Q&A With Hari-k
Q: During yoga classes, teachers often talk about how everything, with the exception of our eternal spirit, is impermanent. Using the word ‘eternal’ implies permanence so I just want to confirm my understanding that all is impermanent except for our eternal spirit. Is this a correct understanding?
A: Yes, you’re understanding is correct: according to yoga philosophy, everything in the material world is temporary except for us. Both the Yoga-sutras and the Bhagavad-gita confirm that our existence is not dependent on the existence of our physical bodies:
“There has never been a time when I did not exist, nor one when you did not exist, nor one when all these kings did not exist; nor is there any possibility that in the future any of us shall ever cease to be.” – Bhagavad-gita 2.12
The weather changes, popular tastes in music change, and civilizations come and go over the course of time. The material bodies that we inhabit are also temporary. However, the first assertion of yoga philosophy is that we are not our bodies; we are eternal spiritual beings having a temporary material experience.
The bodies are perpetually changing. The body you’ll have when you finish reading this will not be the same body you had when you started. Our material bodies come into being, remain for a relatively brief time, and then disappear. It’s like a magician’s trick: now you see it, now you don’t.
We don’t see consciousness, either, at least not directly. What we do see is evidence of consciousness: we can perceive that others are conscious and we experience consciousness our selves but we never actually ‘see’ consciousness because consciousness is categorically different from matter and is thus beyond the range of material vision.
We speak of our bodies in the possessive: ‘my hand, my legs, my body.’ Who is the possessor? The person who resides in the body. The symptom of the presence of a person residing in a body is consciousness of one level or another.
When consciousness is absent we understand that the person is gone.
Where did they go? Since consciousness is neither a product of matter nor dependent on matter, a person who leaves one body moves on to another body in accordance with their destiny:
“Just as the wind carries aromas from their source, a person carries different conceptions of life from one body to another. Thus a person takes one kind of body and, upon leaving it, takes on another.” – Bhagavad-gita 15.8
Here’s a little more to think about in this regard: we are eternally individual people. In Vedic yoga, such as in the Yoga-sutras, we make a distinction between purusa – a conscious person and prakriti – unconscious matter.
What does it mean to be a person? It means to be conscious of one’s own individuality, to have the power to think, feel, will, and act. It means to have senses with which to experience the world and respond to the world, which implies a world and other people with whom to interact within a shared environment.
In other words, just as there is a temporary material world within which we live temporary lives in a material body, it stands to reason that there is an eternal spiritual world within which self-realized people live eternal lives in a spiritual body.
This is an important distinction between the goal of yoga described in the Yoga-sutras and the yoga of the Bhagavad-gita: in the Yoga-sutras, the person who has reached the ultimate goal experiences nothing other than their own pure consciousness. In the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna describes a relationship between himself and all beings that finds its ultimate fulfillment in his own abode:
“Yet there is another, unseen world that is eternal and transcendental to this world of manifested and unmanifested matter. When all in this world is annihilated, that part remains as it is. Described as unmanifest and infallible, it is known as the supreme destination from which, having attained it, one never returns. That is my supreme abode.” – Bhagavad-gita 8.20-21
Having already established a clear distinction between himself and all other beings, Krishna’s description of his own ‘supreme abode’ amounts to an invitation to join him there. But to get there one has to develop an awareness of one’s original, spiritual form, of which our material bodies are a distorted reflection.
When we come to the point of residing in our true nature, we arrive at the point of realizing our true, spiritual form. So to be eternal doesn’t necessarily mean to merge into formlessness. On the contrary, we have an eternal form made of pure spiritual energy through which we experience our eternal individuality in relationship with all other individual beings and, ultimately, with the Supreme individual being, who is the sum and substance of all individual beings.
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Question: In the course of studying yoga and visiting different spiritual communities, I’ve come to find that there are a lot of different conceptions of what bhakti-yoga is and what bhakti is meant to teach us. Would you please explain why these differences exist and what those differences are?
Answer: Bhakti does indeed play different roles in different schools of yoga, according to each school’s conception of what bhakti’s place is relative to the ultimate goal of their practice.
In the Vedic tradition from within which yoga originally appears, there are three overarching categories of knowledge:
- Knowledge of relationships
- Knowledge of practices
- Knowledge of the ultimate goal
It may surprise you to learn that different schools of yoga each have different conceptions of the nature of relationships, practices, and what the ultimate goal of yoga is.
