The Yogic View of Consciousness 23: Yoga Now and Then


Ritual cover04How did yoga go from its roots in ritual to being the way to storm heaven? Of course no one knows for sure, but I offer some plausible possibilities.  The moral of the story is that any time we focus real hard on anything, we discover not the thing we are focusing on, but ourselves.

Contents for The Yogic View of Consciousness:

Intro Ch 1 Ch 2 Ch 3 Ch 4 Ch 5 Ch 6 Ch7 Ch 8
Ch 9 Ch 10 Ch 11 Ch 12 Ch 13 Ch 14 Ch 15 Ch 16 Ch 17
Ch 18 Ch 19 Ch 20 Ch 21 Ch 22 Ch 23 Ch 24 Ch 25 Ch 26
Ch 27 Ch 28 Ch 29 Ch 30 Ch 31 Ch 32 Ch 33


We now move to the final topic I want to discuss about the Yogic View of Consciousness. We shall discuss yoga from the first-person viewpoint. Like the other topics, this will spread out over several chapters. To segue from the third person descriptive view I’ve been using so far to a first person viewpoint, this chapter discusses some more speculative history of yoga.

There is a lot of academic scholarship on yoga and its origins both in religious studies and in history. I’ve read only a very small fraction of it. Again, I do not pretend erudition on this front. It may well be that what I discuss below has already been described by an academic.   However, based on what I have read, it seems unlikely. Academics tend to treat yoga, its methods and philosophy, as a strange, alien entity. I don’t.  I take the claims at face value as literal realities, something people in the social science and humanities are not likely to do at present because they are all idealists, more or less overtly, and idealism has a hard time taking anything at face value.

Below, I further consider how yoga might have evolved from its roots in ritual to the amazing stuff Patanjali described. How did yoga transform from its roots in ritual magic to the methods for accessing Kaivalya?

I suggest below that it is a relatively natural transition, not even specific to yoga. The general idea is that when we concentrate on anything long and hard enough, it is inevitable that we see past the thing we are concentrating on and instead focus on the act of concentrating, and thereby discover ourselves.

Why do Yoga?
Meanwhile, we are still making the transition to a first-person view of yoga. To do so, the first question to ask is: Why do yoga in the first place? What’s the point?

Nowadays, the vast majority of people do yoga for things like exercise, health, mental well-being, getting what you want out of life, and so on. There is a real rainbow of motivations that stands in stark contrast to the single motivation taught in the Yoga Sutras. We already saw the motivation for yoga in Chapter 17 when we discussed aphorism 2.5:

A2.15AThis is the expression in the Yoga Sutras of the classic Eastern philosophy realization made famous by Gautama the Buddha that all life is suffering.

Chapter 17 focused on how this aphorism describes the incessant change of the gunas. We ignored the “pain and suffering” aspect in that discussion, but we now focus on it.   This aphorism not only says everything is constant change, but that the consequence of constant change is that we are always in a state of anxiety or suffering. We saw in the previous chapter how the various states of anxiety are elaborated in the hierarchy of the kleshas. That’s fine. But let’s lump the kleshas together in terms of their net effect: anxiety.

Interpreting aphorism 2.5 slightly different: since everything changes, there is nothing in our first-person experience to provide an anchor on which to grab. There is no ultimate basis to life. Whatever you pick will eventually change. The people you cling to will eventually die. Any social institutions you belong to will transform into something else. Any beliefs you have will be forced to be updated in light of future experience. When all is said and done, it doesn’t matter what you do because you are going to die.

Even if you starkly recognize and accept all this, it provides no solace. It tempers, but does not eliminate, the uncertainties inherent in the ever-changing nature of things. Knowing the truth of aphorism 2.5 does not eliminate the anxiety. If anything, it only highlights it.

