The term “samadhi” is considered to be inextricably linked to yoga system. Sometimes it is even represented as the ultimate goal of yoga. But if we try to understand the exact meaning attributed to this term in the modern pseudo-yogic domain we’ll find dozens of different definitions that are mostly ridiculous. The first pages of Google tell samadhi to be “trance”, “ecstasy”, “merging with Absolute” or a certain posthumous state. Vivekananda rather prosaically defined samadhi as “concentration”, while Mircea Eliade introduced a special term - “instasy”. Some tend to confuse it with nirvana of Buddhism. But where does the truth lie?
I used to briefly touch upon this topic on the blog. But given that the next lines to be interpreted are directly associated with this theme I chose to undertake a large-scale retrospective study of it. It took me three years to complete the issue, and I am now satisfied with the result.
The results of the study were briefly presented at the round table that was recently held at the Institute of Philosophy of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. However, even an hour allowed to me as a token of respect has happened to be too short a time to fully cover the topic. So I thought I could be posting here the materials written in the process of the report elaboration.
Since I have over a hundred pages, I’ve arranged them in 5 articles:
- Samadhi as first mentioned in the early Upanishads and epic texts;
- Samadhi in the text of Patanjali and works of his commentators;
- Samadhi in Medieval teachings;
- Samadhi in early hatha-yoga;
- Samadhi in late texts on yoga.
Hopefully when done this way it won’t be too wearisome. However, I also think about releasing a video-lecture.
But let us start with the question of why the term “samadhi” has turned out to be so significant even in the popular yoga of our days although hundreds of terms that designate other refined practices and altered states of consciousness have slipped into obscurity? The answer to this question probably lies in the sphere of linguistics.
It is widely known that the word “yoga” is a masculine noun construed by adding the suffix -а to the verb root yuj (युज्). It is slightly less known that according to Dhatupatha the root yuj has three meanings (or, rather, there are 3 different “yuj” roots). To put it simply, these are: samyamana (control), yogа (connection) and samadhi (union). This samadhi does not imply a mystical state but means simply “bringing together”. The etymology of the word is as follows: the prefix sam- means "со-", "together-", the prefix aa- means "to-", "at-" (that is, like “at-taching”), while the root dhā- (added by specific suffix -i) means "putting", "placing". In this way, “samadhi” literally means “assembling”, “putting together”. And not in physical terms only. Its conjugate, the word “samadhanam” (समाधनम्) that differs only in suffix, in Sanskrit means “solution”. For instance, of a problem or an equation.
Different schools of yoga focus attention on different meanings of the root. The analysis of the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita shows that they rather accentuate the aspect of samyamana (self-control). Vyasa, the principal commentator of Yoga Sutras, explicitly represented the term “yoga” was be construed in the meaning of samadhi (union). While in Kaundinya’s commentaries on Pashupata Sutras I read one more, the third variant.
The first references
The term samadhi is mentioned neither in Vedas nor in the early Upanishads. But its grammatical cognate can be found in the Katha Upanishad that we’ve already considered before.
नाविरतो दुश्चरितान्नाशान्तो नासमाहितः ।
नाशान्तमानसो वाऽपि प्रज्ञानेनैनमाप्नुयात् ॥ २४॥
nāvirato duścaritānnāśānto nāsamāhitaḥ ।
nāśāntamānaso vā'pi prajñānenainamāpnuyāt ॥ 24॥
He who has not turned away from wickedness, turbulent, who lacks concentration, whose mind is not at peace (shanta manasa) definitely fails to attain it (“Self”) even through cognition. 24
The word “samāhitaḥ” is a “closest relative” of samadhi. The fact is, the root dhā tends to abnormal transformation when followed by passive past participle suffix –ta: it morphs into hi-. In this way the word samāhita that can be conventionally translated as “composed, concentrated” alludes to the class of techniques that will be developed later.
Samadhi in yoga of the Bhagavad Gita
We can say for sure that the term “samadhi” came into general use at the time of composing Mahabharata. Moreover, by analyzing its use in the Bhagavad Gita we can trace down this word’s “childhood”. I shall now set forth the basic specifics related to this term.
