October 23, 2013

Did Patanjali Hate the Body?

Our interpretation of yoga philosophy matters.

Our translations may even have historical consequences. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2.40 is a case in point.

In a debate on elephant journal some time ago, prolific blogger Matthew Remski wrote “that yoga philosophy is always imperfect is proven by 2:40, which proposes that bodily disgust is a virtue. This is certainly a view that is subject to revision.”

Matthew Remski is here referring to Patanjali’s famed and sometimes controversial Yoga Sutra 91, Chapter 2, Verse 40, in which he states: Shauchat svanga jugupsa parairasansargahare

The late Georg Feuerstein, one of the most read and respected yoga scholars in the world today, translates this sutra as follows: “Through purity [he gains] distance towards his own limbs [and also] [the desire for] non-contamination by others.”

In his commentary, Feuerstein emphasizes that Patanjali urges us to be “on one’s guard” with respect to the body. To take good care of it, so that it becomes a good vehicle for spiritual pursuits, for meditation.

Not everyone has interpreted this sutra in such a body-positive way.  Not according to Indian blogger Srinirvan, who claims that Indian commentators misunderstood Patanjali and thereby brought not only yoga but the whole Indian civilization literally down with them.

He writes: “This one misunderstanding has created the worst sin for Indian consciousness.” Srinirvan is referring to the fact that Patanjali’s phrase “Jugupsa” has often been  translated as “disgust”  and that this translation has been “like a thorn inserted into the Indian consciousness. This is responsible for the untouchability and Western civilizations used it as a weapon to destroy the [Indian] civilization.”

According to Srinirvan, “this one misunderstanding” of Patanjali’s words may have had far-reaching consequences and is the cause of India’s caste system, Indian culture’s obsession with sexual repression and Hinduism’s many religious dogmas, etc. That’s a serious accusation!

Could we blame the dark underbelly of Indian civilization on a yoga philosopher? No, that is too simplistic, of course. The caste system was integral to Vedic society long before Patanjali and so were the sexual and social repression of women. Nevertheless, our ideas and myths, said the great mythologist Joseph Campbell, they are to live by, and they do indeed matter.

Many Indian religious folks, just like the puritans of the West, have had a conflicted relationship with the body. When living in India, I once practiced asanas with a group of male friends. While bringing my feet down during shoulder-stand (sarvangasana) practice, I jokingly touched the head of an Indian man next to me with my big toe.

He suddenly got up and ran away and was not seen in the ashram for several months. Little did I know at that time, but in India it is considered a sin to touch someone’s head with one’s foot. The foot is considered dirty; unless it’s the foot of a holy man, of course.

Once, while listening to NPR, I heard a well known Indian feminist writer say the following: “In India we have two views of women. They are either whores or Goddesses.”  But we should not just point our fingers at India. In the puritan West, the Madonna-Whore complex is deeply ingrained in men who marry “proper wives” while still having sex in secret with other, often younger, beautiful women.

Someone named Luke, a frequent contributor to debates on elephant journal, responded with these words to Remski’s remarks:

“2.40 does not say anything about virtue. It says that as a consequence of practicing cleanliness/purity, there is disgust for one’s own parts. A warning perhaps, but not a call to vomit. Cleanliness/purity is also said to result in sense-control, one-pointedness, and cheerfulness, among others.”

Not a call to vomit, perhaps, but still, does it not look as if Patanjali had a strong bout of duality when writing this sutra? His philosophy, unlike Tantra and Vedanta, was after all dualistic—the feminine Prakrti and the masculine Purusha are opposing poles in his cosmology, and he offers no clear way in which they both unite, in a deeper oneness of being, in Brahman, as in Tantra, for example.  But did he see the body as impure, that we need to distance ourselves from it in order to gain enlightenment from within?

It is very likely, because body-denying asceticism is integral to Indian yoga, except for in the Tantric and Bhakti-oriented schools of yoga, and also because Patanjali was a dualist, who at the same time believed in Ishvara as a Divine Being. But Patanjali did not clearly explain how the yogi would ever attain Oneness with this higher, transcendental, God-like being. (I wish, Patanajali, you and I could have that discussion over a cup of Chai about all this, but he is long gone unfortunately…) But for sure, in India, and more specifically in yogic asceticism, it is common to view the body, and all sensory enjoyments, as obstacles to gaining spiritual liberation.

The important part for us, I think, is in how we interpret, how we translate this traditional wisdom, how we practice it today. Do we, in our balancing of the body, mind and spirit suppress the body and its needs, or do we purify it, embrace it, balance it—lust, disease, imbalance and all—with love and care?

Hence, the key word here, I think, is “saucha” or purity. Not a dualistic, puritan cleanliness, but rather a holistic purity. The kind of purity that Nischala Joy Devi uses in her translation of the same sutra:

“Through simplicity and continual refinement, the body, thoughts, and emotions become clear reflections of the self within.”

When I lived in India, I witnessed firsthand the “misunderstanding” that Srinivan alludes to in his comments above, that the Indian ascetic disgust for the body has had many cruel consequences. And perhaps something had been seriously and often violently lost in translation. But these hand-cuffings of human instincts and clampdowns on cultural habits, did not originate with Patanjali, of course; they had been part of the Vedic culture of India long before 200 BCE, when he allegedly lived in Northern India. So, if anything, he expressed ingrained cultural traits.

