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Swami Vivekananda and Yoga: 20th Century Vedānta

In today’s world, you don’t have to go very far, or have too far out a view on the world, in order to be exposed to Yoga.  Yoga is looked upon in the West today primarily as a means to better health, and (primarily) as a means to a better and more elegant body.  The pursuit of the peace and tranquility of the calmed mind is somewhat of an afterthought in modern day Yoga although the nature of mind and the practices for calming it are baked into the very heart of Yoga as it was originally conceived.  Although meditation and its offshoots do have a place in the modern practice of Yoga even if it is de-emphasized relative to the roots of the tradition, the practices inherent in Yoga of old have not been completely lost.

The word Yoga derives from the Vedic Sanskrit root verb yuj, which means to “add”, ” join”, “unite” or “attach”, or literally “yoke” in the most literal sense.  According to Vyasa, the author of the first extant commentary on the Yoga Sūtras, Yoga is synonymous with samādhi, the end goal of Patañjali’s theo-philosophical system, and as such its etymology is properly traced back to yuj samādhau, which means “to concentrate”.[1]  The term has come to imply and mean “union” within the context of union with the divine, or alternatively as signifying a path to the union with the divine, as in Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga or Raja Yoga each of which is not synonymous with Yoga as outlined by Patañjali per se but nonetheless are related in kind to the system of philosophy called Yoga in its underlying purpose and content.

While Yoga is typically associated with specific “physical” practices such as postures, i.e. āsanas, and/or breathing exercises, i.e. prāṇāyāma, the identification of “Yoga” with these practices is somewhat misleading and is certainly inadequate from a theo-philosophical standpoint.  Yoga as an “orthodox” system of Indian philosophy originates from a treatise attributed to the sage Patañjali from 3rd/4th century CE called the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, or sometimes simply referred to as the Yoga Sūtras.  It is a set of 196 verses, or sūtras (literally “threads”), which outline a specific set of guidelines and practices for the attainment of samādhi, the highest state of concentration and mokṣa, or “freedom” which according to Patañjali is the end goal of life.

Yoga from a theo-philosophical perspective is very closely related Sāṃkhya philosophy, one of the other six orthodox Indian philosophical schools.  And while the two theo-philosophical systems are distinct from a certain academic vantage point, both however rest and look to the Vedas as the ultimate guide for knowledge and truth (as does Vedānta).  Yoga, as outlined by Patañjali in the Yoga Sūtras, while outlining a unique set of practices for living “rightly” or “properly”, very similar to Buddha’s Eightfold Noble Path in fact, is typically understood and interpreted through the lens of Sāṃkhya philosophy, resting as it were upon the same underling metaphysical and theo-philosophical perspective as Sāṃkhya philosophy for the most part, even though there do exist some subtle differences in perspective.[2]

Sāṃkhya philosophy as a school predates and underpins Yoga, and references to Kapila, its founder, as well as the system of philosophy as a whole can be found in various texts from the middle of the second half of the first millennium BCE, some half a century at least before Patañjali.  It, as does Yoga, adheres to an epistemological framework which admits to knowledge as resting upon three basic principles: 1) Pratyakṣa or perception (both internal and external), 2) Anumāṇa or inference, i.e. the reaching of a conclusion based upon original assumptions and the application of rational logic, and 3) Śabda, or the word, testimony of experts, e.g. the Vedas.

From a metaphysical and cosmological standpoint, Sāṃkhya sees the world as the combination and intermixing of two basic and fundamental principles.  The first is the all-pervading consciousness or spirit which underlies the entire universe, both inanimate and animate “beings” called PuruṣaPuruṣa is the underlying ground of existence, the primordial first principle as it were, and the roots of the concept of Puruṣa can be found in the Vedas themselves.

A THOUSAND heads hath Puruṣa, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet.
On every side pervading earth he fills a space ten fingers wide.

This Puruṣa is all that yet hath been and all that is to be;
The Lord of Immortality which waxes greater still by food.

So mighty is his greatness; yea, greater than this is Puruṣa.
All creatures are one-fourth of him, three-fourths eternal life in heaven.

With three-fourths Puruṣa went up: one-fourth of him again was here.
Thence he strode out to every side over what cats not and what cats.

From him Virāj was born; again Puruṣa from Virāj was born.
As soon as he was born he spread eastward and westward o’er the earth.

When Gods prepared the sacrifice with Puruṣa as their offering,
Its oil was spring, the holy gift was autumn; summer was the wood.

They balmed as victim on the grass Puruṣa born in earliest time.
With him the Deities and all Sādhyas and Ṛṣis sacrificed.

From that great general sacrifice the dripping fat was gathered up.
He formed the creatures of-the air, and animals both wild and tame.

From that great general sacrifice Ṛcas and Sāma-hymns were born:
Therefrom were spells and charms produced; the Yajus had its birth from it.

From it were horses born, from it all cattle with two rows of teeth:
From it were generated kine, from it the goats and sheep were born.

