Transcript: 30. Philipp Maas on Yoga

A leading expert on the founding text of Yoga tells us why, when, and by whom it was written, and what it has to do with modern day yoga practice.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts. 


PA: We're going to be talking about, as I just said, the Yogaśāstra, which was supposedly written by someone in Patañjali. And this is basically the founding document of Yoga as a philosophical movement. And you've actually worked quite a bit on the composition of this text, not only the original sūtras, so these brief remarks that stand in need of commentary, but also the so-called bhāṣya or commentary that was written on the text. Can you say something about when this was written and how it was written? 

PM: Yes, I can, as far as there are information regarding this, questions about authorship in pre-modern Indian philosophy are always very difficult to answer. We don't know anything about biographical details about Patañjali. And all we can say has to be reconstructed from the text itself. It's possible to say that Patañjali was learned Brahmin who lived approximately in the fourth or fifth century. And he tried to compose a work of Yoga in which a tradition that believes in the possibility of gaining spiritual freedom, liberation from suffering by means of meditation within a Brahmanical context should be established. Our knowledge about when this text was composed comes from the text itself, as I said. And conclusions can be drawn from the fact that Patañjali refers to the theory of Vijñānavāda, a Buddhist theory which was formulated by an author named Vasubandhu who lived approximately between 320 and 400 AD. And Patañjali explicitly refers to the theories of Vasubandhu. And that means that Patañjali has to be dated after him. And we can see that the work that Patañjali composed was then quickly gaining prominence within the Indian intellectual world. And it was cited already in the fifth century by Bhartṛhari in his own commentary on his Vākyapadīya work on the philosophy of grammar. That's the period of time that we can fix after Vasubandhu and before Bhartṛhari. That means in the fourth or fifth century of the common era. 

PA: That's not too bad, actually. It's a lot better than a lot of the texts that we're talking about in the series. And like I said, it consists of short remarks, which then get a commentary or bhāṣya. And there's a tradition that these were written by different people. The short remarks, the sūtras written by Patañjali and the bhāṣya or commentary written by Vyasa, supposedly. But you question this, I guess. 

PM: I question this, yes. And I think there are good reasons to question this from a number of perspectives. So the first reason to question this is the work itself. There's text-immanent evidence that the Patañjali, the Yogaśāstra, was composed as a unified whole. We have a colophon to its four chapters, which calls the work the Patañjaliyogaśāstra Sāṃkhya Pravachana. That means the authoritative exposition of yoga, the mandatory explanation of Sāṃkhya philosophy. So there is no mentioning of Vyasa or Vedavyasa as the author of a separate commentary. Moreover, it is the case that the so-called sūtras are very closely integrated into the work. So these sūtras, these verbal or nominal expressions, are frequently parts of longer sentences in the bhāṣya part. We have from this perspective, it's quite clear that we have a unified work. The bhāṣya does not make any sense at all without the sūtra. And what is even more seriously, even the sūtra does not make sense without the bhāṣya. So we have pronouns referring to bhāṣya parts of the Patañjaliyogaśāstra. This makes it clear that the sūtras were never meant to be a text on their own, actually. 

PA: Should we infer from that then that the author was trying to pass off a single work that he wrote or compiled maybe from, partially on the basis of earlier materials, that he was trying to deceive the reader into thinking that this was some kind of authoritative set of sūtras with a bhāṣya? Or do you think this was just how they wrote at this period? They were in the habit of writing by means of brief sūtra statements with bhāṣya commentaries, so that's how he did it. 

PM: Actually the second would be the case. There are a number of examples of similar works, especially the Abhidharmakośa and the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya by Vasubandhu, to which I have already referred, is a very similar enterprise of somebody writing a very condensed, metrical work and then providing it with his own explanation. Or over, the Vakapadiyya by Bhattahari, which I also have mentioned, is a work consisting of a very, very difficult verse composition plus then an auto-commentary by Bhattahari on this. So this way of composing philosophical works is not as unusual as it may seem. 

PA: Actually I really like this because one of the things I'm always trying to convince people of is that commentaries can be philosophically interesting and original, and what could prove that better than someone who sits down to write an original work in the form of a self-commentary commenting on their own words. Moving on then to the philosophical content of the Yogaśāstra, it's pretty obvious that there's a close relationship between this text and the Sāṃkhya philosophical tradition, which has its own founding document, which is Iśvarakṛṣṇa Sāṁkhyakārikā. This is something we've already talked about in the podcast series. Should we just infer that Iśvarakṛṣṇa is influencing this text by Patañjali, or should we think that Yoga and Sāṃkhya philosophy are actually this long-running intertwined kind of double tradition? People sometimes think that the Sāṃkhya part is the theory and the Yoga part is the practical part of the philosophy. So is it really two texts that are emanating from the same tradition, or is it more like Patañjali is reflecting on Iśvarakṛṣṇa? 