1. Despite the meaning attributed to samadhi in yoga late period, in the Bhagavad Gita the word was used only six times in its direct form and three times in the form of derivatives, which leads us to the second unexpected fact.
2. In the Bhagavad Gita the word “samadhi” was not yet subject to “fetishizing”. The Gita uses the noun “samadhi” as is, but it also operates with other derivatives of the root dhā added by prefixes sam- and ā-. The shloka 12.9, for instance, contains the infinitive samādhātum, and the context clearly shows that its meaning is of yogartha nature only (i.e. derives from morphology) and can be translated as “bring together”, “concentrate”.
अथ चित्तं समाधातुं न शक्नोषि मयि स्थिरम् ।
अभ्यासयोगेन ततो मामिच्छाप्तुं धनञ्जय ॥ १२-९॥
atha cittaṃ samādhātuṃ na śaknoṣi mayi sthiram ।
abhyāsayogena tato māmicchāptuṃ dhanañjaya ॥ 12-9॥
If you cannot steadily fix (samādhātum) the chitta on Me then seek to attain Me through the practice of Yoga. 12-9
In the shloka 6.7 we see “samhita” – the form we already know from the Katha Upanishad.
जितात्मनः प्रशान्तस्य परमात्मा समाहितः ।
शीतोष्णसुखदुःखेषु तथा मानापमानयोः ॥ ६-७॥
jitātmanaḥ praśāntasya paramātmā samāhitaḥ
śītoṣṇasukhaduḥkheṣu tathā mānāpamānayoḥ ॥ 6-7॥
The Supreme Self (paramatma) of the undisturbed man whose mind (manas) is put under control is brought together (samāhitaḥ) in cold and heat, in joy and sorrow, in honour and ignominy. 6-7
Thus we see that samadhi in the given lines means a state of composure, equanimity. And this is a far cry from modern fantasies of falling into trance or some ecstatic experience. In this state a yogi, his “Self” must be put together. Samadhi here stands for inner integrity.
The shloka 17.11 uses gerund (absolutive) of the structure sam+ā+dhā:
अफलाकाङ्क्षिभिर्यज्ञो विधिदृष्टो य इज्यते ।
यष्टव्यमेवेति मनः समाधाय स सात्त्विकः ॥ १७-११॥
aphalākāṅkṣibhiryajño vidhidṛṣṭo ya ijyate ।
yaṣṭavyameveti manaḥ samādhāya sa sāttvikaḥ ॥ 17-11॥
The sacrifice that is offered by the books with manas focused (samādhāya) on the idea “this should be definitely sacrificed” and without longing for fruits is Sattvic in character.
3. The primary meaning of the word “samadhi” is “putting, bringing together”. But what is it aggregated this way? The BG is inconstant in answering this question. We see it was “citta” in the previously mentioned shloka 12.9, but it is “paramatma” in the line 6.7 (that is a bit confusing – why bringing together the Supreme Self and not the usual one). In the shloka 17.11 it is “manas” operated this way. And it is only in the second chapter they use samadhi as an independent noun implying a certain state inherent to buddhi.
भोगैश्वर्यप्रसक्तानां तयापहृतचेतसाम् ।
व्यवसायात्मिका बुद्धिः समाधौ न विधीयते ॥ २-४४॥
bhogaiśvaryaprasaktānāṃ tayāpahṛtacetasām ।
vyavasāyātmikā buddhiḥ samādhau na vidhīyate ॥ 2-44॥
Those who are attached to pleasures and worldly power, whose mind (chetas) is stolen away by such [words], cannot attain determinate mind (buddhi) [that stays] in samadhi.
In the similar way the term is used in the shlokas 2.53 and 2.54 that we will analyze later.
Thus we can say that at the time of the Bhagavad Gita compilation a clear and precise definition of samadhi did not yet exist; alternatively, different parts of this text were drawn by different authors each of them having their own understanding of the concept.
