Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Reading Patañjali's Yōga Sūtra

Crossroads In The Rain
Crossroads In The Rain, Luberon, France, 2010

It's been raining here, which is OK because it means I get to read stuff without feeling that I really ought to be out there taking advantage of the weather. I just finished an excellent translation of and commentary on Patañjali's Yōga Sūtra, by a guy called Måns Broo.

I really don't know squat about Indian philosophy. All I have is a grab-bag of second- and third-hand accounts and some Buddhist, mostly Mahayana, stuff I've absorbed from here and there, a good deal of it during the past year or so. Peeking at Patañjali was so interesting to me because it gave a glimpse of the mental landscape from which Mahayana Buddhism, among other things, springs. A good many concepts I've encountered in the Zen context now make more sense, since they're clearly parts of a big ol' debate between a myriad of schools of thought, all concerned with similar problems.

Patañjali explores the same territory as the Shakyamuni and his followers, but the map he draws is radically different in some crucial respects. Patañjali's philosophy is also primarily a philosophy of action rather than ratiocination. The Yōga Sūtra is a concise roadmap of yoga as a spiritual practice—what to do, what obstacles you're likely to encounter, how to overcome them, and what the ultimate goal of the exercise is. This is very similar to core Buddhist philosophy, and in fact many of the concepts I've encountered in Hakuin, Dōgen or the Dhammapada are present in Patañjali, although many of them do take on somewhat different senses.

However, it is unabashedly anchored in a set of metaphysical claims. Apart from the practical advice in the first part, it really doesn't make much sense at all without the metaphysical concepts of God (īśvara), puruṣa, and prakṛti. In Zen at least, the discriminating mind is what we're supposed to transcend; in Patañjali, it's what we're supposed to develop: for him, the key to liberation is the realization of separateness, whereas in Zen at least it's the exact opposite. Hakuin says in Zazen wasan that
...Nirvana appears before you.
This place is neither more nor less than the Lotus Country.
As it is, this body is neither more nor less than the Buddha.

Very different! And altogether fascinating.

Ultimately, I think, Patañjali, Hakuin, Isaac Luria, Ibn Arabi, and all the other mystics across the ages have been exploring the same thing. That thing is like something of a singularity; a black hole where our notions of reality just collapse and lose their meaning—where fundamental concepts like "existence" or "self" or "reality" no longer apply—the "whereof one cannot speak" of Wittgenstein 7 again. Ibn Arabi and Isaac Luria call it God; Patañjali calls it īśvara, Hakuin calls it the Buddha, Dōgen calls it the Great Matter. If I ever manage to get a glimpse of it, I'll be very curious to find out which of these conceptions, if any, match that glimpse.

So how much does this philosophical stuff matter, ultimately? Quite a lot, actually, in my opinion, if you're into any of this mystical shit anyway. It's certainly possible to practice yoga or meditation outside the context of a philosophical or religious framework. However, weird shit will happen along the way, and if you have nowhere to connect it and no framework to make sense of it, you'll as likely as not try to start your own religion, which usually doesn't go so well. Some very mildly weird shit has already happened to me, and I'm very glad to have somewhere to file it, as it were.

The specifics of the roadmap do make a difference too. The map will direct your practice; what you make of it, and what you do with the results. Not all roadmaps are the same, even if the territory they describe is. "You shall know a tree by its fruit," some guy or other said, and different trees do bear different fruit. Ayatollah Khomeini was an accomplished mystic in the tradition of Yahya Suhrawardi and Ibn Arabi, and I don't much care for what he did with any insights he may have gained.

I have some issues with Patañjali's map. His views on epistemology leave the door open to rigid literalism, and if taken at face value, the supernatural stuff in the second and third parts of the sutra is pretty out-there. I find it slightly worrying that someone as obviously intelligent, intellectually rigorous, and generally sensible as the author of the commentary clearly wants to believe that if you practice yoga with enough dedication, you can make yourself invisible, or as small as an atom, or travel anywhere in the Universe faster than the speed of light.

