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Yoga: Issues of Definition and Categorization
Yoga, a central concept for Indian religious thought, is a term that bears both on a type of religious behavior as well as soteriological conceptualizations linked to those behaviors. First we may assess, within the broad diversity of meanings the word has acquired, what are the semantic parameters that apply in nearly all usages of the word in religious contexts. The term ‘yoga’ nearly always denotes either 1) the means to a religious or magical goal, or 2) the goal itself (the latter usage usually restricted to soteriological contexts). I will categorize the various definitions of yoga as ‘Type 1’ or ‘Type 2.’ Additionally, the methods entailed in yogic practice nearly always involve a single-minded application of effort requiring some extent of self-mastery and self-discipline.1 Yoga as goal nearly always connotes either release from the cycle of saôsâra and the attainment of spiritual beatitude or, in some cases, the attainment of supernatural power, or both. Release from saôsâra had been held out as the highest soteriological goal from Upanišadic times: the Indian concept of transcendence of mundane reality and of ‘normal’ humanity as the highest possible attainment is a uniquely pervasive idea in subcontinental religion. Ultimately, it amounts to transcending human limitations and becoming, in some way, divine. Finally, yoga usually entails a practice better characterized by a Jamesian model of religion (i.e. ‘the acts
Bhakti-yoga is not an exception to this rule, as will be noted.
of individual men in their solitude...in relation to whatever they consider the divine’) rather than a Durkheimian one (social religious cult).2 We will see all these themes played out in our specific definitions of yoga. One of the earliest uses of word yoga in the sense we are considering is in the Kaþha Upanišad (c. 200 BCE?), where control of the senses is advocated using the famous ‘chariot’ metaphor, which also entails elements of early Sâókhya philosophy: the horses are the senses, the road the senseobjects, the mind the reins, the intellect the charioteer, the body the chariot, and the Âtman the passenger. The practitioner is to use his discriminating intelligence to control the senses by means of the mind. (KaUp 3.3-8) This can be seen as an early form of pratyâhâra, an important element of later systematized yoga. This also marks the entry into the textual tradition of a significant stream of religiosity extant since the time of the Buddha or before, that of rigorous and renunciatory self-discipline and concentration. Clearly this is a Type 1 definition (cf. Ka 3.8, 6.10-11). The Bhagavad Gîtâ (‘BhG’), which at times sounds almost like a commentary on parts of KaþhaUp, takes this sense of yoga and expands it further. This text is, of course, couched within the framework of the Mahâbhârata, which frequently uses the verbal root √yuj in the sense of ‘yoke’. In 5.149.47, for example, the warriors call for ‘the Yoke’, i.e. for the horses to be joined to their chariots and wagons, to be made ready for battle. This is therefore the context for the use of the word yoga (derived from the same root) in the BhG. Following van Buitenen, we may conclude
This despite the fact that yogic elements have been subsumed in a superficial way by some temple cults.
that yoga for this text connotes a self-yoking to a strenuous effort to which a person is committed, in order to win a goal (van Buitenen 17-18; very much a Type 1 definition). We see evidence for the close semantic connection between ‘yoga’ and its root in BhG 2.61, where Kåšòa prescribes that ‘one should sit down, controlling one’s senses, yoked (yukta), and intent on me...’. In 2.66 he clarifies further that ‘to be yoked is to have singleness of purpose’.3 Whether the topic is karma-, jñâna-, or bhakti-yoga, in every case the ‘yoga’ part of the compound indicates a disciplining of the mind. For example, in 12.2 Kåšòa says ‘I deem most adept at yoga [those] who fix their minds on me...’, thus demonstrating that what makes bhakti a ‘yoga’ is disciplined singleness of mind. The method is the same, though the inflection or object may differ, as this is a Type 1 definition.4 Another early definition, perhaps even prior to the BhG, is that of Vaiœešika-sûtra 5.2.16-17. Here yoga is understood in much the same way as in Kaþha. The ‘drawing near to each other’ of the senses, their objects, and the mind is seen as the problematic source of pleasure and pain; hence yoga is defined as the mind standing within the soul (âtmasthe manasi), i.e. fixing the locus of one’s awareness in the atman, which results in freedom from pleasure and pain. This may be seen as both Type 1 and 2; yoga is for the first time defined in terms of both the means and the goal (though this
Van Buitenen’s translations, The Bhagavad Gītā in the Mahābhārata, University of Chicago Press. Having said this, I must note that yoga is also defined according to Type 2 in the BhG., as in samatvam yoga ucyate, ‘yoga is said to be equanimity’ (2.48, cf. 6.29, 6.33). However, a Type 1 perspective dominates the text.