When they divided Puruṣa how many portions did they make?
What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet?

The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rājanya made.
His thighs became the Vaiśya, from his feet the Śūdra was produced.

The Moon was gendered from his mind, and from his eye the Sun had birth; Indra and Agni from his mouth were born, and Vāyu from his breath.

Forth from his navel came mid-air the sky was fashioned from his head
Earth from his feet, and from his car the regions. Thus they formed the worlds.

Seven fencing-sticks had he, thrice seven layers of fuel were prepared,
When the Gods, offering sacrifice, bound, as their victim, Puruṣa.

Gods, sacrificing, sacrificed the victim these were the earliest holy ordinances. The Mighty Ones attained the height of heaven, there where the Sādhyas, Gods of old, are dwelling.[3]

One here finds that Puruṣa from a Vedic perspective is looked upon as a deity of sorts, we here see a hymn to “him”, from the latest potion of the Rigvéda, Book X.  Even in the original, earliest conception of Puruṣa however, he/it is looked upon as the source of not just all the physical universe, but the source of the whole natural world as well as the social order and all mankind.  In Sāṃkhya philosophy, in its original conception as the metaphysical interpretation of the Vedas, Puruṣa becomes pure consciousness, or spirit, which is “transcendental” so to speak, although at the same time is not active in and of itself, and is not the primary constituent of the natural world.

It is the concept of Prakṛti, which literally means “nature”, which is perceived to be the fundamental building block of the world as it were.  Prakṛti is the initial, or first cause, of the manifest universe and combines with Puruṣa in various forms and combinations to make up the universe as we know and perceive it in all its forms.  In Sāṃkhya philosophy Prakṛti is looked upon as consisting of three basic attributes called gunas, which represent the basic aspects or characteristics which underlie everything in the universe.  These three gunas are Sattva, which signifies tranquility or lightness, Rajas which signifies activity or excitement, and Tamas which signifies inertia of heaviness.

It is important to understand that Sāṃkhya philosophy looks upon the universe not just as a physical construct, that which can be perceived by the senses, but also understood as consisting of mind and spirit as well and as such this is a fundamental difference between it and virtually all forms of later Western philosophy[4].  In this context, while the Soul and mind are looked upon from a metaphysical perspective as manifestations of Prakṛti as well, the jiva is believed to consist of a synthesis and combination of Puruṣa and Prakṛti, the former being the source of intelligence and order, the primordial male principle in the universe, and the latter being the primordial essence of all matter, the female, or receptive, cosmic principle upon which Puruṣa acts.

In this context, it is Sattva that is looked upon as the finest and most subtle of “elements” of nature that is to be actively cultivated from a psychological standpoint in order to promote and facilitate the release the jiva or Soul from bondage.  This state of delusion, or misconception, is referred to in Sāṃkhya philosophy as saṃsāra, which although is literally translated as “wandering” or “world”, it carries with it connotations of constant fluctuation or cyclical change.[5]  The source of saṃsāra, and the means by which mokṣa is ultimately attained, is by the proper and correct understanding of the nature of the jiva within the universal order of Puruṣa and Prakṛti, i.e. one’s true and complete identification with Puruṣa as the true and primordial state of being or existence.

In this context Sāṃkhya philosophy is typically understood as being atheistic, although perhaps a better term is “naturalistic”, even though even this term is not necessarily inclusive enough to provide the complete conception of “Nature” within the context of Sāṃkhya philosophy.  In this sense, the system does not necessarily deny the existence of an anthropomorphic God or deity (Īśvara) but perhaps better put, as it believes the universe to be a manifestation of Puruṣa and Prakṛti in various combinations and forms and as such does not require the existence of any specific deity or God to create or preserve the universal order and therefore looks upon God, or Īśvara, as a human construct that from a metaphysical standpoint has no “real” existence.  Swami Vivekananda explains it thus:

Next, Sāṃkhya says, that the manifestation of nature is for the soul; all combinations are for some third person.  The combinations which you call nature, these constant changes are going on for the enjoyment of the soul, for its liberation, that it may gain all this experience from the lowest to the highest.  When it has gained it, the soul finds it was never in nature, that it was entirely separate, that it is indestructible, that it cannot go and come; that going to heaven and being born again were in nature, and not in the soul.  Thus the soul becomes free.

All nature is working for the enjoyment and experience of the soul.  It is getting this experience in order to reach the goal, and that goal is freedom. But the souls are many according to the Sāṃkhya philosophy. There is an infinite number of souls. The other conclusion of Kapila [the founder of Sāṃkhya philosophy] is that there is no God as the Creator of the universe.  Nature is quite sufficient by itself to account for everything.  God is not necessary, says the Sāṃkhya.[6]

Saṃsāra then, has its origins in the false identification one’s small self, or ego (ahamkara), that the jiva perceives itself as a separate and unique entity bound to a physical form which is subject to birth, growth, decay and ultimate death and destruction, characterized most emphatically by suffering and loss.  In this sense Sāṃkhya again shares many of the same characteristics of Buddhism (the notion of anātman in Sanskrit and anattā in Pāli, or “not-self”) although its underlying philosophy, as well as the path which it lays out for liberation, is altogether distinct and unique.

