There are at least 3 ways to enlightenment according to yoga philosophy.
In reality, there are many more, perhaps as many as there are yogis, but just for the sake of limited space and the topic of this essay, I will introduce three distinct and influential philosophical paths within traditional yoga philosophy.
While doing so, we will look at each philosophy’s unique way to uncover the essence of yoga, which, according to Michael Stone, author of the insightful and very readable The Inner Tradition of Yoga, is simply this:
to teach us “that all forms of clinging create suffering.”
However, while all paths of yoga teaches us about the futility of attachments to our ego: the way our body looks, how much money we make, how big/small our nose is, etc., not all paths of yoga puts so much emphasis on the avoidance of attachment and of suffering.
Buddha said that suffering exists; it has a cause; it has an end; and it has a cause to bring about its end. But not all yoga philosophy is Buddhist in outlook. Tantra instructs us quite the opposite; that the practice of yoga reveals feelings of joy, freedom, wholeness, bliss, love, awe, expansion, oneness. Krishna’s sublime stories in the Gita is also about a different mind-set: to see all as love, embrace all as sacred, see all as One.
A yogi, whose life’s goal is to end suffering achieves enlightenment through detachment leading to transcendental absorption. This path of discernment, this path of calm, focused discrimination is distinctly different from the path of celebratory union, the path of sacred embrace as emphasized in the heart-centered Bhakti Yoga of Kabir, or the ecstatic Kali-worshiping Tantra of Ramakrishna. Yet, as we will see, all yogic paths are intertwined like threads in a meditation rug. They have much more in common than not.
Here’s a brief outline of 3 traditional paths of yogic enlightenment:
1. Patanjali’s Yoga, or dvaita; traditionally considered a dualist school of yoga
2. Adi Shankara’s Vedanta, or advaita; traditionally considered nondualist, or Mayavada (the doctrine of illusion/only Brahman/God is real)
3. Tantra, advaita-dvaita-advaita; traditionally nondualist; but more appropriately a nondualistic-dualistic-nondualist philosophy bridging the philosophical dichotomy between Patanjali Yoga and Vedanta.
The Classical Yoga of Patanjali is in traditional India also referred to as Patanjali Samkhya, Patanjali Tantra, or Raja Yoga. This is not accidental. When referred to as Samkhya, it is because Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras follow and expands upon the tradition of the incredibly sophisticated philosophy of Kapila’s Samkhya, which is also the philosophical foundation of Ayurveda, India’s yoga-based medical system.
Hence, to deeply understand the principles of both Ayurveda and yoga, studying the detailed and logical cosmology of Samkhya philosophy is exceedingly instructive.
Samkhya is also sometimes referred to as Kapila’s Tantra, after its founder Kapila, to indicate its link to early Shaivism (followers of Shiva) or ancient Tantra. Samkhya is also termed Tantra Shaivism, and Ayurveda is also characterized as “Tantric medicine,” or “Siddha medicine,” especially in East and South India.
In other words, while there are distinct differences between these important schools and practices, there are many more integrating similarities. While Patanjali followed in the footsteps of Kapila, he again built upon the works of the ancient Vedic and Tantric (Shaiva) sages of the past. Most all of the meditation teachings outlined in the Yoga Sutras, for example, are practiced widely among all yogic traditions.
Likewise, Shankara was a Shiva Tantric and presumed to be the founder of Vedanta (see Georg Feuerstein’s The Yoga Tradition ) who followed in the footsteps of Patanjali, and the Tantric sages of the middle ages, those naked sadhus who penned the text book Hatha Yoga Pradipika. But, in true Indian tradition, he advanced his own philosophical school, and he was known as a fierce debater and logician, often debating Buddhist monks.
The Natha Tantrics of the Middle Ages, who wrote the Hatha Yoga texts dedicated to Shiva, followed in the footsteps of an old oral tradition in part recorded in the Puranas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tantras, and the Shiva Samhitas, They hailed from a fertile yogic tradition that in many ways was originally distinctly non-Vedic and perhaps reached as far back into antiquity as 5000 years before Christ.
This potpourri of ideas and practices spawned a plethora of philosophical sub-schools and traditions with names and founders, practices, myths and meanings as numerous and colorful as the patterns in an Indian sari.
