Ian Whicher. The Integrity of the Yoga Darśana: A Reconsideration of Classical Yoga. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1998. Paperback, 438 pages.
Contrary to popular opinion, Patanjali was not the “father of Yoga.” That honor goes to the mythical Hiranyagarbha of Vedic times. However, Patanjali deserves credit for providing the most successful systematic treatment of Yoga within the fold of Hinduism. It was so successful in fact that his ideas came to be regarded as the philosophical system of Yoga—or yoga-darshana, also known as “Classical Yoga.” Patanjali’s aphorisms or sûtras, composed c. 200 C.E., are still one of the best ways of entering the study of the yogic path.
The sûtras have been translated and paraphrased numerous times. Sound detailed studies of the philosophical intricacies they expound, however, are few and far between. It was the great Indian scholar Surendranath Dasgupta who, in the 20s and 30s, pioneered the in-depth study of Patanjali’s aphoristic work. His works A Study of Patanjali, Yoga as Philosophy and Religion, and Yoga Philosophy in Relation to Other Systems of Indian Thought are still important today.
In 1979, I offered my scholarly monograph The Yoga-Sutra: An Exercise in the Methodology of Textual Analysis, followed a year later by The Philosophy of Classical Yoga (reprinted in 1998). Now, twenty years later, Ian Whicher has produced a new seminal work that examines with a microscope some of Patanjali’s key ideas.
In particular, Whicher challenges the long-held view that Classical Yoga is a dualistic system of thought out of tune with the rest of the yogic tradition, which is decidedly nondualistic. Nondualism (advaita) proposes that there is only one overarching Reality, which is known as brahman or âtman. This one ultimate Being comprises and is the essence of all other beings and things. Some ancient thinkers maintained that the manifold world was completely illusory (mâyâ), a figment of the imagination. Others argued that the Many is not so much an illusion as a manifestation, an outpouring of the One. The latter viewpoint has been shared by most authorities of Yoga—from Vedic times to our own era.
What is Patanjali’s dualism all about and why does it even matter? I will answer the second part of the question first. It matters greatly how we conceptualize the world, because our thoughts guide our actions. In Yoga, theory and practice form a continuum like space and time. All too often Western Yoga practitioners seek to bypass the theory, or philosophy, behind the various exercises. But these exercises arose out of a profound philosophical consideration of human existence and, ultimately, make very little sense apart from this consideration. To ignore yogic theory is like sipping a delicious drink without a cup, merely by trying to hold the liquid in one hand.
Now to the first part of the question. In analyzing human experience, including the spiritual realization of generations of Yoga masters, Patanjali concluded that there is an ultimate subject of experience. He called it purusha, meaning “person.” That purusha, or ultimate subject, transcends both the body and the mind. It is completely unchanging, supreme consciousness eternally witnessing all sensations, feelings, and thoughts present in the mind. Some translators render this Sanskrit term as “Self,” others as “Spirit.”
In contrast, the mind has no consciousness of its own but belongs to material existence, which Patanjali calls prakriti (lit. “procreatrix”). This term is often translated as “Nature,” though it comprises not merely what we generally mean by nature but the entire universe in all its infinite variety and levels. For Patanjali this includes many subtle (sûkshma) realms of existence unknown to Western science but quite familiar to Yoga masters.
The relationship between Spirit (purusha) and Nature (prakriti) is said to be similar to the relationship between light and an object. Light is our true nature, but this fact is obscured by the “dark matter” of our body and mind. For most of us, it is shocking to think that our mind should have no consciousness, but this is precisely Patanjali’s view. For him, mind is merely ever-changing form. It has no light, or awareness, of its own. What appears as mental consciousness is simply a reflection of the transcendental purusha-light in the body-mind.
The yogic path consists in purifying the body-mind to such a high degree that it can give us a faithful reflection of the purusha-light. When the mind is completely purified, we cease to identify with it as if it were our true self and, instead, we recover our original identity, which is the Spirit (purusha). The path outlined by Patanjali is a progressive dismantling of who we believe ourselves to be. The practitioner must renounce everything (outwardly and inwardly) and increasingly focus on the purification of the mind by means of meditation and ecstasy (samâdhi) at ever higher levels. When everything that is not the ultimate Self has been renounced, or let go off, then we can awaken to our true identity, which is the Self. This recovery of oneself as the ultimate or transcendental Self is equivalent to enlightenment, or liberation.