While living in India, I saw expressions of an extreme, body-negating asceticism up close. Yogis holding their hands high above the head for 13 years, or more, straight, nails growing through their flesh. I also saw other forms of physical cruelty: untouchable women making gravel by the road with hammers, one rock at-a-time. I saw “impure” low caste villagers living as slaves. Was that all examples of what Srinivan called a grave, historical “misunderstanding?” Disgust for the body, for women, for that which is impure, low, base, vile, disgusting?

With this sutra, are we witness to something lost in translation? Or are we simply witness to an inbuilt disgust for the body within traditional India, the yoga community itself, and, as  here, expressed by Patanjali, one of yoga’s greatest philosophers?

What seems clear is that philosophy matters. It matters a great deal, in fact. How we write, read and translate philosophy matters. My own Indian teacher, Shrii Anandamurti, used to say that India has suffered greatly because of  the social appropriation of Shankaracarya’s Vedantic idea that “the world is an illusion.

Millions of Indians are poor and downtrodden precisely because such ideas makes them believe that there is no use in changing this world for the better—it’s just an illusion. So, there’s no need to change anything. Besides, life will be better for me in my next incarnation.

Why not make this life, this incarnation better? Why not make this world better?

The philosophical concept of the world as illusion, or the body as something disgusting, is in stark contrast to the Tantric idea that this world is sacred, that this world is real, that this world can be heaven on earth.

So, yes, philosophy matters.

What we are also witnessing in this debate over this sutra is a cultural, historical, and spiritual duality in India as well as the greater yoga community: namely the differences between the Vedic/Vedantic and the Tantric worldviews and practices, and philosophies.

This duality between the Vedantic idea that the world is an illusion and the Tantric idea that the world is sacred; the duality between dogma and the free expression of ideas; the duality between tradition and new transmission of ideas, the duality between religious tradition and mystic introspection; the duality between tradition and experimentation—these dualities are indeed complex and in themselves reflections of the pulsating, dynamic reality we live in.

I do not mean to sum this debate up by simply saying that Patanjali was wrong and that Vedanta is bad; that the yoga tradition is outmoded and that only the new, postmodern, democratic, innovative thinking of the West is good. No, not at all. Realty is much more complex and interesting than such philosophical and practical simplifications.

Poet Robert Bly summed this up nicely when he said that we need both vertical (traditional) and horizontal (innovative) thinking to lead balanced lives in a dynamic, ever-changing world. This means to energetically debate the old sayings, the old philosophers while also energetically developing new ideas.

But in doing so, we will, I think, realize there is much from the old that has been tested and tried throughout time, much that is worthy of saving and nurturing. And much, that, with a few alterations by writers such as Nischala Joy Devi, Matthew Remski and others, can bring fresh new insight and wisdom.

I venture to say that a large percentage of ancient yogic wisdom and practice is worthy of saving.

It is also worth noting that in India, Patanjali is actually not very popular, or well read. To the people of India, he is considered too dry, too dualistic, too philosophical. Why?

Because there is this other wild side to India; the Tantric side; the ecstatic side; the shamanic side; the Bhakti side, the magical side, the live-life-in-the moment side—that part of India in which caste, high and low, pure and impure melts in dance and devotion, in prayer and ritual, and reaches a place of heart and mind beyond the limits of philosophy. A place within the heart, where philosophy does not matter at all.

There is also another side to the Yoga Sutras rarely mentioned or acknowledged in the West: In India, Patanjali is not considered the main writer on yoga practice and philosophy. Tantra scholar David Gordon White points this out in an interview: “Even within the category of “Yoga Philosophy,” there are many more works on hatha yoga than on the YS; and if you look at works on tantric yoga (which are generally classified under the “Tantra” category and not the “Philosophy” category), there are many more of these manuscripts than there are YS manuscripts.”  Out of 30,000 manuscripts on yoga philosophy, according to White, only 500 are commentaries on the Yoga Sutras.

So, while yoga students and teachers in the West see Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as the foundation of yoga philosophy, Tantric writers have been much more prolific and have had much more influence on the culture and living practice of yoga in India.

Still, we need Patanjali as much as we need Nischala Joy Devi. We need both tradition and innovation. But more than anything, we yogis need deep asana practice, deep meditation practice, spiritual love, devotion, ecstasy, and wild kirtan dancing.

And we need to remember that without the contributions of Patanjali, and of the multiplicity and complexity of Mother India herself, we would not be having this discussion in the first place.

It is natural, even necessary, that we hold yoga philosophy—not just Patanjali’s, but all of the various schools—up for closer scrutiny. New philosophers, new interpreters sometimes improve upon the corpuses of the old. Sometimes they create more confusion. But as Luke wrote, there is no need to vomit, even if a philosopher, even if his name is Patanjali, hints at your body being even just a tad bit disgusting. Just alter the translation; alter the interpretation.


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Ed: Sara Crolick

{photo: Sculpture by Natalia Rosenfeld, www.nataliasculpture.com}

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