Let us take a brief look at these 3 schools:
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
Patanjali’s philosophy (approximately 200 BCE) recognizes the Self (Purusha) as a transcendental, all-pervading entity and as a state of mind actualized by a self-realized yogi. The opposite reality of the Self is the World (Prakrti) with all its numerous physical and mental manifestations. The yogi’s delusion according to Patanjali is the preoccupation with the world, the senses, the body, etc.
Thus, in his dualistic view of realty, Patanjali encourages the yogi, through following the eight limbs of yoga to disengage and withdraw from the world through ethical behavior, study, postures, breathing exercises and meditation to reach Samadhi, the final absorption in the Self. The false identification with the world is the allure that draws the yogi away from the inner world of the one true Self.
Patanjali did not promote union with the Self through longing and heart-centered worship or meditation as in Bhakti or Tantra Yoga. Rather his way to liberation and enlightenment is to escape suffering via discernment, introspection, and meditation.
Patanjali draws a distinct separation between the Self and the non-self; it is evidently not a yoga of union. This is how yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein reads him: “Given Patanjali’s dualist metaphysics, which strictly separates the transcendental Self from Nature and its products, [union] would not even make any sense.”
For yoga philosopher and psychologist Michael Stone, we have lost nothing and gained everything with such an attitude. Yoga, according to Stone, is not an act of unity. This turns yoga into a “willful activity,” he writes; quite the opposite of what Patanjali intended.
Yoga, according to Stone, “means that everything is interdependent…not something we seek outside ourselves or a willful attempt at union, but the recognition, in the present moment, of the unification of life.”
A yogi on Patanjali’s path gradually discover a deeper recognition of the inner Self, and eventually realizes, through skillful separation of Truth from untruth, the nondual awareness of the transcendental reality. Hence, the path of duality, artfully practiced, leads to nonduality and enlightenment. This process toward enlightenment according to Patanjali does not occur through union, but as a process of identity, of identifying with the transcendental, not with the worldly.
The strength and beauty of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras lies, I think, in his insightful gifts of philosophical detail on the path of discerning what the Self is not. Moreover, the Yoga Sutras’ contemplative stanzas and practical insights about meditation is an integral part of many yogi’s daily practices both on and off the cushion/mat.
The Yoga Sutras are not an instruction manual in meditation, however. A competent teacher that can impart the practical lessons of pratyahara (sense withdrawal), pranayama (breathing exercises), dharana (concentration) and dhyana (focused flow) is thus essential in order to develop a daily, personal meditation practice.
Shankara, or Shankaracharya (approximately 800 AD) was a Shaiva Tántrika, or practioner of Tantra who, like many Indian ascetics was a follower Shiva. He believed in Nirguńa Brahma, or Purusha only. His theories are reminiscent of shúnyaváda in Buddhism, the doctrine of emptiness. Unlike Patanjali, he did not believe in the existence of jagat, or the physical world, and he promoted Guńánvita Máyáváda, the doctrine of illusion.
Shankara’s doctrine was summed up in the following sutra:
Brahma satyaṃ jagat mithyā, jīvo brahmaiva nāparah
Brahman is the only truth, the spatio-temporal world is an illusion, and there is ultimately no difference between Brahman and the individual self.
Shankara was a great logician and traveled throughout India teaching his new doctrine. During his short, 32 year old life, he managed to unite the various Hindu sects and to greatly reduce the influence of Buddhism in India. Because of his philosophical unification of two seemingly disparate philosophical concepts, Atman (individual Self) and Brahman, many think of him as the most brilliant philosopher, a kind of St. Thomas of Aquinas, in the history of Indian thought.
As a Tantric yogi, Shankara taught the practices of kundalini yoga and the esoteric science of mantra meditation. In Swami Vivekananada (1863-1902) we witness a modern exponent of Vedanta and simultaneously a teacher following the eight-fold path of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, or Raja Yoga. Moreover, Vivekananda, was an ardent social reformer and not exactly one to act as if the world was an illusion.
Shankara’s doctrine of illusion undoubtedly has had many negative social effects in India by enslaving people to fatalist dogmas steeped in caste, myth and oppression. Yet, in giant personalities like Vivekananda and Aurobindu (1872-1950), both greatly influenced by Patanjali and Shankara, we witness a modern integration reconciling the deep spiritual introspection of yogic India with western Enlightenment rationality and social reform.
