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Philosophy of Yoga

As we discovered through our study of the history of Yoga, there are many diverse and sometimes contradictory philosophies of Yoga.  While most yogic philosophies emphasize a non-dualist approach and a realization of the connection between our mind, body and absolute reality or the cosmic one, others (like Patanjali) stress the importance of separating the mind and body.

Although most Yoga philosophies build upon each other like the Upanishads built upon the wisdom of the Vedas and the Bhagavad-Gita built upon the philosophies of the Upanishads, other philosophies seem to have developed in reaction against a previous philosophy or doctrine.  For instance, Tantrism seems to have been a reaction against philosophies that denied the importance of the body and the gentle teachings of the first Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) rejected both the caste system of the Hindu religion and the self punishing rituals of the Jains.

Another example of this swinging from one extreme to another is the philosophies of Vedanta. This school of thought believed in a supreme, eternal consciousness pervading all existence and may have been born as a reaction to the obsessive ritualism of Hinduism during the eighth or ninth century CE. Shankaracharya was one of the main followers of this philosophy, stating that everything is illusion and that God alone is reality.  Shankaracharya encouraged his followers to leave their homes and families in order to become celibate and completely devoted to the path of Yoga.

A few centuries later, the philosopher Ramanuja stated that, on the contrary, everything is real and encouraged his followers to seek divinity while still living in the world.  In other words, devotees to Ramanuja were praised and honoured for upholding their duties to society and family while following the path of Yoga.  Many scholars believe that this idea may have led to the origins of Hatha Yoga (the physical practices of Yoga).  It has been suggested that it was Tantric practitioners around 900 to 1000 BCE whose main aim was to obtain enlightenment through physical practices of the body.

Schools of classical Indian philosophy

Since the beginning of time, it would seem that people have been developing philosophies in an attempt to define the true nature of reality.  Rich and prominent amongst these philosophies are the Indian schools of thought.

Yoga is not considered a religion. It is better described as a school of practical philosophy. However, there is no denying that yogic practices are linked and interwoven into the development of both Hinduism and philosophical schools like Vedanta, Samkhya, Jainism and Buddhism. The co-development of these schools with yoga has created varying degrees of commonality such as language, practices, myth, root teachings and beliefs.

Since Yoga is a classical school of Indian philosophy it is important to have some understanding of the six classical schools or systems of Indian philosophy.  However, because these systems are adequately incorporated into the yogic system, it isn’t necessary to go into great depth or study of these separate philosophies.  The exact dates of these systems are not known, as they were passed down orally.  These systems predate the convention of writing.  While some estimate that these systems were developed 2000 to 3000 years ago, others state that it is as much as 5000 to 10,000 years ago.

Yoga is considered the school or discipline for achieving liberation. Yoga systematically deals with all the levels of one’s being and strives to allow the practitioner to experience the eternal centre of consciousness. It involves the systematic witnessing of the practitioner’s many layers or inner states. Ultimately, the practitioner will experientially go beyond these states into the centre of the universal consciousness. Patanjali often refers to Yoga in general as Samkhya-Yoga since Yoga contains the practical methods in order to realize the direct experience and truths contained in the Samkhya philosophy. However, Patanjali’s yoga is dualistic in nature while most strains of Yogic philosophy are of a non-dualist. The nondualist strains of yogic philosophy differ greatly from Samkhya philosophy.

Samkhya philosophy

The term ‘Yoga’ emerged for the first time in the metaphysics of the Samkhya philosophy, a philosophy borne of ‘buddhi’ meaning mind.  It is a strongly dualist Hindu philosophy and regards the universe as consisting of two eternal realities: Purusha and Prakriti.  Purusha is in the centre of consciousness, whereas Prakriti is the source of all material existence.  Purusha has no physical entity and manifests only when yoked with Prakriti.  This is a Yoga of male and female elements and the evolution of that union.  In visual terms this is envisioned as the physical mating of Shiva and Parvati, his Shakti and is represented in art as such (e.g. see www.exoticIndiaart.com).  Hindus perceive Creation as the result of the union of the two. Later evolution of yogic philosophy also perceives this cosmic element in the union of Vishnu and Lakshmi.

So, if we look at Samkhya philosophy in terms of Tantra’s Shiva and Shakti, Parusha is the male principle, while Prakriti is the female principle or Mother Nature.  According to Samkhya philosophy, when a spirit chooses a human birth in order to work out the karma attached to it, Parusha and Prakriti move apart to create a physical manifestation.  Prakriti (Mother Nature) contains all the knowledge of the universe, but when we are reborn our karma creates a new identity for us which results in our perception of ourselves as separate. This is called “I-am-ness” or ahamkara.

In order to hold this identity in the body there are three forces of movement called gunas which must be transcended if we are to once again understand our connectedness to all things and overcome our karma.  These forces of movement are inertia/connectivity/darkness (tamas), change/activity/movement (rajas) and balance/purity/order (satva).  All things in the universe are considered a mixture of these three gunas.  The predominance of a particular guna is what is said to give things their particular characteristics or attributes.

Another component of our being (according to Samkhya philosophy) is mind or manus and for this to function, we need a body and five senses.  For a mind to function, we also need a body and five senses. The body is made up of five elements (bhutas): earth, water, fire, air and space.  Each element has a sense associated with it as well as an organ of action that reacts to worldly experiences.  The organs of knowledge are what the senses use to perceive the world; the organs of action are what the senses use to act on what they perceive.

