Sunday, 14 October 2012


 The Vedic Period

The most ancient sacred texts of the Hindu tradition are the Vedas. According to Indian scholars, all the spiritual writings of India, include yoga, are based on the Vedas. The Vedas were originally an oral transmission, handed down from teacher to disciple for many centuries. The earliest Vedas date back to 2500 b.c. There are four major sections of the Vedas. The oldest section consists of the Vedic hymns, which include sophisticated philosophy. The second section deals with rituals and sacrifices; perfect performance of long and complex rituals was believed essential to ensure good fortune. The third section, on contemplation and inner truth, comprises the forest treatises, written for forest-dwelling ascetics. The last section contains the Upanishads, or the Vedanta, literally “the end of the Vedas,” which discuss the goal of knowing the Self. The Vedas form the basis of all subsequent Indian thought and philosophy.

In the Vedic period, Yoga was closely related to shamanism (Eliade, 1969). Early yogis placed great value on mastery of ecstatic trance and supernatural powers through the practice of severe austerities. They believed that individuals could, through superhuman self-discipline and self-mortification, compel the Hindu gods to fulfill their requests. The exercise of austerities and self-control has remained a major part of Yoga practice to this day.

The Classical Period

The classical era lasted from a.d. 200 until a.d. 800. It was the time of the development of six classical schools of Hindu thought: Mimamsa (the philosophy of ritualism), Nyaya (the school of logic), Vaisheshika (naturalistic philosophy), Vedanta (nondualist ic metaphysics), Samkya (dualistic philosophy), and Yoga.

Vedanta, Samkya, and Yoga are the most influential schools today. There are strong links among the three. Vedanta teaches nondualism, which describes Reality as a single, indivisible whole. Many Vedanta philosophers also practiced various forms of Yoga for their own spiritual development.

Samkya is mainly concerned with understanding and describing various levels of existence. The goal is not so much to explain the world as to help transcend it by developing discrimination. Samkya and Yoga metaphysics are closely related, and in fact the two stem from the same earlier, preclassical tradition.

The major difference between Samkya and Yoga is their methodologies. Samkya stresses discrimination and renunciation and Yoga emphasizes the necessity of experiencing ecstatic states of consciousness (samadhi) that bring deep insight into oneself and the world. The classical school of Yoga is based on the work of Patanjali, a second-century b.c. sage and author of at least part of
the Yoga Sutras. Patanjali’s approach to Yoga is the main focus of this chapter.

Major Concepts

Spirit and Nature
In Patanjali’s Yoga, there is a strict dualism between Spirit and Nature. Every human being is a combination of these two principles. Body and mind come from Nature, and the transcendental Self comes from Spirit. Spirit (Purusha) is pure consciousness. Spirit knows no limitations or qualifications. It includes consciousness within and beyond the universe. The manifestation of Spirit in the individual is the Self. The Self is changeless, unaffected by physical or mental activity; however, the mind distorts our awareness of the Self.

The opposite pole to Spirit is Nature (Prakriti). In Sanskrit, Prakriti means “that which brings forth” (the word is related to procreate). Nature is the ground from which all material forms spring. It is also the source of all nonmaterial forms, including thoughts and emotions. Nature is, like Spirit, eternal and unchanging.

The transcendental Self in each individual is Spirit in essence. The Self is like a wave, a form that the ocean takes on for a time. The Self is pure awareness, pure consciousness. The goal of Yoga is Self-realization-by uncovering of the Self that is hidden by our identification with the forms generated by Nature, including the body and the subtle forms such as mind and emotions. In the words of one of the great Indian sages, “Everyone is the Self and, indeed, is infinite. Yet each person mistakes his body for his Self” (Ramana Maharshi in Osbourne, 1962, p. 23).

The ideal of Yoga is to seek joy from its source-the Self within. Most people look to the world for pleasure, never realizing that the source of greatest joy is found in the Self, which lies within them. One Indian parable concerns the musk deer, whose musk glands become active when the mature deer enters
the mating season. The deer is so taken with this entrancing scent that it often runs through the forest, seeking the source of the odor. The frenzied deer can lose all sense of direction and become entangled in underbrush or even plunge off a cliff. Frantically seeking the musk without, the deer will never discover the source of the odor, which is within itself.