In other words, we see in Vivekananda and Aurobindu a fruitful integration of the dualism of Patanjali with the non-dualism of Shankara. Quite tellingly, Aurobindu called his yoga “integral yoga” and Georg Feuerstein thinks it is Aurobindo, more than any other yogi, who epitomizes the birth of modern yoga in the world. The millions of “posture yogis” in the West would perhaps disagree and instead think of Krishnamacarya as a more likely candidate.
If the Vedanta of Vivekananda, or Deepak Chopra—who makes a point about not being a Hindu but rather a follower of Vedanta—signifies the modern version of ancient yoga, it is perhaps Tantra, more than any other form of yogic philosophy, that embody a post-modern and integral vision.
Philosopher Ken Wilber maintains that the nondualism of Tantra brings together the inseparable and eternal unity of Purusha and Prakrti in a “nondual embrace” of fundamental importance to yogic philosophy. This logical embrace seems to reconcile the best of Patanjali with the best of Shankara, the essence of dualism with the essence of nondualism.
Interestingly, many believe that Tantric yoga is also much older than both these schools, perhaps more than 6000 years old, and represent for many scholars all Yogic practice—the science and practice of mantra, kundalini, chakras, asanas, pranyama, dhyan, etc—as opposed to the Vedic aspects—the fire rituals, chanting, scriptural study, etc—of the vast body of Indian mysticism.
Written down as philosophy, however, the oral tradition of Tantra is a relative latecomer in India and is associated with the “Tantric Renaissance” of the Middle Ages, when most all the Tantric texts dedicated to Shiva—its alleged originator and King Of Yoga—were authored.
According to Feuerstein, “By unifying the mind—that is, by focusing it—Tantra Yoga unifies the seemingly disparate realities of space-time and the transcendental Reality.” In other words, Tantra unifies the duality of Patanjali with the nonduality of Vedanta.
That is, Tantra seems to bridge the contradictions between Vedanta’s the-world-is-an-illusion theory with Patanajali’s the-world-is-a-distraction philosophy by exclaiming that both the world and spirit is Brahman, and that all is real. Tantra, like Krishna in the Gita, instructs us: I am That, I am always unified with That. I am Consciousness, and Consciousness made the World.
Hence the use of will, the practice of observation, discernment, love, are not at all contradictory to Tantra. (Indeed, lest we become lazy deadbeats, we need to employ our will at almost every turn of the way in life.) Each aspect of reality complement each other in a cosmic embrace of spiritual union. Purusha and Prakrti, these universal opposites of Spirit and Flesh are truly one in Brahman, truly two aspects of the same Transcendental Consciousness. Thus speaks Tantra.
The biggest challenge for the followers of Vedanta is perhaps to avoid confusing the intellectual understanding of nonduality with the actual experience of it. To free oneself from the idea that “I am enlightened just because I think I am.”
The challenge for the dualist, on the other hand, is to let go of the mind and also to perceive the world openly through the heart.
For Tantra, perhaps the biggest challenge is the idea that, since Spirit is everywhere, therefore anything goes; therefore any behavior is spiritual behavior; therefore, as we see in so many neo-tantric circles, the flesh is hedonistically mistaken for spirit and indulgence equals transcendence.
A Common Philosophical Weave
The truth is, we can learn from, and integrate, all of these philosophical yogic paths into our own. Dualism is part of realizing non-dualism. Without a body, without experiencing separation and longing, we cannot practice the yoga of nondualism in the first place. Thus all 3 visions are balanced and interconnected.
Although I personally favor Tantra, this impossibly tongue-tied philosophical vision we may call nondualistic-dualistic-nondualism, I humbly bow to the rich inner wisdom of all 3 paths. And rest assured, enlightenment is inherent in all of them, just like the breath of the sacred is inherent in all of us.
We exist in this world. We are not an illusion. Nor is the world an illusion, nor does it have to be a trap of the flesh. Both we and the world are physically and spiritually vibrant, real and present in all our glory. All of the time! Yet, when we are trapped in the world, we mistake the unreal for the real, the rope for a snake, and life’s lessons do indeed become fleeting and illusory.
The inner spirit of these 3 paths to enlightenment, are perhaps most beautifully summed up in the koan-like words of the great nondual sage Ramana Maharshi:
The world is illusory;
Brahman alone is real;
Brahman is the world.