Concentration on supernormal powers invites a recurrence of Ignorance4 min read

There are other powers which can arise from bhavana on friendliness and the others. But Shankara remarks, in his commentary on sutra III.23, that though the man of bhavana is a ‘powerful’ man, if he concentrates on any of the supernormal powers in the world he invites a recurrence of Ignorance.

For example, if a yogi were to concentrate on achieving telepathic power, he would achieve it, but it would involve polluting his partially purified mind with the thoughts of passion of an unpurified mind, and that would set him back in his yoga. Shankara is definite that such powers exist – he says in his Brahma-sutra commentary that they are a fact, which cannot be brushed aside merely by an emphatic denial. But to concentrate on them invites a darkening of the mind.

Sometimes this darkening may not be apparent to the man himself. An adhyatma yogi fell in with a magician travelling the same path, and the magician said to him, ‘Your yoga is only words. At the end you are only what you were before. You speak of removing limitations, but you cannot do it. Now in our path we do actually remove limitations, we extend our powers.’ ‘But you do not remove the limitation of individuality,’ said the yogi, ‘and while that remains, though you may think you remove some physical limitations, others will be imposed on you, perhaps unconsciously.’ ‘If they are unconscious, what would it matter?’ retorted the magician. ‘Anyhow, we shall see.’

They came to a river and could not see any boat. The magician stood on the bank, muttering certain syllables again and again. His body began to tremble and his aspect changed5 he looked as light as a feather. He threw his straw hat on the water, and stepped on it. Spreading the sleeves of his cloak like a sail, he was carried across the river by a breeze which had sprung up from nowhere. The yogi called a farewell which was ignored.

After a little time, a boat came down the river and the yogi hailed it$ the boatman amiably took him across the river for a

little fee. On the other side the magician was waiting for him, and as he stepped ashore said triumphantly, ‘Now do you see the superiority of our path! You had to wait while I crossed directly.’

‘Yet here we are together,’ remarked the yogi.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Why, your magic made you light, and so you crossed the river and you were ahead of me. But when you had crossed, something made you heavy, and you could not move till I came up. You had to wait so that you could score off me. Surely there is no loosening of the limitations by such things.’

It may reasonably be asked, ‘If these powers are no help in yoga, and are not to be pursued, why are they mentioned at all?’ One reason is that when meditation and worship are being practised, sometimes one of these things momentarily manifests itself spontaneously. If the yogi has not been warned of it, he may go nearly mad with excitement; he may think that the tradition he is being taught knows nothing of what is now happening, and is merely theoretical. This, he may feel, is something actual and definite, whereas the rest was merely big words. His excitement inflates his individuality and rouses the passion for power; this darkens the instrument, which in the end no longer manifests anything unusual. At first he deceives himself, but later when he finds it has gone for ever, he may fall into bitterness and despair.

George Fox had many such experiences, but he never attributed them to himself. When a mob came to lynch him at Cambridge, they fell back before a light which they saw coming from him; yet soon afterwards in the same year he was badly beaten and stoned. Fox carefully collected a number of such cases from his own experience and those of other Quakers, and made a book of them; but this was suppressed by his literary executors and has disappeared, though some of the main incidents have been reconstructed from references elsewhere. Fox believed that such manifestations of the Lord’s power were a great aid to faith, but he never relied on them, and never prayed to receive them.

Shankara’s view was similar; he says that one or two experiences are a great help for a beginner, as an encouragement; but if he prizes them for themselves, they prevent further progress.

The difference between exercising such powers of the mind and exercising ordinary powers of applied science is that with science the motive does not affect the instrument, whereas in the powers that may come through yoga, the mind is itself the instrument, and an individual motive affects it detrimentally. Then they become unreliable and finally cease. Repeatedly in his commentary Shankara says that these are among the most subtle bonds which tie the self to individuality like the other bonds, they are cut by yoga practice based on truth, and especially by the Om practice. The truth is that individual self-existence, whether felt to be weak or felt to be semi-divine, is an illusion.

© Trevor Leggett