The Bhagavad Gita: Two Paths

Many spiritual traditions have some picture of "Two Paths," one for the righteous, one for the wicked.  One for the pure in heart, one for the impure.  Jesus famously used the image of a separation between sheep and goats in the final judgment.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, Psalm 1 captures this picture as well:

"Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked
 or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers,
 but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
 and who meditates on it day and night.
 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
 which yields its fruit in season
 and whose leaf does not wither.
 Whatever they do prospers.

 Not so the wicked! 
 They are like chaff that the wind blows away.
 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
 nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

 For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
 but the way of the wicked leads to destruction."

Rarely does life break down in so simple a way.  Outside of characterizations, it is hard to put any one person purely in the category of "righteous," or "wicked."  As an old pastor of mine used to say, we are all a holy mix.   But the image of Two Paths is helpful.  The righteous path is an ideal to strive for.  The evil path is a disaster to avoid. 

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna contrasts those who have Divine qualities with those who are demonic.  In Chapter 16, He counsels Arjuna to remain on the Divine, spiritual path.  

"Be fearless and pure; never waver in your determination or your dedication to the spiritual life.  Give freely.  Be self-controlled, sincere, truthful, loving, and full of the desire to serve.  Realize the truth of the scriptures; learn to be detached and take joy in renunciation.  Do not get angry or harm any living creature, but be compassionate and gentle, show good will to all.  Cultivate vigor, patience, will, purity; avoid malice and pride.  Then, Arjuna, you will achieve your divine destiny.

Other qualities, Arjuna, make a person more and more inhuman: hypocrisy, arrogance, conceit, anger, cruelty, ignorance.  The divine qualities lead to freedom; the demonic, to bondage.  But do not grieve, Arjuna; you were born with divine attributes.

Some people have divine tendencies, others demonic.  I have described the divine at length, Arjuna; now listen while I describe the demonic. 

The demonic do things they should avoid and avoid the things they should do.  They have no sense of uprightness, purity, or truth.  'There is no God,' they say, 'no truth, no spiritual law, no moral order.  The basis of life is sex; what else can it be?'  Holding such distorted views, possessing scant discrimination, they become enemies of the world, causing suffering and destruction.

Hypocritical, proud, and arrogant, living in delusion and clinging to deluded ideas, insatiable in their desires, they purse their unclean ends.  Although burdened with fears that end only with death, they still maintain with complete assurance, 'Gratification of lust is the highest that life can offer.'  Bound on all sides by scheming and anxiety, driven by anger and greed, they amass by any means they can a hoard of money for the satisfaction of their cravings. 

'I got this today,' they say; 'tomorrow I shall get that.  This wealth is mine, and that will be mine too.  I have destroyed my enemies.  I shall destroy others too!  Am I not like God?  I enjoy what I want.  I am successful.  I am powerful.  I am happy.  I am rich and well-born.  Who is equal to me?  I will perform sacrifices and give gifts, and rejoice in my own generosity.'  This is how they go on, deluded by ignorance.  Bound by their greed and entangled in a web of delusion, whirled about by a fragmented mind, they fall into a dark hell...

There are three gates to this self-destructive hell: lust, anger, and greed.  Renounce these three.  Those who escape these three gates of darkness, Arjuna, seek what is best and attain life's supreme goal.  Others disregard the teachings of the scriptures.  Driven by selfish desire, they miss the goal of life, miss even happiness and success.

Therefore let the scriptures be your guide in what to do and what not to do.  Understand their teachings; then act in accordance with them."

The Bhagavad Gita, 16:1-16, 21-24


This will end the Bhagavad Gita series.  Reading through it is probably the easiest way to understand basic Hindu thought.  Although Hinduism is wildly diverse as a religion, this text is highly revered among most Hindus.  I find the type of meditation described in Chapter 6 especially interesting and connected to my own practice of Centering Prayer.  You could practically lift Chapter 6 out and put it right into The Cloud of Unknowing.  These authors are speaking the same language.  

For more on basic Hindu thought and its relation to Buddhism from the perspective of Alan Watts, check out the following brief lecture.




The Bhagavad Gita: The Practice of Meditation

In Chapter 6 of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna describes the Practice of Meditation:

"Those who aspire to the state of yoga should seek the Self in inner solitude through meditation.  With body and mind controlled they should constantly practice one-pointedness, free from expectations and attachment to material possessions.  

Select a clean spot, neither too high nor too low, and seat yourself firmly on a cloth, a deerskin, and kusha grass.  Then, once seated, strive to still your thoughts.  Make you mind one-pointed in meditation, and your heart will be purified.  Hold your body, head, and neck firmly in a straight line, and keep your eyes from wandering.  With all fears dissolved in the peace of the Self and all actions dedicated to Brahman, controlling the mind and fixing it on me, sit in meditation with me as your only goal.  With senses and mind constantly controlled through meditation, united with the Self within, an aspirant attains nirvana, the state of abiding joy and peace in me.  