4. The second chapter has a straight question about the nature of samadhi together with the answer:
अर्जुन उवाच ।
स्थितप्रज्ञस्य का भाषा समाधिस्थस्य केशव ।
स्थितधीः किं प्रभाषेत किमासीत व्रजेत किम् ॥ २-५४॥
arjuna uvāca ।
sthitaprajñasya kā bhāṣā samādhisthasya keśava ।
sthitadhīḥ kiṃ prabhāṣeta kimāsīta vrajeta kim ॥ 2-54॥
Oh Kesava, what is he who knows for sure when established in samadhi? What could [this man] with invariable understanding (dhī) tell? What could his living and travelling be?॥ 2-54॥
This is a noteworthy question that implies that samadhi is not a final experience. When in this state, one proceeds with life, everyday activity and even travelling. Moreover, in this case they immediately relate samadhi to cognitive processes with the help of synonyms: “prajna” (the root “jñā” – to know) and “dhī” (the root “dhyai” – to think).
The question is truly interesting, but the answer that was given tells nothing about samadhi. Krishna speaks about pratyahara, self-control, control of manas, about the integrity of manas and buddhi, but he never comes back to the issue of samadhi until the very end of the chapter. Maybe there is a lacuna in the text. On the other hand, there is a clear and somewhat paradoxical concept about the nature of samadhi that is introduced in the preceding shloka. And I consider this line to be one of the most significant and most fruitful lines of the Gita entire text:
श्रुतिविप्रतिपन्ना ते यदा स्थास्यति निश्चला ।
समाधावचला बुद्धिस्तदा योगमवाप्स्यसि ॥ २-५३॥
śrutivipratipannā te yadā sthāsyati niścalā ।
samādhāvacalā buddhistadā yogamavāpsyasi ॥ 2-53॥
When your steady and fixed intellect (buddhi) that is opposing shruti (sacred texts) rests steadily in samadhi, you will then attain Yoga. 2-53
It is a very significant shloka that introduces the idea of inextricable link between the state of samadhi and the practice of yoga. Probably it was under the influence of this line that Vyasa highlighted the theme of samadhi in his commentary on Yoga Sutras that we shall dwell on in the following parts. But this shloka has some more essential allusions in it. The first one – and at first glance it may seem paradoxical for a mainly orthodox culture - is a statement that tells mind in samadhi is “opposed to sacred texts (shruti)”. Today the line comes as a shock for heavenly-minded audience: I can tell from my experience of reading the BG under the guidance of Indian teachers that they prefer to ignore it. Meanwhile, this part of the line contains the most significant information. To single it out, let us remember the features of the mystical experience that William James later set forth. Its principal aspect is one’s being most absolutely confident in reliability of this experience. In Advaita Vedanta, a late Indian tradition, they defined this feeling as “aparoksha anubhuti”, the “not-indirect, intuitive experience”. This confidence is so great that it overshadows everything, even the already-existing sacred canons. And we owe to this experience every change in the canon, every step in the general development of the mankind, whatever the sphere. Because no transformation is possible without active opposition to the already known aspects. Thus samadhi here is a form of mystic experience. And even more important thing is that this experience is of cognitive nature, because it is only in scope of some concepts and views that mind can be opposed to canons. Here samadhi is an insight that gives rise to new understanding.
When something is perceived as personal experience, words of scriptures and other authorities turn into nothing but an opinion, and you can consider them from the meta-context which is a truly apt word here. The shloka contains the word “vi-prati-panna” that makes the translation “opposed” somewhat shallow. The prefix “vi” gives the meaning of moving against and outward (the English di-/dis-,), “prati” is “towards”. That is, on the one hand you are opposed to, but on the other hand you have already gone beyond the limits. In English we cannot use the “pro” and “contra” prefixes at the same time, but in Sanskrit it is possible. He who experiences samadhi views simultaneously “from without” – “from above”, and “from the opposite”, which does not mean aggression but a close eye on the thing. This is what a view from meta-context actually is. Another significant point is that in this line “mind” implies “buddhi”, not “manas”. Let me remind that manas generates the “I think so, and that’s it” attitude, while buddhi is a deep understanding and a profound insight.
