Polycentrism, the many-one problem and the roots of yoga

Polycentrism, the many-one problem and the roots of yoga

One of the central problems Hindus face on the intellectual battlefield is articulating their position vis-a-vis the stances of their Abrahamic foes. An important aspect of this problem is the difficulty faced by many modern Hindus in understanding the contrast between their system and the exclusivity, belligerence and universalism of Mohammedanism and the cult of Jesus.

Thus, we see numerous Hindus taking a rather apologetic stance with respect to their polytheistic system. They might even try to deny it by claiming that in reality they are monotheistic, just as the followers of Mohammed and Jesus.

We also see this tendency in daily life: many Hindus use terminology like “God”, in a sense similar to that used by the Abrahamists, instead of using their own rich language full of nuance with terms such as ātman, brahman, īśvara, or the specific names of deities from their pantheon.

In our opinion, the lack of clarity on these issues directly contributes to their flaccid response to the aggression of the Abrahamic foes. Consequently, the use of terminology in an Abrahamic sense can be seen as a memetic Trojan horse, left behind by the Mohammedans and Christians, after their physical conquests were nullified to an extent by the Hindu fightback culminating in independence.

Hence, we speculate that the adoption of Abrahamic terminology in this regard could actually “soften” the Hindus who do so, and facilitate their fall to the rampant evangelism of the two Abrahamic cults in India.

lokesh chandra

As the great scholar of Indic tradition, śrī Lokesh Chandra explained in an interview [Footnote 1], it is important that India retain and celebrate its “polycentrism” rather than monotheism, as the former is the defining feature of our civilization. Indeed, the great sage uddālaka āruṇi states:

ekam eva advitīyam | tad aikṣata bahu syām prajāyeya | chandogyopaniṣad in section 6.2

It was only one without a second. It willed: “I shall multiply and reproduce as many.”

Thus, in the Hindu system the one is seen as becoming many. Here the arrow of causation accepts and emphasizes the emergence of multiplicity as being the natural order. This is contrary to the Abrahamic system of monotheism where the unitary deity is defined by exclusion of all others.

Thus, the multiplicity, which was the natural state in the pre-Abrahamic  heathen systems of West Asia, was force-fitted to a single standard. The multiplicity inherent in the Hindu system is consonant with the nature of existence itself: at the origin of the universe, in the earliest period, the unitary force manifested as the four forces of nature. Likewise, unitary matter manifested as particles with a multiplicity of masses, charges, ‘colors’, spins and other properties.

Analogously, emergence of multiplicity characterizes life, where all its diversity, with manifold organisms including ourselves, has emerged from a single ancestral organism through the process of reproduction (“bahu syām prajāyeya”).

[pullquote]For the Hindu, the multiplicity of forms and the unmanifest are not a contradiction. [/pullquote]

Hence, the ṛṣi gṛtsamada śaunahotra states:

yo apsv ā śucinā daivyena ṛtāvājasra urviyā vibhāti |

vayā id anyā bhuvanāny asya pra jāyante vīrudhaś ca prajābhiḥ || R^igveda 2.35.8

All other beings are, as it were, branches of him, the plants, with their progeny, are born (of him), who, imbued with the natural law (ṛta), eternal, and widely-spreading, shines amid the waters with pure and divine (radiance).

Similarly, the Veda states:

ajāyamāno bahudhā vijāyate | taittirīya+āraṇyaka in 3.13.1

The unborn is multiply born (i.e. the unmanifest manifests multiply).

Thus, for the Hindu, the multiplicity of forms and the unmanifest are not a contradiction. Rather the direction of causation again emphasizes the emergence of a multiplicity of forms from what is unmanifest or not undergoing birth. This is again in contradiction to Abrahamic thought, which rails and rants against form, leading to iconoclastic urges that seek to destroy all heathen depictions of divinities in diverse forms.


Here again, the Hindu system is consonant with nature: from the incredibly dense singularity (i.e. the unmanifest) the universe with all its forms originated. From unmanifest instructions in genes and proteins present in a single-celled zygote a whole organism with a multiplicity of cell types can emerge via repeated reproduction. Thus, via its unitary emphasis and proscription of the manifestation of multiplicity, Abrahamic thought is like a still-born embryo where the zygote never proceeded beyond the single-celled stage.

The heathens have had a long and sophisticated history of analyzing the basic philosophical question in this regard. The core of this question tackled both by Hindu and early Greek philosophies was what can be termed “the many-one problem”. One way of stating it is that there are many identical, similar or congruent entities that just appear to be multiple manifestations of one single prototype.

So how do we deal with the multiplicity while recognizing the unifying principle within them? In Sanskrit grammar we can reduce the various expressions of language to a relatively small set of prototypical rules – this was the means by which the great Panini formulated his monumental grammar.