Arjuna, those who eat too much or eat too little, who sleep too much or sleep too little, will not succeed in meditation.  But those who are temperate in eating and sleeping, work and recreation, will come to the end of sorrow through meditation.  Through constant effort they learn to withdraw the mind from selfish cravings and absorb it in the Self.  Thus they attain the state of union.

When meditation is mastered, the mind is unwavering like the flame of a lamp in a windless place.  In the still mind, in the depths of meditation, the Self reveals itself.  Beholding the Self by means of the Self, an aspirant knows the joy and peace of complete fulfillment.  Having attained that abiding joy beyond the senses, revealed in the still mind, they never swerve from the eternal truth.  They desire nothing else and cannot be shaken by the heaviest burden of sorrow. 

The practice of meditation frees one from all affliction.  This is the path of yoga.  Follow it with determination and sustained enthusiasm.  Renouncing wholeheartedly all selfish desires and expectations, use your will to control the senses.  Little by little, through patience and repeated effort, the mind will become still in the Self.

Whenever the mind wanders, restless and diffuse in its search for satisfaction without, lead it within; train it to rest in the Self.  Abiding joy comes to those who still the mind.  Freeing themselves from the taint of self-will, with their consciousness unified, they become one with Brahman."

The Bhagavad Gita, 6:10-27

If there is one passage that sums up the Gita, this is it.  By experiencing the Atman, the Self, one becomes completely fulfilled, and is thus capable of acting in the world without concern for self.  There is nothing left to gain.  


The Bhagavad Gita: Karma Yoga

In Chapter 3, Krishna tells Arjuna that he must practice Karma Yoga, the path of selfless service, in order to achieve his spiritual goal.  

The Bhagavad Gita discusses several forms of yoga – in this context meaning "paths to realization" – which aspirants must practice.  Easwaran's explanation in his Introduction is helpful:

"The Gita does not present a system of philosophy.  It offers something to every seeker after God, of whatever temperament, by whatever path.  The reason for this universal appeal is that it is basically practical: it is a handbook for Self-realization and a guide to action.  

Some scholars will find practicality a tall claim, because the Gita is full of lofty and even abstruse philosophy.  Yet even its philosophy is not there to satisfy intellectual curiosity; it is meant to explain to spiritual aspirants why they are asked to undergo certain disciplines.  Like any handbook, the Gita makes most sense when it is practiced.  

As the traditional chapter titles put it, the Gita is brahma-vidyayam yogashastra, a textbook of the supreme science of yoga.  But yoga is a word with many meanings – as many, perhaps, as there are paths to Self-realization.  What kind of yoga does the Gita teach?  The common answer is that it presents three yogas or even four – the four main paths of Hindu mysticism.  In jnana yoga, the yoga of knowledge, aspirants use their will and discrimination to disidentify themselves from the body, mind, and senses until they know they are nothing but the Self.  The followers of bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, achieve the same goal by identifying themselves completely with the Lord in love; by and large, this is the path taken by most of the mystics of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  In karma yoga, the yoga of selfless action, the aspirants dissolve their identification with body and mind by identifying with the whole of life, forgetting the finite self in the service of others.  An the followers of raja yoga, the yoga of meditation, discipline the mind and senses until the mind-process is suspended in a healing stillness and they merge in the Self.  

Indians like to classify, and the eighteen chapters of the Gita are said to break up into three six-chapter parts.  The first third, according to this, deals with karma yoga, the second with jnana yoga, and the last with bhakti yoga: that is, the Gita begins with the way of selfless action, passes into the way of Self-knowledge, and ends with the way of love.  This scheme is not tight, and non-Hindu readers may find it difficult to discover in the text.  But the themes are there, and Krishna clearly shifts his emphasis as he goes on using this one word yoga.  Here he focuses on transcendental knowledge, there on selfless action, here on meditation, there on love.

Thus the Gita offers something for every kind of spiritual aspirant, and for two thousand years each of the major schools of Indian philosophy has quoted the Gita in defense of its particular claims.  This fluidity sometimes exasperates scholars who feel the Gita contradicts itself.  It also puzzled Arjuna, the faithful representative of you and me.  'Krishna,' he says at the beginning of Chapter 3, 'you've been telling me that knowledge (jnana) is better than action (karma); so why do you urge me into such terrible action?  Your words are inconsistent; the confuse me.  The me one path to the highest good.' (3:1-2)  No doubt he speaks for every reader at this point, and for those who go on wanting one path only, the confusion simply grows worse.

For those who try to practice the Gita, however, there is a thread of inner consistency running through Krishna's advice.  Like a person walking around the same object, the Gita takes more than one point of view.  Whenever Krishna describes one of the traditional paths to God he looks at it from the inside, extolling its virtues over the others.  For the time being, that is the path; when he talks about yoga, he means that one particular yoga."

