Saturday, February 21, 2015

Yoga-tarangini published: The story of this translation (Part I)

[I am happy to have finally received a copy of the Yoga-taraṅgiṇī, which has been published by Motilal Banarsidass with the Himalayan Yoga Publications Trust. When I was writing the introduction, I started also to describe the adventure that working on this text represented, and became quite bogged down as the self-examination and other external factors made it seem impossible to conclude. Finally, I just gave up on the idea and handed in the manuscript without this part of the introduction. This is the first part, which discusses the apparent conflict between the bhakti and yoga paths.]


In the SRSG library and research center.

Bhakti and Yoga

I often wonder about the relationship of a translation to the original text. The famous Italian saying that "to translate is to betray" indicates that any translation is inevitably an interpretation of some kind. A third person enters between the speaker and his audience, and neither the third person nor the audience were intended by that original speaker, except inasmuch as universal humanity – as he understood it – was intended by him.

In the case of a text like the Yoga-taraṅgiṇī, the problem is increased, since much of what is said is mysterious, even deliberately couched in a symbolic language that only sustained engagement with the practice itself can properly elucidate. Such a sustained engagement with a sādhanā is a story in itself that rarely gets told in detail. Indeed, the hagiographies lead us to believe that the process is straightforward, mechanical even, or so dependent on destiny or grace that any inner effort seems almost irrelevant.

Most of the time we are presented with works like Gorakṣa-śataka and in a fairly impersonal way, in the way of a general manual of instruction, with barely a hint of a personal story into which it can be properly set. The tacit assumption is that the author is a perfected or successful soul, a siddha, and herein lie the steps whereby anyone can reach the same elevated state of perfection as his. The world of his context, in all its human complexity, is an accepted a priori for the audience he actually intended. And, indeed, the book itself would only be a general outline to be supplemented by the same contextual world within worlds, a tradition or paramparā, within the wider world of India at the cusp of the last millennium.

For such a text, there is usually a hagiographical tradition, oral or written, often quite thin in content, which provides the framework into which we are meant to fit the work itself, but that would seem to mainly serve the purpose of inducing faith in the greatness of the author and his reliability as an authoritative guide to a particular sādhanā.

In the case of Gorakṣanātha, to whom this book is attributed, we have numerous legends of dramatic mystic powers. But as is frequently the case, his birth is miraculous and his powers already manifest from an early age. A siddha who pops into the mortal sphere from another plane, fully formed, will not, by definition, be a sādhaka. The usual term applied to such persons is nitya-siddha as opposed to sādhana-siddha. He is defined by his iconic role rather than by any specifically personal characteristic.

[Of course, the story of Gorakṣa and his guru Matsyendranātha does present some interesting idiosyncratic features where hagiography is concerned, taking more complex mythological forms. The theme of guru-bhakti is demonstrated by Gorakṣa's disguising himself as a woman in order to save his guru from an enchanted land of women, where he was the only male who could survive a curse that meant automatic death for any man who remained in that realm after sunset.]

What we rarely get in traditional Indian texts is the real-life account of a saint or author as a human sādhaka, whereby the step-by-step program outlined in his work is presented as the true account of his personal journey to the state of beatitude. This is an approach that is of limited usefulness in our modern analytical and scientific age, where the contemporary sādhaka's individual story can serve not only as the primary source of inspiration and guidance for other sādhakas, it can even give insight into routes for empirical research into spiritual techniques.

In fact, it might be said that liberated souls, if there is any such thing, can only truly demonstrate their authority and communicate the genuineness of their insights by giving an account of their journey, as a true revelation of their character. Spiritual life is human life, and a life without failings is not a human life. Nobody gets to perfection without a fight, and the demons encountered by the Buddha, or Desert Fathers, or Taoist adepts in mountain caves, may well be worth describing to those who will take up the same fight, now or later. Even a story of failure, recounted honestly, is more beneficial to fellow travelers looking for hope and community than a thousand injunctions declaimed from pulpits by preachers of ancient laws. And in fact, paramparā means being able to communicate to subsequent adepts whatever one has attained through one’s own path, either as a guidance or as a warning: “Go not ye by this way.”