PM: Patañjali does not show any awareness at all of the Sāṁkhyakārikās by Iśvarakṛṣṇa. Iśvarakṛṣṇa Sāṁkhyakārikās do not show any awareness of the Patañjaliyogaśāstra. So the question you are asking is very difficult to settle. The commentators on the Sāṁkhyakārikā, they see the Patañjaliyogaśāstra as one of their sources. They constantly refer to the Patañjaliyogaśāstra and see it as an authoritative work of Sāṃkhya philosophy. The problem with Sāṃkhya and probably also Yoga texts is that much of the literature that may have existed once has been lost in the course of the transmission. So what we have are just pieces of jigsaw puzzles, and it's our difficult task to reconstruct the past from this. So there are many open questions, and the exact relationship between the Sāṁkhyakārikā and the Patañjaliyogaśāstra cannot be settled. But what is clear and what we can see from the pre-classical literatures that in ancient and pre-classical India and South Asia, there existed many, many schools, partly in rival schools of Sāṃkhya, which shared some basic ideas about the relationship of mind and matter, kind of ontological dualism was important for these schools. Most of these schools hardly left any traces. But two of these schools, apparently the one by Iśvarakṛṣṇa and the one by Patañjali, have been preserved to the present day. And this is what we have now. 

PA: So it's more like we have two independent works that are drawing on similar ideas, and especially this kind of dualist framework. 

PM: Yes, absolutely. 

PA: Now regarding that dualist framework, you just said that it's a dualism of mind versus matter. And that's what we associate with Sāṃkhya philosophies. We have this distinction between purusha and prakriti, the consciousness or mind on the one hand, and nature or matter. People translate these things in different ways. On the other hand, one thing that I guess might surprise someone coming to this Yoga text though, is that the so called mental organ, the thing you actually are using in everyday applications of cognition, isn't identified with the mind. Does he have an argument for why those two things have to be distinguished? 

PM: Yes, when I was talking about the ontological dualism of pre-classical sources, it was appropriate to talk about mind and matter. When it comes to classical Sāṃkhya, and especially to Patañjaliyogaśāstra and the Sāṁkhyakārikās, then it is the case that the term consciousness that you used is much more appropriate. Because the idea is that the world we live in consists of two realms. The realm of matter, which is active and which consists of the outside world as we can perceive it, but also all kinds of information that are dealt with in the mind belong to this realm of matter. There is only a very tiny space left for other entities, and that's consciousness. There is the belief that consciousness can be explained as being caused by an unchanging entity which is called purusha, the subject, and that remains eternally identical with itself and not in reality involved with the matter. But due to the proximity of the mental organ and consciousness, consciousness wrongly identifies itself with the realm of matter. It takes the content of consciousness, which is displayed to it, like in a mirror, as affecting itself. This fundamental ontological error causes pain and suffering to the consciousness. The task of the yogin is to disidentify himself with the content that is displayed to him by means of the experience in meditation of the ontological difference between mind and matter. 

PA: Okay, let me see if I get this straight. Let's take an example. Let's take the listener who's listening to this interview. The listener is hearing us talk and hopefully thinking about what we're saying and understanding it. What you're saying is that that can't be an act of pure consciousness or purusha because the whole point of purusha, this pure consciousness, is that it's unchanging. Therefore, as the listener processes what I'm saying right now, hearing one word after another or looks around them while they're listening to this or so on, that's in a way all on the matter side rather than the mind side. This is a very different way of thinking about the mind-matter distinction than the one that would be familiar in, say, contemporary philosophy of mind in the English-speaking world. Is that right? 

PM: Yes, it's the case that every event of consciousness, according to Yoga, has two aspects, a content aspect and a consciousness aspect. What remains identical in all the different kinds of experience, whether one is dreaming, whether one is listening, whether one experiences pleasure or pain, this is the element of consciousness. The other thing that I've been talking about is the element of content. This contradicts a little bit our experience, according to which mental events are of a unified nature. But this unified nature that we experience is indeed the fundamental ontological error that according to Yoga has to be removed. That's avidyā, that's misconception about the world, taking the content as consciousness. 

PA: Something else that says in the Yogaśāstra, as you mentioned before, is that the yogin who's trying to make progress towards this liberation is supposed to learn to meditate, learn to control their breath and so on. And I'm wondering why that would be necessary. What you just said sounds like a pretty straightforward philosophical claim. And if you could give me arguments that persuaded me that it was true, it seems like I could know that that was the case. And that should be enough. Why do I have to engage, if I'm a yogin that is, why do I have to engage in all of these other practices, for example, meditation that we associate with yoga? 

