Dr Mikel (‘Mik’) Burley is Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Leeds and a long-time friend of the Devon School of Yoga.
A longer version of the article appears as ‘“A Petrification of One’s Own Humanity”? Nonattachment and Ethics in Yoga Traditions’ in The Journal of Religion 94(2), April 2014: 204–228. Unless otherwise stated, translations from Sanskrit sources are by Burley.
In this yogi-ridden age, it is too readily assumed that ‘non-attachment’ is not only better than a full acceptance of earthly life, but that the ordinary man only rejects it because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint. It is doubtful whether this is true. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings. (George Orwell, ‘Reflections on Gandhi’, 1970 : 527–528)
Non-attachment has been a prominent theme in many religious traditions, especially those rooted in the Indian subcontinent, among which are the various traditions of yoga. The term ‘yoga’ is widely known today, having become entangled with a vast industry. Not only can yoga classes be found in gyms, sports clubs, colleges, community centres and village halls, but there are also many companies specializing in yoga equipment, clothing, books, magazines, DVDs, CDs, etc. Yoga has become commercial. So does it retain any association with non-attachment?
In the above-quoted essay on Gandhi first published in 1949, George Orwell writes of ‘this yogi-ridden age’, contrasting its ethic of non-attachment with ‘a full acceptance of earthly life’. Since 1949 the uses of the terms ‘yoga’ and ‘yogi’ have been radically transformed. Yoga is now widely perceived as contributing to ‘a full acceptance of earthly life’ rather than opposing it. Far from being an ascetic discipline, yoga is now regarded as a ‘personal self-care activity at the social and interpersonal levels’ (Maschi and Brown 2010: 364), enabling practitioners to cope with the pressures of modern life. No longer is yoga an esoteric pursuit, undertaken in secluded places by a small number of dedicated disciples under the strict guidance of a spiritual preceptor; instead, ‘Yoga is inclusive because it can be adapted to benefit all participants’ (Tummers 2009: xxix).
Yoga has certainly proven to be adaptable. Though taking multiple forms throughout its long history, never before has there been the abundance of styles that exist today. The world is, in a certain respect, far more ‘yogi-ridden’ now than when Orwell wrote his essay; yet the contrast that he sets up between his own ‘humanistic’ and Gandhi’s purportedly ‘other-worldly’ ideal hardly applies to modern-day approaches to yoga. There remain, though, some interesting contrasts to be made.
This article explores the concept of non-attachment as it occurs in yoga traditions, asking how modern yoga practitioners can, and do, relate to those traditions. The teachings of traditional sources, such as the Upaniṣads, Yoga Sūtra, Bhagavad Gītā and Haṭha Pradīpikā (or Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā), often jar awkwardly against values held dear by people in modern societies, including many who practise yoga. Thus what we find in contemporary yoga is an intriguing tension between a traditional ethic of non-attachment and a humanistic affirmation of life and the world. In short, there is a clash between the ascetic and humanistic ideals that Orwell identified, but it is a clash occurring within a cultural milieu, and within the lives of participants in that milieu, rather than between different sets of individuals rooted in divergent cultural locations.
My discussion focuses on three of the aforementioned textual sources: the Yoga Sūtra (YS), Bhagavad Gītā (BhG) and Haṭha Pradīpikā (HP). In each case my exposition will highlight specific ways in which the text articulates the principle of non-attachment and how this articulation differs from popular contemporary representations of yoga’s goals. I shall then present three modes of response to the traditional sources on the part of modern-day yoga practitioners – modes that tend to defuse the tension between the ethic of non-attachment in those sources and the contemporary expectation of life-affirmation. My conclusion observes that yoga as it has emerged in contemporary societies is far from the world-denying orientation to life that Orwell found so unpalatable.
Non-attachment in yoga traditions
A textual source that figures prominently on the reading lists of yoga teachers and practitioners is the Yoga Sūtra, popularly attributed to the philosopher-sage Patañjali. Estimated by scholars to have been compiled around the second or third century CE, though almost certainly drawing upon earlier sources, the Yoga Sūtra expounds a relatively coherent set of practices with a strong meditative orientation. Of several salient terms in the Yoga Sūtra that are closely connected with non-attachment, foremost among them is vairāgya, ‘the controlled consciousness of one who is without craving for sense objects, whether these are actually perceived, or described [in scripture]’ (YS 1.15, trans. Bryant). Commonly rendered as ‘non-attachment’, ‘renunciation’ or ‘dispassion’, vairāgya constitutes one of the two main poles of the discipline geared towards the cessation of mental disturbances, the other pole being
sustained or repetitive practice (abhyāsa). The purported aim of this discipline is the refinement of non-attachment not only to perceptible objects, but also to the underlying factors or qualities (guṇas) whose coactivity and intermingling is constitutive of the field of perceptual experience. This non-attachment and ‘absence of thirsting’ after any kind of worldly experience is associated with the ‘vision of self’ that precipitates spiritual release (YS 1.16).