In Sāṃkhya philosophy, and in turn in its close cousin theo-philosophical systems of Yoga in its original conception as put forth by Patañjali, as well as in Vedānta in fact, mokṣa, or liberation, is conceived of as a state of being or consciousness that comes from a proper and complete understanding of the true nature of existence, and the true nature of self – jiva or Ātman – within the context of this “true state of affairs” so to speak, as understood by each of the respective metaphysical and theo-philosophical frameworks.[7]  With Sāṃkhya philosophy, and to a lesser extent in Yoga, mokṣa is attained when the psychic and intellectual root of saṃsāra is removed when one’s true identity with the underlying ground of existence, Puruṣa, is ultimately realized and experienced directly. [8]

It is from the standpoint of Sāṃkhya philosophy then, that the eight limbed practices (again ashtanga) outlined in the Yoga Sūtras are typically interpreted, the sum total of which – in a manner very similar to Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path – a specific methodology as it were, specific observances and practices, which when properly and cohesively developed and mastered will facilitate the attainment mokṣa.

Yoga is defined in the Yoga Sūtras at the beginning of the work (Verse 1.2) as “yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ”, which is translated (by Vivekananda) as “Yoga is the restraining (nirodhah) of the mind-stuff (citta) from taking various forms (vṛtti)”.  As such, one must look at the entire theo-philosophical system as presented by Patañjali with this one goal in mind, even though related “results”, i.e. the release of one from bondage or suffering, are undoubtedly considered to be key byproducts of the attainment of said goal.

Yoga as outlined by Patañjali emphasizes the importance of posture, āsana, control of the breath, prāṇāyāma, and concentration, dhāraṇā, all as key tools to be employed by the spiritual aspirant who wishes to be liberated from the bondage of phenomenal existence and ultimately to experience the pure state of consciousness itself, i.e. samādhi.  But what is commonly overlooked, particularly in the West, is that these physical and mental practices are grounded in a thorough and in many respects unyielding system of morality, ethics and observances that prepare the aspirant, provide the foundation for the aspirant, upon which the more advanced limbs of Yoga are based.  The first 2 limbs of Yoga reflect this focus on the necessary grounding of ethics and morality, the way to live, to prepare oneself for the path to liberation, namely yama and niyama.

A proper understanding of Yoga yields the true import of both the means to the end as just as important, if not more so, as the end itself, and this is one of the characteristics of the traditional and original formulation of “Yoga” which distinguishes it from some of its modern variants such as Hatha Yoga or Kuṇḍalinī Yoga, both of which arguably have a much more “physical” or perhaps better put, “result driven” mindset or approach.  In the case of Yoga proper however, the system which Vivekananda refers to as Raja Yoga, or “Royal Yoga”, the focus is on the control and purification of the mind, the so-called “mental sheathe” of the jiva, or Soul, as juxtaposed with a focus on the so-called “physical sheathe” of the human form which is the primary focus of Hatha Yoga for example.

However, in Patañjali’s eight limbed system, the first four limbs in fact represent the requisite preparation of the mind-body system for the higher practices of mental withdrawal and concentration which the Western mind typically associates with meditation which culminates in the state of samādhi, the eighth limb of Patañjali’s system.[9]  The first “limb” of Yoga is yamas, which literally means to “reign in” or “curb”, and consists of five basic moral or ethical precepts with which the practitioner must abide by, i.e. should preclude or refrain from doing.  These are 1) ahiṃsā which means “nonviolence”, or the “non-harming” of other living beings[10], 2) satya which means “truthfulness” or the abstention from lying, 3) asteya or “non-stealing”, 4) brahmacārya which can be loosely translated as “chastity”, but more appropriately translates to “sexual restraint”, and 5) aparigraha which means “non-possessiveness” or “non-attachment”.

This first limb is followed by the list of attributes or qualities which should be cultivated by the Yoga practitioner, i.e. the second limb of Patañjali’s theo-philosophical system which is referred to as niyama, which literally means “positive duties, observances, or practices”.  These are 1) sauca or “purity” of mind, speech and body, 2) santoṣa or “contentment”, or “acceptance”, 3) tapas, which comes from the root Sanskrit word for “fire” but in this context means austerity, self-discipline, or self-control, 4) svādhyāya, or “self-reflection” or “introspection”, and 5) Īśvarapraṇidhāna which means “contemplation of God” or Īśvara, or from an Upanishadic philosophical context contemplation of the Supreme Self, i.e. Brahman.[11]

This list of observances and practices outlined in the first two limbs are followed by the third and fourth limbs which are what most Westerners typically associate with “Yoga” and which are the primary focus of Hatha Yoga.  These are āsana, which means literally “posture” or “seat”, and prāṇāyāma, “breath” or “life force” control, both of which represent a set of physical practices to prepare the mind-body for the more advanced practices of mental attention, awareness and concentration (with which we typically associate with meditation proper) which are the subject and topic of the next three limbs of Patañjali’s theo-philosophical system.

