Apr 3, 2017

Why Read Ancient Texts?

They have once again asked me: why in general read ancient texts, the more so commentaries on them? Why a person like me, a modern yogi who is rather future-focused than past-minded, the one who objects to traditionalism in all its manifestations and gives skeptical smile to talks on “paramparas” and consecrations, decided to spend heaps of time studying Sanskrit and leafing through ten- or fifteen-hundred-year-old commentaries? Is there anything in them that one cannot evidentiate by experiments based on modern scientific concepts?

Yes, there is.
A seeker of our days, when driven by scientific attitude and intellectual approach, can find many interesting things there.

First. Descriptions of genuine mystical experience that is both functional and based on psychological techniques are rather rare. What I mean here is real experience that differs from all possible forms of visionariness, philosophical waxing and contacts-setting.
Let me remind the criterion of such experience to be its transformative nature [1]. The descriptions of this type, especially when made first-hand, are incredibly rare and essential for comprehension of one’s personal experience. While a truly interesting experience is usually found in primary, bedrock texts that came as a breakthrough. Usually these texts were very intensively commented upon from both philosophic and religious positions by people who were lacking the said experience. The doctrine was subject to routinization (as put by Max Weber), and new spontaneous mystics and revolutionaries then emerged. They wrote about similar experience but used totally different words to describe it. The same refers to applied techniques. In most traditions the keys to spiritual practices and psychological techniques that made them really functional were lost. In order to find them one needs to come back to basics and withdraw later layering, subject the issue to critical rethinking so that pure essence could be seen. In this respect I see myself as a kind of archeologist who excavates most valuable artifacts in the heaps of trivial information. So why then analyze commentaries? Exactly for the purpose of studying the process of ideas transformation (the way it happened to brachmacharya), catching the shades of meaning behind the words and demolishing mainstream stereotypes that dominate a reader of today.

Second, by studying history of esotericism one can avoid mistakes that have already been made in the past. It’s like history in general: the more of it you know, the better is your understanding of the present. Moreover, knowledge of misapprehensions history prevents from “buying” them once again. Like the already mentioned instance of chitta-vriddhi-nirodha interpreted as “cessation of mind activity”: many “practitioners” still believe this idea - and many others alike - to be true. Maybe one day I’ll make a complete list of them)).

Third. Studying a text in its source language makes one reconsider the vocabulary of one’s personal experience description. Language sophistication and refinement, expansion of its capacity is a principle point of mind extension. I shall give an example that only my senior students so far know. In the framework of modern Western esoteric (and pseudo-esoteric) systems they have adopted certain understandings of “mind energy”. Almost a common standard now, these have even entered popular culture: “May the Force be with you!”. But in Sanskrit there are more than 12 terms that stand for the word “energy” used in psycho-technical aspect, their denotations being very different. Seeing these nuances in other language gives us an impetus to search for the term exact definition in our native one, since inaccuracy in terms reduces efficiency of techniques. And the case of the word ‘karma’ is even worse: most of today’s yogi use it in a completely incorrect way.

[1] For details refer to my monograph Psychological Practices in Mystic Traditions: From Archaic to Our Days.

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