The portion of the Yoga Sūtra that is best known among today’s yoga teachers and practitioners is that which begins midway through the second chapter and spills over into the third. This portion adumbrates a regimen which, comprising eight components or ‘limbs’, is known as ‘eight-limbed’ (aṣṭāṅga) yoga, its constitutive techniques facilitating a gradual withdrawal of the practitioner’s attention from worldly life and activities. As presented in the text, the system begins with two sets of five ethical vows before concisely outlining several aspects of meditative practice, including bodily posture (āsana), the regulation and retention of breath (prāṇāyāma), and progressive degrees of focused concentration. The first five ethical precepts or restraints (yamas) together make up the ‘major vow’, which applies ‘universally, regardless of caste, region, time, or circumstances’ (YS 2.31). It consists of ‘non- harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, chastity and non-possessiveness’ (2.30). The five secondary restraints or observances (niyamas) comprise ‘purity, contentment, austerity, [scriptural] study and devotion to the Lord’ (2.32). While all these major and secondary requirements combine to regulate the practitioner’s daily activity, orienting behaviour away from a secular and towards a spiritual way of life, those which are most pertinent to the theme of non-attachment are chastity, non-possessiveness and austerity. As traditionally conceived, the strict observance of these restraints would involve cutting oneself off from family relationships and material comforts and taking up the role of a dedicated spiritual adept.
Orwell regarded Gandhi’s ascetic ideal as ‘anti-human and reactionary’ (1970: 531). Similar terms occasionally appear in descriptions of Patañjali’s yoga. For instance, in his wide-ranging study of yoga traditions, Mircea Eliade remarks that all of the various methods prescribed in the Yoga Sūtra for liberating ‘man from his human condition … have one characteristic in common – they are antisocial, or, indeed, antihuman.’ Contrasting the life of the ‘worldly man’ with that of the yogin, Eliade continues:
The worldly man lives in society, marries, establishes a family; Yoga prescribes absolute solitude and chastity. The worldly man is “possessed” by his own life; the yogin refuses to “let himself live”; to continual movement, he opposes his static posture, the immobility of āsana; to agitated, unrhythmical, changing respiration, he opposes prāṇāyāma, and even dreams of holding his breath indefinitely; to the chaotic flux of psychomental life, he replies by “fixing thought on a single point,” the first step to that final withdrawal from the phenomenal
world which he will obtain through pratyāhāra. All of the yogic techniques invite to one and the same gesture – to do exactly the opposite of what human nature forces one to do. From solitude and chastity to saṃyama, there is no solution of continuity. The orientation always remains the same – to react against the “normal,” “secular,” and finally “human” inclination. (Eliade 1969: 95–96)
Needless to say, this image of a radical turning away from the world is hardly likely to appeal to contemporary practitioners who are urged by popular expositions of yoga to ‘practice for the pleasure of it’ and to treat yoga as ‘a physical, emotional, and social activity’ that generates ‘laughter and smiles’ (Anderson and Sovik 2000: 16; Tummers 2009: 39; Calhoun et al. 2009: 22). Most of those who attend popular yoga classes will attest to the fact that, as practised in those classes, it can indeed produce physical, social and emotional enjoyment. There is no need to deny this, or to label modern yoga as ‘inauthentic’ or ‘not really yoga’, in order to highlight the contrast between how yoga has come to be perceived and how it is understood in its early Indian sources; it is this contrast, and how modern practitioners respond to it, that I am exploring. One way of responding is to dispute the accuracy of the sort of characterization offered by Eliade – to argue that it is simply mistaken to portray yoga as life-denying and ‘antihuman’. Examples of this and other responses will be discussed further on, after having examined two additional texts, beginning with the Bhagavad Gītā.
Estimated to date from between the second century BCE and the fourth century CE, the Bhagavad Gītā (or Gītā for short), forms part of the sixth book of the Mahābhārata epic; it is also widely accepted among Hindus as a relatively self- contained spiritual classic. While its authorship is traditionally ascribed to a prolific poet-sage named Vyāsa, this name may be ‘a generic title for a post-Vedic compiler or arranger of sacred texts and applied to a number of eminent sages’ (Geaves 2010: 975).