Back in Chapter 3, existentialism was briefly mentioned. I made the point that the existentialists were, if not smarter, then at least wiser than the materialists and idealists for recognizing that truth is elusive. What Patanjali says above is very similar to what the existentialists came to realize. Existentialists used words like nausea, absurdity, dread, and so on to describe our human condition. Nice guys. In one of his essays, Jean-Paul Sartre was asked by a student what to do in life. Sartre says about this:

“We cannot decide a priori what it is that should be done. I think it was made sufficiently clear to you in the case of that student who came to see me, that to whatever ethical system he might appeal, the Kantian or any other, he could find no sort of guidance whatever; he was obliged to invent the law for himself”

Maybe in a future essay I will discuss it in more detail, but for the moment I will just assert that there is a lot of overlap between Buddha and John Paul Sartre if you see past the superficial differences.

When we look in net, we see that Western thinking converged on the idea that Nature is to be controlled and conquered. Somehow, the incessant change that is life itself is to be fought, caged, and controlled. The great philosophies of the ancient East came to see Nature as pain and suffering. To me, this is a sign that the Eastern views are more mature than the Western views.

How’d It Come to This?
In the previous chapter, we saw in our very brief run-down of the history of yoga that yoga evolved in a cultural context where it served definite social needs. The most primitive origins were rooted in ritual magic to deal with things like winning conquests, making sure the harvests were good, fighting disease, seeing the dead off on their journey in the afterlife, and stuff like that.

Over centuries, this activity evolved into sophisticated methods and philosophy, of which the Yoga Sutras is but one example. By late antiquity the goals of the mature forms of yoga had radically shifted from their roots in ritual magic to goals based on Buddha’s realization that “all is pain and suffering”. The goal of yoga became to escape all this pain and suffering. Obviously something changed between the most ancient Vedic rituals that go back circa 1500 BC, to Buddha a thousand years later circa 500 BC. How could such a radical change come about? The following are some of my informed speculations.

What is ritual magic? It is not just the mindless chanting of sounds and moving one’s body. It is not like being an actor who plays an acting role as an imaginary exercise. No. In ritual, the ritual performer believes in the ritual hook, line, and sinker. It is the absorption of the ritual practitioner in the ritual itself (citation note: this isn’t my idea, I learned it in Dane Rudhyar’s wonderful book Culture, Crisis, and Creativity).   The ritual performer seeks to become one with the words, sounds, and movement-forms of the ritual. In this we can see perhaps see the earliest form of what was to later become samadhi, complete absorption, where even the Self is lost in the absorptive act.

Why is ritual magic performed? Ritual allows the identification of the ritual performer with some aspect of nature. One becomes that aspect of nature. Thereby (at least in theory) one can control that aspect. Thus, the sponsor of the ritual could gain their desired ends (the rituals were always performed by the priest class for somebody else: king, rich guy, whoever).

Ritual thus contains elements of a primitive type of science and technology. The understanding behind the ritual is the science, and the ritual itself the technology. The goal is to control the forces of nature for some desired end (strong children, success in war, good harvest, etc.). In this, ritual magic is not so different from our modern science and technology.

One can envision two possible ways yoga branched off of ritual magic.

First, there may have been attempts to improve the technology of ritual. How can the magic be better, more effective? To solve this, one would need to understand how the mind, the main instrument of ritual, controlled the forces of nature. One would need to turn inward and investigate the ritual itself, instead of performing the ritual for its externalized purpose.

The second possible branch point may have evolved out of the intrinsic conflicts between the worldly goals of Vedic ritual and the other-worldly goals of the Vedic philosophies. The ancient Vedas described myriads of rituals but they also contained the philosophical views that would later permeate all Hindu thinking, eventually to be distilled out in later works like the Upanishads, Mahabharata, and Ramayana. The Vedas expressed primitive versions of maya, Brahman, Atman, and so forth, all of which would become greatly elaborated in the following centuries. These ideas are “other-worldly” in the sense that the physical world is secondary to these factors. The “other-worldly” factors are intrinsically more important. They cause the world. So to understand the world better, one must understand the “other-worldly” causes. One can envision a line of evolution whereby, over time, the rituals turned in on themselves, so to speak. Instead of performing ritual for worldly goals, rituals (forms of absorption) evolved whose goal was to contact the other-worldly forces behind the rituals.

These two possibilities, to improve magic per se, or having the Vedic philosophies direct the rituals away from worldly and towards other-worldly goals, are not so different anyway. What is important is that the goals of ritual magic turned inward. This seems to be the critical step whereby bona fide yoga branched off from traditional ritual magic.