Here Krishna encourages Arjuna to practice this yoga:

"At the beginning of time I declared two paths for the pure heart: jnana yoga, the contemplative path of spiritual wisdom, and karma yoga, the active path of selfless service.  One who shirks action does not attain freedom; no one can gain perfection by abstaining from work.  Indeed, there is no one who rests for even an instant; all creatures are driven to action by their own nature.

Those who abstain from action while allowing the mind to dwell on sensual pleasure cannot be called sincere spiritual aspirants.  But they excel who control their senses through the mind, using them for selfless service.  Fulfill all your duties; action is better than inaction.  Even to maintain your body, Arjuna, you are obliged to act.  Selfish action imprisons the world.  Act selflessly, without thought of personal profit.

At the beginning, mankind and the obligation of selfless service were created together.  Through selfless service, you will always be fruitful and find the fulfillment of your desires: this is the promise of the Creator...

...Every selfless act, Arjuna, is born from Brahman, the eternal, infinite Godhead.  Brahman is present in every act of service.  All life turns on this law O Arjuna.  Those who violate it, indulging the senses for their own pleasure and ignoring the needs of others, have wasted their life.  But those who realize the Self are always satisfied.  Having found the source of joy and fulfillment, they no longer seek happiness from the external world.  They have nothing to gain or lose by any action; neither people nor things can affect their security.

Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life."

The Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3


The Bhagavad Gita: Fettered No More by Selfish Attachments

Although not technically included in the Vedas (the earliest and most authoritative scriptures of Hinduism), The Bhagavad Gita may be the most famous text to come out of the Vedic tradition as a whole.  The text itself is embedded within a massive Indian epic, the Mahabharata, but most scholars believe that the Gita was inserted into this larger story by a later editor.  The Bhagavad Gita is most often pulled out of the Mahabharata and read alone as a complete document in and of itself. 

The author of the Gita shares the common Hindu metaphysical view that at the core of every human being lies the Atman, a spiritual absolute, or "God in us."  Furthermore, this divine core of humanity is one with Brahman, the Divine Source of Existence.  From the perspective of the Gita, it is by realizing this experientially that the spiritual seeker will attain their ultimate goal.  Throughout the Gita, Krishna – an incarnation of God – leads Prince Arjuna through his own spiritual battle, counseling him on how to "realize the Self," or find Union with God.

This series will include quotations from a translation by Eknath Easwaran.  His introductory remarks alone make this version worth buying, and his ongoing commentary throughout the work is illuminating.  I don't think there's a more valuable commentary on the market. 

In this first quotation, Arjuna asks Krishna what a life looks like for those who are established in the Self.  Krishna answers as follows:

Arjuna:  "Tell me of those who live established in wisdom, ever aware of the Self, O Krishna.  How do they talk?  How do they sit?  How move about?"

Krishna:  "They live in wisdom who see themselves in all and all in them, who have renounced every selfish desire and sense craving tormenting the heart.  Neither agitated by grief nor hankering after pleasure, they live free from lust and fear and anger.  Established in meditation, they are truly wise.  Fettered no more by selfish attachments, they are neither elated by good fortune nor depressed by bad.  Such are the seers.

Even as a tortoise draws in its limbs, the wise can draw in their senses at will.  Aspirants abstain from sense pleasures, but they still crave for them.  These cravings all disappear when they see the highest goal.  Even of those who tread the path, the stormy senses can sweep off the mind.  They live in wisdom who subdue their senses and keep their minds ever absorbed in me.

When you keep thinking about sense objects, attachment comes. Attachment breeds desire, the lust of possession that burns to anger.  Anger clouds the judgment; you can no longer learn from past mistakes.  Lost is the power to choose between what is wise and what is unwise, and your life is utter waste.  But when you move amidst the world of sense, free from attachment and aversion alike, there comes the peace in which all sorrows end, and you live in the wisdom of the Self...

...They are forever free who renounce all selfish desires and break away from the ego-cage of 'I,' 'me,' 'mine' to be united with the Lord.  This is the supreme state.  Attain to this, and pass from death to immortality."

– The Bhagavad Gita, 2:54-65, 71-72

The themes of being free from attachments, and steady in the midst of both success and defeat, will return throughout the Gita.  The seer who is established in the Self has nothing more to gain from the world.  He has found his ultimate fulfillment and is thus untroubled by, and unattached to, the things, experiences, and events of the world, whether good or bad.  


The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Siddhis

This is where things get weird.

After discussing the goal of Yoga, and various means to accomplish this goal, Patanjali spends much of Chapter III of the Sutras describing mystical powers that can be attained through the practice.  These powers are termed siddhis within the yogic tradition.  

As I've written about before (see A Sufi Initiation and The Perennial Philosophy: Review), supernatural events/abilities are often connected with the mystical religious traditions.  Most often, the importance of these supernormal occurrences are downplayed by major contemplatives.  The ability to see into the future, gain mystical insight into present events, or emanate a supernatural light does little to help one achieve enlightenment.  In fact, an interest in developing these powers is sometimes seen as a dangerous distraction that leads the contemplative astray.  

