- A BIRD'S EYE VIEW OF YOGA IN ITS BROADER CONTEXT, part one -
The aim of this article is to allow the reader to situate where they find themselves with regards to the many philosophical and theological ideas and systems developed by the Indian culture over time. It has no other aim than to provide a taxonomy of sorts for the average yoga practitioner. As I am not a scholar dedicated to the study of this particular field, but simply an interested man, please do not expect the following to be anything else than a broad road map seen from high up in the sky.
Having said that, there is an orientation to the laying down of this information. In articles to come, I would like to write about Advaita Vedanta (it doesn't matter if you don't know what this is yet), which as old as it is, is amazingly the most modern and probably the most refreshing view of spirituality one could get. I personally find it very appropriate to this day and age, and its matrix (as in the movie "The Matrix", 1999, by the now Wachowski sisters) like similarities make it an excellent entry point, since most today are familiar with this iconography. A notable difference however, is that the essence of reality as suggested by Advaita Vedanta is both more interesting and balanced than the gloomy view of the movie, and leads to very real and pragmatic behaviors in the real world out there (even though there's no out there out there, spoiler alert).
I should also add that new advances in science (in particular a convergence of interpretations of the infamous quantum double slit experiment and recent proofs of the craziest predictions of the theory, like quantum particle entanglement for example) seem to point towards serious re-considerations about the 'objectivity' of the manifest world out there, whatever this supposed objectivity is supposed to mean in the first place.
So without further ado, let's jump straight in.
Whatever form of physical Yoga we practice is just one of many forms of Hatha Yoga: Hatha Yoga is an umbrella term for many different terms encompassing the physical practice (asanas, pranayamas and kriyas, mainly, to which one can add various concentration and meditation techniques overlapping with other yogas). Classes of Hatha Yoga together with Iyengar, Ashtanga, Hot, Power etc... are sometimes sold in Yoga studios. This is an abuse of terminology.
Hatha Yoga itself is only one of many different types of Yoga which, though sharing many commonalities, are nonetheless quite different. The main ones are Hatha Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Raja and Karma Yoga. But if you want to be anal, more branches can be included (Tantra, Laya, etc...).
To finish, Yoga itself and its many practices is only one of six darsanas, or point of views. Those six darsanas sit at the top of the whole edifice of Indian thought and philosophy.
Having quickly ran through this bottom-up approach, let's take it from the top-down again, with a tiny bit more detail.
There are six orthodox schools of Indian philosophy, coming with extensive literature on spirituality, pointing to a somehow similar soteriology (doctrine of salvation, again western vocabulary derived from the christian religion), and equipped with an array of practices in addition to the theory. In the following, you will find a synthesis of the extensive material available on each subject in Wikipedia and other various sources.
This school's most significant contributions to Indian philosophy is the systematic development of the theory of logic, methodology, and its treatises on epistemology. Nyaya school's epistemology accepts four out of six Pramanas (proofs or ways to knowledge) as reliable means of gaining knowledge – Pratyaksa (perception), Anumana (inference), Upamana (comparison and analogy) and Sabda(word, testimony of past or present reliable experts). It holds that human suffering results from mistakes produced by activity under wrong knowledge. Moksha (liberation) is gained through right knowledge. Correct knowledge is discovering and overcoming one's delusions, and understanding true nature of soul, self and reality.
In its early stages, the Vaisheshika was an independent philosophy with its own metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics, and soteriology. Over time, the Vaisheshika system became similar in its philosophical procedures, ethical conclusions and soteriology to the Nyaya school, but retained its difference in epistemology and metaphysics. Vaisheshika school is known for its insights in naturalism and is a form of atomism. It postulates that all objects in the physical universe are reducible to paramāṇu (atoms), and one's experiences are derived from the interplay of substance (a function of atoms, their number and their spatial arrangements), quality, activity, commonness, particularity and inherence. According to the Vaisheshika school, knowledge and liberation are achievable by complete understanding of the world of experience.