The text of the Gītā comprises a dialogue between the military hero Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna, who is an embodiment or ‘descent’ (avatāra) of the god Vishnu in human form. In the dramatic setting of the dialogue – the battlefield of Kurukshetra upon which the two rival armies are ranged against each other – Arjuna instructs Krishna to steer the chariot into the centre of the field so that he may survey both sides (BhG 1.21–24). Immediately, Arjuna is struck by the sight of men whom he recognizes among the opposing Kaurava troops: cousins, uncles, former teachers, friends (1.26–27). ‘[O]verwhelmed by supreme compassion’ (1.27, trans. Gambhīrānanda), he loses the will to fight; not only would victory be stained with the mark of sin (1.36), but it could only be pyrrhic, given the devastation of the clan structure that would ensue (1.40–41).
Thus Arjuna’s ‘compassion’ is mixed both with the fear of becoming a sinner and with deep anxiety about what fratricidal war will mean for the future of the community. Yet at its heart is an attachment to kith and kin, an attachment to which many readers, both ancient and modern, may be thoroughly sympathetic. When entering into battle meant only the taking on of an amorphous and relatively anonymous enemy, Arjuna showed no signs of doubt; it is his seeing the faces of his brethren and former acquaintances that brings home to him the reality of his situation.
In response, Krishna, after berating Arjuna for his ‘weakness’, ‘impotence’, and ‘faintheartedness’ (BhG 2.2–3), invokes a metaphysical mode of argumentation to counteract Arjuna’s aversion to killing. It is, he declares, mere bodies that fall upon the battlefield. That which is ‘embodied’ is eternal; it is neither born nor does it die (2.20), and it is with this imperishable source that we should identify ourselves and others (2.12). In this light, given that there is really no one who dies, one ‘should not mourn’ (2.27, 30). The feeling of sorrow, grief, discomfort at the thought of death, whether one’s own or another’s, becomes forbidden, a sign of ignorance and spiritual immaturity, an emotional encumbrance from which the ‘learned’ do not suffer, even when the death of the other is at one’s own hands (2.11). This is, as R. C. Zaehner observes (1974: 98), ‘a dangerous doctrine’, one which leaves it hard to draw any sharp distinction between the sociopathic murderer and the God-realized saint.
To avoid this morally disastrous conclusion – that God’s incarnation on earth should be enjoining Arjuna and by implication the rest of us to feel no remorse at slaughtering one another – many modern readers follow Gandhi in seeking an allegorical meaning within the text. Gandhi famously construes the battlefield of Kurukshetra as representing the human individual: the war is an internal conflict ‘between the forces of Good (Pandavas) and the forces of Evil (Kauravas)’ (Gandhi 1965: 288); ‘The real Kurukshetra is the human heart, which is also a dharmakshetra (the field of righteousness) if we look upon it as the abode of God and invite Him to take hold of it’ (1960: 8). While this psychological or demythologized reading may facilitate a softening of what can otherwise sound like an unpalatably pugnacious message, it does not avoid what many modern readers will regard as a comparably unsavoury emphasis on the cultivation of emotional detachment. Indeed, for Gandhi, renunciation of attachment to the fruits of one’s actions is the ‘matchless remedy’ propounded by the Gītā, ‘the central sun round which devotion, knowledge and the rest revolve like planets’ (Gandhi 2000: 18). He maintains that a life of renunciation and the pursuit of self-realization has to be a self-controlled life, which in turn entails celibacy. It is this disciplined renunciation that harbours the seeds of truth and non- violence: ‘When there is no desire for fruit, there is no temptation for untruth or himsa [violence]’ (22).
Searching in the Gītā itself for references to the kind of renouncing attitude that Gandhi advocates reveals occasional lists of virtues that the practitioner of yoga is expected to develop. Among these virtues, ‘non-violence’ does occur (BhG 10.5; 13.7; 16.2; 17.14), along with ‘chastity’ (17.14) and ‘austerity’ (10.5; 16.1; 17.14–16). So too must one forego ‘attachment to, or affection for, sons, wife, home and the like’ (13.9). Thus, even in those passages where Arjuna is not being encouraged to enter into battle against his relatives, he is nevertheless being urged to relinquish the love and fellow-feeling that an ethics of the sort celebrated by Orwell would regard as essential to genuinely human life. Gandhi, while rejecting a literalistic reading of the Gītā, commends its emphasis on pacifying the emotions and abjuring ties to family and friends. In this respect, the Gītā, whether read in the light of Gandhi’s anti- violence or not, contrasts with the more family-friendly and sociable aspirations of most modern yoga enthusiasts. Much the same is the case with traditional sources of haṭha yoga, the best known of which I shall turn to now.