I was commissioned to edit and translate this book by Maha Mandaleshwar Swami Veda Bharati, who was acting on the express wish of his spiritual master, Swami Rama of the Himalayas. Nevertheless, when requesting me to do this job, he expressed sufficient confidence in my capacities that he could tell me it was to be entirely my own work. He, being in a state of physical weakness and busy with his own sādhanā and Yoga-sūtra translation work, what to speak of administrative duties, was unable to divert too much of his attention in this direction.

This statement of trust came early on while I was still working on one of the early verses and I asked him a question about the translation of a particular word and he simply wrote on his board, "As you like," and smiled. Being given total freedom to do the job was a vote of confidence, but it also presented me a more difficult task, which became increasingly apparent to me as the work went on. I was being given a challenge to understand the concepts on my own, without taking the guidance of an external authority, except to the extent that prior to that I had already been given some basic knowledge of yoga and meditation techniques by him.

But it meant that I was being challenged to do far more than simply translate the words of the book, which can be done with the help of dictionaries, with any controversies noted in passing: It could be this, it could be that. In order to translate the book authoritatively, I had to immerse myself in the world of Gorakṣa and his yoga system. One time at the dinner table, when Swamiji had already started his silence and I was still too talkative, I joked that his engaging me to translate the book was merely a plot to convert me into a yogi. Little did I know what I was getting into.

So, as a response to that freedom, and indeed in response to the kinds of psychological challenges that surfaced during the time of doing this work, and especially the last six months or so, most of which was lost writing this very account that you, whoever you are, are now reading. And indeed, I am writing it now, already months after I agreed with Swamiji that it really did not have a place in a work that at least resembles an honest scholarly production. The work has gone to the publisher and I am thinking that I need to complete the sense of this piece of writing that is yet unfinished.

I am taking the unusual step of giving an account of my engagement with this book. But of course, I am still far too modest to completely bare my soul on paper, though I understand that without doing so, my purpose will not be accomplished. It is only too natural to expect that there will be some willful dissimulation, conscious or unconscious, the very kind of personal dishonesty that contradicts the spirit of the spiritual quest. La mauvaise foi.

But this really was the problem in my original attempts to write. It was too personal, even narcissistic, to write about myself in what was primarily intended to be a work of scholarship. Had life been a routine process, whereby doing a number of exercises and entering into a transcendent dimension of pure bliss was a straightforward, mechanical procedure, a technique that simply needed to be continued repeatedly in a disciplined and consistent manner, then I might have been able to communicate some of the more straightforward technical things. Through following the practice assiduously I may well have understood subtler points of the various bandhas and mudrās, the raising of the kuṇḍalinī and the import of the cakras. Were I a yogi, it may have been so. Clearly I am not. The yoga path demands complete, lifelong commitment and dedication, to the exclusion of the world.

Let us call it a reflection on a micro reality in spiritual life, where the only testimony by way of fact is the personal account of the journey one has taken. Swami Veda teaches his students to keep a self-observation diary. Let this be a retrospective on one such journey.

Though I had been an on-and-off practitioner of haṭha-yoga since my teens, as well as a dabbler in yoga meditation, I came to learn of the Himalayan meditative tradition only after becoming associated with Swamiji. By the time he entrusted me with this task, I had known him and the Himalayan yoga tradition for close to five years, living for much of that time in Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama in Rishikesh where I was engaged as the resident Sanskrit teacher. When after three years I left the ashram to establish myself in Vrindavan, I still kept in touch with Swamiji, first by working with him on the revision of the Yoga-sūtras first volume, and then with some other of his translation projects, the entire collaboration concluding with this Yoga-taraṅgiṇī translation, which he left to me.

Even though I learned the practices of the ashram during my time there and indeed fairly diligently followed some of them with regularity, following a regime of meditating four hours a day, I cannot say that I was a serious practitioner of yoga in the terms expressed by the yoga tradition itself. By entrusting me with this work, Swamiji was in fact challenging me to deepen my own yoga practice and to encounter the tradition more directly and personally.

The Gorakṣa-śataka represents but one early school of the haṭha-yoga or nātha-yoga tradition and is moreover a paddhati text, outlining a program of discipline that is meant to lead to results only after long and assiduous practice. This program differs in several respects from any that I had been following in terms of its emphasis on particular practices and goals, all of which can only be studied internally through actually doing them both sequentially and simultaneously, with the mastery of one technique being succeeded by the next while not being abandoned. Twelve years seems to be the minimum time the text itself predicts for reaching samādhi, clearly more time than I had to test the results.