The Yoga Teacher

The yoga teacher is a disciplinarian, who pushes the student beyond self-imposed limitations. As one who has been through the discipline already, the guru knows from experience the extent of human capacity. Thus the guru demands that students exert themselves to the limits of their capabilities. In addition, students are inspired by their teacher’s living example to realize their highest potential.

The yoga teacher also fosters the student’s emotional and psychological development. The teacher is like a mirror, exposing faults and limitations of the student, but always remaining conscious of the essential purity and perfection of the Self behind such limitations. This kind of discipline can be administered only by someone who is relatively free of ego and strong personal biases or blind spots, which would distort the guru’s reactions to the student.

The yoga teacher’s most important attribute is spiritual consciousness. A teacher who has realized the Self transmits a sense of inner peace and bliss. One yogi describes this as follows, “If I entered the hermitage in a worried or indifferent frame of mind, my attitude imperceptibly changed. A healing calm descended at the mere sight of my guru. Each day with him was a new experience in joy, peace, and wisdom” (Yogananda, 1972, pp. 137–138).

Vivekananda points out that the guru teaches from his or her state of being:

If a man wants to teach me something of dynamics, of chemistry, or any other physical science, he may be anything he likes, because what the physical sciences require is merely an intellectual equipment; but in the spiritual sciences it is impossible from first to last that there can be any spiritual light in the soul that is impure.... Hence with the teacher of religion we must see first what he is, and then what he says. He must be perfectly pure, and then alone comes the value of his words, because he is only then the true “transmitter.” What can he transmit, if he has not spiritual power in himself? ... The function of the teacher is indeed an affair of the transference of something, and not one of mere stimulation of the existing intellectual or other faculties in the taught. Something real and appreciable as an influence comes from the teacher and goes to the taught. Therefore the teacher must be pure....

The teacher must not teach with any ulterior selfish motive—for money, name, or fame; his work must be simply out of love, out of pure love for mankind at large. The only medium through which spiritual force can be transmitted is love.... God is love, and only he who has known God as love, can be a teacher of godliness and God to man. (Vivekananda, 1978a, pp. 32–33)

Many authorities maintain that initiation is a crucial element in Yoga practice. According to Kularnava-Tantra, self-realization is not possible without initiation, and there can be no real initiation without a qualified teacher, who has been initiated into a lineage himself or herself (Feuerstein, 1989).

Initiation is primarily a form of spiritual transmission. Through this transmission the disciple is transformed physically, mentally, and spiritually. Initiation creates a special bond between teacher and disciple. The disciple enters the teacher’s spiritual lineage, a chain that may go back unbroken for centuries.

One of the later Yoga texts, the Kularnava-Tantra, classifies six different types of yoga teachers, according to basic function (Feuerstein, 1989). A teacher generally is a composite of several of these: (1) the Impeller motivates and inspires the prospective disciple, leading him or her to initiation; (2) the Indicator prescribes the most appropriate form of spiritual practice and discipline; (3) the Explainer interprets and clarifies the spiritual process and its goal; (4) the Revealer clarifies the details of the process; (5) the Teacher supervises the disciple’s spiritual discipline; and (6) the Illuminator kindles in the disciple mental and spiritual understanding.

One great danger in the role of the yoga teacher is ego inflation. Feuerstein, a scholar of yoga, points out that although enlightened yogis may live out of the identity of the Self, their personalities are still intact (1993). He suggests that integration of the personality is a necessary complement to transcendence for any guru.

A yoga teacher is not a magician who transforms students without any effort on their part. Yoga teachers are instructors of subtle truths and practices; as in any learning situation, students’ achievements are in proportion to their effort, ability, and receptivity:

The conditions for the taught are purity, a real thirst after knowledge, and perseverance.... Purity in thought, speech, and act is absolutely necessary for anyone to be religious. As to the thirst after knowledge, it is an old law that we all get whatever we want. None of us can get anything other than what we fix our hearts on.... The success may sometimes come immediately, but we must be ready to wait patiently even for what may look like an infinite length of time. The student who sets out with such a spirit of perseverance will surely find success in realization at last. (Vivekananda, 1978a, pp. 28–29)

The yoga model of the guru-disciple relationship is an example of deep love and respect for a model teacher. A real yoga teacher becomes a powerful force for change and inner growth. Unfortunately, an ego-driven teacher can take tremendous advantage of loyal students.

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