I shall also note this line to be one of yoga definitions given in the BG. Here yoga is used in the context of a state that can be attained (avaspyati).
But why did Krishna in his answer to Arjuna’s question say nothing about samadhi? Probably (of course unless we assume the simplest idea that a part of the lines was lost or mixed up within the text) Krishna did answer by describing the transforming effects of samadhi state in a person’s further life. Then this description is logical: an insight, an ability to see things from meta-context can really ease down one’s mind (in a corresponding aspect), transform a person and change their life.
Samadhi in Mokshdharma
In terms of containing information about yoga we can say that Mokshadharma is on a par with the Bhagavad Gita; probably there’s even more of it there. On the other hand, it does not prove to be a comprehensive text; it consists of a series of dialogues between antagonists discussing fundamental issues of philosophy, yoga and ethics. The difference in views advanced in these dialogues definitely suggests they were composed by different people at different times and within several Traditions. Thus we can study Mokshadharma as a cross section of a vast cultural layer in the yoga domain that we are interested about.
As in the Bhagavad Gita, the term “samadhi” here does not have an established definition and its meaning varies in different conversations. If we take an overall inventory we’ll see the same basic lines of the term understanding that were detected in the BG, albeit with some nuances.
The understanding of samadhi as a cognitive state is expressed in a recurrent motive of a wise man who speaks out a certain knowledge when staying in (or having preliminary attained) the state of samadhi.
NB: The numbering of chapters in the standard Sanskrit text may not coincide with that of popular English translations.
12.245.013c samādhau yogam evaitac chāṇḍilyaḥ śamam abravīt
253. 14 In [the state of] samadhi Sandilya for the sake of tranquility laid down this (teaching of) yoga
The cognitive aspect is also highlighted by recitation of synonyms:
203.21 Wise from knowledge and experience, he is absolute in cognition, he is never satiated with samadhi
In Mokshadharma we can also find the motive of “opposing to sacred text” that we already know:
323 (309)38 smṛtiś ca saṃnirudhyate purā taveha putraka
samākulasya gacchataḥ samādhim uttamaṃ kuru
323.39 Here, oh Son, the Sacred text shall soon become a hindrance, though in embarrassment, practice the ultimate samadhi!
Just like in the Gita, these is confusion about the mind constituent that stays in samadhi. In most cases it is manas, but some cases with citta occur as well.
However, we may find new motives arising in Mokshadharma. One of the most interesting and fruitful pieces in this aspect is “The Tale of Whispering” that is the first to introduce the idea of samadhi as a practice of thoughtlessness, as well as the practice of conscious dying.
18. dhyānakriyā paro yukto dhyānavān dhyānaniścayaḥ
dhyāne samādhim utpādya tad api tyajati kramāt
19. sa vai tasyām avasthāyāṃ sarvatyāgakṛtaḥ sukhī
nirīhas tyajati prānān brāhmīṃ saṃśrayate tanum
20. atha vā necchate tatra brahma kāyaniṣevaṇam
utkrāmati ca mārgastho naiva kva cana jāyate
20. Totally devoted to contemplation, thoughtful, he practices contemplation determinately, Upon concentration of the mind, he falls into samadhi and then leaves off the contemplation itself.
21. In this state he performs easily a dedicated resign,
With no regret he casts off his life-breaths (pranas) and enters into the Brahmic body.
The chapter 302 of Mokshadharma that I personally consider to be one of its most interesting pieces is called “The Teaching of Yoga”. The text of this chapter continues the experiments with samadhi cognates. But the most interesting thing about the passage is that it clearly shows “samadhi” as a special term was in the process of its inception and was still mixed up with other terms like “dharana” and “yukta” and their derivatives (or, rather, was not yet detached from). Moreover, we can see these words used in different word combinations: samādhāne dhāraṇam — retention (dharana) in [the state of] bringing together (samadhanam), and that with opposite cases — dhāraṇāsu samāhitaḥ, that is, composure in concentration.