Similarly, we can classify the diversity of organisms to a few prototypes based on the principle of homology. Thus, many can be explained as few. Next, one might logically ask if this can be taken to the minimal prototype (may be just one), which is the foundational reality, but at the same time also explain the multiplicity logically rather than deny, exclude or proscribe it as is typical of Abrahamic monotheism. To this end the Hindus applied themselves diligently.

[pullquote] Abrahamic thought is like a still-born embryo where the zygote never proceeded beyond the single-celled stage.[/pullquote]

The analysis of this question lies at the origin of one of the pillars of Hindu thought and religion – sāṃkhya-yoga. sāṃkhya emerges in “thought-matrix” of the Upanishads: in section 6.13 of the śvetāśvatara+upaniṣad we hear that sāṃkhya is the basis of mokṣa. i.e., the soteriological conclusion of the realization of the unifying principle. The essential premise of the sāṃkhya-class of explanations for the many-one problem derives from a concept termed māyā, which goes back to the ancient Indo-Aryan past. Knowing māyā is knowing the ways of the deva-s! The deva-s exhibit māyā: thus, their one true or prototypic form appears in many diverse forms. This is true of Indra in the ṛgveda. There the ṛṣi viśvāmitra says:

rūpam-rūpaṃ maghavā bobhavīti māyāh kṛnvānas tanuvaṃ pari svāṃ |(RV 3.53.8).

maghavan (indra) transforms into form after form, effecting the display of māyā around his own body.

In the itihāsa-s, viṣṇu and rudra put forth their māyā to assume many forms. In the purāṇa corpus this māyā is the great goddess māhākālī also called yoga-māyā. Thus, right from the beginning the term māyā appears to have implied the means by which the deva or dānava creates many forms which “veil” the underlying primal form.

Thus, one Hindu approach to the “many-one” problem appears to have been a logical extension of this idea to describe the universe itself. Hence, in sāṃkhya we have the one puruṣa associating with prakṛti, who acting like the principle of māyā creates a multiplicity that is seen as the universe. This connection between the māyā of deva-s and sāṃkhya theory is very palpable in an explanation of universe offered in an exposition of sāṃkhya in the mahābhārata:

apāṃ phenopamaṃ lokaṃ viṣṇor māyā śatair vṛtam |

citta-bhitti pratīkāśaṃ nala sāram anarthakam || (Mbh-”critical” 12.290.57)

The universe is like the foam of water enveloped by hundreds of māyā-s of viṣṇu, like an illusory wall and ephemeral as sap in a [hollow] reed.

The use of māyā by deva-s leads to yoga, which was originally seen as a system of praxis involving the direct application of sāṃkhya principles. Evidence for this is abundant in the itihāsa-s and purāṇa-s. One of the most famous expressions of this, known to most Hindus, is the statement of kṛṣṇa in the bhagavad gītā:

nāhaṃ prakāśaḥ sarvasya yoga-māyā-samāvṛtaḥ |

mūḍho’yaṃ nābhijānāti loko mām-ajam-avyayaṃ || (BG7.25)

I am not manifest to all, veiled by the māyā of my yoga. This deluded world [i.e. entrapped by the display of māyā] knows not me, unborn and unlimited.

A more palpable application of māyā displayed via yoga is described in the mahābhārata, when at sunset on the fourteenth day of the Great War, devakī-putra turning to arjuna says: “arjuna, I have obscured the sun by the means of my yoga and the kaurava-s think it has set. Kill jayadratha!”


Another poignant expression of the fact that the application of yoga is essentially the same as the display of māyā is suggested by the story of the ancient bhārgava sage uśanas kāvya given in mahābhārata 12.278 (“critical edition”). kāvya was enraged with the deva-s because viṣṇu had beheaded his mother, who was a partisan of the asura-s. kāyva used his yoga to enter into kubera, the yakṣa who was the treasurer of the deva-s and stole his wealth.

Furious, kubera went to rudra and told him that kāvya used his yoga to enter his [kubera]’s body and having robbed him of his wealth came out of it and escaped. rudra, himself of supreme yoga power, raised his dreaded trident and sought kāvya with the intention of striking him. kāvya realized from a distance the intention of rudra of superior yoga powers and wondered whether he should flee or try some other trick. Then using his mighty yoga, uśanas kāvya, the prefect and physician of the daitya-s, became small and went and sat on the tip of rudra’s trident.

Unable to use his weapon he bent it with his arms to make it into the pināka bow! At this point uśanas fell into śiva’s hand, who promptly swallowed him and returned to perform his meditative yoga. The bhārgava wandered endlessly in rudra’s stomach and was absorbed into his body. As śiva had shut all his outlets in practice of yoga, he was unable to find an exit. Unable to escape he repeatedly worshiped the terrible mahādeva, who asked him to emerge from his semen.