Patanjali himself seems to take this attitude in 3.37 where he states:  

"These powers are accomplishments for the mind that is outgoing but obstacles to samadhi."

Bryant comments on this verse as follows:

"The term siddhi, perfection or power, which occurs only four times in the sutras, is used here to mean the supernormal powers. For a yogi, the powers noted in the previous sutra hinder the cultivation of samadhi, since they entice the mind back out into the realm of prakrti and thus are obstacles, upasargah, to the attainment of samadhi. But for those whose mind is outgoing, that is, interested in the enticements of the world, they appear to be desirable accomplishments. A beggar, says Vacaspati Misra, may consider even a meager smattering of wealth to be the fullness of riches, but a yogi should not think that these powers, which appear spontaneously, are the goal, and must reject them. For how, he asks, can a genuine yogi take pleasure in things that are obstructions to the real goal of yoga? That the siddhis are potential impediments to the goal of yoga is a widespread position in Indic traditions..."

Nevertheless, in the Yoga Sutras, the following powers are said to be attainable (among others):

"When samyama is performed on the three transformations, knowledge of the past and the future ensues." (3.16)

"By performing samyama on the distinction between them, knowledge of the speech of all creatures arises." (3.17)

"By bringing samskaras into direct perception comes the knowledge of previous births." (3.18)

"From ideas, one can attain knowledge of others' minds." (3.19)

"By performing samyama on the outer form of the body, invisibility is attained." (3.21)

"By samyama on karma, or on portents, knowledge of one's death arises." (3.22)

"By performing samyama on the sun arises knowledge of the different realms of the universe." (3.26)

Because the type of meditation that Patanjali advises is concentration on a specific object, it seems that by changing the object of meditation, different siddhis are said to be attained.  Thus meditation on the body, causes a change in the body (invisibility – 3.21).  

The fantastic claims in Chapter III of the Sutras sometimes lead people to discredit the entirety of the yogic system.  Other times these claims are brushed aside or simply ignored.  

Whatever we choose to do with these claims, these types of powers are connected to a wide array of mystic traditions.  Consider the reflections of Dale Allison when discussing the potential historicity of the transfiguration of Jesus:

"And yet, having said all this, the judgment that the transfiguration is nothing but mythology may turn out to be premature. For the inference implicitly assumes that people are never transfigured into light, or at least that there are no credible accounts of such, whereas, if one patiently investigates without prejudice, one discovers a surprisingly large body of firsthand testimony reporting just this.

One witness is Gregory of Nyssa, the famous fourth-century Cappadocian father. In his eulogy of his brother Basil he wrote this: 'At night, while he was at prayer in the house, there came a light, illuminating (Basil); a certain immaterial light by divine power lit up the house, and it was without material source.' Some might feel free to dismiss these words as ancient credulity, or maybe as a rhetorical flight of fancy. I hesitate, however. Not only was Gregory an extraordinarily intelligent man, but I have, over the years, formed an opinion of his character, and it is hard for me to discount his apparently earnest witness. It is easier for me to believe that he saw a light he could not explain, whatever its origin may have been.

Closer to our own time, we have a report concerning Seraphim of Sarov, the Russion Orthodox saint (1759-1833). As a hieromonk of pious reputation, he was regularly sought out by pilgrims at his cabin in the wilderness. One such was a man named Nicholas Motovilov, whose notes about Seraphim, recording their private encounters, were discovered in 1903. These notes contain the following: 'Then I looked at the Staretz and was panic-stricken. Picture, in the sun's orb, in the most dazzling brightness of its noon-day shining, the face of a man who is talking to you. You see his lips moving, the expression in his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel his arms round your shoulders, and yet you see neither his arm, nor his body, nor his face, you lose all sense of yourself, you can see only the blinding light which spreads everywhere, lighting up the layer of snow covering the glade, and igniting the flakes that are falling on us both like white powder.'...

The forgoing testimonies intrigue me all the more because I personally know a man who claims to have seen a human being transfigured into light. This is not for me a foaftale, that is, it does not concern the proverbial friend-of-a-friend but comes to my ears from someone I know and have no reason to disbelieve (and who has refreshed my memory by kindly sharing with me his relevant journal entry).

In 1992 my friend John decided to seek initiation as a Sufi. The process involved having an audience with a Sufi master who was then making a tour of the States. The two men met in a small room for a short period of time. They sat face-to-face in lotus position. No words passed between them. But the occasion was memorable, for John relates that, after a bit, the master began to emit a light, which became brighter and brighter, until it lit up the whole room, after which the luminescence gradually faded away and the encounter was over."

I don't know what to do with these types of reports.  But they surround many of the contemplative traditions.  

