What Yoga is and is not: A report from Greece
Shantom Centre, Athens, 6 June 2015
Professor Bharat Gupt, a classicist, expert in ancient Greek and Indian theater, and a scholar of Indian philosophy and religion spoke at the Shantom Centre, Athens on the topic of Yoga for Personal and Social Development. As Prof Gupt spoke in English, translation was provided by Ms. Irene Maradei. Lida Shantala of the Shantom Centre thanked the Indian Embassy for its participation.
Prof Gupt opened his talk by saying that speaking on Yoga at an artistic Centre rather than a religious venue was more valuable as art is usually more creative and all-embracing, whereas religio-centricity sometimes declines into conservatism. Yoga, he said, is also an art. In ancient times, in both Greece and India, there was no dividing line between humanities and sciences, and both were categorised as episteme or vidyaa. Prof Gupt then started an invocation of a verse by the ancient Indian poet Bhartrhari:
Svaanubhuutyekamaanaaya namah shaantaaya tejase||
“I bow to Shiva, to ultimate peace and dynamism, boundless, not limited by time or space; to the Image of pure Consciousness, experienced and known by oneself alone.”
Prof Gupt then expounded that in the Indian traditional systems (and this was true of Socrates in Greece as well), knowledge is validated only by self-experience and not through a scripture, a teacher or a prophet’s words or any material inference. Actually, realizing Truth through physical, mental and higher consciousness constitutes Yoga. Asanas and Pranayama are at the physical level, but the channelling of the mind is at the psychic level, and knowing the Ultimate Truth through consciousness is the final level as mentioned in Bhartrhari’s verse. If one looks at the definition of Yoga, the best place to begin is with Patanjali: Yogah chittavritti nirodhah.
This is not to be translated literally as “Yoga is the control of mind”, as is often done. Yoga is an unfolding or experience of the true nature of Consciousness. It is through Consciousness that one becomes aware of the body and the mind. True Yoga therefore, is the channelling of the physical, mental and consciousness, to its final destination. Yoga is certainly not asanas or postures only. The purpose of Yoga is not to have merely an attractive and healthy body. If that were so, Yoga would be no different from swimming or eurhythmics. We have to see the totality of Yoga at all the levels.
Yoga is also not to be seen as a method of control which means doing certain things and stopping with it. It does not mean doing this and not doing something else. Yoga is a journey to good physical health, mental health, stability and to the opening up of Consciousness to the total Cosmos. Yoga, therefore, is just about everything.
Hence, the revered Bhagavad Gita says that Yoga is doing all our activities with the highest skill. “Yogah karmasu kaushalam.” Yoga is doing the best in every human sphere of action.
A Yoga follower need not necessarily be an ascetic or a recluse, nor is she or he, exclusively devoted to spiritual concerns. A Yogi does is one who does all things with the highest efficiency. It is living life in all its completeness, with all its travails, troubles and challenges. That is the reason why Yoga is not merely a theology.
There are many controversies at present regarding Yoga. It is often asked if Yoga is merely a Hindu pursuit. Can Christians or Muslims practice it? Would they cease to be Muslims or Christians if they do so? There are theological wars going on around this question for about two decades. However, if you experience Yoga as I explained it above, there cannot be any controversy. Every human being has a body, a mind and a consciousness which he can transcend if he wishes to go beyond the conventional. Yoga is an exploration and an experience and not a set of doctrines.
This brings me to central question of this lecture. Can Yoga be used for combating the hard times that Greece is going through now? If you see the vastness of Yoga, you will realise that it becomes an instrument for facing all the problems and trepidations that we face in our lives. Yoga then is for those who are in difficulties and for nations in difficult periods.
How should then pursue Yoga? Should it done with a limited aim? The answer is: it cannot be done with a single aim. Yoga does have an innate capacity to solve problems of life. It does provide you a healthy body, a mind which can face the challenges of daily living, and above all, Yoga makes you aware that there is a reality beyond body and mind.
Some theologies are disturbed by Yoga for a simple reason. Every theology that does not accept the totality of existence but insists that “my God alone is true,” or that “my prophet alone is the messenger of God”, or that by following a particular Saviour alone, one shall not walk in darkness any more, feels threatened by the exploratory nature of Yoga. It is not for theological differences that Yoga poses a threat to such doctrines. It is because Yoga expands the heart and the mind and fosters an attitude of all-inclusiveness. It reveals through verifiable self-experience and personal testimony and not through stated dogmas regarding the truth of spiritual experience. It makes you decide yourself about the diversities and differences in the Universe and how to deal with them by self-experience and not by doctrinal submission to the ‘revealed’ words of others.