While such beliefs are probably relatively harmless in and of themselves, they do leave the door open for more dangerous ones. India is full of spiritual hucksters that thrive on such beliefs to amass hordes of adoring followers, and such phony gurus are far too common over here too. Belief in the supernatural requires an abdication of critical thought, and that leaves you wide open to exploitation. I don't think that's a healthy place to be. While philosophical debate and metaphysical speculation won't give any answers, they do serve to ground the practice; to validate a journey already traveled.

As profound as Patañjali's insights were, he—like all these other guys—was just another guy, working from his experience, knowledge, and mental background; his karma and his samskaras, in his own terms. That means that none of them are automatically and always right. If someone asks me to accept stuff that's physically impossible, my default assumption has to be that he's mistaken, or being misinterpreted, or talking about something else.

I don't believe that yoga can give anyone, however dedicated, the superpowers Patañjali describes in such a matter-of-fact way. His insights and philosophy can still be relevant, but finding that relevance cannot require me to believe in things I know to be impossible. It is a disgrace that intellectual giants like Patañjali have been as good as completely ignored in our education, but that doesn't mean we should make a complete U-turn and think of them as inerrant either. We read Plato and Aristotle without considering them the last word in metaphysics or politology. We can and should read the likes of Patañjali, Ashvaghosha, Nagarjuna, and Vasubandhu with the same respect, and the same open but critical mind.


  1. Interesting indeed. Could the supernatural proclamations be more symbolic than literal? I could see wanting to make the 'self' as small as an atom making sense in a mental discipline of meditation, for instance. But if not, then we're once more treading the no-man's-land between philosophy and religion, where on one hand the supernatural either emphatically exists and provides context and reason for the factual, or on the other is complete nonsense.

  2. I understand that many contemporary commentators like to read it that way. However, from the commentary I read, I got the strong impression that both Patañjali and his contemporary commentators took them extremely seriously, and they were intended as perfectly literal.

    My theory is that at Patañjali's time "everybody knew" that master yoginis possessed supernatural powers; even if nobody might have actually seen one unambiguously demonstrate turning invisible, levitating, shrinking, or growing, "somebody else" had, not to mention that the Vedas—considered by Hindus to be absolutely authoritative—had plenty of examples to draw from.

    Therefore, the question of the reality of these powers never even came up; instead, the interesting questions were what cause them and, perhaps, how to achieve them. Patañjali's descriptions and explanations of the supernatural "perfections" are very much in this vein; for example, he says that by focusing on the body's way of being seen, the yogin can disconnect the property of being seen from the property of sight, becoming invisible. That makes a kind of sense in his conceptual framework—once you accept that becoming invisible is possible, and sight actually works the way he says it works.

    So, while I honestly don't know squat about this, I am inclined to believe that Patañjali meant that stuff literally. What we make of that is, of course, a different matter.

  3. Certainly a lot of time separates us from the age where supernatural occurrences were an explanation of, or explainable facets of, reality, and I think that makes such things very vulnerable to a more cynical view, as well as to a natural desire to cloak superstition and faith in symbology and other more rational guises.

    Your post made me think of a parallel instance; the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, that the bread and wine taken in communion are not merely symbols of the blood and flesh of Christ as they are in Protestant theology, but supposedly, actually *are* blood and flesh transformed by supernatural forces. I was thinking a lot of people were burned at the stake for presuming to think this was superstition, and got off into reading about the Cathars,which was fascinating.

