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The Philosophy of Yoga - An Aesthetic Appraisal

Article of the Month - Dec 2002

This article by Prof. P. C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet

Tapakar Yogic AasanYoga is one of the most ancient spiritual concepts of East, and despite a philosophical look it has an equally significant physical basis. It is not a body of doctrines, theories or principles. Intellectual problems or inquiries as to 'why' or 'whence' are not the areas of yogic deliberations. Boiled down to basics, Yoga is a collection of simple practices, a kind of body rituals, consisting of action, method and technique.

The Bhagvad Gita clarifies this interpretation and lays stress upon the Karma Yoga. This scripture says 'Work alone is your privilege, never the fruits thereof. Never let the fruits of action be your motive; and never cease to work. Work in the name of the Lord, abandoning selfish desires. Be not affected by success or failure. This equipoise is called Yoga.'

The Kathopnishad describes Yoga thus: 'When the senses are stilled, when the mind is at rest, when the intellect wavers not - then, say the wise, is reached the highest stage. This steady control of the senses and mind has been defined as Yoga. He who attains it is free form delusion.'

According to B.K.Iyenger, Yoga is the method by which the restless mind is calmed and the energy directed into constructive channels. As a mighty river which when properly harnessed by dams and canals, creates a vast reservoir of water, prevents famine and provides abundant power for industry; so also the mind, when controlled, provides a reservoir of peace and generates abundant energy for human upliftment.

The word yoga itself is derived from the Sanskrit verbal root 'yuj'. It means 'to yoke' or 'join'. Thus, Yoga is the science that yokes 'the finite' with 'the Infinite', or 'the finite spirit' with 'the Supreme Spirit'. In the book 'Gita according to Mahatma Gandhi,' the author says that yoga means "the yoking of all the powers of body, mind and soul to God; it means the disciplining of the intellect, the mind, the emotions, and the will-power." The learned author further says that yoga helps one achieve a poise of the soul which enables one to look at life in all its aspects evenly, whether it is pleasure or pain. Yoga prescribes no pantheon; one can have a deity of one's own choice to guide yogic performance. In modern terminology Yoga thus is a secular ritual.

The Origin of Yoga

Artifact from Harappa - Indus Valley Civilization



In the valley of the River Indus, a team of archaeologists under Sir Mortimer Wheeler discovered the remains of a civilization, which is now acknowledged to be approximately five thousand years old. Amongst the valued artifacts discovered were a number of seals depicting horn-capped figures sitting in positions which are advanced Yogic postures. The most famous of these seals is that of an ithyphallic deity now recognized as Shiva.




Vishnu as Yoga-Narayana
Yoga Narayana is the concrete form of the abstract concept of the goal of Tantra sadhana, i.e. attainment of supreme bliss or moksha through total detachment from pursuit of wealth artha),delight (kama) and virtues ( dharma ) by practise of yoga. Various Puranas call Narayana as Mula-Prakriti, Sri Vidya and Lalita, the names of the goddesses of Tantra. The name Narayana means one who dwells in the deep (nara means waters) and ayana (means place). It refers to the Primordial god in form, the first one to spring out of the formless. Since Narayana personifies the ultimate joy, he is sitting in Padmasana, with his eyes closed and turned inward, thus showing him in complete absorption and radiating bliss. This image of Yoga Narayana (the lord of yogis) represents the quintessence of Yoga-sadhana.

This magnificent image of Vishnu as Yoga-Narayana belongs to Chandela art of l0th century. He is shown seated cross legged in dhyana mudra on lotus pedestal and is adorned with Srivatsa on chest and heavily jeweled ornaments.







Indeed tradition has it that it was Lord Shiva who first manifested in himself both Yoga and Tantra. The ithyphallic nature of this object points to tantric connotations while the essentially Yogic posture in which he is seated points to him being the Lord of Yoga. Yoga ultimately also got associated with Vishnu, where in his Yoga Narayana form he is personified the supreme object of Yoga.












Shiva Shakti


The term 'Yoga' emerged for the first time, in the metaphysics of the Sankhya, a philosophy born of 'buddhi', meaning mind and which is basically the meaning of the term 'Sankhya'. In the Sankhya theory of cosmic evolution there sprouted the seeds of a systematic philosophy of 'Yoga', called the 'Sankhya-Yoga'. It recognized two ultimate entities - Prakriti and Purusha or nature and spirit.

Sankhya acclaims that the objective universe in its infinite diversity evolves out of this Prakriti when it is yoked with Purusha. The Purusha has no physical entity and manifests only when yoked with Prakriti. Sankhya calls the manifested cosmos the 'parinama' (result), of this yoga of the male and female elements, or evolution out of the union. In visual terms this is envisioned as the physical mating of Shiva with Parvati, his Shakti, and represented in art as such.



Vishnu Lakshmi

Sankhya gives to Yoga a definite metaphysical shape and the status of 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. This Sankhya theory of evolution makes no reference to God and thus incidentally Yoga evolved as a secular concept with the result that almost all sects in India adopted it with alike zeal. Hindus personified Purusha and Prakriti in Shiva and Shakti and perceived the Creation as the result of the union of the two. Later evolution of yogic thought also perceives this cosmic element in the union of Vishnu and Lakshmi.