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: The Eight Limbs of Yoga

Pantajali has already told the reader what will lead to the stilling of the mind – practice and dispassion.  This, however, is not the end of the story for Pantanjali, and this schema is difficult to maintain for the entirety of the Sutras.  The Yoga Sutras also contain a long section dealing with a more "active" form of Yoga – that of self-discipline, study, and dedication to the Lord – the practice of which will lead to an overcoming of obstacles (what Patanjali calls klesas) to the stilling of the mind.   

Finally, Patanjali presents his famous Eight Limbs of Yoga as yet another paradigm through which to view the Sutras.  It is possible to fit the concepts of "practice and dispassion" loosely into the Eight Limbs, with dispassion overlapping with the first two limbs and practice overlapping with the last six.  

The Eight Limbs of Yoga, according to Patanjali, are abstentions, observances, posture, breath control, disengagement of the senses, concentration, meditation, and absorption.  After introducing the Eight Limbs, Patanjali discusses each.

  • Abstentions:  The abstentions (listed in 2.30) are nonviolence, truthfulness, refrainment from stealing, celibacy, and renunciation of unnecessary possessions.  Thus, the abstentions are things the yogi does not to.  He refrains from violence towards any creature.  He refrains from lying, stealing, engaging in sexual activity, and owning more than he needs.  
  • Observances:  The observances (2.32) are cleanliness, contentment, austerity, study of Scripture, and devotion to God.  Cleanliness includes both external cleanliness (eating a pure diet, perhaps ritual cleanliness practices, etc.) and internal cleanliness  (keeping a clean conscience, etc.).  Contentment is a commitment to being satisfied with the bare essentials of life.  The yogi does not strive for more material goods than they absolutely need.  Austerity includes the ability to maintain equanimity in the midst of hunger and thirst, heat and cold, etc.  This may be developed by fasting or exposure to physically uncomfortable situations.  The theistic nature of the Yoga Sutras is again apparent here as Patanjali recommends that all action should be dedicated to God (Isvara in this text).  
  • Posture:  Physical posture (asana) is given a grand total of two verses (2.46, 2.47) in all of the Yoga Sutras.  The most profound thing that Patanjali says about posture is that "posture should be steady and comfortable."  What Westerners equate with yoga is virtually absent in Patanjali's primary text.  The function of posture is simply to allow the yogi to sit comfortably during meditation.  Thus Bryant comments:

    "Essentially, posture is a limb of the actual goal of yoga to the extent that it allows the meditator to sit firmly, sthira, and comfortably, sukha.  Obviously one cannot fix one's attention onto something if one is sleeping or running about; one must sit, and sit without fidgeting or discomfort.  In other words, asana's relevance and function for the classical Yoga tradition are to train the body so that it does not disturb or distract the mind of the yogi in any way when sitting in meditation."
  • Breath Control:  Yogic breathing, called pranayamah, is a specific form of breathing which is thought to help steady the mind.  The mind is most often not focused on the breath in yogic meditation, but this type of breathing may help the yogi focus the mind on the object of meditation.  
  • Disengagement of the Senses:  The next four limbs all surround mind states associated with meditative practice.  Patanjali says little about the disengagement of the senses, but when the mind is focused one-pointedly on an object, the awareness of sensory input is limited, or perhaps disappears altogether.  Thus the disengagement of the senses is a function and byproduct of concentrative meditation.  
  • Concentration:  Concentration, according to Patanjali, is "fixing the mind in one place" (3.1).  That is all Patanjali says about this limb in this section of the Sutras, although he has discussed concentrative meditation at length earlier in the work.  The object of meditation can change for Patanjali, although he recommends meditation on Isvara (God) using the mystical symbol om above all other objects.  
  • Meditation:  Meditation is not a separate practice from concentration, but rather a deepening of concentration.  All Patanjali adds here (3.2) is that meditation is one-pointedness of mind on one image.  
  • Absorption:  Finally, the ultimate stage of yoga is absorption, or samadhi.  In this stage, the mind has merged with the object of meditation and there is no self-reflective thought (i.e. "I know I'm meditating.").   Some commentators use the image of a clear crystal.  When the crystal is put next to water it appears blue.  When it is next to a rose it appears red.  The mind is likewise absorbed and merged into the object of meditation to that there is no differentiation between the two.  

One can't help but be reminded of the Eightfold Noble Path of traditional Buddhism.  Both "paths" contain an ethical dimension, an intellectual dimension (i.e. accepting a certain philosophical outlook on life), and a contemplative dimension (i.e. meditation practice(s)).

Likewise, in both paths each limb is important.  A yogi can't expect to make progress in meditation, for instance, while leading a dishonest life.  Each aspect of the path reinforces the others.  

Again, the Eight Limbs of Yoga are one way that Patanjali presents his teaching, although it is probably the best known schema of his yogic system.  

The fact that Patanjali is simply passing on and synthesizing previous teachings from the yogic tradition becomes more apparent to me the more I engage with this text.  The Sutras are less like a logically argued philosophical tract, and more like a loose collection of traditions which are here systematized in one way, and there systematized in another.  