According to the traditional understanding of Patanjali’s philosophy, liberation is thought to be equivalent to the death of the body and human personality. Thus, so long as we are alive as individuals, we can only come close to liberation, but the moment we are actually liberated, we drop the body and with it the mind.
Many thoughtful Western students have been uneasy about Patanjali’s apparent dualism between transcendental Self (purusha) and Nature (prakriti) and find the philosophy of nondualism far more convincing and appealing. This is where Ian Whicher’s reinterpretation of Patanjali’s philosophy comes in.
He argues that Patanjali’s dualism applies only to the mechanics of the yogic path but is not representative of the metaphysical position of Classical Yoga. Thus, according to Whicher, the apparent gap between Self and Nature is not unbridgeable. On the contrary, the purusha is similar to the âtman in such schools as Vedanta. He also rejects the popular view that Classical Yoga favors the radical renunciation of the world. Instead he argues that Patanjali believed in the grand ideal of living liberation (jîvan-mukti), that is, the possibility of being liberated while yet functioning normally and even extraordinarily in the world. In other words, he dismisses the equation of spiritual liberation with physical death.
Whicher boldly reinterprets many of the key concepts of Classical Yoga, notably citta (mind), vritti (mental activity), nirodha (control), and kaivalya (“aloneness,” i.e., liberation). For instance, he interprets Patanjali’s second aphorism yogash citta-vritti-nirodhah as “Yoga is the cessation of [the misidentification with] the modifications of the mind.” Thus he understands the process of nirodha, or control, in the sense of cessation rather than restriction, as generally understood. More than that, he takes this cessation to refer not so much to the mental modifications (vrittis) but to the bad habit of identifying with them. This reinterpretation allows him to postulate a state of consciousness in which there are vrittis but no identification with them. This state describes the condition of open-eyed, “natural” or sahaja-samâdhi well known to other Indian traditions (especially Tantra).
Patanjali, however, never mentions sahaja-samâdhi but clearly states in aphorism 2:11 that the mental “fluctuations” (vrittis) are restricted through meditation. In fact, his outline of the higher ecstatic states strongly suggests that the yogin ought to aspire to a progressive unification and simplification of the mind—until the transcendental Self shines forth in total purity. The question is whether or not Patanjali believed that, after this process reaches completion, there is a body and mind left to be illumined by the transcendental Self.
Whicher has broken away from mainstream interpretations of Classical Yoga, affording us an opportunity to look at Patanjali with fresh eyes. Particularly if you favor a nondualist perspective on Yoga and life, his work will speak to you very strongly. But even if you prefer to reserve judgment on whether or not Patanjali espoused a nondualist over a dualist metaphysics, Whicher’s arguments will stimulate your own study of the sûtras. He knows Patanjali’s philosophy very well, and his detailed analyses of major and minor concepts of Classical Yoga will help you become better oriented in what otherwise might feel like an impenetrable jungle of ideas.
Sometimes Western students do not fully appreciate that Yoga operates on the basis of a rather intricate philosophy, and the sûtras can prove quite challenging. But once you have cracked their philosophical code, you will be able to understand any other Yoga text or school so much more readily.
Whicher’s book raises many interesting questions and is surely the most innovative study on Classical Yoga to appear during the past two decades. However, while his extensive reevaluation is very ingenious, you need not accept it as the last word on Patanjali’s aphorisms. In fact, if you wanted to be true to the Yoga tradition itself, you would use Whicher’s interpretations simply as a stepping-stone for your own encounter with the sûtras. Thus Whicher’s book is an excellent means for cultivating the age-old yogic discipline of study (svâdhyâya), also recommended by Patanjali himself. I can heartily recommend this work.
Original © Copyright 2000, 2005 by Georg Feuerstein
Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
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