Posted on 23-June-2017
In high Hindu tradition, the shad darshana--meaning six views, usually translated into English as six systems of Hindu philosophy--occupy the central place. Of these, two, sankhya-yoga--most often mentioned together since their ideas on metaphysics, epistemology and psychology are the same--have probably been the most influential. In both, the ultimate goal to be attained is freedom or mukti from the cycle of birth and rebirth through direct realistion of purusha, the principle of pure intelligence that animates the world. In the atheistic sankhya this can be done through the exercise of reason and understanding. In the theistic yoga, this can be done through moral, physical and mental training and discipline, with a nudge from Ishvara if necessary . Yoga which in Vedic literature signified restraining passions came to signify the whole system of moral, physical and mental discipline as a means towards attaining mukti. Thus an intending yogi must practise non-violence, truthfulness, sexual abstinence, non-stealing, and non-acceptance of that which is not necessary. He should in addition develop good relations with fellow beings, friendship, compassion, a feeling of happiness for the good of all beings and equanimity. A yogi has to practise various physical postures mainly to find a posture most suitable for meditation. In this search for the right posture, pranayama or breath control is of great importance. After he has done all this the yogi then devotes himself to meditation, progrssing from the first stage of concentrating on one single object to the highest stage in which the mind is emptied of all sensations and thought so as to grasp the principle of pure intelligence or purusha. For practising meditation, solitude is of utmost importance. Yogic practices, particularly of meditation were adopted by some sects of Buddhism too. Some Chinese sages around the turn of the first millennium of the Christian era undertook spiritual exercises akin to yogic practices. Hinduism has no monopoly over Yoga and Yoga is neither for everyone nor can it be practised on the march, without single minded exertion.
Swami Sahajanand Saraswati as a duly initiated dandi swami of the Saraswati order was deeply versed in the shad darshana. He sought in Benares and in Mithila the best teachers who could instruct him in these systems and would not rest until he was satisfied that he had come to a full understanding. He devoted the last two decades of his life to the fight for the rights of peasant farmers. He was too much of a leftist radical for the leadership of the Indian National Congress of which he remained a member until Independence in 1947. Afraid that the Communists would have no interest in the rights of peasant farmers he did not allow his movement to be subsumed by the Communist Party of India. With his deep understanding of Hindu thought, he had no time for the shallow, canned variety of Hinduism so beloved of the Rashtriya Svayam Sevak Sangh or the Bharatiya Janata Party and the cohorts of their semi-literate or illiterate followers. In the political landscape of modern India he would have been a lost man. It is no wonder that he has been largely forgotten. Now in his autobiography he writes of a period in his life when he set out on a travel through central and north India. He spent some time in the ashrams of two yogis and encountered a few on his way to Badrinath. He discovered the shams that these people were and concluded that true yogis were nowhere to be found.
The Dalai Lama as a Buddhist monk has spent a life time practising the austerities and discipline that his vocation requires. He without doubt would have inculcated the virtues of friendship, compassion and equanimity. He would likewise have spent a part of his daily waking hours on meditation. He is reported to have told an audience in the USA some time ago that in Buddhism--presumably lamaist Buddhism--there are six prescribed stages of meditation (the same six stages as in yoga). He seems to have told his audience that he never progressed beyond the third. In present day India, it is necessary not only to be reminded of the principles of Yoga as propounded originally but also of the observations of people like Shajanand Saraswati and the Dalai Lama. Yet it has become fashionable in some sections of urban middle class Indian society for people to spend some time every day to sit in meditation which may mean nothing more than squatting cross-legged, eyes closed, in the living room, garden or terrace, not concentrating on any one object--the first stage of meditation--but mind wandering, thinking about the next posting or promotion, finessing the next move of a political rival or of a brand new scheme of tax avoidance.
