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Yoga: Contexts and the Contexture

by Dr. Haramohan Mishra
6th January 2016

The word yoga, literally meaning “union”, has multiple layers of meanings acquired through ages, extending a vast expanse of time beginning with the Veda to the present time. Around a central concept, different contents got accumulated which are meaningful in their respective contexts. Yoga is not solely some physical practice, as it is commonly mistaken, nor is it a part of some religious rites. Its wider purport and deeper intentions can be seen from its use as a prefix in some mysterious words such as yoganidra and yogamaya. In the Durgasaptasati, yoganidra is described as the cosmic slumber in which Vishnu was asleep before creation. In the Bhagavadgita, Sri Krishna says that he remains concealed in yogamaya for which he is not manifest everywhere. Arjuna addresses Sri Krishna as yogin and yogesvara. Siva, the great Lord is described as yogisvara or the lord of the yogins. In the Tantric literature, the Supreme Goddess is described as yogini. The use of the word yoga in the above examples gives an insight into the deeper meanings of yoga. Yoga is blended with myths and realities, mystery and science, religion and philosophy and is practiced by Hindus, Buddhists, Jainas and others in their respective contexts. It is so flexible and universal that it can be adopted and molded for anybody in any belief-system; it is pertinent and useful for both believers and non-believers, for spiritualists and materialists, for the laymen and the enlightened.

Helpless are we born; helpless we grow and decay; helpless we die. We are open, exposed and susceptible to circumstances. The body is afflicted with diseases and the mind with the maladies of grief and despair. Craving for pleasures and aversion towards pains are not easy to overcome. Our personal and social encounter with friends and foes goes on affecting us. Here comes yoga to our rescue. From a cosmic fulfillment to the individual’s wellbeing, yoga is subtly connected with a great universal force that works to bring about the perfection of humanity. It is a method of understanding life, unfolding its potentials, gaining control over the course of life and giving it a purpose and direction. It is a higher science of life and an art of living having a tangible effect on the life of its practitioner.

We are born with a body and a mind. We do not know what we really are. Though the mind and body are our most faithful instruments, they sometimes become our greatest cause of sorrows. Sometimes they even become a burden. So, in the preliminary stage, yoga gives emphasis on the cure of the body and the mind by harnessing their inherent capacities in the right direction. Gradually with constant progressive practice it makes one realize one’s true nature as the spirit apart from the body and the mind. A yogic mindset and the yogic qualities are gradually acquired through which self-knowledge becomes certain and the fetters of the world are loosened. Some simple hatha yoga practices combined with a little bit of meditation can cure most of the maladies of life. Combined with some higher knowledge like the atma-jnana of Vedanta or the prajna of Buddhism, yoga leads one to enlightenment and freedom. The philosophical orientation is not important; what really matters is the practice with the right attitude. Different philosophical and cultural milieus only modify the external avenues but they do not affect the core of yoga which is common to all.

Yoga is conceived differently in different philosophical frameworks. Accordingly there are so many types of yoga. There are hatha yoga, raja yoga, and kundalini yoga where special emphasis is given on the physical, mental and esoteric practices respectively. Hatha yoga gives emphasis on the body, its subtle forces and the prana whose grossest manifestation is the breath. Raja yoga gives emphasis on the mind, even though physical and breathing practices are prescribed as preliminary steps. The other types of yoga such as karma yoga, jnana yoga and bhakti yoga are broad-based refinements in the pragmatic, rational and emotional aspects of life.

