Saturday, July 17, 2010

The monkey under Patañjali’s yoke

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.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

>>>"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."

If you'd notice, those words are preceded by "Shri Bhagavan uvacha", which means that it is not Sri Krishna the person who is talking, but the self-realized yogi, the person who has realized himself as "aham brahmasmi", that is giving the realized knowledge.

brahma is defined as qualityless, formless, eternal, infinite, all pervading. In veda, realized sage also says "aham brahmasmi". It is not to be misconstrued that the formless, qualityless brahma suddenly collapsed into the form of the rishi.

>>>"At some point, a theistic coup d’état has eclipsed the godless schools of thought and written them out of the record."

This is incorrect. The so called 'theism' and it being separate from original characteristic of yoga is the result of incorrect understanding by western minds.
'Theism' or 'atheism' or 'pantheism' or 'henotheism' were never separate in bharatiya samskriti. Creating separation and divisions is western characteristic.

In bharatiya parampara 'theism' is one path, indistinguishable from the others, that leads to realization.
Adi Shankaracharya not only gave advaita ventanta commentaries of veda, he also worshipped murti, he installed the murti of Mookambika Devi at Kollur and sang "bhaja govindam".

It is western characteristic to brand people and caricaturize them later to suit selfish interest. Such tendency can never be correctly applied to bharatiya vichaar dhaara.


Sandeep said...

Thus, “Īśvara” is defined merely as..., but has been assigned the exclusive meaning of “God/Shiva”, nowadays assumed in the expression “Īśvarapranidhāna”

By whom? Obviously you can't expect a vEdAntin to analyze these things from a historian's perspective, because the vEdAntin takes his/her belief system (based on the so-called aptavAkya) for granted and only builds history upon those assumptions. Thus to a vEdAntin the gItA-view of sAnkhya and yOga is more authentic than the original sAnkhya and yOga texts themselves.

Anonymous said...

There’s plenty of yoga and meditation literature by practitioners that provide detailed maps of stages in self-observation.

In a small booklet called Alternative States of Consciousness, Daniel Goleman has rigorously described a 7-stage process of Buddhist meditation with 4 “rational” and 3 “super-rational” stages in a Self-observer’s journey.

The first 4 stages as I remember are:

1. Initial (on an object of contemplation)
2. Access (to the object)
3. Merger (with the object)
4. Bliss.

The next 3 stages are:

5. Infinite space(or emptiness)
6. Infinite consciousness.
7. Neither perception nor non-perception.

I find the study believable and fascinating.

The Niyamas (Shaucha, Santosha, Tapa, Swadhyaya, Ishwarapranidhan) are not considered separate, but the same thing in its different aspects. In some teachings, the practitioner is told to observe just one Niyama, and she will realize that it covers all the others!

The problem for atheists is the word Ishwara. The etymology of Ishwara is beyond my competence, so take the following with a pinch of salt. Ishwara is another name for Existence itself. By yoking oneself to all Existence, the practitioner achieves Self-realization.

LV said...

Personally, I think Chip Harnranft's translation is the best. It rescues the YS from Vedantin and theistic misinterpretations and acknowledges the heavy Buddhist influence:

Anonymous said...


Gururaj B N said...

Today's Hinduism follows the format of Adi Shankaracharya, and is almost exclusively based on Vedanta. Its influence so great that we Hindus have mixed Vedanta into non-vedantic systems such as Sankhya and Yoga, but which are compatible with Hindu thoughts. It is beneficial to look at Patanjala Yoga as a separate system just as Nyaya and Vaisheshika are instead of superimposing later day concepts on Yoga of Patanjali.

About LV's comment that Yoga of Patanjali is influenced by Bhddhist, it may not be that certain. Though Yoga sutras we have now is of later date, Yoga system itself is much older than Buddhism. The notions are found in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

凱許倫 said...

Necessity is the mother of invention.......................................................................

Truth Always Wins said...

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Anonymous said...

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