Yoga is the best practical way of living through hard times. However, the ground needs to be prepared before starting the practice of Yoga. In the classical systems of Indian thought, this preparation is characterized by “submitting to Yama and Niyama.” That is, to create and sustain certain attitudes and practices. Briefly speaking, it is pursuing a life of hard work, not desiring the wealth of others, maintaining a life of discipline whether or not of asceticism. For a serious and determined person on the path of Yoga, being an ascetic is not a mandatory requirement. Countless sages and yogis in India have set the example of being stationed in their worldly lives and duties while being at a high level of yogic experience.
Yoga therefore requires some kind of restraint and refraining from aggression. It should not be very difficult for this audience to understand this because these qualities are the same preconditions for artistic activity. If an artist is hateful or destructive, or angry and unforgiving, he or she cannot create great art. The same is true for Yoga.
So where do we begin? There are many prescriptions, but more than anything, it is your own search which is going to tell you where and how to start. The frame of mind needed for Yoga is non-aggression, tremendous patience and then a regimen of asanas. These have to be done under proper guidance. The next stage is the control of breath or pranaayama. It often takes years for this to become a habit, and once this habit is formed, and fresh energies are seen manifesting in the body, one starts going inward. Inwardness is an essential attitude for any creative person. Again, the artist analogy is the best paradigm for a budding Yogi.
Yoga is the beginning of a new art, the art of going within. This is the start of serious Yoga. Very few of us are capable of doing this, just as very few of us are capable of becoming great artists. However, even coming close to this condition helps you attain a good vision of the world, a harmonious way of living with the entire creation. And that is not a small thing. And so, even the mundane results of yoga are spectacular. I shall describe what is said to be inward life. It is said that it is essentially a union of the individual self with the whole Cosmos. It is thus that a true knowledge of the permanent reality comes to you. The very word yoga means “to unite.” But we think of Yoga as a cult of exercises. I hope I have succeeded in bringing to your attention the totality of the pursuit of Yoga.
Efcharisto para poli.
Question and Answer
Q: (by a Greek poet.). I am very moved and happy to be here. I ask your advice rather than a question. Yoga has a country, it sprang from a certain tradition. I am aware of the fact that it is not limited to it. But please tell me, for someone who wants to delve more seriously, more in depth into yoga and serve it better, is it advisable or necessary to delve into Eastern philosophy and Hindu religion?
BG: Studying Hinduism will bring its own reward. But even after studying it, there is little chance that one understands Yoga. Nothing shall mean much unless one does some practical Yoga. I can say from my own experience, as I have done music as Yoga (called naadopaasanaa in India). It was only after doing something practical like music that I could understand the meaning of the deep philosophical texts of Hinduism. As any musician knows, music makes you aware of your body as you employ it to create art, and so your mind, and an entirely different way of understanding develops by constant practice. Same is true of Yoga.
Question: What you explained about Yoga seems to be very similar to Zen or Buddhist thought. What do you think?
BG: Well, in my humble opinion, there is extremely little difference between what have been academically called as separate doctrines going by the name of Hinduism and Buddhism. There have been political reasons for projecting a big divide between the two but to discuss them is beyond the subject of this talk today.
Question: What is Yoga for Indians, I mean the common persons? For those who do not study or discuss the way we have been talking here? What place does Yoga have in a regular Indian’s everyday life?
BG: Yoga is a very wide term used for many kinds of practices. Asanas and pranayama is just one part of it though they stand for Yoga in the common understanding now. But if Yoga is to be seen as a path or journey to knowing the Cosmic Self-experience, then there have to many ways of approaching the Cosmic Truth. So there are dozens of Yogas: Selfless service, social responsibility, lifelong devotion to the pursuit of an art or a science, or even political responsibility.
Question: What did you say? Politics?
BG: It is surprising to hear this. However, if you take political responsibility in the spirit of total selflessness and with no personal interest whatsoever, it is legitimate Yoga. Arjuna was preached to do that by Krishna, to fight for and establish a just kingdom for common Good. Politics can thus be beautiful.
