Dec 9, 2012

Some traps on the way of classical texts interpretation

The trap of religiosity
In terms of almost verbatim reading of Patanjali’a Yoga Sutras one may clearly see that it is totally irreligious. It is rather that its style is similar to the way the practicing person recites his experience in achievement of certain states and the possibilities of using these states, and describes the basic elements of his worldview. But if we take any Indian translation we will notice that there is a lot of religiosity there. Religion "worms itself" into the translation in the way it seems that "it has always been there". One translator or commentator slightly changes the meaning of the term, the second one takes it as a basis for adding something for himself, the fourth gives his "explanations", and so a completely normal text shall be thus turned into a totally religious one.

For instance, one interpreter was not quite correct in having replaced the word drashtar (Sanskrit: the observer, the witness) by the word "spirit", the second one, thinking that the "spirit" would sound not much convincing, has added the "divine". And in this way there has “established” a new concept of the "divine spirit" which one could operate with. Here is, for instance, the example of poor translation of one of the Amritabindu Upanishad strophe:
"Dharana is the retention of the divine spirit in the mind in term of concentration", 15.
And now let us venture to draw up the normal practice of dharana basing upon this statement.
By the way, the method of adding the word "divine" as an epithet to a variety of words is rather popular. It may seem good from the point of interpreters, for the emotional content of the text shall thus be intensified; it’s just that the text can no longer be used.

Another example that is known to all those who have dealt with yoga is the category of "ishvara pranidhana." The fifth niyama. Ishvara is translated as God, pranidhana – as aspiration (literally, holding the prana). Here comes another inaccuracy: ishvara is not God in terms of European reference. In terms of Indian as well. There is a special term in Sanskrit to denote this notion - deva. Ishvara is some primary world order that is initially passive and impersonal. It is opposed to prakriti - the primary energy of the world. Ishvara itself does not create anything. It is rather a system of regular patterns that regulate the prakriti. In terms of European views the most appropriate equivalents would come in such categories as "laws of the Universe" or, for example, the "equation of the universe". But having played a bit cunning and having somewhat simplified the concept they traditionally say that Ishvara is something like god. And this is already a step from complete simplification and “religionization” of the system: identifying the Ishvara’s name, his personality ("the Divine Personality» J), and so it comes almost within the reach of prayers. It fact ishvarapranidhana means "the attentiveness to the universal order", "comprehension of some more global regularities", but in almost every translation you may find the "ishvara pranidhana" shall be either the trust in God, or dedication to god of the fruits of one’s activity (and where does the word activity come from?), or thinking about God, or even reading of sacred books. Hold it, where does it come from? There wasn’t anything of the kind in the text! But in case everyone adds a word – there it shall be. If we take Indian commentaries these will come as totally religious texts. Even the esteemed Vivekananda whom I truly respect was prone to “religionization” of texts in this way. For instance, the term kaivalya. When literally translated from Sanskrit it means "detachment", "apartness", but Vivekananda has written in brackets: "the higher unity of Me and the Absolute". The most interesting thing is that when you search the word "kaivalya" in Wikipedia you will find there that "Kaivalya" is the merge of Me with the Absolute, absolute liberation from all bondages of suffering, and a whole article on the subject. The same thing happens if you type "Ishvara pranidhana" - the article interpreting this category will come in the same religious vein. But in fact, if we go back to the original words of YS we will not find this discourse there. And such nuances related to introduction of religious context into Yoga Sutras, as well as other texts, are numerous[1].

By the way, according to Yoga Sutra itself "Ishvara is a special Purusha that is free of kleshas of karma, ripening of fruits and of the home of samsaras".

Does it come from here that Ishvara is that unique and eternal god referred to in translation? Or that it is a global absolute? No, the shloka says that there is some Purusha who is free of karmas. This can in fact be any well-advanced creature. If it is a special Purusha it does not hence follow that this is the only Purusha. There may be a lot of them – for no one has proved the theorem of uniquenessJ. And it is by replacing just one word that we substitute the idea of creatures that are free of karma by the idea of monotheism. A minor "thesis shift" - yet the meaning is already different.

This is how this trap of religiosity works. And when you, my readers, later read Yoga Sutras yourselves paying attention to precise meaning of its concepts you will see how many people have already been entrapped. You take any word from the Yoga Sutras, feed it into Wikipedia and you see hundreds of sites devoted to the subject that turn it into a religious discourse drawn in every possible manner, with Vishnu and Shiva involved, and of course the Absolut as the essential part of it, yet it has nothing to do with what Patanjali wrote. And it is only the desire for reading carefully the authentic text and comprehending the words as close as possible to their original meaning that despite such strong pressure might preserve one in one’s sound mind. The reliance upon late commentaries shall eventually drive one into this trap of religiosity.