PM: If what I said would make sense to you and you would understand it and you would be convinced of what I just said, that would make you start a spiritual career. You would maybe leave your home and your family and start to become an ascetic yogi in order to make the experience in meditation of the fundamental difference between mind and matter. It's not enough just to have a rational thought about things, to understand them intellectually. But the difference between mind and matter has to be experienced in what could be called a mystical experience. An experience which is believed to change the whole attitude that you have to the world and the whole entanglement of your purusha, of your inner subject with the world, which would make you live for a little while in this world. But after your physical death, your eternal subject would then withdraw from the realm of matter and would stay forever in isolation, in kaivalya, in liberation. So it's not enough just to understand the philosophical content of yoga, but it's very, very important to make the experience, the direct experience of the ontological difference in deep meditation and to provide a way into this direction, the praxis of Yoga is necessary.

PA: Okay. But I still have a problem with the idea of making progress towards this path because it seems to me like either I'm making the mistake of confusing consciousness with the content of consciousness, which is, I think, a very helpful way that you explain the problem that we've got. So either I'm making that mistake or I'm not. And I suppose I might be making it some of the time, right? Like I might maybe get distracted by seeing something and suddenly become kind of caught up with the content of my awareness rather than identifying myself with my consciousness. But does he have an account of how there could be stages along the way towards this ultimate goal as opposed to just having kind of having a flickering in and out identification of the self with consciousness? 

PA: Patañjaliyogaśāstra starts with the definition of what Yoga is. And this definition in Sanskrit is Yoga samādhi. That means Yoga is concentration. And then the Patañjaliyogaśāstra enumerates different stages in which the mind can operate. So it's a state, a dull state, a state in which concentration is not possible at all. And then it comes to the state of one pointedness, concentration on one point. And this is regarded as the first content of consciousness that can be classified as Yoga proper. And the final aim is then to let all content of consciousness cease, which then leads to the self-perception of the puja, the self-perception of consciousness as being pure consciousness. And Yoga teaches a lot of different kinds of meditation that may lead to this aim. So there is a meditation which focuses on the subject itself, tries to get an ever clearer view of what the subject is, and in this way reduces all the content part of consciousness until it comes to the self-perception of the consciousness. Then there are theological meditations in which Ishvara, God, is seen as a model of a liberated self. And the yogi concentrates on Ishvara, reduces it from its mythological content, and gets ever clearer to the view that his own subject is identical with the puja. And in this way the two pictures of the own subject of the yogi and the idea of Ishvara as an object of meditation, they mingle until they finally then also lead to a self-perception of consciousness. There is also a third way, a third structure of meditation in which the things of the outside world can be chosen as an object of meditation and then they are reduced according to the emanation scheme of Sāṃkhya into lower and lower contents of consciousness. The material world is then reduced to the elements, the elements are then reduced to the self-perception, then they come to a stage of pure being and in the end they resolve into prakriti, into primordial matter which is beyond any specification by language. And if this takes the place then only consciousness can shine upon itself and perceive itself. So there are different ways of meditation, different structures of meditation that can be practiced and this takes a long time to master these and therefore training is necessary. And all the other practical aspects like breath control, assuming postures, leading a life according to ascetic rules, they have the aim to facilitate this kind of meditation. 

PA: Okay, another worry that I think someone might have about this is that if it's really true that most of the work in a way is done by these meditative practices and so on, then the teaching that's offered in a text like the one Patañjali is writing seems like it would have to be very limited. I mean it sounds like the yogin is achieving this very elevated difficult to reach point of view on the world and you even called it mystical a few minutes ago and that makes me wonder to what extent his privileged perceptions or point of view on the world could really be communicated in a text or for that matter even in a teacher-student relationship. I mean in a way isn't he just stuck with telling us to try it out and spend 20 years meditating and see if we get there?

PM: I think ultimately the final mystical experience cannot be communicated by words and there are the attempts to communicate this in the Patañjaliyogaśāstra itself lead to kohan-like contradictory formulations. So this is definitely the case. But on the other hand, meditation needs a certain structure. It's necessary for the yogin when he meditates to actually interpret his own experience to a certain preconception and Sāṃkhya Yoga provides this structure for the experience that the yogi finally has and the teaching of the teacher helps him also to interpret his own experience not to be lost somewhere on the way. 

PA: Okay, so the philosophy kind of gives you the initial motivation and explanation of why to do this but also structures the... 

PM: exactly, what you experience, why you experience this and where this is scaled on the way of progress. 