In some strands of writing about the power of meditation it is averred that it gives the practitioner some siddhis or great physical capabilities but he is advised against the temptation of using such capabilities. Yet Sathyanarain Raju, otherwise known as Sathya Sai Baba claimed such powers and produced holy ashes, flowers or watches for his devotees. Many observers thought that he was nothing more than an accomplished prestidigitator. He acquired a large following. When he died he left behind a very wealthy ashram. Mahesh Prasad Verma set up an ashram in Rishikesh and assumed the name of Mahesh Yogi. He became famous when the Beatles for a short while became his disciples. Some others from the beat generation came and spent time in his ashram. That many of these people left disillusioned in no way diminished the yogi's renown. In time he was promoted, or, better still, promoted himself to Maharshi--meaning roughly, the great sage--and shifted his base to St.Moritz in Switzerland. He started teaching something called transcendental meditation which was an odd mixture of some esoteric Indian doctrines and pseudo scientific gobbledygook. He claimed he could fly and make his disciples fly. Yet many rich and famous from across the world became his disciples. Wealth followed. His death earned him a semi-facetious obituary in the Economist newspaper of London. Rajnish starting from Pune set up shop in Phoenix Arizona where his Ashram came into news for owning thirty four Rolls Royces. Ram Krishan acquired the name of Baba Ram Dev and started teaching yogic practices--mainly the many postures and pranayama. He has now graduated to marketing food products, cosmetics, soaps and tooth paste and is running a very profitable business enterprise. Whatever connection there might be between the essence of Yoga and the teachings of Sathyanarain Raju, Mahesh Prasad Verma, Rajnish or Ram Krishan, they all violated one moral tenet of Yoga which is an injunction against acquisitiveness.
In the course of the twentieth century, a number of people--charlatans, crooks and serious, honest men--set up yoga schools in the largest market place of the world, otherwise known as the United States of America. These people offered training in yogic postures, breath control and some rudimentary forms of meditation. As people saw that these had therapeutic value large numbers took to this form of yoga. Even for those who practised only the simplest postures and breath control and perhaps some attempt at meditation, the experience of sitting in groups every day and by spending some time at these establishments taking their minds off the stresses of daily life was salutary. The success of the diverse yoga establishments in the USA and in other countries in selling these simple yoga packages has helped in making yoga a global phenomenon--a phenomenon which bears little resemblance to the Yoga doctrines contained in old texts, some going back, perhaps, to the second century before Christ.
In 2014, soon after coming to power, the Narendra Modi government persuaded the United Nations General Assembly to declare 21st. June as the International Yoga Day. This was touted as a great victory and a lasting reminder to the world of this great gift of India. Every year on this day, Narendra Modi personally has led large crowds at different venues, in performing different yogic postures in open public spaces--these are just physical exercises no different from army drills, for a large crowd, howsoever orderly, cannot be helpful for quiet, concentrated meditation. Other politicians of his party have been marking their own smaller versions of this event. One claim that is being made is that these exercises will eventually make every Indian a practitioner of yoga. That certainly is not going to happen, for millions of other Indians with their heads screwed securely on their shoulders will decide that they have better uses for their bodies and minds. Another untruthful claim is that by organising these events India is spreading its spiritual message far and wide. These events do not export Yoga; in fact they amount to re-importing into India the westernised, export variety of Yoga. If such exercises were organised by the hundreds of gurus--some of them with proven criminal records--in which India abounds, those would be no more than private exercises of concern only to the gurus and their followers. By making these into government organised events led by the Prime Minister of India himself, Narendra Modi has reduced these mass yoga events to an expensive farce, one of many gimmicks his government is so enamoured of. It is simply obscene. It would be so much more encouraging if this time and resources were spent on the many problems that call for immediate attention of the government; there is never a time in India when urgent problems are lacking.
Yoga as propounded by the modern day bearded and long haired businessmen in white or ochre robes, or its export and re-import variety has been emptied of all its moral content: non-violence, truthfulness, self-control, non acquisitiveness, friendship towards fellow human beings, compassion, joy in the happiness of others and equanimity, all of which make of all of us better human beings. Groups that need some of these values even in small measure are the angry, hate filled foot soldiers of Hindutva. If they inculcated these values there would be fewer atrocities against Muslims or Dalits or dissenters or cattle traders. Would Narendra Modi or Mohan Bhagvat teach their followers the moral values that are integral parts of the Yoga doctrine? But Narendra Modi revels in the theatrical. These tamashas--that Hindi word best describes the Narendra Modi shows-- help his government give their followers the diverting circuses they seem to enjoy. Let those of us who want to keep our heads, practice in the mean time the one yogic posture that can help us see our way though an upside down world: shirshasana or standing on our heads.