But here I should state that there was another obstacle, one that contains within it a constellation of other obstacles. My personal religious and spiritual background is in the bhakti tradition of Bengal, which expresses the goal of spiritual endeavor in terms of prema or love of a personal God rather than the kaivalya, mukti or union of various opposites as usually described by the various yoga schools. The prescribed practices in most bhakti traditions are chanting the names of Radha and Krishna in kirtan, hearing stories and theological discourses related to Krishna, meditating on the saguṇa Brahma in the form of Radha Krishna, and so on. Progress is measured by the depth and intensity of one's love for Krishna, which is more the fruit of grace than the result of any practice. Indeed the practice itself is considered to be the result of grace and is meant to culture an awareness of grace, which is the great resting place of prema.

For their part, the Nātha yogis are uncompromisingly nirguṇa in their conception of the Supreme Truth. They are not much interested in theologizing or writing philosophical treatises. Their truth is situated within the body, not externally in either temple or text. Siddha-siddhānta-paddhati (2.74) lists the Vaishnavas as just one among the numerous sects and schools that are "cheated of the real Truth, engaged in arduous processes and following hopeless paths" (kaṣṭa-ratā vṛthā-patha-gatāḥ sat-tattvato vañcitāḥ).

Brahmānanda in his Jyotsnā commentary on Haṭha-yoga-pradīpikā 4.114 takes up the argument that bhakti is subordinate to haṭha-yoga, since it is equivalent to īśvara-praṇidhāna and can thus be incorporated within the aṣṭāṅga system as one of the niyamas or as the kriyā-yoga of Yoga-sūtra 2.1. Even yoga texts such as Yogi-yājñavalkya that have a Vaishnava flavor are ultimately committed to a nirguṇa concept of the Supreme, much in the way of Vaishnava tantras like Gautamīya-tantra.

Philosophically, the difference between the nirguṇa yoga and saguṇa Vaishnava schools seems irreconcilable. All Vaishnavas lineages are agreed that liberation defined as merging of the self into the Self, i.e., the complete identification with Brahman, the formless consciousness that is the ground of being, as far inferior to bhakti. Gaudiya acharya Rupa Goswami says bhakti is, "capable of making even liberation seem insignificant" (mokṣa-laghutā-kṛt, Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu 1.1.17). Of the many examples of verses in which this idea is stated, he uses the following example:

tvat-sākṣāt-karaṇāhlāda-sudhāmbodhau sthitasya me
sukhāni goṣpadāyante brāhmāṇy api jagad-guro
O Lord, teacher of the universe, now that I am situated in the unlimited ocean of blissful nectar that is your personal association, all other kinds of happiness -- even that of Brahman realization -- appear as insignificant to me as the water contained in a cow's hoofprint. [Hari-bhakti-sudhodaya 14.36, quoted at Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu 1.1.39]
This general abhorrence of the dissolution of personality in liberation is succinctly expressed by poet Prabodhananda Saraswati with the words kaivalyaṁ narakāyate, "the liberation of the yogis is the equivalent of hell." (Caitanya-candrāmṛta, 95.)

But Bengal Vaishnavism is rooted in the Bhagavad-gītā and Bhāgavata Purāṇa, in neither of which there is any shortage of instruction in yoga. According to the bhakti tradition, the yoga of the Gītā is to be understood hierarchically, with the last verse of the sixth chapter establishing the yoga of devotion as the highest. The Bhāgavata (11.20.6) considers bhakti a separate system of yoga, along with karma and jñāna, outside of which there is no third way. It is also full of verses that instruct in yoga, such as,

mana ekatra saṁyuñjyāj jita-śvāso jitāsanaḥ
vairāgyābhyāsa-yogena dhriyamāṇam atandritaḥ
Ever alert, the yogi should conquer the breath and posture, and fix the mind on one thing, bringing it under control with dispassion and constant practice. (BhP 11.9.11)
Thus, though aṣṭāṅga-yoga or haṭha-yoga practices are nowhere mentioned as aṅgas of bhakti, and yoga as understood in its sense of aiming at the state of asamprajñāta-samādhi is considered to be a covering over pure devotion, bhakti-yoga, like all other yogas, aims at the mastery of the mental processes by directing them exclusively to the Supreme Truth, but here conceived of in personal terms.