[Laughter and disbelief]
Question: Do you know of any such politicians?
BG: Yes, many! I have lived in Delhi all my life where all kinds of politicians live, from black to white. If I recall correctly, Plato has said that of all arts, statecraft is the highest art. You make a state for others, not just for yourself to be a tyrant.
Question: You spoke of regular Yoga practice. What does “regular” mean? How often and for how long does Yoga need to be done?
BG: The physical part of it is always a regimen but the inner journey is known only to the practitioner. Classical texts use a term called pranidhaana or concentrative determination for progressing in a Yoga journey. Higher and stronger the pranidhaana, better the result.
Question: Sometimes I try very hard to go ahead in my Yoga pursuit but then sometimes I catch myself getting angry or upset – I get very disappointed for not being able to control myself more, following the yamas and niyamas. What should I do?
BG: We are all like that. That is why we need Yoga.
Question: (The poet) Are Yoga and meditation part of life or are they separate or is there a sacred union?
BG: In whatever form or style, Yoga has to be part of daily life.
Question: (by Lida). I like the way you have explained the channelling of energies in Yoga or rather that which is called ‘control’ in terms of Yoga. It is good that you explained that Yoga is not following a dogma or merely a set of rules but that it requires unconventional thinking and the opening of the mind.
BG: If you would read the lives of great Yogis, you will find that nearly all of them were unconventional and had their own innovative systems and even their rather eccentric style of social behaviour. The very core of Yoga is to think beyond the conventional and to know things afresh. That is why all puritans feel threatened by Yoga as they break rules.
Q:Regarding your expounding of Yoga as channelling of the forces and going within, I would like to say that in the Greek tradition there is a term used for inward exploration called ‘endoscopia.’
BG: For my info can you tell me in which text is this mentioned?
The Poet: One hundred maxims from the sayings of the Oracle of Delphi.
BG: I will like to take that up in a separate lecture on Gandhi. I have a very critical view of Gandhi. In my humble opinion, right or wrong, like most social and political thinkers of modern India, Gandhi was cut off from the essential thought of classical India. Gandhi’s ideas were rooted in the paradigm of the medieval Hindu devotional movement called Vaishnavism that dominated the medieval times. The difference is the same as between a Byzantine painting of Christ in a monastery and an ancient painting of Apollo on a ritual ceramic vase. I am giving a comparison from Greece for your easy understanding. Gandhi did not belong to ancient Indian thought. My view, many may disagree.
Prof Vassiliades: I want to say, although influenced by Islam and Christianity, Gandhi revered and constantly read the Bhagavad Gita, thus he does have some connection with ancient Indian thought.
BG: That is why he made a mess of the Bhagavad Gita. That is why he told the Jews to surrender to Hitler. We have to reassess Gandhi, Nehru and many of the so called makers of modern India. I have been saying this for 40 years. Most of these modern Indian leaders have been unaware of the real classical Indian thought. Look how Gandhi treated sex, which had little to do even with medieval India. Gandhi, regarding his attitude to sex and women reminds me of some Christian monk of the early centuries AD, who castrated himself. Don’t mind, mine is, perhaps, a very politically incorrect view.
Prof Vasillidaes: Classical India is not just Tantrism. It is also Jain thought which was a big influence on Gandhi.
BG: I agree with you that there is more to ancient Indian philosophy than just Tantra and the influence of Jain thought on Gandhi was certainly present. However, look at the real spirit of those ideas of brahmcharya (sexual control) and ahimsa (non-violence), which Gandhi adopted from Jain thought. In ancient times, as shown in the texts, brahmacharya was supposed to be practiced as moderation by the householder and total abstinence was for the mendicant ascetic. It was different for different people, in ancient society. Brahmacharya was not abstinence for the householder in ancient thought which rested on the four stages of life and social responsibility. But Gandhi forced abstinence on himself and preached it as desirable for all. Nonviolence or ahimsa was never pushed to such extreme in classical times, as Gandhi pushed it. All the Jain and Buddhist kings of India had strong and well equipped armies.
There is a lot of confusion about ancient Indian texts as for the past six to seven hundred years there have been no universities where these texts could have been studied systematically. Now there is a fresh need to understand them, prescribe them, study them at all levels of education, and discuss them again widely. Then alone we will be able to judge our modern political leaders.
I thank you all, for coming and listening to me and giving your time this evening. Thank you very much indeed.