Asana and prāṇāyāma (literally control of breath or “life force”, i.e. prāṇa) are followed by

  • Pratyāhāra, which means the withdrawal of the senses from the external world into oneself (form the prefix prati which means “towards” and the root verb ahara which means “bring near, or “fetch”),
  • Dhāraṇā, which means concentration or one-pointedness of mind, implying the concentration of the mind on a single physical object, deity or symbol,
  • Dhyāna which is the steadfast and unwavering concentration on the object of meditation and concentration, and then finally
  • samādhi, where the distinction between the object of meditation and the meditator falls away and unity, i.e. the direct experience of Brahman

While the first and initial phase of meditation, pratyahara, the practitioner simply “withdraws” the senses from the external world, i.e. literally “brings the focus of attention within”.  This is just the preliminary step along the road of meditation and represents, along with the first four limbs, a preparatory stage or phase as it were that begins to prepare the practitioner, the Yogi, for the more advanced and fully developed stages of meditation practice.  In the dhāraṇā phase the practitioner is meditating, but the concentration is still “wavering” so to speak, and is “broken” or “chunked” in phases of sorts.  That is to say, in this stage the concentration is not as unwavering and dedicated – like a candle that is glowing in a windless place – as is reflected in the more advanced stage of meditation practice which is referred to as dhyāna.  In this stage, the meditator and the object of meditation are unified and connected as it were in the state of concentration itself, in one single field of “awareness” as it were.  This stage can be looked upon in contrast to the earlier stage where the “subject” and “object” are still “perceived” as distinct entities.

The final, and penultimate stage of Patañjali’s theo-philosophical system is the experience of the state of samādhi, which is the direct perception, or experience, of pure consciousness, or Puruṣa, the so-called “ground of existence”.  In this state, one does not conceive of themselves in any way as a distinct “being”, but as fully integrated with the underlying ground of Being itself, or reality.  In this state, the concentration itself melts away as it were into a state of Being where the meditation practice itself, and its related subject and object dualism, falls away and is fully synthesized into a single field of “experience”.

It is very important however, and again this message is lost on many of the Western translations of these teachings, that all of these limbs in Patañjali’s system are meant to hang together and be practiced collectively and meant to be constantly reinforced as it were.  The physical aspects of Yoga, which are emphasized in most if not all of the Western adaptations of his system, are but a means to the end and not an end in and of themselves, and even these aspects of the system rest on very foundational and basic moral and ethical precepts – both abstentions and active observances – which underpin the entire practice.

Yoga can be looked at as a theo-philosophical pyramid of sorts, where the base or foundation of the pyramid are the moral and ethical principles upon which the whole system stands, after which physical purification can begin to be practiced and honed, upon which the art of meditation as reflected in the system of Yoga which Patañjali teaches, can begin to be practiced and mastered.  The final stage, the eight limb which is samādhi, represents not just a “goal” or “objective” of the system, as the Western mind likes to look at things as a sort of “conquest” of sorts, but a state of consciousness, i.e. supraconsciousness, which although from a certain perspective may represent the culmination of the practice as the practitioner comes to a complete understanding of the basic reality and theo-philosophical Truth which the system is designed to reveal, but also nonetheless reflects, and ultimately stands upon, the foundational practices which are reflected in each and every one of the “eight limbs”.

In other words, the notion of realization within Yoga, emphasizes not just the attainment of some sort of goal or objective, or even some state of mind or level of consciousness, but is understood as the effective and consistent practice of all eight limbs within the entire theo-philosophical system together in conjunction with each other in harmony and balance with each other such that a state of being can be arrived at as it were, or attained if we want to look at the theo-philosophical system through a Western intellectual lens, upon which Yoga is realized.  In this context then, and only through proper understanding of all of the limbs of the system and how they work together, this final state of realization is constructed upon all of the eight limbs which come together and are fully integrated and synthesized such that the final Truth of the system can be realized and/or revealed to the jiva.  Again, the same could also be said of Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path and the state of nirvana to which it ascribes as the “end goal” of said system, as understood in Buddhism to be the cessation of suffering, i.e. dukkha-nirodha.