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Practice and Dispassion

As we have seen, the goal of Yoga, according to Patanjali, is to still the changing states of mind.  The question then becomes: How?

In 1.12 of the Yoga Sutras we find our answer:

"The states of mind are stilled by practice and dispassion."

Much of the rest of the Sutras are elaborations on these two themes.  

"Practice" According to Patanjali

Meditative "practice" means many things to many people.  Indeed, it means several different things to Patanjali himself.  In the rest of Chapter 1, Patanjali describes several different forms of meditation that one can use to lead to a stilling of the mind.  The common thread throughout his different forms of practice is found in 1.13:

"Practice is the effort to be fixed in concentrating the mind."

All of Patanjali's practices are, it seems, forms of concentration meditation.  The object being concentrated upon can change, but the method of concentrating the mind intently on that object remains the same.  

He first recommends repeating the mystical symbol om, which represents Isvara – the personal aspect of God (1.28-1.29).

"Its (the mystical symbol om) repetition and the contemplation of its meaning should be performed.  From this comes the realization of the inner consciousness and freedom from all disturbances (changing states of mind)." 

But other objects of meditation may also be used, depending on the personality of the meditator.  Thus:

"Practice of fixing the mind on one object should be performed in order to eliminate these disturbances." (1.32)
"Or stability of mind is gained by exhaling and retaining the breath." (1.34)
"Or else, focus on a sense object arises, and this causes steadiness of mind." (1.35)
"Or the mind becomes steady when it has one who is free from desire as its object." (1.37)
"Or steadiness of the mind is attained from meditation upon anything of one's inclination." (1.39)

Bryant makes the following comment on Patanjali's objects of meditation:

"Sutra 1.32 indicated that the obstacles to yoga can be overcome by fixing or concentrating the mind on an object, and the next few sutras outline various options and methods for accomplishing this.  Patanjali has already presented Isvara as an object of concentration in the form of recitation of the sound om, and by placing Isvara first on the list of options and dedicating so many sutras to him, Patanjali has clearly prioritized an Isvara-centered form of meditation.  The following sutras up to 1.39 all also contain the particle va, or.  Thus they are all alternative and optional techniques for fixing the mind and, as with the Isvara verses, are to be read as referring back to 1.32, that practice on one object eliminates the distractions to yoga.  One or more of them might be more suitable to a particular person, time, and places, says Sankara, hence the options."  


Dispassion, or its synonyms – renunciation, mortification, non-attachment – is part of the path of virtually all contemplative traditions.  Not only must one meditate and be transformed through "practice," but one must also consciously give up attachments to the "things of the world" which bind the soul.  It's not that the things are bad in themselves, it's that the soul becomes chained to them, it needs them.  For a yogi to reach his final goal, all attachment needs to be broken completely.  

The way to break attachment to any object is to do without it.  Not only does this include physical objects of pleasure, but even concepts about oneself.  For instance, if one is attached to the idea of themselves as "attractive," they may have to renounce this by consciously ceasing to take actions to increase their appearance.  In modern days, this may include not wearing makeup, not lifting weights, etc.  

The ideal for a yogi is a kind of "holy indifference."  If pleasurable things come, so be it.  If unpleasurable things come, so be it.  Any sense gratification is only temporary, and indulgence in sensory gratification is a dangerous distraction for the yogi.  

For Patanjali, both practice and dispassion are essential to reach the yogic ideal.  


The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: The Goal of Yoga

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is the most famous text from the Yogic tradition of India.  It is here where, according to the author in verse 1, "the teachings of Yoga are presented" most clearly.  

The history of Yoga is somewhat cloudy.  The word itself is used in a variety of ways, in, for instance, the Bhagavad Gita, and the "Yogic" school of India overlaps significantly with other classic Vedic texts such as the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.  The Yoga Sutras and these other classic Hindu texts share similar understandings of the Atman (the ground of the individual soul), and Brahman (the Divine Source of existence), although they sometimes use different terminology to describe these realities.  The earliest trace of Yogic practice are seals from the 3rd Millennium BCE in which figures are seated in a clear Yogic posture.

Very little is known about the author, Patanjali, but his systematization of earlier Yogic traditions eventually became authoritative and normative for all future practitioners.  The text itself is generally dated sometime between the 1st and 4th Centuries CE.  Patanjali's school of Yoga also eventually became classified as one of the six schools of classic Indian philosophy (Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisesika, Mimamsa, and Vedanta).  What Patanjali presents is not new, or his creation, but simply a systematizing of more ancient traditions.  

There are a wide variety of classic and modern translations and commentaries of The Sutras.  My favorite is from Edwin Bryant, who teaches at Rutgers University.  In this series, I will provide excerpts from the Yoga Sutras themselves and Bryant's commentary on them.