Thus, did the bhṛgu drop out. When rudra saw him he raised his trident to kill him. But umā intervened and asked him to spare the brāhmaṇa’s life.

The point of note here is that the famous bhārgava magic of parakāya-praveśa is effected by means of yoga, which is parallel to the ability of deva-s to exhibit māyā transforming their bodies into many forms. This is further clarified in the great itihāsa in course of the description of yoga:

brahmāṇam-īśam varadaṃ ca viṣṇum

bhavaṃ ca dharmaṃ ca ṣaḍānanaṃ ca

so brahmaputrāṃś-ca mahānubhāvān || 58

tamaś-ca kaṣṭaṃ sumahad-rajaś-ca

sattvaṃ ca śuddhaṃ prakṛtiṃ parāṃ ca

siddhiṃ ca devīṃ varuṇasya patnīṃ

tejaśca kṛtsnaṃ sumahac-ca dhairyaṃ || 59

narādhipaṃ vai vimalaṃ satāraṃ

viśvāṃś-ca devān uragān pitṝṃś ca

śailāṃś-ca kṛtsnānudadhīṃś-ca ghorān

nadīś-ca sarvāḥ savanan ghanāṃś-ca || 60


gandharva-saṅghān-puruṣān-striyaś-ca |

parasparaṃ prāpya mahān-mahātmā

viśeta yogī nacirādvimuktaḥ || 61 MBh(12.289.58-61)

The high-souled yogin filled with greatness, at will, can enter into and come out of, brahmā the lord of all, the boon-giving viṣṇu, bhava, dharma, the six-faced kumāra, the sons of brahmā, tamas that results in trouble, rajas, sattva, the mahat and the pure, primordial prakṛtī, the goddess siddhi – the wife of varuṇa, the all-encompassing energy, courage, the king, the sky with the stars, the universe, celestial snakes, the ancestor-spirits, mountains, all terrible oceans, all rivers, thick forests, serpents, plants, yakṣa bands, the directions gandharva bands, and both males and females.

Thus it is clear the yoga was precisely the practical means of “effecting māyā” — the yogin could literally enter into all possible rūpa-s. We also see that it was described as a means of entering prakṛti, which is (the cause of) māyā.

As the great scholar Ganganath Jha remarked sāmkhya and yoga appear to be two faces of the same darśana. The former stands for the siddhānta or the theoretical framework and the latter for the practical means of achieving it. The earliest notable discoveries in terms of the practical means that characterize yoga were made by the Indo-Aryans probably in the late brāhmaṇa period of the Vedic age.

One discovery was that there was something unique about the problem of consciousness and that it could be tackled in a special way by transcending the subject-object distinction. The second discovery was that this issue of consciousness could be understood only by some special physiologically alterations connected to the nervous system. We have no clear evidence whether these discoveries were known before or not – while some of the methods could go back to human antiquity, at least some of the background knowledge probably derived from the medical investigations of the atharvaveda.

The second of these discoveries led to the primitive “kuṇḍalini system” and a precursor of what later came to be known as the khecarī mudra. The earliest traces to these system in the late brāhmaṇa period are seen in the ideas of the bhārgava prācinayogya in the taittirīya śruti and yājñavalkya in the vājasaneyi śruti. It was further developed in the bhṛgu smṛti [Footnote 2]. A subsequent preliminary synthesis of the different themes under an overarching framework was attempted by patañjali. However, his system was mainly an attempt to present yoga as an independent darśana by incorporating a slightly modified form of sāṃkhya as its internal siddhānta.

[pullquote]As the great scholar Ganganath Jha remarked sāmkhya and yoga appear to be two faces of the same darśana.[/pullquote]

The real task of a grand synthesis, which brought together various themes into a comprehensive system of practice was seen in the tantra-s. Here, in addition to the multifaceted development of the traditions of physical practice, the “kuṇḍalini” and “khecarī mudra” systems were brought together with the other ancient Hindu tradition of the mantra-śāstra. Credit in this regard goes to the great matsyendra, the fisherman-teacher, who wove the different strands into the great tantric synthesis. This was indeed one of the greatest achievements of Hindu thought, where the many and one are seamlessly integrated, something which is much neglected by many modern theoretical students of Hindu thought.



Footnote 1:


Footnote 2: We offer an approximate, partial translation of the bhṛgu smṛti, an important document of Hindu thought here:


Manasatarangini T

The author is a practitioner of sanAtana dharma. Student, explorer, interpreter of patterns in nature, minds and first person experience. A svacchanda.