PA: Okay, in that case I guess what I said before that a lot of people think of Yoga is just kind of the practical dimension of Sāṃkhya in a way that's very misleading because it sounds like the whole point of this is that Yoga is both a theory and a practice and the two are inextricably bound up with one another. 

PM: Yes, I agree absolutely. 

PA: Yeah, that's the case. Now we've talked about the relationship between Yoga and Sāṃkhya philosophy which is the most obvious other strand of Indian philosophy to relate this to but on the other hand there seem to be parallels or at least resonances with other philosophical traditions within the Indian context. For example, Patañjali says that the yogi has to be a member of the Brahmin class which makes it sound like he needs to be someone who's educated in the Vedas and from what you've said so far it's not clear to me why that should be the case. Another example is that there's this instruction to give up on desire in order to achieve liberation which reminds us very forcefully of Buddhism. Should we therefore think that what Patañjali is doing is presenting us with a kind of eclectic mix of ideas from Vedic tradition from Sāṃkhya or maybe earlier yogic ideas and also Buddhism?

PM: I don't think that it's an eclectic mix. I think it's the conscious attempt to construct a new philosophy and a new religion which opens up the scope for escape from suffering, for liberation from the circle of rebirth within a Brahmanical context which has not been there previously. If we look at the religious and intellectual history of South Asia we can see two different cultures more or less to say. On the one hand the Brahmanical religion was very much focused on ritualism with its own world view, with its own idea of ritualist causation and on the other hand we have a different realm, a different culture which can be located in the eastern part of the Ganges Basin, the region in which Buddhism, Jainism, Ajivikism and other religions originated from the 5th century before the common era. These religions, the so-called Śramaṇa religions, they share a certain world view. They see the world as suffering. They believe in a circle of rebirth. They believe in karma, things that are foreign to the Brahmanical tradition. Due to political circumstances the religions from the eastern Ganges Basin which are according to Johannes Bronkhorst called the religions of Greater Magadha, they gained predominance and founded the first pan-Indian empire, the Maurya Empire, which propagated these Śramaṇa ideals.

PA: So this is King Ashoka, the dynasty that he was part of. 

PM: Later Brahmanical religions managed to become dominant in the political field again. This is something that we see in the 2nd century and more clearly in the 3rd or 4th century when the Gupta Empire established the second pan-Indian empire. The Guptas were very much dedicated to the Brahmanical religion. The Brahmanical religion that at this time had been exposed to the influence of the Śramaṇa movements for a very long time. In some way the Brahmanas had to react on this and there were different approaches and different reactions. One of the possibilities of course is to accept the world view of the Śramaṇa and to integrate it into Brahmanical frame. This is what Patañjali tried and this is the reason why we have this very close similarity to Buddhism because all he could draw upon were Buddhist theories of meditation. So we see that a lot of the terminology that we find in the Patañjaliyogaśāstra is clearly of a Buddhist carnage. 

PA: Okay and the good reason for that is that Buddhist ideas and terminology have sort of spread throughout intellectual culture by this period. 

PM: Absolutely. 

PA: Okay. Now let's go way forward to now because I realize what I'm about to ask you is a difficult question to answer probably but I still feel like I have to ask it. What we've been talking about sounds very philosophically advanced, very nuanced, also very tightly connected with a lot of historical developments in ancient India and that makes me wonder what if anything this could possibly have to do with Yoga in the way that most people probably think of it now which is roughly people going along to gym class with a mat under their arm to stretch to exercise, maybe meditation too as we have mentioned meditation. So that's clearly a link. But I'm just wondering is the practice of Yoga as we find it say in the United States nowadays or Western Europe, does this have anything to do with ancient Yoga or an ancient text like the Patañjaliyogaśāstra

PM: It has something to do in so far as it is the final result of a long historical development. So the history of Yoga is the history of transformation. This is exactly the case. Yoga has been practiced in the Buddhist context. It has then been transferred into Brahmanical context and on the Brahmanical side there have been further transformations. It has been adopted in the religion and theory philosophy of Advaita Vedānta in tantric circles and then later the development into Hatha yoga, ascetic movements have adopted Yoga practice. They have adopted different kinds of Yoga postures, breath control, all these things that we find in the Patañjaliyogaśāstra have been eclectically taken over into different systems. But what remained is that the Patañjali Yoga was the object of identifying the beginning of the whole thing. So the people say that all the teaching have originally been taught by Patañjali and this continues to the present day. If one goes to a Yoga class the Yoga teacher will tell you this comes from Patañjali. Unaware of the many historical developments that have been taking place. So it's definitely wrong to claim that what is happening in modern Yoga is unchanged, the same thing that Patañjali taught. But Patañjali still plays a role as the founding father of the whole tradition.


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