[Bhakti-yogis accept the concept of samprajñāta-samādhi, but as indicated above, abhor the "consciousness in itself" goal of asamprajñāta. I have spent a lot of time mulling over this latter concept and whether it could be reconciled with the bhakti system and believe I have found a way to synthesize the two, which I will present in another article down the road.]

In the Bhāgavata, the purpose of all yoga is to remember the personal God.

etāvān yoga ādiṣṭo mac-chiṣyaiḥ sanakādibhiḥ
sarvato mana ākṛṣya mayy addhāveśyate manaḥ
The yoga instructed by my disciples such as Sanaka, is to withdraw the mind from all things to absorb it directly in me [Krishna]. (BhP 11.13.14)
Rather than use the word dhyāna, bhaktas tend to use the word smaraṇa, a synonym that even Gorakṣa-śataka uses (2.61). In Bhakti-sandarbha (278-279), the terms dhāraṇā, dhyāna and samādhi are all used as subcategories of smaraṇa, with samādhi specifically described as the constant subjective experience of Krishna, the Supreme Truth in his personal manifestation (līlādi-yukte ca tasminn ananyā sphūrtiḥ samādhiḥ syāt).

Nevertheless, most devotees who are strictly aligned with the orthodox bhakti tradition do so because of verses that indicate that there is really no need for the techniques of yoga. It is the spirit of devotion to God which is all-powerful, and even aspirants for yoga need bhakti to achieve their goals:

na sādhayati māṁ yogo na sāṅkhyaṁ dharma uddhava
na svādhyāyas tapas tyāgo yathā bhakti mamorjitā
O Uddhava, the practices of yoga, philosophical separation of matter from spirit (sāṅkhya), the following of religious duties (dharma), study of scripture (svādhyāya), austerity (tapas) or renunciation (tyāga) are incapable of helping one attain me in the way that the intense performance of devotion (bhakti) does. (SB 11.14.20)
bhaktyāham ekayā grāhyaḥ
śraddhayātmā priyaḥ satām
bhaktiḥ punāti man niṣṭhā
śva pākān api sambhavāt
I, who am the Supreme Self and dearmost to the holy, can be attained only through exclusive devotion and faith. Such devotion to me purifies even the dog-eaters from [the sins that caused] their low birth. (BhP 11.14.21)
The bhakti-yoga path is further divided into the rules-oriented, rational, vaidhī bhakti approach and rāgānugā, which is based on pure grace and attraction. According to the former, one who has no natural attraction for Krishna's service engages in such service because the scriptures have so enjoined it and because he has been convinced by reasonable arguments. The Gaudiya Vaishnava school theoretically promotes the latter, but in my case (and probably that of most practitioners), the psychological distinction between the two attitudes or adhikāras was not always clear.

Renounced rāgānugā sādhakas of my Vaishnava tradition attempt to train the mind to concentrate on God in the form of Radha and Krishna through an elaborate and somewhat challenging technique of visualization. [Perhaps best described by David L. Haberman in Acting as a Way of Salvation.] Therefore, despite the warnings in the bhakti school that the yoga practice is more difficult, and though it is often presented as an "easier" practice designed for less capable and even less intelligent persons, bhakti so conceived ultimately demands the same kinds of discipline, including brahmacarya or renunciation of sexual activity, that are central to the yoga system most broadly conceived.

After the external training provided by the yamas and niyamas, the yogic discipline proper begins with bodily culture or āsana, leading to the ability to sit still for longer periods of time, and prāṇāyāma, mastery of the breath in order to still the mind to facilitate concentration, and so on. The later states of dhāraṇā, dhyāna and samādhi will be filled with content that is particular to the specifics of one's sampradāya.

I was thus happy to read, as already noted above, that Yoga-taraṅgiṇī approves of sectarian practices such as doing japa of the mantras of one's own iṣṭa, even though the Gorakṣa-śataka has its own separate symbol system based in Śaiva tantra. Later I came across the following verse from Ṣaṭ-cakra-nirūpaṇa (44) that confirmed this liberal understanding:

śiva-sthānaṁ śaivāḥ parama-puruaṁ vaiṇava-gaṇāḥ
lapantīti prāyo harihara-padaṁ kecid apare
padaṁ devyā devī-caraṇa-yugalāmbhoja-rasikā
munīndrā apy anye prakṛti-puru
a-sthānam amalam
Śaivas will look upon [the thousand-petaled lotus] as the abode of Śiva, the Vaiṣṇavas as that of the Supreme Person, and some others as that of the combined form of Śiva and Viṣṇu, Harihara. Those whose pleasure is in the lotus feet of the Goddess see it as her abode, while the great philosophers (the Sāṅkhyas) see it as that of Prakṛti and Puruṣa.
As a result, I never used any mantras but those I had received from my guru at the time of initiation in the Vaishnava tradition and continued to direct my mental concentration to the various names of Krishna and other prescribed meditations.