30. ātmanaś ca samādhāne dhāraṇāṃ prati cābhibho
nidarśanāni sūkṣmāṇi śṛṇu me bharatarṣabha
30. Hear, O chief of Bharata’s race, the subtle indications of remaining (dharana) in the [state of] bringing together (samadhana) the Self (atman)!
31. apramatto yathā dhanvī lakṣyaṃ hanti samāhitaḥ
yuktaḥ samyak tathā yogī mokṣaṃ prāpnoty asaṃśayam
31. As a bowman who is heedful strikes the aim as soon as he is concentrated (samāhita) on it, even so a Yogi with absorbed (yukta) soul without doubt attains the Liberation,
32. snehapūrṇe yathā pātre mana ādhāya niścalam
puruṣo yatta ārohet sopānaṃ yuktamānasaḥ
32. As a collected (yukta) man fixing his mind (manas) firmly on a vessel full of oil (placed on his head) heedfully ascends (a flight of steps),
33. yuktvā tathāyam ātmānaṃ yogaḥ pārthiva niścalam
karoty amalam ātmānaṃ bhāskaropamadarśanam
33. Even so this [Yogi] collects himself. Yoga* makes you fixed, unpolluted, sun-like.
34. yathā ca nāvaṃ kaunteya karṇadhāraḥ samāhitaḥ
mahārṇava gatāṃ śīghraṃ nayet pārthiva pattanam
34. As a boat, O son of Kunti, is very soon lead by a concentrated (samāhita) boatman across the big ocean, O Master,
35. tadvad ātmasamādhānaṃ yuktvā yogena tattvavit
durgamaṃ sthānam āpnoti hitvā deham imaṃ nṛpa
35. Even so he who gained the insight by retaining himself through yoga in self-composing (atmasamadhanam) attains, after casting off his body, the state which is so difficult to acquire, O Monarch.
36. sārathiś ca yathā yuktvā sadaśvān susamāhitaḥ
deśam iṣṭaṃ nayaty āśu dhanvinaṃ puruṣarṣabha
36. As a very concentrated (su-samahita) charioteer having yoked good steeds takes the car-warrior to the spot he wishes,
37. tathaiva nṛpate yogī dhāraṇāsu samāhitaḥ
prāpnoty āśu paraṃ sthānaṃ lakṣaṃ mukta ivāśugaḥ
37. Even so a Yogi, O Monarch, concentrated in dharanas, soon attains the highest state, like a shaft left off from the bow reaches the object (aimed at).
38. āveśyātmani cātmānaṃ yogī tiṣṭhati yo 'calaḥ
pāpaṃ hanteva mīnānāṃ padam āpnoti so 'jaram
38. Having entered his self into his soul, staying immovably, a yogi destroys (his) evil and attains the indestructible place where the righteous reside.
39. nābhyāṃ kanthe ca śīrṣe ca hṛdi vakṣasi pārśvayoḥ
darśane sparśane cāpi ghrāṇe cāmitavikrama
40. sthāneṣv eteṣu yo yogī mahāvratasamāhitaḥ
ātmanā sūkṣmam ātmānaṃ yuṅkte samyag viśāṃ patau
41. sa śīghram amalaprajñaḥ karma dagdhvā śubhāśubham
uttamaṃ yogam āsthāya yadīcchati vimucyate
39. In the navel, the throat, the head, the sides, the chest, the heart, the eye, the ear and the nose, composed in all these areas (samahita) by observing high vows, a Yogi controls (yunkte) his subtle “self” by his actual self, O King;
41. Burning all his good and bad acts, he, motionless and excellent, having attained the highest yoga, shall soon gain liberation, if he wishes so.
We may see that in the shlokas above the terms “samadhi” and “dharana” used in Yoga are explained without any recourse to mysticism and in a quite everyday manner.
The shloka 35 also introduces a motive that we shall trace in the Naths’ literature in the articles to follow.
In this way we see, that by the end of the epic period there were four basic lines formed as to definition of the term “samadhi”:
- Samadhi as concentration in the common sense of the word.
- Cognitive samadhi that gives rise to new knowledge.
- Samadhi as integrity of motivations.
- Samadhi as thoughtlessness.