The term ‘hatha yoga’ has become pervasive in yoga-related parlance. It is popularly used to denote ‘the branch of yoga which concentrates on physical health and mental well-being’, utilizing bodily postures and breathing techniques to promote ‘balance and flexibility’ (The Free Dictionary, s.v. ‘Hatha Yoga’). At some venues, the style of yoga taught in ‘hatha’ classes is distinguished as being more ‘gentle’ than other forms of postural yoga. Elsewhere, ‘hatha yoga’ is taken to be ‘a generic term that encompasses all styles of physical yoga practice’ (Counter n.d.). The term haṭha is routinely defined as ‘a Sanskrit combination of the word ha (sun) and tha (moon), which is itself a union of opposites’ (Kirk and Boon 2006: 2). This folk etymology is not a recent invention, but can be traced back to relatively early sources such as the fifteenth-century Yogaśikha Upaniṣad. The ‘opposites’ which are being brought into union are traditionally understood to be the upward-flowing and downward-flowing vital breaths or the heating ‘feminine’ energy and the cooling ‘masculine’ energy, the latter being identified with seminal fluid or the subtle essence thereof (Burley 2000: 3–4). Imagery of the union of masculine and feminine elements is among the factors that situate haṭha yoga within a broader Tantric milieu, such imagery being pervasive within both Hindu and Buddhist Tantra.
Modern yoga manuals tend to retain the emphasis on a ‘union of opposites’ while leaving aside or modifying some of the traditional connotations of this theme. So, too, do such manuals downplay more literal translations of haṭha yoga than that which folk etymology supplies. Literal renderings include ‘discipline of force’, ‘forceful yoga’ and ‘yoga of violent exertion’ (Connolly 2010: 288; Feuerstein 1990: 131; White 2009: 46). If one consults early textual sources, the emphasis on forceful techniques designed to ‘immobilize’ the various physiological and psychological processes of the human organism is much in evidence. As David Gordon White describes the method of traditional haṭha yoga,
One first immobilizes the body through the postures; next, one immobilizes the breaths through diaphragmatic retention; one then immobilizes the seed through the ‘seals’; and finally one immobilizes the mind through concentration on the subtle inner reverberation of the phonemes. (White 1996: 274)
Reminiscent of Eliade’s characterization of Patañjali’s yoga as a reaction against natural human inclinations, White adds that the ‘immobilization’ aimed at in haṭha yoga leads to a reversal and transformation of the ‘order of nature on a microcosmic level’ (1996: 220, 274).
Of all the early haṭha sources, the best known and most likely to appear on reading lists of yoga teacher training courses is the Haṭha Pradīpikā (HP), which is generally agreed to date from the mid-fifteenth century CE, to have been compiled by Svātmārāma, and to borrow substantially from earlier works. Like the Yoga Sūtra, the Haṭha Pradīpikā appears to be composed primarily for the lone practitioner, its opening chapter stating that one who performs haṭha yoga should reside in a small isolated hermitage and be occupied exclusively with the methods imparted by his guru (HP 1.12–14). These methods are held to have been inaugurated by Lord Śiva ‘as a stairway, so to speak, for ascending to the heights of rāja yoga’ (1.1).
Following relatively recent popular usage, especially as propounded by Swami Vivekananda (1896), rāja yoga is often assumed to refer to the meditative techniques outlined in the Yoga Sūtra. It is, however, misleading to impose this sense of the term upon its occurrences in the Haṭha Pradīpikā. A list of its synonyms offered in the latter text indicates that rāja yoga denotes not some superior, more refined set of techniques to be adopted after having mastered the methods of haṭha yoga, but rather the highest achievement of haṭha yoga itself (HP 4.3–4): a state of mind which, as White proposes, seems to be one of immobilization. It is in the descriptions of this state that haṭha yoga’s traditional emphasis on transcending worldly life and experience comes across most forcefully. As in the yoga of Patañjali, the goal is for all mental content to dissolve and a state of unwavering, objectless consciousness to obtain. The mind is to be tamed like an elephant (4.91) or killed like a hunted deer (4.99), that which is ‘the snare for capturing the inner deer and is also the hunter who kills [it]’ being nāda, the ‘(inner) sound’ (4.94).