For example, a Jnana yogi who seeks to achieve liberation by merging into the Oneness of Brahman sees bhakti as a means to an end: a way to purify his or her heart in order to realize the One Absolute Reality.
A Raja yogi practices bhakti (isvara pranidhana – offering one’s life force to the Lord) in order to still the mind so that he or she can see the Supreme Consciousness within one’s heart or to experience pure consciousness devoid of any external object of awareness.
The essential ingredient of all forms of yoga
Bhakti is considered the one indispensible element in all schools of yoga, irrespective of the role that bhakti is understood to play. The practice of bhakti consists primarily of hearing and chanting mantras made up of the names of God.
There are different kinds of bhaktas, or devotees, who are defined according to their ista-devata, the particular form of the Supreme Person to whom they feel an attraction. There are Ram bhaktas, of which Hanuman is the ultimate example.
There are also Shiva bhaktas as well as devotees of various incarnations of Vishnu. In the different schools of Bhakti-yoga, bhakti is understood to be a stand-alone process that subsumes all the practices and purposes of all other forms of yoga.
Bhakti as a means to an end and an end in itself
I practice within a tradition of Krishna bhakti called Gaudiya Vaisnavism, which means devotion to Krishna in accordance with the teachings of Sri Caitanya (1486-1534). Caitanya’s disciples and followers systematized his teachings, which are based on far more ancient literatures, primarily the Srimad Bhagavatam, also known as the Bhagavat Purana. The primary practice is the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra.
In Caitanya’s school, pure bhakti, or pure love of God, is defined as love expressed though actions that are meant solely for the pleasure of Krishna without any tinge of philosophical speculation, desire for liberation, or selfish motive of any kind.
Bhakti-yoga as a stand-alone practice for Gaudiya Vaisnavas is not just a means to an end. It is both the means to an end and the end in and of itself. Bhakti yogis practice bhakti in order to attain bhakti.
In other words, one practices love for God (sadhana bhakti) by observing rules, regulations, and rituals in order to awaken a natural state of spontaneous love for God (raganuga bhakti). Thus, developing love for Krishna is the one and only goal of bhakti.
I personally find that Sri Caitanya’s teachings about bhakti are the most comprehensive and sound, which is to say I find them to be free from internal contradictions, applicable in all relevant circumstances, and free from ulterior or selfish motives.
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What’s your experience of Bhakti-yoga?
How does bhakti play a role in your yoga practice? Please share your experience of devotional yoga in the comments section below. And if you have a question about bhakti-yoga, I’ll be happy to offer an answer.
I’m enrolled in a Yoga Teacher Training program. On the first day of the training the instructor asked us to share our idea of what ‘yoga’ meant to us. Everyone had their own idea about what ‘yoga’ is and what it means to them. At the end of the discussion the trainer said, ‘whatever yoga means to you is perfect’.
We all have our own experience of yoga and every book about yoga seems to describe yoga differently so, can we all just decide for ourselves what ‘yoga’ means?
If whatever yoga means ‘to me’ is just as valid as whatever yoga means to anyone else then it seems like there really isn’t any definition for the word ‘yoga’ at all: a word that can mean whatever we want it to mean has no objective meaning. And that would make it impossible to speak about yoga in any meaningful way: without a shared meaning on which to base a conversation, each conception of yoga would exist in isolation from all others. It’s not possible to share the experience of yoga if the meaning of ‘yoga’ isn’t shared.
The reason we find a variety of definitions for yoga within the yoga tradition is that the tradition itself is composed of a variety of schools of yoga, each with its own philosophical conception of why we should practice yoga, how the practice should be performed, and what the ultimate goal of yoga practice is.
To make matters more confusing, books on yoga are often written with philosophical overlays: a philosophical point-of-view from one school is superimposed onto another school’s literature in a way that sounds like an authoritative interpretation yet differs from other equally authoritative-sounding interpretations.
So, even from a traditional perspective, if someone were to ask, ‘what is the definition of yoga?’ a reasonable reply would be, ‘according to who?’
