The relevance of the philosophy and teaching of Yoga to the present day13 min read

A great deal of nonsense is nowadays talked about Yoga and  Meditation and you will see it advocated in popular media as if it were a means to prolong youth or health or as a range of techniques to improve the powers of memory and concentration and ensure success in business. It is hardly necessary to say that much of this stems from attempts  to make money. A good deal of the articles which recommend courses of Yoga exercises seem to be well-meaning and perhaps harmless attempts to make physical enercise more interesting and attractive by surrounding them with something of the aura of the mystery..

But it is not for any of these reasons that Yoga deserves our attention.

What is unique and important about the claim of the real Yoga in this day and age is, that it is (as one of its exponents has expressed it) ‘experimental religion’ in the strict and proper sense of that term.

In other words it offers not a static faith or even a way of life, but a technique of experimental verification of the truths which it teaches, which can be tested by the individual himself in the laboratory of his own personality. This is a claim easily made, but difficult to substantiate.

Historically, the tradition of Yoga arises in the Hindu culture and first finds its expression in the Upanishads which form the last part of the Vedas. Vedanta, the philosophy of Yoga, means literally the end of the Vedas in the sense of both the last part and the culmination of the Vedic teaching. The Indian tradition gave rise to a rich variety of philosophical schools expressing every kind of opinion from the most materialistic, represented by the Charvakas at one end, to the Advaita Vedanta schools whose most illustrious exponent was the philosopher Shankara Acharya who lived about the 8th century a.d. One of the most admirable features of the tradition was the practice of holding free public debates between the different schools where criticisms could be freely made and met in an atmosphere of tolerance and respect for truth.

Adhyatma Yoga follows the Advaita Vedanta tradition. It is of considerable interest that at the time of Shankara a very influential rival school of Vedanta, the Karma Mimansakas, held that the sole function of the Vedic teaching was pragmatic. The individual was regarded as a man acting in the world in order to achieve the objects of his various desires. The role of the religious teaching in the Veda was simply to tell him of certain rituals and sacrifices by which he could achieve certain definite fruits either in this world or in the next. As against this view, the Advaita claimed that the teachings of Vedanta have a cognitive as well as a pragmatic value, that they have something to teach the individual about the nature of the reality behind the world and, above all, about his own nature, and it was preeminently through the practice of Yoga that this knowledge was to be revealed.

This at once raises for the modern mind the question of what kind of knowledge could be provided in this way and of the relationship of such knowledge, if such there be, to the knowledge provided by’ science and empirical observation. This in turn brings up the question of verification. These are not easy questions to deal with briefly but one important point can be made at the outset, because it is both obviously relevant and also a point usually totally ignored in Western thought.

It is this: Yoga stresses that the quality of our knowledge or of our vision of Truth depends intimately on the state of our instruments of cognition and that we have to examine the competence of the mind to arrive at a knowledge of the Truth and also to find out the influences which disturb it or lead to its malfunctioning. Eddington reminds us of the dependence of our knowledge on the quality of our mind when he gives the example of the fishermen who go out to discover the nature of the creatures living in the ocean. After extensive investigation, they come to two conclusions: (a) all sea creatures are at least one inch in size, (b) all sea creatures have gills.

Both conclusions are, of course, wrong, though their data proved both correct without any exception. The first was simply a function of the size of the holes in their net and the second followed from the fact that all sea creatures with no gills happen to be smaller than this! The point of the simile is that it is perilous, even in empirical investigation, to ignore the limitations of our instruments. This is a point which is made by many of the mystics, not only of the Indian tradition; we wouldn’t dream of using a microscope or a telescope which was badly made or had unevenly ground lenses, because they will distort anything we want to look at.

But the Yogis tell us that the mind can distort truth just as badly if it is dominated by prejudice and irrational impulses (the so-called vasanas or latent impurities). It is of great interest that many centuries before Freud they recognised that these latent deposits were stored in an unconscious part of the mind, behind the waking or dreaming experience, and emerged into our conscious mental life as overpowering passions or delusions. Then again, the lenses must be cleaned or they will not transmit light, and the Yogis, by analogy, say we must refine and tranquillise the mind or it will not function well in grasping a subtle truth.

An important defect in the mind is an inability to concentrate it which again is related both to the presence of the disturbing irrational influences, likes and dislikes (mainly stemming from narrow self-interest) and also the absence of the habit of controlling the mind. One of the similes often used for the mind in the yogic literature is that of a wild horse which has not been broken in or disciplined and which, though potentially a fine mettlesome steed, is of little practical use to us until it has been brought under control and subjected to the bit so that we can direct it where we will.

Even in the empirical sphere it is clear that the scientific ideal of an impartial observer is hardly attainable so long as the mind is not under our control. Unless we can concentrate it and direct it at will and unless its innate irrational tendencies are curbed it is not likely to be a very reliable guide to truth.

This teaching of Yoga has two important corollaries. It means that although the Yoga aims to lead us to a deeper understanding of truth it holds that we have got to change ourselves or at least our mental instruments of cognition in order to bring this about, and it at once makes the inner life of feeling and ethical struggle relevant to the search for truth. This of course is quite alien to the now fashionable view of ethics which regards all moral questions as questions ultimately of feeling, utterly divorced from any relevance to truth or knowledge.

Yoga on the other hand regards them as questions of vision, of our view of ourselves. In this respect as in many others Advaita Vedanta is much nearer the philosophical position of F. H. Bradley than of most other Western thinkers, though it would be wrong not to mention that there are important differences between the Bradleyan and Advaitic views of the world.