What Vivekananda (1863 – 1902) laid out for the West however, was a comprehensive and fully synthesized and harmonized view of Indian philosophy which while underscored the importance and relevance of Vedānta and Yoga as “true” theo-philosophical systems for the attainment of the end goal of life, i.e. mokṣa or liberation, four different aspects of Yoga, or Paths, should be fully understood and practiced by the jiva, or Soul, the sum total of which reflect the height and full synthesis, and proper understanding, of Indian philosophy in the modern era.[12]

According to Vivekananda, each of these four pillars of Yoga all reflect different aspects of “Yoga” which are to be practiced together and in harmony with each other.  Yoga in this context used by Vivekananda is not to be construed in the more classical Indian philosophical context of Yoga as taught by Patañjali, but “Yoga” in the more broad sense of term which is perhaps best translated as “Union” or “Path”.  These four Paths as he describes them and calls them are Raja Yoga, as expounded by Patañjali, Jnana Yoga, or the pursuit of knowledge from which the fetters of bondage can be broken intellectually, Karma Yoga, or the practice of selfless action which provides the moral and ethical basis for right living for the spiritual aspirant, and Bhakti Yoga, which is love of the divine which propels aspirant along the path.  Each of these was the subject of a number of talks and works which are attributed to Vivekananda and represent the core of his philosophical teachings.[13]

To Vivekananda, each of these four paths represented not only different approaches to mokṣa, but also fundamentally underpinned Vedānta as a theo-philosophical system in and of itself.  While they were treated as distinct approaches and philosophical systems from an intellectual perspective, each true in its own right and in its own terms and underlying philosophical principles and tenets, but at the same time were recast as it were as all different perspectives on the same underlying Truth, a Truth that can be found rooted in the Vedas, and each reflecting different paths to the same ultimate goal.  Collectively, the four Yogas as Vivekananda teaches them, provide the spiritual aspirant with a more complete and expansive guidebook on the entire landscape of spiritual life, in all its nuances and subtleties, from all different perspectives within the Indian philosophical tradition, all recast and re-interpreted for the modern era in the West.

In this context, Raja Yoga is but one of the four paths, to be integrated and understood within the context of the existence of the three other paths – Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga – each of which brings its own expertise, mindset and underlying philosophical and metaphysical perspectives through which Vedānta, according to Vivekananda, was to be properly understood and “practiced” as a spiritual discipline.  Vedānta from Vivekananda’s perspective, was not just as a system of philosophy per se, but should be looked upon and studied as a “practical” guide, intellectually and spiritually, to liberation and freedom of the Soul from bondage and suffering.  In fact, Vivekananda coined the term Raja, or Royal Yoga, given his perspective on its importance within the four pillars of Yoga that were necessary to lead a balanced and liberated life in what he saw as an overly materialistic and capitalistic culture whose main focus was the betterment of the individual at the expense of the whole.

The whole universe is one.  There is only one Self in the universe, only One Existence, and that One Existence, when it passes through the forms of time, space, and causation, is called by different names, Buddhi, fine matter, gross matter, all mental and physical forms.  Everything in the universe is that One, appearing in various forms.  When a little part of it comes, as it were, into this network of time, space, and causation, it takes forms; take off the network, and it is all one.  Therefore in the Advaita philosophy, the whole universe is all one in the Self which is called Brahman.  That Self when it appears behind the universe is called God.  The same Self when it appears behind this little universe, the body, is the soul.  This very soul, therefore, is the Self in man.  There is only one Puruṣa, the Brahman of the Vedānta; God and man, analysed, are one in It.  The universe is you yourself, the unbroken you; you are throughout the universe.  “In all hands you work, through all mouths you eat, through all nostrils you breathe through all minds you think.”  The whole universe is you; the universe is your body; you are the universe both formed and unformed.  You are the soul of the universe and its body also.

You are God, you are the angels, you are man, you are animals, you are the plants, you are the minerals, you are everything; the manifestation of everything is you.  Whatever exists is you.  You are the Infinite.  The Infinite cannot be divided.  It can have no parts, for each part would be infinite, and then the part would be identical with the whole, which is absurd.  Therefore the idea that you are Mr. So-and-so can never be true; it is a day-dream.  Know this and be free.  This is the Advaita conclusion.  “I am neither the body, nor the organs, nor am I the mind; I am Existence, Knowledge, and Bliss absolute; I am He.”  This is true knowledge; all reason and intellect, and everything else is ignorance.  Where is knowledge for me, for I am knowledge itself!  Where is life for me, for I am life itself!  I am sure I live, for I am life, the One Being, and nothing exists except through me, and in me, and as me.  I am manifested through the elements, but I am the free One.

Who seeks freedom?  Nobody. If you think that you are bound, you remain bound; you make your own bondage.  If you know that you are free, you are free this moment.  This is knowledge, knowledge of freedom.  Freedom is the goal of all nature.[15]

From this passage, an excerpt from one of his lectures on Vedānta and Sāṃkhya philosophy, he crystalizes and synthesizes really all of the “orthodox” (again that which rests on the Vedas as the hallmark of Truth), one can see not only the very essence of Advaita Vedānta alluded to, but at the same time the importance and recognition of the reality of God (Brahman/Īśvara/Viṣṇu) and the Soul (Ātman/jiva) as well as also true from a certain perspective.  The sum total of all the systems, all the theo-philosophical beliefs that underpin all of the different Indian philosophical systems, all of which he integrates into a modern conception of Vedānta that can be understood through the four different paths or approaches – Work (Karma Yoga), Devotion (Bhakti Yoga), Knowledge (Jnana Yoga) and Energy (Raja Yoga) – each of which if properly understood and performed with the proper intention all lead to the same final destination and all ultimately reveal the same eternal and ever-lasting simple truth.  That bondage is of the mind and freedom is of the mind as well, and that are fundamental nature is one of freedom and limitlessness and pure consciousness itself (Puruṣa or Brahman).