This is how Samkhya philosophy explains the creation of matter from spirit.  Samkhya gives Yoga a definite metaphysical shape and status as an independent philosophy.  It perceives creation as a cyclic evolution on the completion of which the objective universe dissolves and the cyclic process begins afresh.

Samkhya philosophy offers a framework for all levels of manifestation, from the subtlest to the grossest. The subtlest layers of our being are our innermost or most spiritual layers, while the grossest layer of our being is our physical layer.  Samkhya comes from the Sanskrit word “samyag akjyate” which means “that which explains the whole”.  Samkhya deals with Prakriti (matter), Purusha (consciousness), buddhi or mahat (intelligence), ahamkara (I-am-ness), the three gunas (elements of stability, activity and lightness), mind (manas), cognitive and active senses (indriyas) and the five subtle and gross elements (earth, water, fire, air and space).  In light of its breadth, it contains all the domains of Vaisheshika, Nyaya and Mimasa (other schools of Indian thought).

In this school of thought creation is believed to take place as a product of the 25 essential elements (tattvas).  The 25 tattva system of Samkhya concerns itself only with the tangible aspect of creation, theorizing that Prakriti is the source of the world of the coming period.  It is the first Tattva and is seen as pure potentiality that evolves itself successively into 24 additional tattvas or principles.

Tattva is the Sanskrit word meaning ‘thatness’, ‘principal’, ‘reality’ or ‘truth’.  According to various Indian schools of philosophy, a tattva is an element or aspect of reality conceived as an aspect of a deity. Although the number of tattvas varies depending on the philosophical school, together they are thought to form the basis of all our experience.  The Samkhya philosophy uses a system of 25 tattvas, while Shaivism recognizes 36 tattvas.

The School of Shaivism

The School of Shaivism is one of the oldest of the four sects of Hinduism.  Followers revere Shiva as the Supreme Being.  Shaivas believe that Shiva is Everything and All.  He is creator, preserver, destroyer, revealer and concealer of all that is.

The School of Nyaya

The school of Nyaya is a school concerned with the laws of thought, reasoning and logic.  The Nyaya system was founded by the ancient sage Gautama (the Buddha during fifth or sixth century BCE) and deals with the process of reasoning.  In this school of thought, doubt is considered a prerequisite for philosophical inquiry.  Valid knowledge through logical reasoning is its primary aim.

The School of Vedanta

The school of Vedanta is a school of contemplative self-inquiry.  Vedantic philosophy and practice provides contemplative methods of self-inquiry leading to the realization of one’s true nature.  The true Self is not subject to death, decay, or decomposition.  The teachings of Vedanta are best captured in the books of the Upanishads.

Contemplation on the Mahavakyas can be a key to understanding this school of thought. The Mahavakyas are the four “Great Sayings” of the Upanishads.  Each of the Mahavakyas is associated with one of the four Vedas and according to Vedantic mysticism is said to condense the essence of that entire Veda in one statement.  The Mahavakyas are:

Prajnanam Brahma or “Consciousness in Brahman” (Aitareya Upanishad 3.3 of the Rig Veda), Ayam Atam Brahma or “This Self (atman) is Brahman” (Mandukya Upanishad 1.2 of the Atharva Veda, Tat Tvam Asi or “Thou art that” (CHandogya Upanishad 6.8.7 of the Sama Veda) and Aham Brahmasmi or “I am Brahman” (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10 of the Yajur Veda).

The Vaisheshika system

The Vaisheshika system was developed by Prashastapada and emphasizes the physical sciences such as chemistry.  It includes exploring the elements of earth, water, fire, air and space, as well as time, mind and soul.

The Mamasa system

The Mamasa system was founded by Jaimini and pursues freedom through action.  It has a detailed philosophy related to ritual, worship and ethical conduct, which developed into the philosophy of karma.  This ritualistic school is dependent on the Vedas.  The concept of deity is present, but it is freedom through the performance of duty, action and rituals that is central.  Accurate interpretation of the Vedic texts is also of central importance.

Buddhist system

While there is not universal agreement on this point, many consider the teachings of Buddha to be an additional system or school of Indian philosophy since the Buddha’s methods are derived from the same sources as the systems listed above.

A central component of the Buddhist system/philosophy is the 12 Stages of Dependent Origination. The 12 stages of dependent origination, found in the Heart Sutra as taught by the Buddha. Based on the understanding that all phenomenon (you, me, the table, food, the sky, Earth, etc.) exists only as a result of the existence of other phenomenon. In other words, all things are an incredibly complex web of cause and effect. Dependent origination describes the ongoing process of reincarnation and suffering that occurs as a result of our attachment to certain ideas, cravings, and sensations.

Everything “depends” on everything else. The 12 links of conditioned existence include:

Former Life

1. ignorance from a former life
2. activities that produced karma in a former life

Current Life

3. conciousness in our current life
4. our personality and identity in our current life
5. our five physical senses + the mind + forms, sounds, thoughts in our current life
6. contact between objects and the senses in our current life
7. sensation or the registration of contact between our senses and objects in our current life
8. desire for continued contact between our senses and objects in our current life
9. attachment in our current life

Future Life

10. conception of a new life in the future
11. birth in a future life
12. old age and death in a future life

Indra’s Web:

“Imagine a multidimensional spider’s web in the early morning covered with dew drops. And every dew drop contains the reflection of all the other dew drops. And, in each reflected dew drop, the reflections of all the other dew drops in that relection. And so ad infinitum. That is the Buddhist conception of the universe in an image.”
Alan Watts