is accomplished through ambiguity).5 The simplicity of the articulation here suggests that this was not yet a fully systematized yoga. Another definition from the classical period is that of Patañjali’s Yogasûtras, which presents the famous yogaœ citta-våtti-nirodhaÿ: ‘yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind’ (1.2), a clear-cut Type 1 definition. Again, mental discipline is stressed, here as part of a highly organized system of practice, synthesizing a number of elements under this basic definitional banner. This practice is said to result in the radical state of kaivalya, total extraction and isolation of the pure consciousness of puruša from prakåti. This is a highly specific goal peculiar to the Sâókhya/Yoga ontological systems; but here, as in most early systems, yoga is really defined in terms of means, not goal. Œaókara confirms this when he cites an anonymous sûtra in his commentary on Brahma-sûtra 2.1.3: ‘yoga [is] the means which shows the truth’, though he is probably thinking of a discipline of knowledge rather than cessation of thought in using this quote. Our shift to texts in which yoga is defined primarily in terms of a goal is well articulated in Jain Yoga-œakata (c. 800 CE). Here yoga is seen as the concurrence of correct knowledge, doctrine, and conduct, which together are necessary and sufficient for liberation. This is taken as definition in terms of a goal (Type 2), but Haribhadrasûri also notes ‘In common usage this [term] ‘yoga’ also [denotes] contact with the causes of these [three],
Perhaps this a source for the ‘union’ definitions we will see later; this text was certainly known to the redactor(s) of the Mâlinīvijayottara-tantra.
due to the common usage of the cause for the effect’ (2.4). 6 This neatly pinpoints the easy semantic shift that led to our dual classification. Œaiva Siddhânta texts offer an interesting range of definitions of the term. The Parâkhyatantra lists several definitions, held by various schools (14.98-99b):
• • •
[Yoga is] conjunction with the [eight] Perfections (ašþasiddhis)—Type 2 Yoga arises from the influence of œakti—Type 1 Yoga arises from the attainment of samâdhi—Type 2 (but Type 1 insofar as it implies the practice leading to the attainment of samâdhi) [Yoga] resides in the practice of yoga—Type 1 Yoga is immersion (samâveœa) into That [i.e. Œiva], arising from the contemplation of the true nature of That—first phrase Type 2, second phrase Type 1
Finally, the 13th century Œâradâ-tilaka, another Saiddhântika text, gives its definition of yoga as ‘ascertainment of Œiva and the soul as non-different’ (25.2; Type 2). The list exhibits a greater diversity of meaning in the usage of the term than previously observable. Yoga no longer exclusively means mental training and discipline, but has also been subsumed into ‘mystical’ systems that do not always consider the aspirant’s sustained mental effort a keynote of yogic practice. The last two definitions listed show the move into the realm of Tantrik Œaiva yoga. However, we see echoes of the classical past in the slightly later Mågendratantra’s definition: ‘To have self-mastery is to be a yogin’ (YP 2: tadâtmavattvaô yogitvam, translation Sanderson). If the best single translation for ‘yoga’ in the earlier texts is ‘discipline’ (per Edgerton), then perhaps the most appropriate single word
Trans. Vâsudeva. Also cited as an example of this semantic shift by Haribhadra is the phrase âyur ghåtam, ‘ghee is life’ which of course really means ‘ghee is a means to long life’.
for the later (mediaeval) usage is ‘union’. We see this shift even from the Mågendra’s text to its commentary (the –våtti by Nârâyaòakaòþha), which reads: ‘The term yogin means one who is necessarily conjoined with the manifestation of his nature, in other words the Œiva-state...[which] is the invariable concomitant of self-mastery.’ (Translation Sanderson.) Here Nârâyaòakaòþha takes a definition which could be either Type 1 or 2, and presents it as unequivocally Type 2, with stress on the theistic concept of joining oneself to one’s true nature (svarûpa) which is an essence identical to Œiva’s. Finally, the Mâlinîvijayottara, the central scripture for Trika Œaivism, offers this definition: ‘Yoga is said to be the oneness (ekatvam) of one entity with another.’ (4.4) This is a Type 2 definition, concerned with the identification of the aspirant’s awareness with a higher tattva entity. The groundwork laid by chapter two of the text would imply to the reader that the entities being spoken of here are those of the ‘pure universe,’ i.e. Œiva, Œakti, Mantramaheœvaras, Mantreœvaras, and Mantras. (1.15) This is confirmed by the verses immediately following the definition, which speak of mantra-yoga (4.6-8). Verse 4.5 specifies that knowledge of the entity to be joined with is essential, and the easiest of the œuddhâdhvân entities to have gnosis of are Mantras. Abhinavagupta supports this interpretation, advocating single-minded practice of a seed mantra until identification with the mantra deity occurs (TÂ 280-290). The state of consciousness thus
engendered is non-discursive and non-differential, well described by the term ekatvam. The Mâlinî’s definition would appear at first glance to be quite different from that of the Mågendra. However, it is not very different from the commentator’s Mågendra; both specify the conjoining of the aspirant’s awareness with a higher transcendent principle identified in some way with Œiva, though apparently in nondualist and dualist veins respectively. The common element here, and generally from this point forward, is one of ‘union’, as the dominant motif of the earlier systems of yoga was one of ‘discipline’ (though of course this latter sense is not lost). This shift in meaning is intimately related to the categorical linguistic shift described earlier.
All primary sources consulted are cited in the body of the essay. No secondary sources were used, but this essay has benefited greatly from the careful reading and comments of Dr. Somadeva Vâsudeva, Wolfson College, Oxford.
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