Vivekananda from this perspective can be viewed not only as the central figure responsible for bringing Yoga to the West, as he most certainly was, but also as a modern and English interpreter and synthesizer of the entire Indian philosophical landscape, a landscape which he ultimately synthesizes under a more expansive and inclusive system which is referred to as Vedānta in that again it does not reject but ultimately accepts the knowledge of the Vedas.  While Ramakrishna’s life and teachings can be viewed as the illustration of the truth and power of all systems of religion, all merely representing different paths to the same goal (Truth is one, sages call it various names as the Upanishadic verse goes), to Vivekananda, life and the universe was a gymnasium for the Soul, and his (re)formulation of Vedānta for the West in the modern era can be seen as his classically “Indian” guidebook for the modern spiritual aspirant put in succinct and clear Western terminology and using a modern Western language, i.e. English.

All great religions speak of mankind’s special place in the universe of creation.  In the Eastern tradition specifically, as taught by Ramakrishna and in Tibetan Buddhism for example, the uniqueness of the human life (the jiva, or Soul as it is referred to in the Indian philosophical tradition), as an instrument of the direct perception of the divine and the vehicle of liberation is emphasized.

In the Buddhist tradition, there is a wonderful story, a parable, which illustrates this.  There is a turtle in a great, vast ocean.  And in this vast ocean there is a small ring that floats on its surface somewhere, a ring with a circumference no bigger than a few feet across.  This ring bobs and floats in this vast sea carried by currents and storms and waves.  In this same ocean, there lives a sea turtle.  A turtle which like all turtles must pop his nose above the surface every few minutes in order to breathe and stay alive, even though he lives most of his life under the sea.  It is said that to be born in a human, and have the opportunity for liberation and illumination which is unique to our species, is said to be as lucky as fortunate and as improbable as that very same sea turtle, swimming in the vastness of the great ocean of the universe, popping its head up for air and happening to stick his nose through that small ring bobbing and floating on the surface.  As Ramakrishna so succinctly puts it, “He is born in vain, who having attained the human birth, so difficult to get, does not attempt to realize God in this very life.”

What is it that is so special about the human form?  The Yoga tradition specifically calls out this form as a tool for illumination and realization, in a manner that is quite direct.  Raja Yoga describes how to perfect and hone this human form to prepare it for illumination, how to harness its energy, outlining a psycho-physiological system to perfect and strengthen the body through the use of various positions and stretches called āsanas, designed to leverage and awaken the life force within the body, prāṇa, and direct it upward through the spiritual channels that flow through the human form which are said to be concentrated in very specific centers, chakras, that run alongside and parallel to the spine, a spiritual channel referred to as the sushumna or nadi.[16]

This energy is also referred to as the serpent of kuṇḍalinī which is implied in the Hindu/Yoga tradition and is explicitly called out in Tantric Yoga as Śakti, the divine force which is associated with the goddess Kālī that underlies all creation.  This Śakti, or kuṇḍalinī, typically lies latent at the base of the spine of the individual centered around the lower three chakras which are associated with the basic, core needs of the human form – eating, sleeping and sexual desire.[17]  Ultimately the theo-philosophical system of Raja Yoga, which is a more modern interpretation of Yoga as outlined in the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, which is inherently mystical like all of the Indian theo-philosophical traditions for the most part, is designed to facilitate and support the ultimate liberation, mokṣa, or mukti, of the Soul, or jiva.

The doctrine of Yoga as outlined by Patañjali, although it doesn’t speak of kuṇḍalinī directly, is effectively the art of honing and facilitating the upward movement of this energy, up through the system of chakras in the human form as outlined in Tantric systems of Yoga, for the purpose of liberation, or in Patañjali’s nomenclature for the purpose of experiencing samādhi.  Patañjali’s system starts with principles that govern what to avoid (yama) and what to observe or cultivate (niyama), providing for a foundation of ethics, morality and even the basic notion of worship itself as core principles for anyone wishing to practice Yoga with the intent of liberating oneself from the world of name and form, the endless suffering that is called out so specifically in the Buddhist tradition, which shares a common philosophical parent with Yoga i.e. the Vedas.

This practice of Yoga is essentially the conscious practice of awakening the energy or life force within each and every one of us, a notion which is very much aligned with the Christian notion of the Holy Spirit.  Tantric Yoga specifically is designed to lift this kuṇḍalinī, latent serpent power, to the higher chakras located at the region of the heart, the throat, the forehead and ultimately through the chakra located at the top of the head, the thousand petalled lotus, which once opened yields the state of samādhi.

