Yoga: Its Distinguishing Features
Yoga as distinguished from religion is primarily a shastra and not system of beliefs, ceremonies, rituals and moral and spiritual disciplines related to the system of beliefs and prescriptions. As a shastra, it is a growing body of knowledge of truths, principles, powers and processes that govern the discipline of the body, life and mind and other higher faculties in search and realisation of psychic, spiritual and supramental reality or realities that lie beyond the body, life and mind, as also the consequences of that search and realisation for the individual and collective existence in the cosmos. Sri Aurobindo's book The Synthesis of Yoga is related to yogic experiences that can be attained by the application of yogic shastra, independent of any religion or any spiritual practice that is tied to any religion, even though spiritual disciplines of religions may coincide with or may adopt or recognise for their own aims some or other aspects of this shastra.
In its inmost nature, yoga is, according to the yogic shastra, the expression of the flame of aspiration that rises upwards in order to bum and bum steadily, constantly and ever-increasingly, to grow in leaps of fire in order to bum away all that tends towards impurity, to build our inner being and all members of the being, — body, life, and mind and all our faculties, actual and latent, — so that all of them make an ascent in all-consuming zeal to unite with all that is or felt or conceived to be the highest, the best, the widest and intensest, the infinite, the limitless, all and beyond, — so that they can attain, consummation and ever-living sustenance of heat and light. This flame has, in its upward movement, — it is discovered, — an inherent sense of direction and discloses progressively the needed knowledge of the means and methods that are required for its constant movement and consummation; it has the Veda — not the text — but that which is recognised in the Indian tradition as the secret knowledge that is in the heart of every thinking and living being, but uncovered by the seeker through the process of the burning of aspiration itself, — and, therefore, in need of no indispensable external agencies of guidance, — teacher, book, ethics, aesthetics, philosophy, science, occultism or religion, — even though they may be utilised as and when indicated or offered on the way, but in the end transcended
by the inward force of the constant need to bum and burn luminously and immortally.
Yoga is the journey of the yogic flame of aspiration, and this journey is, as reported by the seekers, difficult and even perilous, although when carried on by heroic concentration, it becomes more and more felicitous, and victories are won after victories, and even though it rises on peaks after peaks of accomplishment — yoga-siddhi, — there are still farther accomplishments that are made clearer. As an ancient record of Yoga states:
ud vamśam iva yemire.
yat sānoḥ sānum āruhad
bhūri aspaṣṭa kartvam¹
The seekers of the journey climb thee like a ladder, O hundred powered. As one ascends from peak to peak, there is made clear the much that has still to be done.
And yet in the ever-progressive movement, the individual seeker, the individual soul, discovers the stable source and foundation, the creative power of the world, and even while seated securely in that foundation, it sees luminously the progressive self-unfolding. Again, as it is stated:
abhyavasthāḥ pra jāyante
pra vavrer vavriś ciketa.
upasthe māturvi caṣṭe.²
States upon states are born covering over covering
awakens to knowledge: in the lap of the Creative Power of the Worlds, the Mother of Creation, he
On account of this reason, Yoga is ever-expanding; the Book of yoga, — shastra of yoga — is not a closed book.
At the outset, we need to underline a very important experience that precedes one's entry into the practice of the disciplines of yoga. Sometimes, there occurs a major upheaval in the life of the seeker, which is often decisive and which brings forth a call for the pursuit of yoga with such an overwhelming force that the seeker becomes a new person, and thereafter is called twice-born (dwija). We notice this kind of upheaval in the life of Prince Siddhartha when he saw the four great scenes of the sick, the dead, the old man and the hermit, and that sight caused what is called mahābhiniśkramaṇa. We see a similar upheaval in the life of Arjuna when he underwent a sudden crisis where in search of the right action at the commencement of the great war of the Mahabharata, he found all standards of conduct which were so far his staff of the journey crashing down so as to cast him into a deep depression (vishāda) from which he felt he could come out only by escaping from the very root of responsible action. The decisiveness by which he entered into his quest through his dialogue with Sri Krishna, and his pursuit of Karma yoga is another illustration in the same category.³ There are many other illustrations such as those of Tulsidasa and Surdasa and many others. A remarkable illustration is provided by William James where Tolstoy, at the height of the glory of his literary career, began to feel that
something had broken within him and that he had nothing left to hold on to, and that morally his life had stopped. The questions, Why? Wherefore? What for? could not be answered. See Appendix VII (p. 152).
In many cases, this upheaval is resolved by what is called conversion in books on psychology of religion. But often this conversion is psychologically a shift of religious ideas and beliefs from the periphery of consciousness to the centre of consciousness, and although this shift brings about a remarkable departure of the seeker from his past mode of life to a new mode of life, still the new mode of life is governed by ideas and beliefs. In the conversion that is a prelude to the life of yoga, the centre of being is moved, not merely by ideas and beliefs, but by a thirst which can be quenched only by a process that leads to the transcendence of ideas and beliefs and by knowing and possessing in concrete experience of the delivering light.