    They weren't the ones who specifically rejected transubstantiation,(though the Catholic Church did feel it had to massacre them for their non-establishment-superstition stance,)but were pretty good at the supernatural explanation themselves, believing in a dualistic godhead (because of "the complete incompatibility of love and power") and seem to have had certain eastern-flavored overtones, including the concepts of reincarnation and a sort of christianized version of nirvana. ("According to some Cathars, the purpose of man's life on Earth was to transcend matter, perpetually renouncing anything connected with the principle of power and thereby attained union with the principle of love. According to others, man's purpose was to reclaim or redeem matter, spiritualising and transforming it."~quoted from wikipedia)

    The quest of the spirit is remarkable and consistent, isn't it?

    Once again one of your topics has managed to interest me despite myself in something religious. I'm going to look for more on the subject, so thanks.

  4. I had an epiphany about transubstantiation, actually, around when I got married, and did a bit of reading in Catholic theology. It makes perfect sense if you accept the underlying Aristotelian philosophy of "essence" and "matter." In transubstantiation, the essences of the host and wine are transformed into the essences of the body and blood of the Christ, whereas the matter remains what it is; therefore, you won't taste human flesh or blood when eating and drinking them. Since Aristotelian philosophy holds that the essences are more real than the objects embodying those essences, we're talking a much bigger miracle than mere transmutation of matter here, with the additional advantage that no conceivable physical test could ever disprove it, since such physical tests can only deal with the crude matter of the host and wine, not their essential nature.

    You only really run into trouble if you take the heretical view that essence and matter are not separate, in which case you'll be erroneously thinking that either the matter of the host gets transformed into the matter of human flesh, which would be disgusting, not to mention contrary to experience, or that the whole exercise is symbolic.

    Also, the Cathars are way cool. I'm actually deep in Cathar country right now. Have you come across Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's Montaillou? It's a wonderful piece of historical research, reconstructing the life of a medieval Cathar village through the interrogation protocols of the Inquisition sent to figure out who's who, and what they believe.

  5. Thanks for the book rec--I'll look around for it. It must add an element to your travel experience, being actually in the country itself, seeing the descendants of the people who believed these things and how they may or may not fit into that historical context.

    I'm actually interested in finding out about something else that was mentioned in my brief internet Catharist reading, which is gnosticism, so feel free to point me in that direction also. I did read a bit about the Aristotelian interpretation of substance and essence and stuff, also quite interesting and somewhat opaque for me right now. (Seems very closely akin to the straight symbolism approach to my unlearned eye, i.e., the bread/wine essence becomes another essence in practical terms because the mind so perceives it rather than a physical (and obviously impossible) transformation.)
    Oh and forgot my usual appreciation of your photo choices for these last few posts--especially the one above your latest, with the grey-bluey, water and stone seemingly one entity motif. Very nice.

  6. Yup, it does become symbolism IF you don't buy the premise that essences are more real than their actualizations—as, I think, most people these days do, not counting Roman Catholic theologians.

    Re the Gnostics, I'd suggest going straight to the source: the Gospel of Thomas is short, sharp, and beautiful, and gives a direct view of the Gnostic way of seeing things. And very, very different in spirit from what we think of as Christianity nowadays.

    You do feel the weight of centuries here in Provence, at times. It's beautiful, but there are times when it reminds you of the oceans of blood that have been spilled into this earth. It's not a kind country; it's an old, fierce, and wild one, underneath the surface idyll of lavender, oak, olive, and thyme. And hard not to love.

  7. Thanks for the link.

    "If the flesh came into being because of spirit, it is a wonder. But if spirit came into being because of the body, it is a wonder of wonders. Indeed, I am amazed at how this great wealth has made its home in this poverty."

    Lots of material to ponder, and you're right, I can't imagine hearing any significant aspect of the message there in a Sunday sermon in my neck of the woods. I've also finally cracked open The Great Transformation, so when I progress to the section on India/Buddha perhaps I can even understand some of your insights on Vasubandu and his rakshasha-commanding friends.

    I envy you breathing your current air; nothing here is old enough to exude much of a sense of human history--you do get the feeling of ageless immensity in the Rockies and so forth, but anything from the hand of man is recent and all on the surface, nugatory even. And also far from kind.