Once these chakras are opened, through the practice of Yoga and other Tantric rituals that leverage mandalas (visual symbols) and mantras (incantations and sound), the jiva experiences unrefined and unfiltered consciousness, higher and more subtle realms of reality where the distinction between the observer and the observed gives way to the direct perception of consciousness itself – referred to as samādhi in the Yoga tradition and as Satcitānanda, or Existence-Knowledge-Bliss-Absolute, in the Upanishads.

In the Yoga tradition, one which has been adopted by the West in the last hundred years or so as an alternative in many respects to the Abrahamic religions that have dominated Western thought for almost two thousand years, the human form is perceived as a bundle of energy, energy that is directly related to the cosmic energy from which it draws its source.  Is that not the true meaning behind the notion of mankind being created in God’s image which is a core tenet of Christianity, Islam and certainly Judaism from which this notion ultimately derives, i.e. in Genesis?  The Yoga tradition describes this in more concrete terms though, explaining why we as a species are so special, along with a fairly structured path toward the ultimate realization, the quintessential understanding, of this connection between the creator and the created.

This connection between the individual Soul and the universal Soul is essentially what all of the ancient cosmological systems were about, these same mythological stories of the creation of the universe and mankind’s place in it which are looked upon today as mere stories of the ignorant trying to explain that which these ancient peoples did not understand, notions that we now have a “better” grasp on in the age of science, were actually deep and profound mystical truths whose power had been lost throughout the ages as the metaphors had been watered down into stories that found their way into the literature of various religious systems – the Vedas of the Hindus, the Theogony of Hesiod, the traditions which yielded the cosmologies of the Ancient Egyptians which are found in the Book of Res-Menu, the cosmogony inherent in the clearly sacred text of the Derveni Papyrus, and of course in Genesis of the Old Testament which sits behind Christianity, Islam and Judaism to which some 4 billion people ascribe to today in some form or another.

In essence, the heart of the Indo-Aryan theo-philosophical tradition, which includes Buddhism, lies in this pursuit of the understanding of the nature of mind through various practices, methods and systems of metaphysics – what we call the Science of the mind.  And it is through these practices, and through an understanding of the nature of mind, or the Soul, and its relationship to the Absolute, or God, that represents the core of all systems of Yoga despite their focus on the body and health today.[18]  The Western religious traditions had abandoned this notion of direct perception and realization of the divine, even though Jesus called it out specifically.  Why?  Because they were designed to unite an empire, unite a people, and in so doing could only ascribe to one path of worship and were forced to formulate, and legislate, their teachings such that the power of the divine was closely guarded by the select few.

But the Eastern traditions went down a different path, where not only was it believed the individual soul could be liberated from the world of ceaseless suffering, but that this liberation was the very purpose to existence, the ultimate goal of the soul as it were, the eudaimonia of Aristotle (typically translated as “happiness”) which is the ultimate purpose (telos) of the human being and thereby defines its existence to a great extent, much more so than the material causes which bring about the existence of the human form which we are so focused on in biology and western medicine today.

The Eastern theo-philosophical traditions of Yoga and Buddhism not only lay out a system of ethics and morality within which life should be lived, but also lay out a purpose to life which is based upon the goal of, and fundamental belief in, liberation as the ultimate goal of life.  This is the ultimate freedom from suffering in the Buddhist tradition, i.e. nirvana, and the attainment of mokṣa of Patañjali’s Yoga.  They all cajole us to go back to the source, to recognize our connection with supreme consciousness, or supraconsciousness.  Not through any specific prophet or message, not espousing one set of beliefs, one God over any other, but the practice of Yoga, meditation and living in harmony with our surroundings as well as the people and society within which we live, in order that this illumination, this liberation, this “happiness” can be experienced.

And in this philosophy, the human form is said to be higher than even the forms of the Gods and Angels, for although in the world of the Gods there lie unlimited desires and powers, the prospect and chance of liberation does not exist.  This view of the mortal life being so special and unique can be found implicit in Greek mythology as well, where the realm of the gods and the realm of men mixed and coalesced for centuries prior to the advent of the historical record, giving rise to its mythology and the Age of Heroes for which arguably the Greeks are perhaps best known.

So it is up to the jiva then, the individual soul, to determine what to do with this great energy that it has access to, this great opportunity for liberation.  Vivekananda tells us that all beings, whether cognizant of the fact or not, are moving toward the same goal, either consciously or subconsciously.  That the natural flow and path of everything in existence is to get back to its source, whether this is directly perceived or not.  A reflection at the microcosmic level of the omnipresent inbreathing and outbreathing of Brahman, the process of evolution and devolution of all energy and matter from and back to its source, of which the human being represents its most latently powerful and beautiful form.

[1]Samādhi means literally a “putting or joining together” – from the compound sam which means “together” + a or “toward” and dadhati which is the verb “to put” or “place”.  See https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/samādhi.

[2]From this perspective Yoga can be seen as akin to Buddhism or Daoism in the sense that it does not outline a cosmogony or metaphysics per se but nonetheless outlines a set of guidelines for “right living”.

