Aug 31, 2013

Vyasa’s Standpoint. The Buddhist Influence upon Yoga

Having set forth my interpretation of the few latest slokas of Yoga Sutras I cannot help but consider the following issue: why and where from there occurred the opinion (that I so much subject to criticizing) about the existence of asamprajnya samadhi as the “superior” samadhi that eliminates contemplations and so on.

No matter how strange it may seem, but the roots of this position, them been deep, go back to one of the earliest “classical” commentaries to this text, the “Vyasa-Bhashya” of Vyasa that (according to Ostrovskaya and Rudoi) is dated to ca. 4th -5th cent. AD. It is this very commentary that was used as a basis by some later medieval commentators such as Vacaspati Mishra and Vijnana Bhikshu. Besides, this text has another undeniable advantage – its availability, for it has been more than once translated into English (and even into Russian – thanks to Ostrovskaya and Rudoi).
Due to this we can study it thoroughly and subject Vyasa’s opinion to critical analysis, especially since considering it absolutely identical to the concept of Patanjali would be imprudent for there were ca. 500 years between them!

I shall start from citing the opinion expressed by the Ostrovskaya and Rudoi that I have more than once referred to – that Vyasa was well acquainted with Buddhist Abhidharmakosha and that while drawing his commentaries he was “arguing against Buddhist philosophers”; moreover, he was doing it in the way as if Patanjali apriori knew the contents of the polemics with Abhidharmists and Vijnanavadins that was held in the time of Vyasa [pg.12]. But was this polemics a one-way road only? Or could it have happened that in his arguing against Buddhists Vyasa, whether intentionally or not, became so much fascinated by their doctrine that he attributed to Patanjali the ideas that the latter had never expressed?

I will try to show that this is exactly what happened. Moreover, the absence of samprajnya samadhi and asamprajnya samadhi – the terms that after Vyasa became almost fundamental – within the text of YS itself comes as a cogent argument for subjecting his reasoning to a more painstaking analysis. Besides, there are other factors that advance our doing so:
- the oddity of the idea about cessation of mental activity;
- the fact that the classics of Yoga, such as Krishnamacharya and Satyananda, avoided Vyasa’s interpretation of the line 1.19, and a number of other things.

In order not to trouble anyone with retelling Vyasa’s views regarding this aspect I shall bring a citation that sets them forth perfectly well and that’s been taken from “The System Reconstruction” section written by Ostrovskaya and Rudoi in the foreword to their translation [of the Sutras]. I shall also give my clarifications in brackets, it italics, so that the reader could be guided by them while dealing with translation of the terms that is strange to him [1]:

“Passionlessness (vairagya) is implementation of the gained ability of superior differentiation [discrimination - this and further parallel variants drawn in square brackets are taken from the English translation of the YS text made by J.H.Woods – transl.note]. It is characterized by the absence of sentient experience, it is free from everything “that should be cast away or appropriated”. The superior passionlessness is related to comprehension of Purusha that results in yogin’s indifference with regard to gunas, both perceptible and imperceptible. The perfect passionlessness than disrupts the chain of samsara is the uttermost target of the genuine knowledge.
In other words, Vyasa relates the epistemological problematique of Samkhya to religious pragmatics – the achievement of liberation and the practice of yoga as the only (I draw attention to this fact of “unicity” – A.S.) means of implementing this spiritual ideal.
The practice of differentiating cognition and passionlessness are related to the sphere of conscious concentration (samprajnya samadhi – the reverse translation is mine – A.S.) (sutra 17) because they are integrated with such forms as selectivity [deliberation], reflection, spiritual enthusiasm and the “I”-self-identity (vitarka, vicara, ananda and asmita). This corresponds to the definition of yoga of consciousness [conscious of the object] given by Vyasa in the commentary to the sutra.
The sutras 18-23 refer to the question of concentration that is not conscious [of the obect] (asamprajna samadhi), its nature and the method of its achievement. The non-conscious concentration (asamprajna samadhi) is the cessation of mind activity upon preservation of forming factors (the samskaras). It has the prerequisite - the practice of conscious concentration, i.e. the practice of the consciousness’ mental work that is “based” upon corresponding objects (salambanam). As a result, one attains the state of consciousness that is “unsupported”, objectless, thus been the equivalent of functional non-existence of consciousness.
The perfect passionlessness (vairagya) is means of achieving this non-conscious concentration since such concentration is based upon the reason of the mental activity cessation devoid of object reality. Thus, the non-conscious concentration lacks the object.
Following the subject-matter of the text commented upon, Vyasa gives the dichotomy of non-conscious concentration depending upon the subjects of such state. The yogins attain this due to the method (the passionlessness). The others are the incorporeal gods (videha) of Brahmanism psychocosm and the beings resolved into the primary-matter (prakrtilayah) (you might have understood that it goes about the sloka 1.19).
The state of gods, as Vyasa notices, can be compared to absolute detachment (kaivalya), but when their samskaras bring the unavoidable fruit they turn to the forms of existence that correspond to their type. The gods are similar to the beings resolved into the primary-matter due to this very similarity of their states to kaivalya. But if gods while waiting for implementation of their forming factors don’t bring their consciousness to actualization, the conscious of the latter ones (prakrtilayah) stays resolved in the primary-matter until it comes back to samsara again aimed at fulfilling its task. Concerning these beings Vacaspati Mishra explains that it goes here about the yogins who have failed to totally eliminate the potential traces of delusions caused by the selection of concentration object” [pgs. 20, 21].