Most related to Yoga, Samkhya is an enumerative philosophy whose epistemology accepts three of the six pramanas (proofs or ways to knowledge) as the only reliable means of gaining knowledge. These include pratyakṣa (perception), anumāṇa (inference) and śabda (āptavacana, word/testimony of reliable sources). Sometimes described as one of the rationalist schools of Indian philosophy, this ancient school's reliance on reason is exclusive but strong. Samkhya is strongly dualist. Samkhya philosophy regards the universe as consisting of two realities: purusa (consciousness) and prakriti (matter). Jiva (a living being) is that state in which purusa is bonded to prakriti in some form. This fusion, state the Samkhya scholars, leads to the emergence of buddhi (intellect) and Ahamkara (ego consciousness). The universe is described as created by purusa-prakriti entities infused with various permutations and combinations of variously enumerated elements, senses, feelings, activity and mind. During the state of imbalance, one constituent overwhelms the others, creating a form of bondage, particularly of the mind. The end of this bondage is called liberation, or Kaivalya, by the Samkhya school.
Yoga is a group of physical, mental, and spiritual practices or disciplines. There is a broad variety of Yoga schools, practices, and goals in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Among the most well-known types of yoga are Hatha yoga and Rāja yoga. Yoga is based on the exposition of the epistemological, metaphysical, and methodological ideas of an age-long meditative tradition codified in the work of Patanjali and widely known as the Yoga Sutras. Yoga-darsana is concerned primarily with the acquisition and the perpetuation of two states of mind: the state of one-pointed mind (ekagrata) and the state of the inhibition of mental functions (niroddha). The Yoga itself is being equated with samadhi when both happen, and the Yogin realizes the Union between I-consciousness which disappears into/with/together with Universal Self or consciousness.
Mimamsa is a Sanskrit word that means "reflection" or "critical investigation". The school is known for its philosophical theories on the nature of dharma (in Hinduism the principles of cosmic order), based on hermeneutics (critical interpretations) of the Vedas. The Mimamsa school is foundational and influential for the vedantic schools, which are also known as Uttara-mimamsa. The differences are that the Mimamsa school developed and emphasized karma-kanda, or the study of ritual actions, using the four early Vedas, while the Vedanta schools developed and emphasized jnana-kanda, the study of knowledge and spirituality, using the later parts of Vedas like the Upanishads.
Vedanta literally means "end of the Vedas", reflecting ideas that emerged from the speculations and philosophies contained in the Upanishads. It does not stand for one comprehensive or unifying doctrine. Rather it is an umbrella term for many sub-traditions, ranging from dualism to non-dualism (notably with Advaita Vedanta, which will become our concern soon), all of which developed on the basis of a common textual connection called the Prasthanatrayi. The Prasthanatrayi is a collective term for the Principal Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. All Vedanta schools, in their deliberations, concern themselves with the following three categories but differ in their views regarding the concept and the relations between them: Brahman – the ultimate metaphysical reality, Atman / Jivatman – the individual soul or self, and Prakriti – the empirical world, ever-changing physical universe, body and matter. Some of the better known sub-traditions of Vedanta include Advaita (non-dualism), Vishishtadvaita (qualified non-dualism), and Dvaita (dualism).
This enumeration closes the first installment of this series. We will soon see that Yoga itself contains a variety of disciplines and practices, in spite of the possibility of linking a lot to the foundational Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. And once more, so as not to lose sight of the overarching goal of the sharing of this information, all of this is meant to situate both various forms of Hatha Yoga (in particular Iyengar and Ashtanga) and the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta in its modern formulations (Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj and Ramesh Balsekar). Why ? Out of personal interest certainly, but also because they have, as time has gone by, emerged and sustained themselves in spite, or may be because of technological progress and changing worldviews. This makes both physical yoga practice and Advaita Vedanta refreshingly modern.
To be continued...