Hatha yoga is based on a philosophy which accepts the identity of the jiva and Brahman like Advaita Vedanta. But unlike the later, it does not uphold the “forget-the body” attitude. On the other hand, it gives emphasis on strengthening the body and making it flexible for which various asanas and bandhas are prescribed. Control of breath is equally important which is achieved through different pranayamas. Then only one may proceed to meditation. A weak body and an irregular breathing cannot support a stable meditation. Svatmarama, a great authority in this system, opines that hatha culminates in raja yoga which turns into Samadhi at the end. It is the state of union with Brahman, may be in the realistic sense, not simply negation of the false non-identity as conceived by the Advaita Vedantins. Hatha yoga does not require a great intellectual capacity. To begin, one has to have a moderate control over the senses, and to be a master, one has to achieve perfect control over the body and the mind. Hatha yoga is open to all, from the common man to the enlightened. The philosophical aspect of this school is not well developed but it is a great path for the common man which leads him to the highest realization.

The best of yoga in the most well defined form is found in the Yogasutras of the sage Patanjali. It is unique and unparalleled in the entire yoga literature. The first psycho-therapeutic method of healing enunciated by Patanjali can be said to be the best even at present time. Patanjali’s Raja yoga, the king of yoga, as it is called, is based on the dualistic philosophy of Sankhya which accepts matter and consciousness as two distinct realities. Matter is the domain of Prakrti with whose entanglement the individual undergoes recurrent births and deaths. When he makes himself free from this entanglement he gets kaivalya or emancipation. Patanjali defines yoga as “chitta vritti nirodhah” or restraint of the vrttis of mind. It is not union with God. Though yoga primarily means union, it is actually a separation, to be free from the entanglement of prakrti. So it is known as kaivalya or aloneness.

Karma yoga is aptly described as “skill in action”. Skill, here, does not mean the dexterity to compete and to achieve; it is the attitude of non-involvement which does not give rise to bondage. It is right action with right attitude. Jnana yoga is the path of knowledge, emphasized in Vedanta; the path of inquiry leading to self-realization. It combines meditation or nididhyasana with rational inquiry but, unlike hatha yoga and raja yoga, it does not involve any graded physical or mental practice. Bhakti yoga utilizes the emotive aspect of the mind and directs it to a higher level of elevation which gives rise to a total transformation of personality. It begins with a theistic attitude and culminates in the pantheistic realization which is the same as the Vedantic all-in-one realization.

Like other schools Jainism has also adopted yoga, but being primarily moralistic, yoga has a subordinate place in it. Jainism has a distinct metaphysical framework with its anekanta and syadvada view of the world. For the Jainas liberation is not a merger nor is it an aloneness or separation from Prakrti. It is a state of enlightenment in siddhasila above the worldly entanglements. Among the three means leading to liberation, right vision, right knowledge and right conduct, the former leads to the later; combined they give liberation. The word yoga has a different meaning in Jainism. It is technically included in asrava, flow of karma, “karma asravayati it yogah” “binding with karma”. But the word “dhyana” is used in the general sense of yoga which is divided into four types, arta, raudra, dharma and sukla. Among these four the last two, namely, dharma dhyana and sukla dhyana lead to moksa. The last type of meditation gives kevala jnana which culminates in liberation.

Yoga in Buddhism is given prominence. The highest prajna which reveals the emptiness of the world and the dependent origin of the things of the world is achieved through samyag dhyana. The dhyana in the beginning is mindfulness but in the end it is the highest prajna paramita. The Buddhist technique of meditation is widely discussed in Buddhist literature. The most common forms of meditation are the anapanasati, mindfulness of breath, and vipassana, right seeing or insight which have become popular worldwide.

Though yoga is not the primary thrust of Advaita Vedanta, it is accepted as conducive to Brahma vidya. In the Tantric literature kundalini yoga is the main yoga. Though the major schools of Tantra accept a non-dualistic philosophy, the conception of Reality as Siva-Sakti-combine is important in their philosophy. Though jiva is itself Siva he does not recognize his real nature because his power is diminished. When this is ascertained he recognizes his real nature and becomes free.

Yoga is molded and practiced in different manners in different philosophical frameworks, but the aim is one and the same. By any method or all the methods combined, man has to realize his hidden potentials and has to be free, else he will go on drifting endlessly in the ocean of samsara. The contexts of yoga are different but the contexture remains the same.

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