One cannot but notice that the given ideas really do resemble Buddhism. For instance, the last paragraph corresponds exactly with the Buddhist notion of gods (in this case – the videha) as “under-liberated” beings abiding in samsara with a good deal of “good” karma that they “put in”. As far as the prakrtilayanam-beings are concerned, here the connotation to Buddhist bodhisattvas – though a rather distant one – can be read. Though we should bear in mind that at that time the concept of bodhisattvas was not that well-developed as it is in the Buddhism of today, for it was in this very process of formation.

If we do a double take of the sam- / asam- prajnya samadhi techniques we could also hit the analogy with Buddhist “vipassana” [2] and “samatha”. Here is the description of these techniques (quoted as per the book “Religions of the World: the Experiences of the Transcendent (transpersonal states and psychopractices)” of E. Torchinov whom I have a greatest respect for) [the English version is drawn as translated by Yoshito S. Hakeda, these two variants coming in very good accord with each other – transl.note]:

He who practices “clear observation” [vipasyana] should observe that all conditioned phenomena in the world are unstationary and are subject to instantaneous transformation and destruction; … He should observe that all that had been conceived in the past was as hazy as a dream, that all that is being conceived in the present is like a flash of lightning, and that all that will be conceived in the future will be like clouds that rise up suddenly.
Mahayana Shraddhotpada Shastra

All thoughts, as soon as they are conjured up, are to be discarded, and even the thought of discarding them is to be put away (description of the ‘samathi’ technique – A.S.)
Mahayana Shraddhotpada Shastra

As we see, the first technique (or the state) came as analytical observation, i.e. intellectual interpretation of phenomena in the spirit of some particular doctrines. And it was probably this that stimulated Vyasa’s drawing an analogy with Samprajnya for it also involves analytical and intellectual activity. Yet it was the attitude to such activity that has changed the sign in his interpretation turning it from plus into minus. And as for the second technique, here one can recognize the asamprajnya samadhi – should it have been mentioned by Patanjali, of course.

When dealing with Vyasa’s system of interpretation we can hit a number of other analogies with Buddhism that we might come back to while analyzing the corresponding lines. But are these analogies allowable? I believe they are not. Upon analyzing the whole text of Yoga Sutras one can see a number of conceptual differences from Buddhism that shall become even more obvious – in this case already as contradictions – in case we accept the interpretation of Vyasa.

Probably, one of the major differences should be searched for at some even “higher” level – in that drastic divergence between the Hindu (in the broad sense of this word meaning the whole continuum of pre-Buddhist social practices of Ancient India) and the Buddhist concepts of the spiritual activity. I shall remind that Hinduism adopted the concept of four equal types of activity that were required for a person’s full-fledged existence: ardha (to make it simple, the work for the benefit of the self), dharma (working for public, for the society), kama (enjoying, deriving pleasure) and moksha (the spiritual activity proper).