[3] Rigvéda, Book X.  Hymn XC.  “Purusa”.  From Rig Véda translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith, 1896.  From http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/Rigvéda/rv10090.htm.

[4] Classical Hellenic philosophy however, for example as reflected in the theo-philosophical frameworks put forth most notably by Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, included the realm of the Soul, or spirit, directly in their metaphysical frameworks.

[5] Parallels between the notion of saṃsāra in the Indian philosophical tradition to the Far Eastern ancient concept of Yi, or “change”, which is the basic subject matter of the Yìjīng, or Classic of Changes, can clearly be drawn.  Technically speaking saṃsāra is a function of, or manifestation of Maya from an Advaita Vedānta Indian philosophical perspective.

[6] Swami Vivekananda, Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume 2, “Practical Vedānta and other lectures”   From https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Complete_Works_of_Swami_Vivekananda/Volume_2/Practical_Vedānta_and_other_lectures/Sāṃkhya_and_Vedānta.

[7] In the system of Advaita Vedānta as put forth by Śaṅkara this is referred to as “Self-Knowledge” or, Ātma-bōdha

[8] Sāṃkhya is dualistic, in the sense that it lays out more than one fundamental principle from which the universe comes into existence, namely the inert Puruṣa combined with the active principle of Prakṛti and in this sense it is distinguished for example with Advaita Vedānta where the individual Soul, or Ātman, is considered to be one and the same and fundamentally indivisible from the universal Soul, or Brahman, classified accordingly as a non-dualist philosophical system.

[9] Ashtanga means literally “eight limbs” and it is from this Sanskrit word that the name of the 20th century system called Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, or sometimes imply Ashtanga Yoga, as popularized and taught by K. Pattabhi Jois in the 20th century, is derived.

[10] Ahiṃsā, typically translated as “non-violence”, as a moral precept is the source of the focus on “Vegan” eating habits and practices by most orthodox, or “traditional” practitioners of Yoga.

[11] One of the distinguishing characteristics of Yoga that is believed to derive directly from Sāṃkhya philosophy, its precursor, is the belief in the concept of God, or Īśvara.  While one could argue that from a metaphysical standpoint the two systems are consistent, one cannot deny the fact that Patañjali speaks to the relevance and importance of the contemplation of God, again Īśvara, within his system – whether or not this concept is considered to be “real” or not by Patañjali is open to interpretation.

[12] For a detailed and comprehensive overview of Swami Vivekananda’s life, please see Vivekananda: A Autobiography by Swami Nikhilananda, published by the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York, 1953.

[13] See the three books which are in English (not from translation) which synthesize and compile Swami Vivekananda teachings of these different and yet integrally related Paths called Raja-Yoga, Jnana-Yoga, and Karma-Yoga and Bhakti-Yoga, respectively.

[14] From Wikipedia contributors, ‘Swami Vivekananda’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 4 November 2016, 16:58 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Swami_Vivekananda&oldid=747831480> [accessed 4 November 2016].  Image from Dziewa at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4310553.

[15] Swami Vivekananda, Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume 2, “Practical Vedānta and other lectures”   From https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Complete_Works_of_Swami_Vivekananda/Volume_2/Practical_Vedānta_and_other_lectures/Sāṃkhya_and_Vedānta.

[16] Chakra means literally “wheel”, “circle”, or “cycle” in Sanskrit, an ancient word of Indo-European origin that can be found throughout the Indian theo-philosophical literature, e.g. Rigvéda, 1.164 and the notion of the so-called wheel of dharma, a prevalent theme in Buddhism (cakka in Pāli).

[17] Kālī is the feminine of the Sanskrit word for “black” or “dark colored”, i.e. kālam, and becomes a prominent figure in Hindu mythos from the Puranic period onwards.  Kālī can also mean “time” and as such represents the destructive aspect of change that underlines the universe.  In this sense it can be seen as a corollary to the Greek Chronos and the Chinese Yi, from a cosmological and theogonic vantage point, even though of course she takes on a whole new dimension from a Yoga and Tantric standpoint in the Indian theo-philosophical tradition.  See Wikipedia contributors, ‘Kali’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 3 January 2017, 11:07 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Kali&oldid=758084263> [accessed 3 January 2017].

[18] In this context, Buddhism is viewed as an alternative philosophical system of Upanashadic philosophy that while does not necessarily look to the Vedic corpus and body of knowledge as the penultimate benchmark of truth, i.e. is not orthodox, it still nonetheless (like Jainism) has its roots in Indo-Aryan theo-philosophy and is still nonetheless typically classified as an Indian theo-philosophical system.  Buddhism represents an offshoot and child philosophical system of the Vedas in much the same way as Islam is an offshoot of Christianity in many respects, while not altogether rejecting all of the basic tenets of its predecessor necessarily, they nonetheless are strongly influenced by them and evolved as counter-cultural theological forces to them and therefore must be seen in this light and context.

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