By the way, I have even reflected some kind of psycho-emotional state that occurs when you get into the religious trap: there comes the slight sadness, some distant pressure from the top and the feeling of reluctance regarding thorough study of the text.

There is also another issue, the one of the Christian concepts’ intertwining within the ideas of yoga, but it seems to be a separate topic.

The trap of cheap mysticism
They say there was some searcher delving into every detail who has come to Osho and urged
"I am ready to follow you and to be taught by you but first show me the miracle".
"I am the miracle myself, but you don’t see it”- the Master replied.

People love miracles. Especially talking and dreaming about miracles. In different periods of its evolution the mankind was searching for miracles "somewhere over the seas", in the new lands, in the East, in space and even in the human psyche. Esoteric practices as a separate cultural phenomenon have always been taken for the object of miracles’ search. There is a whole pseudo-esoteric and pseudo-mystical industry of stories about the miracles that have been somewhere seen and heard, as well as talks about the miracles that might yet happen. The stories they propose to readers tell about alleged yogic siddhas that have nothing to do with these actual siddhas. Like, for instance, the description of the third eye opening drawn by Lobsang Rampa or the descriptions of astral transfer given by David Noel. Let alone the construction of pyramids by means of mind-power or the three-meter Lemurians "frozen in samadhi" who have been "seen by lamas which we have heard about". Ant it obviously has nothing to do with true esoteric and even occult traditions (to learn the difference between esotericism and occultism see my book "Religious Psycho-practices in the History of Culture”), as well as with mysticism in general. This phenomenon can be referred to as the cheap, or in order not to hurt anyone – the drawing-room mysticism. The miracle venturers are not looking for any real practice or internal transformations. All they want is just to thrill you or to emphasize their importance at the account of imaginary involvement into the issue of alleged miracles.

One should not think that such phenomenon comes as a product of our era or of European culture only. It was already in ancient Indian commentaries on serious texts that the elements of cheap mysticism started to occur. And so, depending upon the translation and commentary, in terms of reading Yoga Sutra one may “come across” the references to and descriptions of the great siddhas such as levitation, walking on water, etc. However, after thorough and literal reading of the original text one may once again make sure that there is not a word about it there either. The things described by Patanjali are certainly miraculous, just like the very existence of human psyche is, but they do not go beyond the laws of physics. Moreover the experience described by Patanjali is not transcendent to many people even if they don’t practice yoga. It either does not go beyond the scope of the European culture. On the contrary - it is quite recognizable, though fairly rare. Thus the state of dhyana defined by Patanjali as "continuous flow of the object cognition" is familiar to any creative person as a state when you no longer have to concentrate on the current task. You are so much absorbed by the task that there is nothing else you can think about. The ideas do not come in agony but are produced continuously in terms of the integral creative flow. The existential experience that Patanjali has described as "Chitta Vrtti nirodhah" is also familiar to many people, but this will be discussed in one of the following sections.

Another kind of the cheap mysticism trap occurs in case translators and commentators use nice pseudo-mystical words that do not have any personal spiritual experience behind them. Rather often these words are merely transferred from other commentaries or translations. The problem is that sometimes the original versions of these words did have the meaning and were filled with it, yet in the course of time they have “faded” and became common, so that no one is trying to ask about their actual meaning for it might seem almost indecent. For example, the majority of YS commentaries state that samadhi is the "complete integration with the object of understanding". Wait, how can you imagine this? If you take the phrase literally it shall turn out as absurdity. The absurdity that has become a common cliché due to its constant recurrence by someone having a very intelligent face.

In my commentary I will try to avoid this trap of cheap mysticism by treating the text of YS as a fully completed work (which requires no further speculation).

The trap of philosophic speculations
The third trap has happened to be even worse than the previous two – this is the philosophic trap. There are various amazing philosophical encyclopedias that reveal the meaning of all those categories used by Patanjali. We take any category, say, the Dhyana, and here we find out that there are eight kinds of dhyana, each of them is divided into four sub-kinds that in their turn were commented upon by Vyasa, and it is related to this. Words, words, more words. And it shall come to you in a while that this all is very interesting and though not that absolutely incomprehensible yet empty. They are merely words commented upon by other words, and it turns out absolutely impossible to understand what kind of experience the person standing behind these words actually had.