In the following passage, Sri Aurobindo describes a number of circumstances under which the call to Yoga comes to the seeker:
"All Yoga is in its nature a new birth; it is a birth out of the ordinary, the mentalised material life of man into a higher spiritual consciousness and a greater and diviner being. No Yoga can be successfully undertaken and followed unless there is a strong awakening to the necessity of that larger spiritual existence. The soul that is called to this deep and vast change, may arrive in different ways to the initial departure. It may come to it by its own natural development which has been leading it unconsciously towards the awakening; it may reach it through the influence of a religion or the attraction of a philosophy; it may approach it by a slow
illumination or leap to it by a sudden touch or shock; it may he pushed or led to it by the pressure of outward circumstances or by an inward necessity, by a single word that breaks the seals of the mind or by long reflection, by the distant example of one who has trod the path or by contact and daily influence. According to the nature and the circumstances the call will come.
"But in whatever way it comes, there must be a decision of the mind and the will and, as its result, a complete and effective self-consecration."4
Underlying Secrets of the Methods of Attainment of Yogic Experiences
The central question of Yoga is by what means can the seeker be enabled to know that which as yet the seeker does not know. Indeed, the means must have their root in our own instruments and their present functionings, and there are three instruments in our consciousness with which the yogic processes are connected. These three instruments are our cognitive faculties, affective faculties, and conative faculties. The processes of Jnāna yoga are more easily woven into cognitive faculties, those of the yoga of bhakti or divine love are more easily woven into our affective faculties, and those of karma yoga or yoga of divine works are woven more easily into our conative faculties. This weaving is done, first, by some kind of strengthening of the concerned faculties, and secondly, by methodical efforts by which these faculties are turned with steady concentration on the highest that can be conceived by cognitive faculties, the highest that can be loved and admired and worshiped by our affective faculties and the highest from which all source of action can be seen to be proceeding. Every yoga, therefore, consists of the various processes of concentration. It may be said that in a certain sense, the entire process of yoga is fundamentally a process of concentration, the courses of which have been explored and affirmed in the yogic sciences.
The process of concentration is aided by the process of purification of all that is operating in the normal modes of the concerned faculty. This is, indeed, a long process, and a number of yogic experiences have been related to the processes of purification. Again, purification is greatly aided by a process of renunciation of all that tends to obstruct purification, tends to disturb or pollute or curb or refuse the process of purification.
These processes, — concentration, purification and renunciation — and their corresponding experiences constitute a large part of perfection in any system or path of yoga.
At a deeper level, the secret of yoga lies in fact that the limitations of our ordinary functioning of faculties and of our life are due to exclusive dwelling of our mind and heart, of our faculties of cognition, affection, and conation on the superficial layer or layers of our being of which alone we normally are aware. We are, as it were, caged into the prison of our outer being which constantly acts and reacts and which with difficulty happens to be pushed to be turned more and more inward. The more one turns inwards, the more one discovers potentialities and secrets of development. Yoga is nothing but a more radical shift from the outer to the inner, and the methods of yoga are primarily the methods by which our consciousness can be turned more and more inward. It is a reversal of our present exclusive concentration of consciousness which is normally centred on the outward; in yoga, the process is reversed, and we employ exclusive concentration of consciousness on the inward. A passage is then made in the inner realm of consciousness, and light that is inherent in consciousness discloses realities which lie hidden in our inner being. Inner realities are discovered, they
are visited repeatedly, and thus they become permanently disclosed; they are then said to be realised. The simple miracle of this discovery and realisation is that these inner realities are found to be luminous and vibrating energetically and they are capable of pouring into our outer layers of being their own light and powers and thus of transforming them.
In a more philosophical language, yoga is, first, the process to become conscious of the fact that there is in us a veil of ignorance; secondly, it is a process of the employment of methods by which this veil of ignorance can be torn and destroyed. And thirdly, yoga is a process by which one can be stabilised in the states of consciousness which have been unveiled, so that they radiate unobstructed permanently.
The distinctive methods of Yoga relate to the meticulous handling of customary psychological workings based upon a knowledge developed and confirmed by regular experiments, practical analysis and constant results so as to develop out of normal functions, powers and results which are always latent but which ordinary movements do not easily or do not often manifest. These methods are based on the perception and experience that our inner elements, combinations, functions, forces can be separated or dissolved, can be newly combined and set to novel and formerly impossible workings or can be transformed and resolved into a new general synthesis by fixed internal processes. They also depend on the perception and experience that the vital forces and functionings to which our life is normally subjected and whose ordinary operations seem to be set and indispensable, can be mastered and the operations changed or suspended with results that would otherwise be impossible and that seem miraculous to those who have not seized the rationale
of that process. These methods can some times be arranged in a certain order, in certain fixity of the developing process, and even in some mechanical procedure. But these methods tend to become less and less mechanical, less and less fixed in their order of procedure, and stages are reached where the required methodised effort is indicated by developing consciousness more and more spontaneously, more and more intuitively, more and more by psychic sense and tact and an inner spiritual guidance.
Yoga is, as stated by Sri Aurobindo, "a methodised effort towards self-perfection by the expression of the potentialities latent in the being and a union of the human individual with the universal and transcendent Existence we see partially expressed in man and in the Cosmos."5