Moral questions are not simply problems of aesthetics or custom or the arbitrary conventions of society; they arise out of a conflict of desires within the individual, a conflict of what man feels that he is empirically and what he feels that he should be ideally; in other words they arise essentially out of a confused Self-knowledge. Man does not know, say the Yogis, what he is; he is in a state of ignorance as to his own nature. Moral conflicts within his own being which testify to this uncertainty therefore point beyond themselves to metaphysical and religious questions and pre-eminently to the question “what am I?”

The Yogis anticipated William James and others in stressing the illusory nature of the many empirical selves which a man possesses as different aspects of his personality, the social selves which he presents to his family or his business associates or different circles of friends. All these have something of the quality of a role taken on, like the part assumed by an actor in a play, and they can hardly be called the essential Self of the individual.

But, unlike David Hume or the Buddhist philosophy, Advaita Vedanta maintains that there is a real core within the personality, a true Self which can be known and realised in experience, though not as an object, and which is one with the spiritual reality beyond the universe.

Most religious and spiritual traditions agree that the metaphysical truth which their doctrines teach is beyond comprehension by man’s unaided mind. The Vedanta is no exception. It speaks of the spiritual reality behind the world, man’s real Self, as beyond the reach of intellect and speech. But it adds two important corollaries, first that it is at the very core of the personality, within the mind of each and every man, and secondly that it can be known by mystical experience, by what the Yogis call enlightenment or knowledge (jnana).

The Kena Upanishad says: “That reality can neither be expressed in speech nor thought of by the intellect but it is that by which the mind thinks and speech is spoken. Know that to be God and not that which is adored as God by the people at large.”

There is good evidence that this knowledge of which the Yogis speak has been gained by many of the greatest mystics in other traditions quite outside that of Yoga and this is indeed what we might expect, if the experience is possible, for surely the genuine seeker in any time and place will be a finder. But in these other religious traditions not only is this knowledge not considered to be accessible to mankind at large, it is also regarded as a (to some extent) arbitrary result of the Grace of the Deity. Moreover there is very little agreement about what exactly it is or how it is achieved and, above all, there is no evidence that there has ever been a genuine attempt in the West to treat this knowledge with scrutiny as a subject for philosophical enquiry and to try and find out its place in a philosophical system.

In India, Yoga and enlightenment has, on the contrary, been the central topic of interest in a long tradition of philosophical discussion and debate over many hundreds of years, and many of the important questions have already been raised and considered in great detail. The interest of Yoga is therefore twofold: firstly it claims a new source of knowledge which can be verified in practice and which promises to restore metaphysics as a fertile field of study for the human mind, and secondly it does this with an acute and subtle philosophical backing which allows the reasonableness of its claims to be considered objectively and with precision. It may be a mystical tradition, and it is certainly a religious one, but it is not vague or woolly-minded, its claims (if they are accepted) are not merely of theoretical interest.

It is because of the great interest of Yoga philosophically that it has no doubt appealed to so many great minds in our Western tradition who, even when they have had no intention of practising Yoga for themselves, have been deeply impressed by its philosophy. Schopenhauer said of the Upanishads “they have been the solace of my life and they will be the solace of my death” and other great philosophical figures, like Deussen and Max Muller, were no less enthusiastic after a lifetime’s study.

Today perhaps it is rather to the scientists that one looks as the guardians of truth. Even in this field one finds some of the greatest figures deeply impressed and influenced by Vedantic thought. Oppenheimer is a case in point; but perhaps the best example is Erwin Schrodinger, the father of Quantum Mechanics, who is an avowed believer in the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. I think Schrodinger’s writings on this subject have a particular interest in that he is led to believe in the Vedantic view by a consideration of the scientific evidence, in particular by what he calls the arithmetical paradox of the oneness of mind. Objectively we seem to have a plurality of egos, a multiplicity of conscious individuals, and yet consciousness is never experienced in the plural. Let me end by quoting a passage from his book ‘Mind and Matter’ on this topic :—

“There is obviously only one alternative (to Leibniz’s world- picture of multiplicity of conscious monads) namely, the unification of minds or consciousness. Their multiplicity is only apparent, in truth there is only one mind. This is the doctrine of the Upanishads. And not only of the Upanishads. The mystically experienced union with God regularly entails this attitude unless it is opposed by strong existing prejudices; and this means that it is less easily accepted in the West than in the East.”

He goes on to cite the surprising unanimity of mystics all over the world on experience and then continues :—

“Still, it must be said that to Western thought this doctrine has little appeal, it is unpalatable, it is dubbed fantastic, unscientific. Well, so it is, because our science—Greek science— is based on objectivation, whereby it has cut itself off from an adequate understanding pf the Subject of Cognizance, of the mind. But I do believe that this is precisely the point where our present way of thinking does need to be amended, perhaps by a bit of blood-transfusion from Eastern thought. That will not be easy, we must beware of blunders—blood-transfusion always needs great precaution to prevent clotting. We do not wish to lose the logical precision that our scientific thought has reached, and that is unparalleled anywhere at any epoch.

Still, one thing can be claimed in favour of the mystical teaching of the ‘identity’ of all minds with each other and with the supreme mind—as against the fearful monadology of Leibniz. The doctrine of identity can claim that it is clinched by the empirical fact that consciousness is never experienced in the plural, only in the singular. Not only has none of us ever experienced more than one consciousness, but there is no trace of circumstantial evidence of that ever happening anywhere in the world.”

Schrodinger concludes this passage with the statement :

“My purpose in this discussion is to contribute perhaps to clearing the way for a future assimilation of the doctrine of identity with our own scientific world view, without having to pay for it by a loss of soberness and logical precision.”

This makes it clear how relevant Schrodinger thinks that the philosophy and teaching of Yoga is to present-day Western society and one could hardly cite a more impressive authority in science on Western thought.