Here the spiritual activity was not singled out as something conceptually different from the rest of activities; moreover, rather often it was subject to “socialization” – for instance, in “Bhagavad Gita” (in the meaning that the social – the dharmic activity was set equal to the spiritual one). It was the pathos of the early Buddhism declaring the movement towards liberation – the activity that was conceptually different from any other “samsaric” activity – that was the first to subject the mind of the Indian person (and further on – of some European ones as well J) to such disintegration. I believe that it cost India dear, and they were the audacious (as of those times) views of Vivekananda and Sivananda who once again subjected yoga (and spiritual practice in general) to socialization, that started the elimination of the said.

Obviously, such “meta-contextual” view of the essence of Buddhism was not feasible in the time of Vyasa since the intellectual seeds of Buddhism had not yet revealed in their entirety; moreover, the language appropriate for describing the problem did not exist as well. It was perhaps due to this that Vyasa failed to see this fundamental difference.

But let us take a look at Yoga Sutras. It is rather practical and pragmatic in its way. Almost the whole third section is dedicated to the applicative question – what are the abilities that a yogin attains through practicing samadhi (or, more precisely, the samyama that, as we remember, includes dharana, dhyana and samadhi) on various objects. And what a person who has become free from “mental activity” shall do with this knowledge? Even the line 2.9 in which some Buddhist parallels can be found is not that “Buddhist” in its spirit:

2.9 The will-to-live (abhinivesha) sweeping on [by the force of] its own nature exists in this form even in the wise.

There isn’t any Buddhist drama of “Living is suffering” here but rather some ironically-stoic acceptance of reality. As far as Patanjali’s attitude to karma is concerned, the context that we read here is also of applied (and not “liberating”) nature:

2.16 The misery which is not yet come is to be avoided. 

I can draw other examples from the text, but even those given shall be enough to admit that the difference between the Yoga of Patanjali and Buddhism is much wider that it seems. Despite some similarity of terms, nirodha and kaivalya are not the same as nirvana, vairagya is not the Buddhist abandon from desires, the dhyana of Buddhism and Patanjali are two totally different techniques, while the Samadhi of Patanjali does not come as equivalent of the afore-described Buddhist samathi.

Let us pay attention to another nuance that strikes the eye when reading the commentary of Vyasa. Almost every time he talks about practicing yogins he mentions them in the third person. It’s not only that Vyasa does not refer to his own experience (that could be of course explained by modesty) but he also never tries to clarify some complicated mystic terms by means of explanatory metaphors or parables, this method been a cultural universal among all mystics of the World. His commentaries come rather as specification and classification that, on the contrary, is characteristic of a scientist, not a mystic [3]. Mind you that here Vyasa also acts in the spirit of Buddhist tradition that tended much to the commentaries of such kind; moreover, it was more than once entrapped in philosophic speculations and specifications though it was coming out of this situation with credit by means of casting away the excessive scholasticism, the way it happened at the time of Mahasiddhas within the process of establishing Chan and Vajrayana.

In this way, although the views of Vyasa are of interest to us (and we will refer to them more than once), comprehending the core gist of Patanjali’s text will be possible only subject to overcoming the traditional interpretations generated by these views.

[1] The specific feature of the translation variant made by Ostrovskaya and Rudoi is that they tried to translate each and all Sanskrit terms into Russian. As a result this translation, being unconditionally competent from linguistic point, became totally useless from the point of practice since the majority of the Russian terms used have a totally different psycho-technical “message” both from practical and mundane views. For instance they’ve translated the word samadhi as concentration, and though, as I wrote in the article dedicated to samadhi and gestalt-psychology, samadhi is associated with “assemblage of thoughts”, this process however differs from that of concentration. The same way, you cannot treat dharana as equivalent of the Russian “contemplation”, chitta – as that of “mind” and klesha – as the “pollution”. And it was this very translation that suggested me the idea that in order to make an adequate interpretation of Yoga Sutras one should avoid translating the major part of the terms yet provide them with detailed commentaries, this been exactly what I am busy with in scope of my blog.

[2] The complex analytical technique of classical Buddhism should not be confused with that modern brand that actively parades the world.

[3] I cannot but mention here the differentiation of people of religion into the “shamans” and the “priests” that was proposed by Max Webber. The first ones, like the Christian saints, fill the religion with power, miraculous phenomena and charisma, while the second ones put this message in good order. Either of these classes cannot exist alone: if “shamans” act without “priests” they tear the system apart, while the “priests” alone delve into scholia and rituals that cease to affect emotionally both the common religious persons and the priests themselves as well.

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