Yoga was at first one of the existing six systems of Indian philosophy and it was not until some time after Patañjali, on whose writings what is now known as Rāja Yoga is based, that the philosophy was so called. It is very difficult to assign dates for the emergence of the various yoga systems. The identity of Patañjali is disputed and he has been placed in such widely divergent periods as 1200 BCE and 600 CE. Ernest Wood places Patañjali at some time prior to 300 BCE (Yoga, Penguin Books, 1967, p. 11). The dating is probably not of importance since the yogas certainly evolved gradually over a lengthy period and R€ja Yoga was not invented by any one person.
Any discussion about Rāja Yoga must begin, of necessity, with an overview of the salient aspects of the culture that produced it. Although the early Indian society was an uneasy amalgamation of diverse peoples brought into the sub-continent by successive waves of invasion, the dominant culture was, from about 1,000 BCE, Aryan and theistic. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that the later invaders from the north found a civilization which was, in terms of its culture, superior to their own. Since these invasions probably occurred about 1,000 BCE it seems reasonable to assume that the beginnings of what was to become the Vedic (see Vedas) period stretch back to at least 1,500 BCE or even earlier. From earliest recorded times the various ethnic groups and even smaller groups, cherished their own deities and religious rituals. As the interaction between the various peoples took place and the religious disorder became apparent, the educated individuals in the communities sought to discover a philosophy that, while it had no possibility of bringing order out of the chaos of beliefs, might establish a philosophical system that was both credible and purposeful.
Against this background yoga was evolved. Early references to yoga are found in the UPANISADS and that part of the MAHĀbhārata known as the BHAGAVAD-Gītā, but the most authoritative and succinct exposition of the philosophy and the techniques are set forth in the Yoga Aphorisms of Patañjali. The Sanskrit word Rāja, means “royal” and yoga means “union”; thus the phrase implies that Rāja Yoga is a superior form of yoga. From here on when we use the term “yoga” it is to be understood that Rāja Yoga is meant.
While the philosophy of yoga is based firmly on practice and initiation, as set forth by Patañjali, it is theistic in the sense that it assumes the reality of a supreme deity and that the aim of this yoga is to reach unity with the “spark of the divine” in every individual. This has been thought to be merely an acknowledgment by Patañjali of the prevailing superstitions of the time and that the system can stand alone without any belief in the existence of a deity, but such a conclusion is gross error. The very name yoga implies union which immediately poses the question: Between what components do union occur? The yogi affirms: Between the essential self and God. Classical yoga takes certain theories on the nature of the individual for granted and to be self-evident. It is assumed that we are a complex of energy systems and that these systems are vehicles for and the means of expression and action of a spiritual self. Further, the belief in reincarnation and karma is inherent in the philosophy.
In this yoga the mind is the prime focus of the self-culture endeavor and Patañjali states, “Then [i.e., when the mind has been stilled] the seer [i.e., the individual meditator] abides in his own nature [i.e., in his essential Self]” (I.3). A further key statement is: “Pondering on their opposites is [i.e., causes] the suppression of improper thoughts” (II.33). The aphorisms are divided into four parts and these are, in briefest outline:
1. The nature of yoga and samādhi, or contemplation; This deals with the nature of mind and consciousness.
2. The spiritual disciplines of yoga, particularly the eight stages of yoga; the relationship between the knower and the known.
3. Powers; explains the superphysical powers that may be gained by the practice of yoga.
4. Liberation; concerns the freedom from conditioning to be sought.
The discipline of yoga is divided into a number of parts called “limbs.” These are:
1. Yama or Restraints. Harmlessness, truthfulness, not to steal, mastery of sexual drive, non-acquisitiveness.
2. Niyama or Observances. Not to cling to material things, contentment, austerity, the meditational study of spiritual writings, and self-surrender.
3. šsana or posture (defined as “stable and comfortable” in II. 46).
4. Prānāyāma or breath control; literally “control of prāna.”
5. Pratyāhāra or withdrawal [of the senses from their objects].
6. Dhāranā or [unwavering] concentration.
7. Dhyāna or meditation, contemplation.
8. Samādhi. The highest state of consciousness.
It is important to realize that the Aphorisms of Patañjali are not intended to be a detailed guide to the practice of this yoga. At the time he wrote, the yoga philosophy and techniques were taught in small communities called āramas on an entirely verbal basis since very few people could read. The text of the aphorisms is so sparse that it obviously was intended as a memory aid by the GURU for use by his pupils. A considerable number of commentaries have been written and some of these amplify and improve the intelligibility of the aphorisms. It is to be noted that whereas the aphorisms summarize a practical system of self-culture, many commentaries concentrate on the philosophical content in a theoretical manner and tend to obscure the main thrust of the teaching which encourages work on oneself.
The practice of yoga. The practice of yoga makes three demands on the aspirant. The first is steadfastness of purpose. This yoga is not an idle pastime or diversion, but a total commitment. The second is purity of lifestyle. This might well be summed up by the Sanskrit word ahimsā which means “non-harm.” The third is a commitment, without reservation, to the teaching and the teacher. This last requirement could give rise to doubt in the mind of the student; this doubt can be dispelled quite easily by pointing out that the commitment is made after careful investigation and the use of commonsense. It is also worth mentioning that such commitment can be terminated at any time should gross error be discerned in the teaching or the teacher be found unworthy of loyalty.
The three demands having been met, the aspirant will be asked to carry out certain exercises which will be designed to:
- Examine one’s lifestyle with the object of rectifying all habits, mental and physical, that do not meet the requirements of yama and niyama;
- Practice those elements of āsana that form aids to the physical health of the individual;
- Manage the flow of vital energy (prāna) so that the psychic centers (chakras) are energized in a balanced fashion;
- Train the mind and establish a relationship between the mind and the user of the mind.
- Exercise the mind in one-pointedness (pratyāhāra) such that, when it has been achieved, the individual can exclude all sensory input from the mind’s attention.
- Practice concentration by sitting regularly in meditation.
This yoga has been criticized on the ground that it seems to place disproportionate emphasis on the mind and that there is more to spirituality than mental training. Such criticism overlooks the fact that if the disciplines of yoga are effectively carried out then the union of the self (consciousness) with the spark of the divine in everyone is attained and from this union all things flow. This consummation is defined in the fourth group of aphorisms, particularly the following:
IV.23. When the mind is a high-fidelity interface between the seer and the seen, then there is knowledge of the totality.
IV.25. When the mind is unconditioned (non-distorting) and is uncolored by either the seer or the seen, (subjective or objective), then I-ness comes to an end.
IV.31. Then too, when there are no more impurities or distortions, the seer knows all directly, without the intervention of the mind.
Deshpande, P.Y. The Authentic Yoga. Rider and Company, 1978.
Eliade, Mircea. Yoga, Immortality and Freedom. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.
Harris, Philip. The Spiritual Path to Complete Fulfilment. Hill of Content, Melbourne 1993.
Wood, Ernest. Yoga. Penguin Books: Baltimore, Maryland, 1969.
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