’s intellectual history is a thorough cross-referencing of Patañjali’s concepts with the Rg-Veda (embryonic), the contemporaneous systems of Sānkhya, Buddhism, Jainism, the younger systems of the Nāth Yogis and Sikhs, and the westernized yoga teachings propagated by travelling Gurus. Patañjali really gets his specific place in the Indian network of ideas here. His was “a masterful contribution, communicated through non-judgmentally presenting diverse practices” and “a methodology rooted in ahimsā” (p.113). He and his commentators pioneered the “thoughtful, probing study of the religion of one’s neighbours” and showed that “syncretism can be an effective tool for societal peace” (p.15). Most centrally, he “compiled a host of techniques to facilitate” the attainment of “the power of pure witnessing”, rooted in the self which “sees change but does not itself change” (p.62). Yet note that Chapple also warns us “not to take the self as a static state”, not to “reify” it: the self is “an experience”, “a state of silent absorption” (p.3).
Another obvious merit of his book Yoga and the Luminous is the core part, the detailed translation with grammatical analysis of the text (reproduced in Devanagari and transcription), indologically impeccable but pleasantly readable for the educated layman. It is always a reviewer’s pleasure if he can sincerely and wholeheartedly recommend the book he just read, and that is the case here. There is one point, though, where I want to take issue with Chapple’s understanding of the YS, and it is at the conceptual centre, though in the text it is at the very beginning.
In Laozi’s Daodejing, the most controversial line among competent translators is the very first, Dao ke dao fei chang dao, popularly rendered as “The way that can be said, is not the eternal way”. This is grammatically untenable but appeals greatly to the anti-intellectual slant which Western readers tend to read into Daoism. The misreading had a history in China ever since the word dao acquired the extra meaning of “addressing thus, saying”. A similar slant bedevils the usual interpretation of the Yoga Sūtra’s key term yoga. In this case too, the misreading appeals to intellectual fashions in the West, but started in the country of origin, where it won the day, so that most modern Hindus accept it.
The proper and intended meaning of yoga in Patañjali’s system is the one suggested by its English cognate “yoke”, viz. “subjection, disciplining, control, restraint”. His definition of yoga as citta-vrtti-nirodhah, “the restraint of the fluctuations of the mind” (YS 1:2, tra. p.143) concerns the subjection of the mind’s tendency to monkey around and get attached to its objects. Silencing the mind is presented as a psycho-technical discipline, without direct metaphysical claims.
Unfortunately, in his word-for-word explanation, Chapple forgets his own translation of this definition and explains yoga as “union, connection, joining” (p.143), without problematizing this common interpretation. With this, I must find fault, even if it is the majority view by far. What “union” is this, between what and what? Modern Hindus will say: “between ātman and paramātman”, or more colloquially, “between the soul and God”. That would approximately be the right answer in the case of Bhakti or Sufi mysticism, but is Patañjali’s yoga system a similar theistic mysticism? I think not. Nor does Chapple say it is, but he could have addressed the question more explicitly, and his mere use of the word “union” will confirm Hindus in their theistic understanding.
Patañjali wrote when theism was at a low ebb. In modern self-presentations of Hinduism, you would not know that it was ever anything else than devotional-theistic. At some point, a theistic coup d’état has eclipsed the godless schools of thought and written them out of the record. The Gītā is a blatant instance, with Krishna imposing his presence as object of devotion on chapters named after (and giving an otherwise fair summary of) godless philosophies like Sānkhya. Some have argued that the YS started with a godless core and had theistic elements added later on, to the point that Hindus came to call it Seśvara Sānkhya, i.e. “Sānkhya-with-God”. This is plausible, but the reconstruction of a text’s editorial history is notoriously susceptible to speculative excess, so let us cautiously focus on another and unmistakably operative method of theistic incorporation, viz. leaving the text intact but reinterpreting key terms.
Thus, “Īśvara” is defined merely as “a distinct purusa untouched by afflictions, actions, fruitions or their residue” in YS 1:24, but has been assigned the exclusive meaning of “God/Shiva”, nowadays assumed in the expression “Īśvarapranidhāna” (YS 1:23, 2:1, 2:32, 2:45). It is on the basis of little else than this expression’s repeated appearance that the YS is classified among the theistic systems. Even if it means “devotion to God”, that still does not make Yoga theistic, for God still plays no role in the definition and structure of the system, only the devotion itself is credited with playing a helpful role in the yogi’s progress. Nowhere does Patañjali say that “union” is sought with God nor with anything else. On the contrary, the stated goal of his system is kaivalya, “isolation, separation”, the very opposite of “union”, and equivalent with the notion kevala of the atheistic Jaina system. Patañjali accommodates the devotee yet avoids burdening the unbeliever with a requirement to believe.