Oct 20, 2016

Nirvana in the Context of Yoga

The word “nirvana” must be familiar to every more or less educated person living. It has been assimilated by every language – this is what also happened to the word “guru” (for we have all heard about IT-gurus and marketing-gurus…) - and has just the same way changed its meaning more than once. 

Most probably – in the vein of the afore given ad – a philistine considers nirvana to be a kind of very pleasant state that occurs during one’s doing nothing on a divan-bed, and connotes it to the word keif (by the way another interesting word of Turkish origin worthy of a separate article). Maybe some of the lay audience even have certain associations between the word nirvana and something oriental, for instance yogis that ‘get high’ in lotus pose… Maybe on nails…

A more educated person having a general idea of Buddhism obviously knows much more. Maybe the fact that nirvana is the state of breaking the births and deaths repeating cycle (samsara) attained after arhat who has reached the state of enlightenment leaves the body - Buddha himself, for instance, attained Mahanirvana. And that the core essence of nirvana is rather difficult for explanation since even Buddha, similar to Nicholas of Cusa, defined it using negation: Nirvana is neither life nor death, neither this nor that…

A person well versed in Buddhism shall of course be right to notice that the essence of nirvana can be considered only within the context of respective Traditions since their views on the said issue used to differ and change substantially. The said person might also recall that they were not only Buddhists but representatives of other philosophic systems (for instance the ajivikas) who were using this term. And right he shall be.

Another interesting question is whether nirvana is related to yoga or whether it is a purely Buddhist idea. And in case it is – what is the position it holds.

Oddly enough, but the answer to this question can be found in Bhagavad Gita. By virtue of some acting religious organizations and because of improper translations Bhagavad Gita in this part of the world has been recently treated as a religious text so that the interest in it on the part of yogis has dropped. But this is not how things actually are - Bhagavad Gita (especially its initial chapters) is a most valuable source of information on early yoga, probably even that of pre-Patanjali or pre-Buddhist period. Many ideas of Bhagavad Gita come in line with those from the Upanishads (up to direct citation), while many of them were the sources from which the concepts of Yoga Sutras developed.

In Bhagavad Gita the word “nirvana” is used in chapter 6. The chapter proper (or better say the preceding lines) deals with describing the practice of pranayamas and is followed by the line 6-15 which translation goes as follows:

Thus [by means of pranayamas], constantly keeping the mind absorbed in me, the yogi of disciplined mind attains and abides in me in śhantiṁ nirvāṇa-paramāṁ 

I have left the last two words without translation since one can easily understand them.

Thus on the one hand the text treats nirvana as an objective of yoga while of the other hand it stands closely related to one’s ability of self-control and control of one’s manas that once again comes as a goal of yoga known to us. Therefore one may assume the state of nirvana implied in Bhagavad Gita to be the one that Patanjali refers to as chitta-vritti-nirodha.

At this point the reader may ask: “but what about total vanishing from the phenomenal World, the fading away and the rest of soteriological issues? It does not match…” Yes it doesn’t, and therefore I shall dare advancing my own hypothesis.

Let us go back to the original meaning of the word ‘nirvana’. It derives from the root ‘vaa’ – to blow (preserved, for instance, in the Russian ‘veyat’ – ‘to blow’, as well as the German ‘wehen’ – to blow, and English ‘wind’ proper) - that we recognize in Sanskrit words Vayu – the wind - and Vata – meaning the same. Yes, that's where the Ayurvedic vata-dosha comes from.

The neuter suffix –ana here is equivalent to the English –ing. Thus ‘vaanam’ means ‘blowing’, whine ‘nirvana’ respectively comes as the absence of blowing, of the wind. In Sanskrit literature the term “nirvana” is used to describe cessation of the candle flickering because of the wind. However the candle does not die away! It just proceeds to burns steadily! Probably this etymology-based meaning was a primary one that was later subject to changes assuming new meaning and shades, particularly the one associated with afterlife. I believe this process to be related to religious component of Buddhism. Still, from time to time in terms of Buddhism – probably under the influence of practitioners and their personal experience – the definition of nirvana was returning or coming close to the original one. For instance Budhaghosha – one of the major classifiers of theravada, the author of Visuddhimagga (ca. V AD) drew a direct correlation between nirvana and nirodha (though nirodha in terms of Buddhist tradition is known to have some other specifics). Another well-known text – Lankavatra sutra – goes as follows:

At that time Mahamati the Bodhisattva-Mahasattva again said this to the Blessed One: Thou speakest of Nirvana, Blessed One. What is meant by this term Nirvana?

Replied the Blessed One: When the self-nature and the habit-energy of all the Vijnanas, including the Alaya, Manas, and Manovijnana, from which issues the habit-energy of wrong speculations—when all these go through a revulsion, I and all the Buddhas declare that there is Nirvana [quoted after http://lirs.ru/do/lanka_eng/lanka-nondiacritical.htm - transl.note].

There is a perfect symbolic embodiment of correlation between nirvana and control of chitta that one can find in the sculptures of the largest Buddhist temple complex Borabudur in Java. By the way it was here that they found the Dharma Patanjala text that I’ve mentioned earlier. The temple is done in form of a mountain or a three-dimensional mandala that a pilgrim was supposed to climb. This ascent symbolized the stages of person’s growth.

In the process of spiral ascending one saw numerous frescoes describing stories from Buddhist texts. Somewhat higher on the platform there are a lot of buddhas sitting in semi-transparent “netty” stupas that I’ve seen in no other place.

And finally the structure is crowned by a standard solid stupa. 

There is a traditional understanding of stupa symbolism in the framework of Buddhist tradition that one can find even in the Internet but the ‘netty’ stupas with buddhas (or bodhisattvas) in them are still a question. My interpretation of these symbols resulted from a meditation goes as follows. A stupa symbolized nirvana in the sense of chitta stability – or immovability of the candle light. While a netty stupa stands for a partial, incomplete detachment of the intermediary stage, a mostly – but not absolutely – pacified mind through that the inner ahamkara looks. It resembles a yogi’s control of vritti that is a feature not absolute yet relative. Being immune to some types of vritti the practitioner may become “breached” by others – more intense or less cognized.

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