Just as scientists today seek to generalize on their previous views and develop ever more comprehensive and inclusive understanding, so it was likely to have been with the ancient yogis. To find ever more effective methods to control nature, it makes sense that ancient yogis would seek deeper and deeper to find the more general aspects of what they were doing. In fact, we see a similar thing happening today. Does not quantum mechanics force us to look inward and wonder about our minds and how they affect the seemingly external world? History repeats at a new level of the spiral.

Whatever it is that caused ritual absorption to turn inwards, the fact is, it did. We today call it yoga. What is more important than how it came to be is what was discovered when absorption turned inward.

What was discovered was the ever-elusive nature of things. Everything changes, as the aphorism above clearly expresses. We saw where this led: the kleshas. Change starts from the ignorance of the way things are (avidya). The original sin is the Self. Abhinivesha is not much different from the fall from grace expressed by the Adam and Eve story in the Bible. From there it was all downhill: loves, hates, and fearing to let either of them go. And here we are. Yay!

This had a big effect on the goal of controlling nature. What is the point of trying to control nature if it’s always changing? Even you trying to control anything is just another example of change. Then something else comes along and changes the change you made. It’s an endless process of successive transformations. It leads to an ultimate insight: it is futile to seek to control nature.

Instead, the only thing one seems to be able to control is one’s mind.

This little diversion has brought into relief the key motivation for yoga: we have no control over the changes that seem to happen outside of us. We do seem to have some control over what happens in our minds. How far can we control our own minds?

That’s where we’ll pick up in Chapter 24.

9 thoughts on “The Yogic View of Consciousness 23: Yoga Now and Then

  1. kashyap vasavada

    Hi Don:
    Excellent! I completely agree with you that at some point they realized that conquering your own mind is the hardest thing and once you do that every thing is yours! In fact I have heard that according to scriptures, there are three kinds of problems humans face. (1) Adhibhautic-like natural disasters, winds, floods, earthquakes, diseases etc (2) Adhidaivic- due to unknown divine causes which we may not understand. Consequences due to past karmas may be part of this. (3) But then big problems remain. Adhyatmic. i.e problems created by vrittis of your own mind. Once you conquer the third one, then you can easily face the first two. In fact after most prayers we say Shanti (peace) thrice. So we would like to have peace from all the three!

      • Hi Kashyap
        Really nice to hear from you! Thanks for leaving such interesting comments. It is always a great delight to hear about these things from you. I had not heard of these terms before.

        I notice all three of the words you provided start with “Adi”, which means “first” or “primary”. The second part of each word is also interesting. “Bhautic” reminds me of bhuttas, the elements. So these would be problems that derive from the elements that we can perceive with our senses (indriyas). “daivic” reminds me of “devas”, the gods and goddesses. Like you said “divine” causes, due to the devas and devattas. “Atmic” is most certainly “atman”, the Self or soul. So yes, the problems of the Self, which indeed are the vrittis.

        Very interesting! What region of India do these terms originate? Are they general or do they originate from a specific region or culture in India?

        Again, thanks for the interesting insights, Kashyap!

        Best wishes,


  2. kashyap vasavada

    Hi Don.
    These are original Sanskrit words from scriptures, not from any particular region of India, The easiest reference I can give is the question posed by Arjuna at the beginning of Chap. 8 of Bhagavad Gita and subsequent answers by Lord Krishna. I am sure they are elsewhere in Upanishads. I am not sure about Yoga sutras. I will look.

    • Hi Kashyap. I was researching Samkhya last night and came across this Wikipedia page that defines the three terms. So…they’re not regional terms but come from the Samkhya philosophy. Funny how I just fell on this while trying to learn more about Samkhya!!

      • kashyap vasavada

        Hi Don,
        It is nice to hear about this wikipedia page. Actually in Bhagavad Gita, there is lot of Sankhya stuff and there is lot of overlap with Upanishads. According to some scholars there is very little difference between Vedic (Upanishadic) sayings and Sankhya sayings. Sarikas (critiques) are all over.

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