The absorption of consciousness in this mysterious sound is held to be facilitated by such practices as contemplating the space between the eyebrows (4.80), closing one’s ears with one’s hands (4.82), and prolonged suspension of breathing (4.15, 112). The sound is identified with ‘energy’ or ‘power’ (4.102) and visually depicted as a coiled snake (kuṇḍalī or kuṇḍalinī), which is stimulated to ascend through the central conduit of the practitioner’s body by means of the unstinting execution of bodily postures, breath-restraint and the application of discrete muscular contractions designed to ‘seal’ or ‘bind’ the channels through which vital energy could otherwise escape (3.124). The culmination of these procedures is the cessation of the inner sound, the foregoing of all mental activity, and the rigidifying of the body so that it becomes like a log (4.106); having ascended through all stages of practice, the yogin ‘appears as if dead’ (4.107). The achievement of spiritual fulfilment is thus depicted as dying to the world in a very striking sense.
Contemporary responses to traditional conceptions of non-attachment.
Unsurprisingly, when the subject of non-attachment occurs in expositions of contemporary forms of postural, meditative and therapeutic yoga, certain of the features foregrounded above remain relatively inconspicuous. Such expositions are unlikely, for example, to echo Eliade’s and White’s characterization of yoga as systematically immobilizing body, breath and mind or as resisting and reversing the natural flow of life; nor are they likely to dwell on the physical and social isolation traditionally stipulated for the yogin. They may commend Gandhi’s psychologized interpretation of the Gītā’s narrative context, thereby avoiding the discomfort of condoning remorseless slaughter in the name of duty; they are less likely to endorse the eschewing of emotional ties to all fellow human beings, an injunction that remains consistent across both literalist and allegorical readings of the Gītā. What I shall propose here is that, when confronted by ethically troubling features of traditional yoga orthopraxy, the various responses available to the contemporary practitioner are divisible into the following three types.
Response 1: Ignoring the tradition.
Firstly, there is the option of simply ignoring the traditional sources. Many forms of modern yoga, both postural and meditative, are amenable to being largely separated from their traditional forerunners, and there is no significant difficulty involved in maintaining this separation. As a number of recent investigations have shown, the styles of postural yoga on offer throughout much of the world these days, including modern India, owe as much to the disciplines of gymnastics, dance and wrestling exercises as they do to traditional systems of yoga (Sjoman 1996, Singleton 2010). Especially influential has been the innovative synthesis of yoga postures and gymnastics developed by T. Krishnamacharya during his time as resident physical education and yoga instructor at the Jaganmohan Palace in Mysore, South India, during the 1930s and ’40s. Though Krishnamacharya himself, and his foremost students (notably K. Pattabhi Jois, B. K. S. Iyengar, Indra Devi and T. K. V. Desikachar), all sought to maintain an ideological connection between their approach to yoga and the long tradition of Hindu spiritual philosophy that stretches back to antiquity, it nevertheless transpired not only that the postural dimension of their respective methodologies far exceeded all others in popularity, but also that this dimension is the one most easily dissociable from any explicit reference to Hindu religiosity.
This detachability from religious and philosophical connotations has facilitated the pervasive spread of secularized styles of yoga across the world and especially throughout western countries from the 1960s onwards. The vast majority of participants in these styles give little attention to yoga’s ideological background, there being no obvious need to do so in order to derive the health and social benefits that they seek. The situation is similar with certain popular forms of meditation, such as the Transcendental Meditation purveyed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1918–2009).
Response 2: Selectivity.
A second option for contemporary yoga practitioners is selectivity – discriminating between those parts of the vast legacy of yoga traditions to be appropriated and those to be left aside, thereby creating what the sociologist Émile Durkheim called ‘a free, private, optional religion, fashioned according to one’s own needs and understanding’ (1975: 96). Or, if ‘religion’ is not quite the right term for what goes by the name of ‘yoga’ these days, then we could say that what is being fashioned is simply a mode of semi-ritualized activity, whether secular or religious.
It is, of course, entirely possible to excavate passages from the Yoga Sūtra, Bhagavad Gītā and Haṭha Pradīpikā that can be read as being compatible with world- and family-oriented values. The Haṭha Pradīpikā, for instance, makes frequent claims about the health-promoting benefits of its practices, declaring of this or that posture or breath-retention technique that, among other things, it ‘bestows health’, ‘destroys all diseases’, slows or reverses the aging process, and furnishes the practitioner with a lustrous body, radiant complexion, exquisite fragrance, clear voice, bright eyes, acute mind, the vigour of a sixteen-year-old, etc. The text’s itemizations of ‘outer signs’ of successful practice even occasionally impute to the accomplished yogin a heightened degree of sexual allure (HP 2.54–55; 3.50). Artful citation of such passages could give the impression that the numerous books currently recommending yoga for improving one’s sex life are continuous with the haṭha yoga tradition. This impression is less readily maintained, however, in the face of traditional injunctions to remain chaste (HP 3.121), avoid women (1.61), and stay away from people in general (1.15–16).
