Yoga: The Indian Tradition by Whicher and Carpenter

Ian Whicher and David Carpenter, eds. Yoga: The Indian Tradition. London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003. Hardcover, 206 pp.

This overpriced academic monograph contains nine independent essays distributed over two parts. The first part examines the “classical foundations,” covering the preclassical Yoga teachings of the Mahābhārata and the classical articulation of Patañjali in the Yoga-Sūtra. The second part, which deals with the “expanding tradition” looks at yogic teachings in Shankara’s Advaita Vedānta, medieval Jainism, early Hindu Tantra, and in the Vaishnava Sahajiyā tradition of Bengal.

In their Introduction, the editors call Yoga “one of the world’s earliest and most influential traditions of spiritual practice [which] has embraced a variety of practices and orientations, borrowing from and influencing a vast array of Indic religious traditions down through the centuries.” (p. 1) The declared purpose of this potpourri of essays is to “provide a sense of the historical emergence of the classical system presented by Patañjali, a careful examination of the key elements, overall character and contemporary relevance of that system, as found in the Yoga Sūtra, and a glimpse of some of the tradition’s many important ramifications in later Indian religious history” (p. 1). In its present form, this monograph meets the above-stated goal specifically for the academic community.

John Brockington’s opening essay on “Yoga in the Mahābhārata” traces some of the precursor teachings of Classical Yoga in the great national epic of India, but, while furnishing a good overview, does not really add anything significant to earlier analyses, such as Hopkins’ of 1901 and Franklin Edgerton’s of 1924. It does not even refer to the book-length treatments by K. B. R. Rao’s Theism of Pre-Classical Sāmkhya (1966), P. Chakravarti’s Origin and Development of the Sāmkhya System of Thought (1951), or P. M. Modi’s Akşara (1932).

David Carpenter’s essay “Practice makes perfect: the role of practice (abhyāsa) in Pātanjala yoga” looks more closely at Patanjali’s Kriyā-Yoga consisting of austerity, study/recitation, and devotion to the Lord. He shows that there is a striking continuity between this particular approach in the Yoga-Sūtra and earlier brahmanical teachings. This suggests that the sources of the Yoga tradition were manifold and that any monolithic derivation of its teachings is bound to be wrong. Whether svādhyāya can be understood exclusively in the sense of recitation (japa) is a moot point. Since Vedic times, it also has had the connotation of “study.”

Carpenter insists that the three components of Kriyā-Yoga are ritualistic and argues against my earlier portrayal of them as “non-ritualistic” in the context of Classical Yoga with its philosophical emphasis. There is no indication in the Yoga-Sūtra itself that tapas, svādhyāya, and īśvara-pranidhāna are to be understood as rituals, but, true enough, neither does Patanjali explicitly that that these components of the path are not rituals. Thus, Carpenter might well be right, and Patanjali’s use of the term kriyā, which often has the sense of “ritual activity,” could be seen as supporting his position. While the continuity between Patanjali’s Kriyā-Yoga and earlier brahmanical teachings, which treated austerity, study/recitation, and devotion to the Lord in a ritualistic manner, is certainly worthy of note, I am inclined to stick by my earlier judgment in favor of a non-ritualistic interpretation, particularly as Carpenter failed to clarify the concept of ritual in this context. I completely concur with his observation that ritual and philosophy are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and indeed, as I have fully acknowledged in my various publications, Yoga is replete with ritualistic aspects.

The third essay in this monography, written by Ian Whicher and entitled “The Integration of Spirit (Puruşa) and Matter (Prakŕti) in the Yoga Sūtra,” forcefully reiterates the central argument found in Whicher’s book The Integrity of the Yoga Darśana (1998), namely that Patanjali’s system is not dualistic after all. Having reviewed Whicher’s book separately, I will not repeat my objections against his interpretation here. To his credit, he has included in this anthology Lloyd W. Pflueger’s lively essay “Dueling with Dualism: Revisioning the paradox of puruşa and prakŕti,” which not only addresses the problem of Whicher’s overinterpretation of Patanjali’s teaching but also the philosophical problem inherent in radical dualism, as presented in the Yoga-Sūtra. He highlights the fact that even though Spirit and Matter are forever distinct, there is a curious interaction between them, which allows one to speak of them as binaries rather than stark opposites. The mystery of it all remains intact.

Christopher Chapple’s essay “Yoga and the Luminous” examines a prominent aspect of yogic experience and conceptualization, which is that of “luminosity.” Siding with Whicher, he affirms that Patanjali does “not conclude with a negation of materiality but with a celebration of the ongoing process of dispassionate yet celebratory consciousness” (p. 93). Such a conclusion, however, is not warranted by a careful reading of the Yoga-Sūtra itself. The experience of and concern with luminosity of various kinds is clearly preliminary to the perfect transcendence of all states of mind in favor of absolute “aloneness” (kaivalya), the transcendental Self/Spirit.

Vidyasankar Sundaresan’s 30-page essay on “Yoga in Śankaran Advaita Vedānta: A reappraisal” makes the important point that, although Shankara insisted on the primacy of gnosis as the salvific agent, he also clearly condoned yogic methods. His findings correct the mistaken notion, entertained by many scholars, that Yoga influenced only post-Shankara Vedānta. 

The much-neglected area of Jaina Yoga is given careful attention in Olle Qvarnström’s essay “Losing One’s Mind and Becoming Enlightened,” which focuses on the yogic teachings of the Shvetāmbara branch of Jainism and its relation to the late medieval Nātha Siddha tradition. After briefly reviewing the history of the concept of yoga within Jainism, Qvarnström explains that with Haribhadra (8th century), yoga acquired the familiar technical meaning of liberation method. Hemacandra (12th century), in particular, was inspired by Kashmir’s tradition of Shaivism and the ramifying tradition of Nāthism, specifically the branch of Kānphatas, which Goraksha is said to have founded. This represents an important historical finding, which deserves further investigation.

David Gordon White’s “Yoga in Early Hindu Tantra” focuses on Tantric Kundalinī-Yoga, which, he argues, originated with cremation-ground ritualism, as we still see it practiced by Aghorīs today. He distinguishes between the phonematic model of Tantra as developed by Abhinavagupta and the “fluid expansion and contraction” model of the early Tantras and subsequent Hatha-Yoga. The latter model is epitomized in the key Tantric ritual of the “Five M’s,” as practiced in Kaulism and the left-hand schools.

The concluding essay “Metaphoric Worlds and Yoga in the Vaisnava Sahajiyā Tantric Traditions of Medieval Bengal” by Glen Alexander Hayes takes us to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which witnessed the flowering of Tantric concepts and practices within Bengal’s Vaishnava tradition. He focuses on the rich metaphors of Mukundadāsa’s Amritaratnāvalī, or “Necklace of Immortality,” composed in the seventeenth century. True to its Tantric provenance, the Sahajiyā movement subscribed to the view that liberation is possible in the embodied state. This text explains just what kind of transformed body is needed to achieve the highest state of realization. The body-oriented metaphoric universe of the Sahajiyās forms what Hayes calles a “sensuous cosmology”: “Only by sensing he material world, in terms of both “making sense of” and “perceiving” that world with the body, can the transformation of both be realized, and liberation attained” (p. 179).

The present monograph reveals Yoga to be an astoundingly complex and diversified tradition and undoubtedly offers much food for thought. 

Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in any form requires prior permission from Traditional Yoga Studies.

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