The next line of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that we shall today consider continues the theme of Ishvara.
1.26 He [Ishvara] is the Teacher of even the ancient teachers, being not limited by time [transl. by Swami Vivekananda – translator’s note].
In case of its literal reading this sutra shall obviously evoke evidently religious associations that most of commentators have “fallen” for. Religious consciousness often tries to legitimize these or those viewpoints by announcing them to have been “divinely inspired”, to be the one-and-only-directly-transmitted-truth and so on. Note that this relates to the Bible (including the variety of its translations that are rather different from each other) as well as Koran, Vedas and Tantras, and even Popol Wuj. Of course we cannot fall for it hook, line and sinker, first of all because of naivety and epistemological inconsistency of these interpretations. Likewise we cannot accept the fact that Patanjali, the man of wisdom, could have been pondering over the issue in such a primitive way. Besides, this straightforwardly-religious interpretation is poorly aligned with the afore-worded understanding of Ishvara.
Let us try to give symbolic interpretation of this sutra. The category “Ishvara was a teacher” can apparently be a metaphor. It’s just like we say today that “it is life that has been my teacher”. But could Patanjali have used this kind of metaphor? Of course Indian texts abound in metaphors yet were their authors aware of the sum and substance of metaphoric description? Learning more about Sanskrit grammar makes it possible to give a confident answer to this question. Indian scientists were distinguishing between three types of utterances:
- Abhidhartha – a saying that conveys the literal, unambiguous meaning;
- Lakshanartha – a “vague” saying endowed with metaphorical or metonymical polysemy which exact meaning can be understood from the context only. For instance, when we say “call a taxi” we don’t mean “call a car” yet “contact the dispatcher who will call the driver so that he drove the car”.
- Vyanjanartha – nonverbal messages. Yes! The scholars of ancient India knew about this communication component and were thinking about it.
But in this case it is of course the second type of saying that is of our interest; or, rather, its presence in the Indian science of language.
Having accepted the fact of metaphoricity of the Yoga Sutra line under consideration, we can give its interpretation. In every tradition, both modern as well as ancient one, it is the critical conceptualization of the Universe that comes as the source of knowledge. It is that very observation of reality that gives the new knowledge, while testing the hypotheses as a matter of actual practice comes as the only adequate form of their verification.
This idea, being obvious for a person imbued with scientific world outlook, might scare and outrage those whose consciousness still stays under pressure of religiosity. It is not direct cognition that religious consciousness is looking for answers in, but the texts “hallowed” by tradition. However, every tradition has the “weak” link – the person who has created it. Still there is a mechanism of deifying such people that races to rescue: the founders of traditions are as if not people but something different that one cannot properly talk about… I once happened to ask Krishnaites why they were observing the practice of Brahmacharya when the Krishna they worship had led a fairly erotic existence and according to Vidyapati had “…sixteen thousands wives among shepherd girls”. Their answer came in form of indignant faces and some falter about him being god while we should not, and all this kind of tut-tut. Say nothing of Christians and Muslims in this context…
The point is that the founders of Traditions understood perfectly well all the issues that I am about. Every new Tradition and School was overcoming the already existing systems of belief and forming new ones, more relevant to respective time. Could Buddhism have emerged if Buddha had remained a faithful follower of Brahmanism, or was there a chance for Christianity to survive in case Peter in Jaffa had failed to take a non-standard decision on accepting Romans into this sect that hitherto had been purely Jewish? Another person crossing the mind is Padmasambhava who, according to one of his biographies, in reply to the question about his teachers said that “I am the Teacher of myself”. However later in order not jangle public nerves he acquired official Indian admittance and education. The same methods were used by other prominent esoterics whose treatises were not written yet “found” under stones (“Shiva Sutra”), in “thermae” or in old libraries (Zogar). Krishnamacharya also happened to “have found” the Treatise of Mysore. What could he do? Religious consciousness is not ready to be reconciled to a fact that something significant can be created by a man, let alone a contemporary.
This seemed to have remained in the bygone times, but it hasn’t. The issue of “classicality” turns up time and time again, even in Yoga. For instance, in the idea of Traditional yoga (here we should probably stand up and take hats off) and neo-yoga (here, on the contrary, have your lips curved). For instance – Modern Yoga versus Traditional Yoga.
However, as they say in Buddhism, “every thing contains within the liberation from itself”. So that now a thorough analysis of “traditional” Schools of Yoga reveals the borrowings that come from a number of different traditions. Mark Singleton in his book “Yoga Body” has shown that Krishnamacharya’s system of yoga that underlies most of modern Schools represented in the Western world contains a number of adoptions from Western systems of health improvement that were popular at that time. The Yoga Shala of Krishnamacharya was located next to the gym where bodybuilders were having their practice and the trainers were sharing their best practices. And even the most “yogic” of all yogas – the School of Iyengar – contains obvious borrowings that originate not from secret Sanskrit treatises yet from European recreational gymnastics that had been developed several decades prior to its emergence. So then what? Should we turn away from Krishnamacharya and Iyengar? Stop practicing the exercises proposed by them? No, in case we understand that the quality of the method depends upon its effectiveness, not “traditionalism”. And the power of yoga particularly lies in the fact that at every stage of its development it has been borrowing the most advanced ideas and practices, whether Ayurveda of ancient India or the approaches of modern physiology. Traditionalism as a backward look contradicts the very Spirit of esotericism that is future-oriented.