In the case of the Yoga Sūtra, the terse and often elusive significance of its aphorisms makes it well suited for selective use. For instance, one of its very few pronouncements on ‘posture’ (āsana) states that ‘posture [should be] steady and comfortable’ (YS 2.46). A study of the classical commentaries on this sūtra indicates that the instruction has traditionally been applied primarily to the type of sitting posture that should be adopted for the purposes of breath-control and meditation practice, yet it remains sufficiently vague to be associated with any of the multifarious postures devised in modern yoga. When removed from the text as a whole, the passages relating to the eight-limbed (aṣṭāṅga) yoga more generally can, without too much distortion, be treated as offering a system of practice incorporable
into an otherwise secular lifestyle, provided one downplays the requirements to remain chaste and be devoted to the Lord that occur in the first two limbs. The meditative culmination of that system is interpretable as a relaxation of mind and body for the purpose of recovering from the stresses of daily life, as long as one eschews the longer-term goal, which seems, in both Patañjali’s yoga and the haṭha yoga of Svātmārāma, to involve the permanent cessation of respiratory and cognitive activity.
Of the various teachings presented in the Bhagavad Gītā, the doctrine of karma yoga is especially apt to be extracted from the particular context in which Krishna imparts it to Arjuna. The idea of performing actions without attachment to their results has come to be widely associated with charitable activity, the carrying out of tasks with an altruistic as opposed to a self-serving attitude. Indeed, ‘selfless service’ and ‘selfless action’ are among the common translations of karma yoga, both in editions of the Gītā and elsewhere. ‘To simply refuse to participate in life is not the spiritual objective’, writes one recent commentator; ‘The goal is to renounce selfish action, engaging in activity beneficial to the greater good without expectation of personal reward or recognition’ (Prakash 2009: 74). While Arjuna is certainly enjoined to perform his duty without thought of personal gain, the suggestion that this is for the sake of ‘the greater good’ implies that humanity in general, or at least a significant number of people, will benefit as a consequence. Both in the Gītā itself and in the portions of the Mahābhārata that immediately surround it, any such benefit is difficult to discern. But if one talks about renouncing selfish action in abstraction from those textual surroundings, then the Gītā can be understood as promoting the assistance of one’s fellow human beings, and perhaps of other creatures as well, through the performance of good works, and also as inviting us to carry out domestic chores such as ‘washing the dishes or cleaning the toilet’ with an attitude of worshipful service (Butera 2009: 40–41).
Response 3: Reinterpreting.
The third option overlaps with that which has just been discussed, for it involves focusing attention selectively on particular features of traditional teachings and giving less attention to others, but in this case with the aim of devising a more comprehensively revisionary interpretation of the tradition itself. Reinterpreting textual sources is something that scholars routinely do, so it should come as no surprise that there have been multiple reinterpretations of yoga texts that diverge from how those texts have traditionally been understood. Some of these reinterpretations are especially appealing to the predilections of many contemporary yoga practitioners, and it is two recent examples of this tendency that I shall highlight here. Each of them is a reinterpretation of Patañjali’s classical yoga that portrays yoga’s goal as consisting not in a withdrawal into one’s own inner consciousness and away from external relationships, but as the purification of the practitioner’s ethical relationship with others and with the world in general.
The first example comprises a number of publications by Ian Whicher, who offers ‘a reconsideration of classical yoga’ (1998), according to which yoga facilitates ‘a responsiveness to life that no longer enslaves the yogin morally or epistemologically’ (1999a: 794). Rather than refraining from action, the yogin’s mode of activity ‘becomes purified of afflicted impulses’, and hence ‘we need not conclude that liberative knowledge and virtuous activity are incompatible with one another, nor need we see detachment as an abandonment of the world and the human relational sphere’ (794–795). This interpretation relies heavily on Whicher’s own reconstruction of the terse definition of yoga’s goal offered in Yoga Sūtra 1.2: yogaś citta-vṛtti- nirodhaḥ. In place of standard translations, which render this sūtra as, for example, ‘Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness’ (Feuerstein 1979: 26), ‘Yoga is the restraint of fluctuations of the mind’ (Chapple and Viraj 1990: 33), or ‘Yoga is the control of the modifications of the mind-field’ (Arya 1986: 93), Whicher embellishes his translation with an interpolation: ‘Yoga is the cessation of [the misidentification with] the modifications of the mind’ (1998: 1, 152). As one reviewer of Whicher’s book has remarked, the square-bracketed insertion ‘dramatically changes the definition of Yoga’ in a way for which ‘there is no textual evidence … in any traditional Sanskrit commentary or text’ (Larson 1999: 185).