In this case in order to understand the Yoga Sutras one must go back to one’s original experience, moreover, the mystical experience, but not in that sense of "magic" – like walking on the air, etc. - but to the mystical experience which is in general inherent almost to every person in this or that extent. And to understand what is it that Patanjali actually describes, for the level of yoga and other exoteric traditions that existed two thousand years ago was much lower than that of today [2]. And those mental states that people had were simpler. Therefore the states described by Patanjali can today be achieved rather quickly and there are many people who have done it, it’s just that they were not thinking about what it actually was. Therefore we would also prefer not to get into this philosophic trap, especially considering the fact that Patanjali himself almost in the first few shlokas writes about the category of "viparyaya" (the conventional translation is "the failure to distinguish"). We say here ‘conventional’ because in fact in this case it does not matter for Patanjali himself defines this category as "the false knowledge that is not verified by the reality"; we also refer to it as the "mental speculation." For instance, a person uses a lot of words trying to interpret whether samadhi and nirvana (or asamprajnya samadhi and samadhi nirvichara J) are one and the same or different things? But if a person has experienced neither one nor the other, what is it that he compares? He compares his ideas about these words - and nothing more. Or he compares someone's ideas about these words which also makes no sense. And this is the third problem that occurs in terms of trying to translate or comment upon Yoga Sutras.

What will be the methodically correct way out of this trap? The only way I see is: to do it by means of comparing one’s own mystical experience with the one described in the text and to refuse flatly from commentaries given by people who explicitly don’t have mystical or psycho-technical experience of their own.

The trap of mythological clichés
Carl Linnaeus, the founder of scientific classification in biology, was once asked to appreciate the correctness of the following definition of the crawfish: "a crawfish is a red fish that moves backwards".
The reply of Linnaeus was: "First, a crawfish is not a fish; second, it does not move backwards, and third, it is red only when boiled. Otherwise, everything is correct".

And finally, there is one more problem. It can be referred to as mythologization of concepts about yoga in the social consciousness that is zealously intensified by incompetent agents of mass media. You open 90% of yoga sites and start to read that it was yet once upon a time that a wise man named Patanjali set down the concept of Ashtanga yoga, the octonary yoga which involves eight steps / stages. The purpose of yoga is to achieve the state of Samadhi that comes as the dissolution of Me within the Absolute, etc. And it comes to you like: why do you write this, you’d better take it and read what it is that the wise man Patanjali indeed wrote, it’s only eight pages in a fairly large font with a good interval. But no. No one wants to read what Patanjali actually wrote. The majority of media "authors" simply copy-paste each other. Here is the list of what Yoga Sutras of Patanjaly does not contain. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali does not speak about the eight-staged yoga; moreover, none of other sources does. Because the translation of the word "anga" in "ashtanga" ("ashta" means “eight”) is not the "stage" but the "method" or "limb”. That is, there are eight limbs of yoga, or eight methods of practicing yoga. But no one has subjected them to hierarchization, no one has said that yama is followed by niyama and pranayama should go after asanas. Never has Patanjali said this, just because "anga" is not a "stage" (read more here).

Next, in no part of his text Patanjali says that samadhi is the ultimate stage of yoga. Moreover, if you read carefully you might see that not only that it is not the ultimate stage of yoga, but it is just some intermediate state that can be useful for many practical applications. Never in Sutras Patanjali writes that samadhi is a merger with absolute, the dissolution of Me within the Absolute – there is simply not a word about it there. Patanjali does not write that in scope of samadhi one reaches the state of trance so that one’s heartbeat, pulse, respiration shall stop, and so on. The Yoga Sutras does not have it – as well as many other things. Almost everything that is attributed to Patanjali by mass consciousness is the product of this very consciousness, but not of Patanjali. This is a funny paradox. But habits do remain, and all the same in one’s subconsciousness one still wants to find in YS something of the afore-listed. This is the fourth challenge that we come across in terms of reading Patanjali.

Thus we will be able to analyze and adequately understand this great text only in case we manage to escape all of the above mentioned traps.

And now it’s high time to enjoy the opportunities and benefits provided by blogging system in terms of communicating with readers. Having re-read the previous post I have realized that I have failed to make my main idea clear to the reader. And the idea is the following. It is not only the modern reader who is in danger of falling into this or that trap. The majority of classical translators and commentators have already been entrapped.
[1] I think the next article in this blog will be dedicated to the tragedy of Hesychasm, the esoteric system that’s been almost completely absorbed by religion due to errors and rigging in translation of its basic terms.

[2] I understand that this phrase (as well as this entire article, and maybe the commentary at a whole J) will cause the wave of indignation coming from traditionalists, but I am still ready to take responsibility for my words and to prove them.

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