Shamvara and Vajravarahi in Yab-Yum



In broader perspective it is the same wherever the creative process is involved. In Buddhism this is visible in the Yab Yum imagery.

It must be noted here that the woman, who is the Prakriti, creates by union with the male, but through her own expansion. This quality of expansion is her exclusive preserve and is evident in the sexual act where it is the female who expands while consummating the union (or yoking). Similarly while carrying the fertilized seed in her womb, her belly expands.




Patanjali and his Yogasutra

Patanjali was the earliest to systematize Yoga into a body of philosophy. He assimilated elements of Buddhism and Jainism also, but his metaphysical basis consists broadly of Sankhya. He, however, makes a significant modification in Sankhya metaphysics. To the Sankhya theory of Prakriti and Purusha, Patanjali adds the element of 'Purushavishesha', the All Pervading Seer, or God, whom he neither defines nor gives evidence for the existence of, but only accepts its reality and believes it.

Om (Aum)


Patanjali consecrates 'Purushavishesha' as the supreme divinity of Yoga and he calls it by the name of 'Aum', the sacred syllable and the most powerful of all 'mantras'. Indeed in its multi-dimensional rise and fall of sound - taking off from middle level, the lips, rising to zenith, the palate, and descending into the unknown recesses, the throat, Patanjali sought in the syllable 'Aum' parallelism for his 'Purushavishesha' who, like 'Aum', also pervades the 'three worlds'. Patanjali says, the created ones can unite with the 'Purushavishesha' by commemorating 'Aum.' Thus Patanjali was the first individual to realize the nature of AUM as an independent potent entity.



Padampani Avalokiteshvara




In the arts of ancient India this is exemplified in the classical representation of the human body, known as tribhanga, or the posture of 'three bends.' In this particular visualization, the head, torso, and legs slant in contrary directions: the legs and hips to the right, the trunk to the left, and the neck and head then gently to the right. It is a lyrical, dreamy, very graceful pose. The three curves formed by the body symbolize the three worlds, upper, lower and middle, better known in Sanskrit as triloka. Significantly AUM too is made up of three curves, making the analogy self-evident.





Patanjali's Eight-Fold Yoga

The most significant contribution of Patanjali however, was his development of the practical aspects of Yoga, and the elaboration of both its theory and practice. He virtually made Yoga a practical science of body and mind, a metapsychology along with metaphysics, and identified various physical positions, exercises and moves and mental modes which today constitute the diverse forms of Yoga. Patanjali enumerates these means as the eight stages of Yoga leading towards the attainment of Nirvana. Known as Ashtanga Yoga (Asht - eight; anga - limb), these are:

1. Yama, or Self-Control: Yama is a kind of self discipline consisting of five parts:

a). Non-injury (ahimsa)
b). Truthfulness (satya)
c). Non-stealing (asteya)
d). Celibacy (brahmacharya)
e). Non-hoarding of material objects (aparigraha)

The emphasis here is on the non-acceptance of anything that instruments pleasure.

2. Niyama, or Rules for Regulating Life: While yama are precepts that are universal in their application, Niyama are rules of conduct that apply to individual discipline. They are again five:

a). Purification (shaucha): Of the body through washing and by taking pure food only; and that of the mind by practicing friendliness, kindness, cheerfulness and indifference to the vices of others.
b). Contentment (santosha)
c) Penance by practicing austerities (tapas)
d). Self-Study of sacred texts (svadhyaya)
e). Meditation on God (Ishvara pranidhana)

Parasram Yogic Aasan




3. Asanas or Body Postures: This is the third stage of yogic evolution. Asanas are physical exercises that bring steadiness, health and lightness of limb. A steady and pleasant posture produces mental equilibrium and prevents fickleness of mind. According to B K S Iyengar, asanas have been evolved over the centuries so as to exercise every muscle, nerve and gland in the body. They secure a fine physique, which is strong and elastic without being muscle-bound and they keep the body free from disease. Indeed the yogi conquers the body by the practice of asanas and makes it a fit vehicle for the spirit.







There are many kinds of 'asanas' elaborated in the Yoga-sutra, many of which find their echo in the annals of Indian art. Take for example the 'Tadasana,' the first posture mentioned in Iyenger's famous book Light on Yoga.' Tada means mountain, and broadly suggests an upright, straight, and unmoved posture. Tadasana therefore implies a pose where one stands firm and erect as a mountain. Tadasana is often described as a standing meditation posture. In Indian art, this stately posture is first witnessed in the form of Jinas, the founder of the Jain faith. Across the centuries the sculpted figure, whether male or female, stands often upright, steadfast and motionless, as though rooted to the earth.




Yoga Master BKS Iyenger Displaying the Tadasana





In the actual performance too of this asana, across modern yoga studios around the world, the practitioner stands firm with weight evenly distributed. Kneecaps are pulled up, hips move inwards and the stomach is held up but neither tightened nor sucked in. The chest is forward and the outer shoulders extend horizontally. Chest and shoulders are further expanded due to the rhythm of yogic breathing or pranayama (discussed next). The spine is extended, the neck is held straight and the eyes gaze straight ahead. Arms are held down along the sides of the body; they do not hang limp but are charged, with fingers energized, straight and pointing downwards.





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