Responding to the latter criticism, Whicher contends that he is going ‘beyond a mere literal understanding/translation’ and that it is plausible to regard Patañjali’s own definition of yoga as elliptical, the crucial term meaning ‘misidentification with’ having been left out of the original sūtra for the sake of concision (Whicher 1999b: 190, 192). Contrasting what he sees as the ‘epistemological emphasis’ of Patañjali’s use of the term ‘cessation’ (nirodha) with the reviewer’s ‘metaphysical/ontological emphasis’, Whicher insists that the cessation in question is merely that of the practitioner’s false understanding of his or her own identity. While agreeing that yoga’s goal is ‘aloneness’ (kaivalya), Whicher maintains that this ‘implies a power of “seeing” in which the dualisms rooted in our egocentric patterns of attachment, aversion, fear, and so forth, have been transformed into unselfish ways of being with others’ (1999b: 194).
What Whicher offers his readers is a vision of yoga’s goal as an ethically purified ‘state of embodied liberation – one that incorporates a clarity of awareness with the integrity of being and action’ (1998: 4). As an account of what yoga’s goal has become in the collective imagination of many contemporary practitioners, this vision is persuasive. As a description of what the goal meant for the author of the Yoga Sūtra and for the commentarial tradition that followed him, however, it is on very shaky ground (cf. Burley 2004: 231–232; 2007: 138–141).
More recently, Shyam Ranganathan has gone even further than Whicher in the direction of emphasizing the Yoga Sūtra’s specifically moral significance. While acknowledging that, ‘if we were to read Patañjali as he is often translated, we would have to conclude that he is interested in a dispassionate, abstract spiritual exercise, geared simply towards the personal goal of liberation’, Ranganathan contends that we should not read Patañjali in this way; instead, we should attend to the ‘moral vocabulary’ that he uses at ‘systematic junctions’ (2008: 26). The most crucial place where this moral vocabulary is found, at least in Ranganathan’s translation of the text, is chapter 4, sūtra 29. There the phrase dharma-megha-samādhi occurs, denoting a state that precipitates the achievement of final liberation. Translators generally concur that megha is best rendered as ‘cloud’, and that samādhi is a state of deep meditative absorption. Dharma, however, is often left untranslated owing to its multiple possible meanings. One translator, for instance, places ‘cloud of dharma’ in parentheses and then adds the note: ‘The meaning of dharma includes virtue, justice, law, duty, morality, religion, religious merit, and steadfast decree’ (Satchidananda 1990: 222; cf. Monier-Williams 1899: 510).
Since the term dharma-megha does not occur in earlier Brahmanical sources, but appears in certain Buddhist texts both from the Pāli Canon and from the Mahāyāna tradition, some commentators have speculated that Patañjali borrowed it from Buddhism (Chapple 1996: 125–126). Whatever the origin of the expression, it is surprising, given its enigmatic quality, that Ranganathan should be so confident that dharma-megha ought to be rendered as ‘Rain Cloud of Morality’ (2008: 299, 300). While ‘morality’ is one legitimate translation of dharma, it is hardly the only one; and hence it is difficult to see how this single sūtra can substantiate Ranganathan’s claim that ‘The picture that we receive from the Yoga Sūtra is … that morality reveals the nature of the [true self]’ (55). Indeed, after a detailed study of the relation between the Buddhist and the Yoga conceptions of dharma-megha, Klaus Klostermaier concludes that the main difference between them is that, while the Buddhist version has an ‘altruistic’ ethical aspect, ‘The Yogasūtra seems to be interested in the benefit of the dharmamegha samādhi for the sake of the yogin only: his kleśa [afflictions] and his karman [actions and their consequences] are eradicated, his knowledge is infinitely enlarged, his kaivalya is secured, which means the attainment of his “being his true self”’ (1986: 260). Ranganathan, aware of Klostermaier’s analysis, complains that ‘it removes from the [Yoga] texts all moral significance’ (2008: 300 n.). But something can be removed from a text only if it is there is the first place, and Klostermaier finds no evidence that dharma has a discernibly moral significance in Patañjali’s text. Although it might have been advisable for Klostermaier to put his conclusion in more cautious terms (cf. Feuerstein 1987), there is nothing in Ranganathan’s discussion of dharma-megha to warrant a complete rejection of that conclusion.
