Updated: Mar 22
The following post is an excerpt from my final paper for the Spring 2021 Indian Philosophy course.
With variety galore, we may rightfully ask “what is yoga?” The answer is quite complicated because it is dependent on what yoga is in discussion. Initially, we may want to look to past understandings of yoga to find our singular answer, but even then the answer differs based on what individual and text is being focused on. Clearly, defining yoga is a topic far too broad to cover in just one piece. This is an undertaking that may not be tackled within a lifetime with the evolution of yoga in the modern world. Because of this, to give a brief overview of “yoga” I will focus my attention on two texts that most agree are the primary yogic texts: the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutra. The stance on the term yoga in these texts is intertwined similarly to that of siblings. They each hold their own distinct identifiers putting them in slight difference to each other.
Before proceeding, a note must be made about the importance of translations and commentaries. The two texts themselves gain their richness over a thousand years of engagement. Great thinkers from around the world across cultures and times have offered various commentaries on the importance of these texts to their study of philosophy and/or religion. All sources mentioned in this piece are based on English translations (my Sanskrit isn’t that fully developed yet!) and commentaries by contemporary scholars of religion, meaning the sources used are of secondary and tertiary nature. Without the work of scholars who have intensely studied and devoted hours of work to learning and evaluating the use of Sanskrit, global interaction could not take place. Identifying the South Asian roots and origins of the traditional yogic texts of the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutra is crucial to avoid subsuming ownership or appropriation by Western scholars and practitioners, though this act is not exemplified by the authors in this piece.
Over many centuries yoga slowly emerged from the woodworks of these writings. A general consensus is that Patanjali, whether one single person or a compilation of people, wrote the Yoga Sutra around the same time as the Bhagavad Gita somewhere during the pre-classical and classical periods of Indian philosophy (White, 20). Scholars agree the origins of yoga existed earlier than the initial writing of these texts in the Upanishads, and more specifically the Katha Upanishad (White, 22; Patton, xiii; Bryant, lii). Along with the major Upanishads, the minor Upanishads contain a specific set titled the Yoga Upanishads (See The Yoga Upanishads, with the commentary of Sri Upanishad-brahma-yogin). More broadly, yoga as a practice and system can also be drawn as far back as the Vedas as all Hindu philosophy stems from the one common source of sacred texts and teachings.
The Bhagavad Gita is located with the greater epic of the Mahabharata, though the writing of Mahabharata began much earlier than the documentation of its “Great Song.” This story describes an interaction between the warrior named Arjuna and the charioteer named Krishna before a great battle between friends and relatives. Arjuna is distraught over the upcoming battle and doubting his role on the battlefield. Krishna, later revealing himself as a Supreme Being, explains living one’s dharma, or duty, to Arjuna. Yoga is addressed in a practical sense as a discipline and way of life. Krishna explains that there are different paths or margas of yoga namely karma yoga, jnana yoga, and bhakti yoga. Each is suited based on an individual’s dharma, but over the three forms of yoga addressed by Krishna, the greatest is bhakti yoga, the discipline of devotion. By living one’s dharma and engaging in bhakti yoga, one is sure to reach the ultimate goal.
The Yoga Sutra is a philosophical text existing on its own. Sutra, loosely meaning “a short aphorism,” describes the brevity of the piece as a whole. There are roughly 200 individual sutras throughout the Yoga Sutra compilation. The purpose of the Yoga Sutra is essentially a guide for an adherent to Yoga as a philosophical system. Here the author(s) known as Patanjali writes of ashtanga yoga, or the eight-limbed path that leads to its ultimate goal. Many modern yoga practitioners today use this eightfold discipline as a guide to their physical yoga practice rather than the intended meditative origins that involve siddhis or miracles. While ashtanga yoga is important, we as practitioners should not equate and reduce all of the Yoga Sutra to ashtanga yoga.
Yoga is used in both a theological and philosophical framework. The elements and descriptions of the eightfold path in the Yoga Sutra, mentioned previously, surface in the Bhagavad Gita like hidden gems in the rough. The eightfold path consists of the yamas (ethical restraints), niyamas (self-restraints), asana (posture/seat), pranayama (breath work), pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (enlightenment). The five yamas are ahimsa (non-harming), satya (truth), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (chastity/celibacy), and aparigraha (non-attachment); and the five niyamas are saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (austerity/heated discipline), svadhyaya (self-study), and ishvara-pranidhana (surrender or dedication to the Divine). All of the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga are represented in some capacity between the third and sixth discourse of the Bhagavad Gita. See chart below:
While this chart is based on the English translations of both the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutra, their parallels are inescapable. This simple demonstration of analogous translations once again depicts the similarities between the yoga as a practice and Yoga as a philosophical system.
A clear and concise definition of yoga may never fully exist, yet this does not discourage the curious to dive deeper. The various definitions, translations, and understandings do not deter the greater global influence of yoga as a timeless system or practice. The earliest and, in my opinion, most elaborate amplification of yoga settles within the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutra. Placing these two in conversation with each other creates a vastly dynamic—and often frustratingly elastic—working definition of yoga for the past and present. These two texts have continuous, maximum potential for yogis, yoga practitioners, and inquisitives. The differences and similarities are like puzzle pieces within personal dharma, fitting comfortably in one and awkward in another. As Bryant put it so succinctly, the Yoga Sutra is for forest dwellers detached from society and the Bhagavad Gita is for the day-to-day, 9-to-5. The two texts are infinitely malleable and fiercely transformative for individuals beyond religious, theological, and philosophical restraints regardless of the multitude of inquiries and assumptions. This may prompt us not to ask “what is yoga?” but rather “what is yoga to me?”
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