In his Introduction, Bryant describes the Goals of Yoga, according to Patanjali, as follows:

"According to Patanjali's definition in the second sutra, yoga is the cessation of the activities or permutations (vrttis) of the citta. The vrttis refer to any sequence of thought, ideas, mental imaging, or cognitive act performed by the mind, intellect, or ego as defined above – in short, any state of mind whatsoever. It cannot be overstressed that the mind is merely a physical substance that selects, organizes, analyzes, and molds itself into the physical forms of sense data presented to it; in an of itself it is not aware of them. Sense impressions or thoughts are imprints in that mental substance, just as a clay pot is a product made from the substance of clay, or waves are permutations of the sea. The essential point for understanding yoga is that all forms or activities of the mind are products of prakrti, matter, and completely distinct from the soul or true self, purusa, pure awareness or consciousness.

The citta can profitably be compared to the software, and the body to the hardware. Neither is conscious; they are rather forms of gross matter, even as the former can do very intelligent activities. Both software and hardware are useless without the presence of a conscious observer. Only purusa is truly alive, that is, aware or conscious. When uncoupled from the mind, the soul, purusa, in its pure state, that is, in its own constitutional, autonomous condition – untainted by being misidentified with the physical coverings of the body and mind – is free of content and changeless; it does not constantly ramble and flit from one thing to another the way the mind does. To realize pure awareness as an entity distinct and autonomous from the mind (and, of course, the body), thought must be stilled and consciousness extracted from its embroilment with the mind and its incessant thinking nature. Only then can the soul be realized as an entity completely distinct from the mind (a distinction such cliches as "self-realization" attempt to express), and the process to achieve this realization is yoga...

Through grace or the sheer power of concentration, the mind can attain an inactive state where all thoughts remain only in potential but not active form. In other words, through meditation one can cultivate an inactive state of mind where one is not cognizant of anything. This does not mean to say that consciousness becomes extinguished, Patanjali hastens to inform us (as does the entire Upanishadic/Vedantic tradition); consciousness is eternal and absolute. Therefore, once there are no more thoughts or objects on its horizons or sphere of awareness, consciousness has no alternative but to become conscious of itself. In other words, consciousness can either be object-aware or subject aware (loosely speaking). The point is that it has no option in terms of being aware on some level, since awareness is eternal and inextinguishable. By stilling thought, meditation removes all objects of awareness. Awareness can therefore now be aware only of itself. It can now bypass or transcend all objects of thought, disassociate from even the pure sattvic citta, and become aware of its own source, the actual soul itself, purusa. This is self-realization (to use a neo-Vedantic term), the ultimate state of awareness, the state of consciousness in which nothing can be discerned except the pure self, asamprajnata-samadhi. This is the final goal of yoga and thus of human existence."

– Edwin Bryant, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

All this to say, with Patanjali in Verses 2 and 3 of his Sutras, that:

"Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind.
When that is accomplished, the seer abides in its own true nature."

For more on the Yoga Sutras, check out this lecture from Edwin Bryant:

Siddhartha: Review

In Siddhartha, we follow a spiritual seeker through his wandering, Enlightenment, and finally, through his entrance back into the world.  The seeker, Siddhartha, is placed in the time of The Buddha and actually meets The Master himself, hearing his teachings first hand.  Surprisingly, Siddhartha chooses not to become a disciple of The Buddha, but instead attempts to attain the Ultimate Goal on his own.  Siddhartha finds what he seeks and then returns to civilian life, living among ordinary people as an "enlightened one."  Throughout, the reader finds themselves immersed in the world of Hindu and Buddhist thought.  

Overview:  The book is divided into two sections.  In Part One, Siddhartha seeks and attains Enlightenment, and in Part Two, he re-enters the world.

Part One:  Siddhartha begins his journey as part of his society's upper class, a Brahmin.  Echoing the life of The Buddha, Siddhartha seemingly has everything he could want – wealth, beauty, and power – but finds himself discontent with the best life has to offer:

"Within himself Siddhartha had begun to nourish discontent.  He had begun to feel that the love of his father and the love of his mother and even the love of his friend Govinda would not forever after delight him, soothe him, satisfy and suffice him.  He had begun to surmise that his venerable father and his other teachers, that these wise Brahmins had already conveyed the majority and the best part of their wisdom, that they had already poured out their plenty into his waiting vessel, and the vessel was not full, the mind was not satisfied, the soul was not calm, the heart was not stilled.  Ablutions were good, but they were water, they did not wash away sin, they did not quench spiritual thirst, they did not dissolve fear in the heart.  Sacrificing to the gods and invoking them was excellent – but was this all?  Did sacrifices bring happiness?  And what was the nature of the gods?  Was it really Prajapati who had created the world?  Was it not the Atman, He, the Sole One, the All-One?  Were not the gods representations, created as you and I, subject to time, transitory?  Was it therefore good, was it right, was it a meaningful and supreme act to sacrifice to the gods?  To whom else was one to sacrifice, whom else was one to venerate, besides Him, the Only One, the Atman?  And where was Atman to be found, where did He abide, where did His eternal heart beat, where else but within one's own I, deep inside, in what is indestructible, borne within every individual?"