This Tantrik idea of visualizing Krishna in the crown of the head is most explicitly stated in the Brahma-saṁhitā, a Pañcarātra Vaishnava text accepted by Gaudiya Vaishnavas as canonical, which begins with the words sahasra-patra-kamalaṁ golokākhyaṁ mahat padam. However, the orthodox Gaudiya Vaishnava literature nowhere draws any conclusion to this in practice, nor any subsequent delineation of the cakras, etc. On the other hand, early texts of the heterodox Sahajiya Vaishnavas do, even though their systemization of sarovaras ("ponds") rather than cakras is idiosyncratic.

[I use the terms heterodox and orthodox for convenience. Orthodox simply means the dominant tradition, which is Sanskritic, has a strong textual tradition, is led by Brāhmaëas, etc. The heterodox are the ones they do not recognize or consider deviant, apasiddhānta.]

Moreover, even though orthodox Vaishnavas may accept the mental disciplines of yoga, and prāṇāyāma is enjoined as an element of Pañcarātra arcanā ritual, though somewhat neglected, they certainly have no interest in other techniques like haṭha-yoga's mudrās and bandhas, which are considered a distraction from more direct acts of devotion and service to Krishna.

These practices (mudrās and bandhas) are directly related to the somewhat arcane matter of seminal retention, which lead to the hallowed goal of ūrdhva-retas of the ancient śramaṇas mentioned in the Vedas and throughout the Purāṇas and epics. The retention of semen, as described in the Gorakṣa-śataka 1.68-69, is an underlying prerequisite goal of yoga and the bandhas, etc., are its techniques by which the external flow of energy represented by the semen (carama-dhātu) is restrained and redirected upward (ūrdhva). The bhakti school only promises a natural weaning away of the sexual desire through natural means or attrition, bypassing physical means to act directly on the mind. [Viz. Bhāgavata 10.33.40.] Though it is nowhere said that to retain the semen is a necessary aṅga of bhakti, in practical terms, from what I have seen in circles of renounced bhaktas of various lineages, most tacitly adhere to this pan-Indian understanding.

On the other hand, the above-mentioned heterodox subsects of Vaishnavism, broadly categorized as "Sahajiyā," incorporate these practices. These sects are among the many species of religious flora that grew in the fertile union of yoga-tantra with bhakti after the 15th century. They were particularly influenced by the romantic or erotic symbolism of Radha-Krishna mythology, but also accepted parts of the yogis' physical practices, considering the sexual control characterized by seminal retention an essential part of their path, calling it deha-sādhanā.

I was myself initiated into one such tradition in 1985, but due to circumstance was unable to follow up with a thorough understanding in that particular paramparā of teachings, though I maintained my mantras and continued research by other means. Working on the Yoga-taraṅgiṇī seemed to provide an opportunity to make a practical synthesis of the various above-mentioned understandings of yoga with bhakti. Since the Nātha sampradāya was the dominant school of yoga in Bengal at the time of the bhakti revival after the 16th century, and in fact large numbers of the descendants of the yogis in Bengal are weavers, just like Kabir, who converted en masse to Vaishnavism, I thus thought it would be very helpful to study and attempt to follow the teachings of the Gorakṣa-śataka, which is a concise as well as clear program.

All of this gave me motivation and cleared away most of the obstacles to undertaking the practice, but even so there were always going to be limitations to what I could achieve within the time allotted for the project. Even though by that time I had managed to synthesize most of the externals of the haṭha tradition accepting them as anukūla or favorable to my goal.

And to be completely honest, at no time -- even at the height of my practice -- was I able to complete any of the practices for the number of times, or for the length of time prescribed by the text, or over a sustained period. Ultimately, I stopped concerning myself with numbers or lengths of time and simply tried repeatedly to observe the effects of the practice and to find the pleasure that it offered.


1 comment:

Maccidānanda Nātha said...

Thank you for your writing Jagananda Das Ji.