Like Whicher, Ranganathan uses interpolation to slant Patañjali’s definition of yoga in the direction of his own interpretation, offering ‘Yoga is the control of the (moral) character of thought’ as a translation of yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ (Ranganathan
2008: 72). There is little justification for inserting the word ‘moral’ here other than the translator’s conviction that Patañjali is ‘concerned with the ethical … through the length of the entire Yoga Sūtra’ (73). Ranganathan’s is thus highly idiosyncratic among scholarly readings of Yoga, yet for many contemporary yoga practitioners it may have the ring of truth. Yoga is these days commonly promoted as a means, not of detaching from worldly concerns and transcending bodily and interpersonal life, but of developing oneself ‘physiologically, psychologically, morally, and spiritually’, enabling one ‘to grow healthily and to lead a pure life’ (Iyengar 1997: 49). By reinterpreting ‘Patañjali’s whole project’ as being ‘geared to moral improvement’, Ranganathan perhaps places an even stronger emphasis on morality than most readers of popular yoga manuals would expect (2008: 21). Nevertheless, by doing so, he poignantly evinces the strategy of responding to the traditional ethic of non- attachment by reinterpreting it as an ethic of practical concern for others.
Each of the possible responses outlined above constitutes an option that some contemporary yoga practitioners have taken. For many such individuals, there may be no particular choice to make, as their relatively meagre experience of traditional yoga teachings has not brought them into contact with the kinds of ethically challenging material that I have highlighted in this article. In these cases, ignoring the tradition is the only path available. It is for those practitioners who do take their study of traditional sources further that questions are apt to arise, and this is likely to apply especially to those who follow their interest far enough to enrol on a yoga teacher training course. In this context, both the providers of the course in question, and the students who sign up for it, will have to make decisions – whether explicitly and self- consciously or merely tacitly – concerning the extent to which they feel able to align their own values with those expounded in the traditional sources. Those who approach this process with due seriousness may undergo in their own lives a clash of values analogous to that which we see vividly represented in Orwell’s reaction to Gandhi’s purportedly ‘inhuman’ ideal. Of course, a fourth possible response, to be added to the three discussed in the previous section, is that of thoroughly appropriating the ascetic vision of life embodied in a text such as the Yoga Sūtra or Haṭha Pradīpikā – or the attitude of detachment from close interpersonal relationships that typifies at least some careful readings of the Bhagavad Gītā – and becoming a sagely renouncer or the equivalent of a dutiful warrior who relinquishes desire as a motive for action. Though, no doubt, a logical possibility, such a response is rare among contemporary yoga practitioners.
In speaking of ‘responses’, ‘options’ and ‘decisions’ here, I am not supposing that the negotiation of values to which I have referred is determined purely at the level of the individual. The way in which any given person relates to the traditional material will inevitably be influenced by the cultural context wherein exposure to that material occurs. If, for example, texts such as the Yoga Sūtra, Bhagavad Gītā and Haṭha
Pradīpikā are introduced to students in forms that have already passed through the detraditionalizing filter of a contemporary school of yoga, then one would not expect the same degree of ethical perturbation to be generated as when they are encountered in a raw, less embellished form. The purpose of this article has not been to analyse in detail the range of possible contexts that could have a bearing on these matters, or to offer speculations about exactly what their effects might be on the reception of traditional teachings; rather, it has been to indicate features of the traditional sources that are prone to appear incongruous with widespread ethical assumptions and to point out that there is a question here for modern-day participants in yoga.
Nor have I been concerned with issues of authenticity. By registering differences between traditional and modern conceptions of the methods, aims and values of yoga, the intention has not been to identify any one of those conceptions as ‘authentic’ and to decry others; it has been merely to affirm that there are indeed differences. Good work has been and is continuing to be done by historians of religion into the tortuous trajectories along which yoga-related concepts and practices have meandered in order to arrive at the complex scenarios that we see manifested in today’s transcultural milieu (see, e.g., De Michelis 2004, Singleton 2010). Attending to those historical trajectories discloses ceaseless waves of more or less pronounced innovation as opposed to a single ‘eastern’ paradigm suddenly appropriated and exploited by a hegemonic ‘West.’ Yoga is by no means unique in this regard: we see similarly convoluted processes of intercultural symbiosis in Hindu traditions more broadly as well as in, for example, Buddhism and Tantra (Bharati 1970, McMahan 2008, Urban 2003). The ways in which the concept of non- attachment has been in some instances ignored, in others selectively inherited, and in still others radically re-envisaged as an ethics of active participation and social engagement constitute a vital part of the ongoing narrative of yoga’s exuberant emergence onto the global stage.
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