The Interconnectedness of Yoga and Vedanta

Author Neema Majmudar elaborates on how yoga prepares the mind to see reality as revealed by Vedanta.

The discipline of yoga has been summarised by Patanjali in his famous Yoga Sutras or Aphorisms on Yoga. Its philosophical aspect is partially derived from the Sankhya system with two major works that are the Sankhya Karika of Isvarakrsna and the Sankhya Sutras from Kapila, the founder of Sankhya.

Yoga practice includes following ethical values and attitudes (yama, niyama), prayers (devotion also has its place in some schools of yoga), doing postures (asana) and breathing techniques (prāṇāyāma), concentration of the mind (dhāraṇā) and meditation practices (dhyāna). The goal of yoga is an absorption of the mind in several degrees which culminates in nirvikalpa samādhi, a total cessation of the mind’s natural activities with no division between subject and object, that is equated to liberation.

According to yoga philosophy, the nature of the problem is that the individual is identified with his body, senses and mind which are mixed because of five obstacles or impurities (kleśas) among which, the main is ignorance. The sense of ‘I’ in the body-mind-sense complex, longing and repulsion and attachment to life are products of this ignorance. In order to remove this ignorance, one must know the reality, which according to yoga and Sankhya is to separate purusha (the individual) from prakriti (the entire creation which includes one’s body and mind). That means, to reach liberation, the individual has to realise by discrimination and practise that he is a pure and isolated spiritual entity (purusha) completely distinct from the changing processes of nature (prakriti) present in his physical body, senses and mind. According to yoga, purusha and prakriti are both real entities and there are as many isolated entities as individuals.

Even though it may sound similar to Vedanta, there are several major differences between the two. First, unlike yoga which claims that purusha and prakriti both enjoy same order of reality, according to Vedanta, there are no two parallel entities enjoying the same order of reality but only one non-dual limitless whole. The truth of “I” is the absolute reality while the entire universe is mithya.

Second, according to yoga, there are many purushas in form of pockets of consciousness, that are independent of prakriti. According to Vedanta, there is only one limitless “I,” which is the truth of everything.

Third, the ultimate goal in yoga is nirvikalpa samādhi, where the mind completely ceases to have any thoughts. The goal of Vedanta is not the experience of nirvikalpa samādhi since it is a peculiar state of the mind that comes and goes. For Vedanta, there is no need to remove or stop thoughts to understand their truth. Just like you need not remove physically either wave or ocean to understand its nature as water. The absolute reality is what is invariably present among all experiences and has to be understood as it is.

Some interpretations of Vedanta have failed to understand the essential role of Vedanta as a direct means of knowledge that leads to freedom. This has led them to equate the limitless nature of “I” unfolded by Vedanta to nirvikalpa samādhi of yoga or experiencing the limitless.

Having pointed out the differences, we can note that the systematic and elaborate description of the different functions of the mind and the body by yoga and Sankhya are actively utilised by Vedanta.

For example, the disciplines of yoga like physical exercises, breathing techniques and also values and attitudes mentioned in yoga philosophy may be utilised by students of Vedanta since they are useful to prepare one to know the reality. That means, yoga techniques enable one to discover a mind that is quiet, mature and contemplative, ready to see the reality as revealed by the texts of Vedanta.

This article has been reprinted from Discover Vedanta with permission from its authors Neema Majmudar and Surya Tahora.

February 18, 2020
Illustration Sambaran Das

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