With a spiritual desire that can't be quenched by the things of the world, or even his traditional religion, Siddhartha, again echoing the life of The Buddha, leaves his security behind to become an ascetic religious seeker – a shramana.  

As Siddhartha develops as a shramana, mortifying his passions and harshly disciplining his body, he eventually finds his way to The Buddha himself and encounters his teachings.  Although Siddhartha finds little wrong with The Buddha's teachings, he realizes that the teachings themselves are not what he is looking for.  No body of teachings can ever encompass what the Buddha experienced – Enlightenment.  

"To no one, o most Venerable One, will you be able to speak and convey in words what happened in the hour of your enlightenment!  The teachings of the enlightened Buddha encompass a great deal, they teach much, how to live righteously, how to avoid evil.  But one thing the teachings, so clear and so venerable, do not contain: they do not contain the secret of what the Exalted One himself experienced, he alone among the hundreds of thousands."

Siddhartha thus leaves The Buddha and his community to seek Enlightenment on his own.  The Enlightenment eventually comes, seemingly from nowhere, and the experience is described in a manner similar to Satori.  

Part Two:  In Part Two of the novel, Siddhartha returns to civilian life, working for a simple merchant and falling in love with a beautiful woman, Kamala.  As he begins his re-entry into normal living, Siddhartha "plays with life."  He has the ability to engage in relationships, in business, in pleasure, without gaining his life from these things:

"'He always seems only to play at business, it never gets into his blood, it never rules him, he never fears failure, losses never bother him'...If he had profits, he pocketed them with equanimity; if he met with loss, he laughed and said: 'Oh, my goodness, this has gone very badly!'"

But after some time, Siddhartha is again overcome by the world, becoming attached to the things he had once freed himself of:

"Belongings, assets, and wealth in the end had captured him, this was no longer play, these were no longer frills, rather they had become a burden, and he was chained to them."

Siddhartha has re-entered Samsara, and is unable to keep himself from being overtaken by it.

The remainder of the book narrates Siddhartha's continued relationship with Kamala, his reunion with Govinda (his friend as a youth), and his ongoing spiritual struggle.

Reflections:  Siddhartha was kind of an odd book for me.  I thought Part One was brilliant and immediately immerses the reader in Hindu (and to an extent, Buddhist) thought.  I would have loved it if Hesse expanded more on the "Enlightenment experience" of Siddhartha.  He seems to be describing what is often spoken of as "Satori," a kind of transfiguring of reality in which everything is "as it should be," or everything is "as One":

"Blue was blue, river was river, and if the one and the divine also lay concealed in the blue and in the river and in Siddhartha, it was just the nature and meaning of the divine to be yellow here, blue here, there sky, there forest and here Siddhartha.  Meaning and essence were not somewhere behind things, they were inside things, in everything."

Part Two, in which Siddartha re-enters the world, eventually becoming engrossed in what he had once left behind, was kind of confusing to me.  When he initially comes back, I thought it was a good picture of how one who has become "unattached" can then live a regular life, but from a different view – engaging in the things of the world, but remaining inwardly detached from them.  But Siddhartha seems to alter between states of "re-finding" his enlightenment, and then losing it again, and I am unsure how to interpret the ending of the book.

Personal Takeaways: I think my biggest takeaway from Siddhartha is a question: Can someone who experiences Enlightenment, or perhaps a monk who believes they have reached the Unitive Stage (say St. John of the Cross), be again captured by the things of this world?  I'm not even sure that it makes sense to speak of a person who has reached this stage and would make that claim (I tend to think that Enlightenment or the Unitive Stage are best thought of as archetypes – ideals to strive for), but this is the question that stays with me after this book.  I feel like my experience is very back and forth.  At times I have felt tastes of what I feel are the fruits of contemplative practice, more peace with life as it is, less attachment, less striving.  But then I'll get caught up again.  This is what I see from the character Siddhartha, and in the novel, he has already achieved Enlightenment.  It just makes me wonder...

Overall, I think the main value of Siddhartha is gaining an understanding of some of the major themes of Hinduism and Buddhism in narrative form.  It's a short, engrossing read, but one you'll want to take your time with.  

Speaking of the Perennial Philosophy...

This is Eknath Easwaran speaking on The Perennial Philosophy using Hindu terms ("the Atman").  Eknath founded the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation in 1961 in Berkley, California and also taught as a professor at UC Berkley. 

In his most well known series of translations, he defines the Perennial Philosophy as follows:

"(1) There is an infinite, changeless reality beneath the world of change; (2) this same reality lies at the core of every human personality; (3) the purpose of life is to discover this reality experientially; that is, to realize God while here on earth."

His series Classics of Indian Spirituality is a fantastic place to start exploring Eastern spirituality.  I'd recommend the Bhagavad Gita to begin...