The influence of contemporary progressive social culture on modern western yoga has made identifying an objective definition of yoga even more difficult. That’s because one feature of progressive social culture is an aversion to objective truth. Fluidity of ‘truth’, especially among younger practitioners, is seen as essential in order to ensure that everyone has a ‘safe space’ within which to practice ‘their yoga’.
All ‘personal truths’ are equally valid… until they’re not:
A popular post-modern strategy for undermining positions that threaten anyone’s ‘safe space’ is to liberate language from meaning by allowing words to mean whatever we want them to mean. This strategy effectively allows anyone to use language to create their own inviolable ‘safe space’ based on their ‘personal truth’.
The unfortunate side effect of this strategy is the elimination of language as a medium for shared meaning. The result is isolation rather than community, a retreat by everyone into their ‘personal truth’ rather than a coming together around a common cause, alienation and impersonalism rather than intimacy and connection.
The penalty for breaking the rule against invalidating my ‘personal truth’ is the invalidation of your ‘personal truth.’ Thus, if person A’s ‘personal truth’ violates person B’s ‘safe space’ then it becomes essential for person B and all of his or her supporters to shut person A down.
Which brings us back to your question: can we all decide for ourselves what ‘yoga’ means? Sure, as long as your definition of ‘yoga’ doesn’t invalidate my definition of ‘yoga’.
Two contradictory definitions can’t both be right.
But what if it does? Then what? If mutual exclusivity can’t be reconciled then two contradictory definitions can’t both be right.
Here’s a definition for ‘complicit’: wanting to be a force for good and to make a positive impact.
Here’s an alternative definition for ‘complicit’: helping to commit a crime or do wrong in some way.
Which one is correct? On what basis do we decide which one is correct? Odds are, we would accept the authority of a legitimate dictionary.
But if we’re all entitled to come up with our own definition of ‘yoga’ without referencing any authority beyond our selves then what we end up with is a collection of speculative definitions based on nothing but our own preferences and biases. Odds are our definition will do little more than provide a justification for doing whatever we like – and avoiding whatever we don’t like – and calling it ‘yoga’.
This is particularly ironic given that the yoga tradition universally acknowledges attachment to likes and aversions to dislikes as obstacles to the experience of yoga. In any event, one can hardly call such a definition ‘authoritative’, especially if the defining source is a relative novice at the study and practice of yoga.
Personally, I would no more accept someone as self-authorized to decide what yoga is than I would accept someone as self-authorized to decide what brain surgery is or what cosmic radiation is or what international law is or what art is or what any other specialized form of knowledge is.
How many ways are there to climb a mountain?
If we accept the idea that words have meanings then the very least we have to do is look at the root of the Sanskrit word ‘yoga’, which is yuj; to yoke or connect two things via one linking force. From this we can understand that, on a fundamental level, the word yoga must imply the union of one thing to another thing.
When looking at the overall tradition of yoga we also find that the word ‘yoga’ is universally regarded as having two related applications: as a description of a state of being and as a process to achieve that state of being.
We can look for further commonalities in the traditional understanding of yoga, such as the ideas of living in a way that does not cause harm to others, that doesn’t involve a preoccupation with materialistic pursuits, and that allows us to develop an awareness of a changeless ‘true nature’ that lies beneath the surface of our ever-changing minds and bodies.
Thus, the word ‘yoga’ has an objective meaning in the general sense and the details of that meaning may differ according to different schools of yoga, This still leaves us with the undeniable fact that everyone has their own subjective experience of yoga. How do we take this into account when we try to define ‘yoga’?
Think of it like this: there are as many ways to climb a mountain as there are mountain climbers. Each person climbs the same mountain but each in their own way. Each person is at a different location on the mountain and there are different paths up the mountain. Some paths are long and winding and some paths are short and straight. Some paths lead around to the other side of the mountain and some lead to the top. Different paths, same mountain.
Assigning an objective meaning to the word ‘yoga’ does not invalidate everyone’s unique experience of yoga. So a better way for the Teacher Training instructor to have phrased the question would have been, “what is your experience of yoga?”
By studying traditional yoga wisdom texts and hearing, with reasonable faith, from people whose lifestyle provides evidence that they have understood and assimilated the wisdom of those texts, we can develop a personal realization of what yoga means to us without inventing a meaning based on our own ‘personal truth’.
And that’s how I recommend that you discover the meaning of yoga for yourself.