Understanding the Universe - Yoga as a Science

This series of articles started with the posting of a video of a lion greeting a woman whom the lion apparently remembered from his earlier days when he was cared for by the woman. We went to discuss if there existed a natural state of the universe.  We made a statement that such a state could be love which manifests from joy being together with cosmic whole.  This let us discuss the principles of Vedānta, shooting on to the philosophy of Sānkhya, leading to the enunciation of Sri Krishna and Bhagavadgītā and ending in Patanjali’s yoga.  I taught a class on Vedānta and Yoga to an Advanced Yoga Teachers’ class at Frog Pond Yoga Center in Princeton, MA during this period.  Lecturing in the class gave me the opportunity to present the ideas to a select group of learners.  After the lectures I recollected my thoughts and wrote the articles for this site.  I am grateful to the students at Frog Pond Yoga Center for the privilege of teaching them and to Ms. Diane Featherstone for having invited me there.  I am grateful to Mr. Sandeep Srivastava, a volunteer at the Sai Temple who read the early drafts of the articles and prepared them to be presented here.  In this last article, I wish to talk about how yoga becomes a principle through which we may understand the universe.  I call it simply “Yoga as a Science.”  I offer it as a tribute to two of my late teachers, Swami Sarvagatananda of Ramakrishna Vedanta Center in Boston and Yogi Dr V. S. Rao of Siddha Gupha lineage of Sawain, Agra, India.

Why is the philosophy of Yoga so interesting?  It is interesting because it tries to find a rationale for everything out there in the universe, both seen and unseen; all that are perceived, unperceived or misperceived.  It contains all and puts everything in a unitary whole of which a human being is only a small element.  At the same time it provides tools such that each human being might comprehend this majestic ontology with its enormity in case the person desires to work towards it.  That we can experiment the tools of the discipline in our life and can validate their implications makes it a science.  It is not a physical science; we call it practical science.  Yoga is the practice of life as a scientist!


What is the key of this science?  The key of the yoga science is the discovery that mind is an instrument. The profoundness of such discovery has not been fully assimilated by the western cultural traditions of the world.  People in the east get influenced by the physicality of events and also seem to overlook the grand design of mind in the universe.  The philosophy of yoga enunciates that mind is a separate entity than the body and happens to reside in the latter while maintaining its own freedom.  An extension of this enunciation is that it is our mind that is responsible for everything we do and the body is only a tool for perception.  The body decays and dies, the mind does not.  Mind allows itself to be stained which is apparently a part of its design to find a home in a body, but such stain can be removed and the pure mind can be revealed.  Pure mind can merge with the cosmic mind, and we need a bit of stain to maintain our individual identity!  A stain in our mind defines us who we are!  A pure mind is like a transparent crystal.


Where does this mind come from?  We do not know.  The philosophy stops there announcing that “it is.”  The question does not have an answer that we can comprehend.  Yoga says that one can meditate on it to discover where does it come from, but such discovery does not bring back any words, it is silent.  Mind has more “unknowns” than “knowns”, the meditative experience makes one realize the enormity of the unrecognizable field we seem to be entering leaving our limited domain of the body.  Such “out-of-body” event makes us lose consciousness of our individual identity, which we call a channel in our stained state of the mind.  The realization lets us appreciate the incomprehensibility of mind and we return back with impressions, but no words.


How the philosophy of yoga might have begun? Here we can only be speculative.  It is possible that the early man had an observation that he/she could be smarter than the animals in most respects but lacked the functionality that the animals had.  This could have been a puzzle for a long period of time until someone discovered the functioning of mind.  While we may not be as strong as a tiger, or as massive as an elephant, or while our eyes, ears and nose might not be as sharp as in some other species, it was a fantastic discovery to claim that we have the mind as a tool that can outshine the strengths that the animals may possess.  It must have taken many thousands of years for this discovery to be ascertained. This must have happened after man had lived in settlements such that contemplative thinking was possible.


So how do we characterize mind?  It probably took human beings next several thousand years to give a characterization to the mind.  The conclusion must have been interesting.  I get amused to think how the conclusion must have been received by people.  The conclusion could be that while the limbs and sense organs are limited in their functionality, the mind appeared to have an unlimited span of activity.  It could think, plan and organize.  It could give strength to each of the limbs and organs when they needed.  It was a stronger defensive tool than the limbs and organs combined.  Such discovery most likely happened somewhere in the Indian subcontinent.  The power of this finding has great ramification for the civilization that man has created on the earth.


How does mind compare with other limbs and organs?  While the unlimited nature of the mind was a great discovery, the next finding appears more profound.  This has to do with what mind can do.  In scientific observations using instruments, we use a technical phrase called bandwidth.  Bandwidth defines a span or a range that the instrument can sense.  The limbs and organs of animals and humans are observed to have a range limited to a finite number.  Depending on the species the number can vary, but always has a lower limit of zero.   The profound discovery was that mind may have a negative range letting us render a scene arbitrarily not restricted by what our senses do furnish us.  This enigmatic observation could have been really funny to the early philosopher.  We see, or hear, or feel, or taste, or smell anything we like, but we read them and store in our memory in our personal way.  This personalized way is a composite of the true nature of the object and our individual bias.  Most often this bias is negative, because we seem to be always in the defensive.  We are, by definition, self-protective!


The declaration that the true nature of objects might be hidden from us through our own personalized processing becomes the basis of Sānkhya in Indian philosophy.   There is one assumption in this statement.  The assumption is that there is something called truth in the universe and the coloring of the truth is locally done in the individual frame of the body.  Sometimes we can be quite comfortable in our local rendering that we make.  This helps us make local societies, tribes, geographic domains, nationalities and religions.  But this localization has a built-in distrust in its foundation and hence is really unstable.  The localization gradually can squeeze an individual to be completely self-centered making the impression of everything else with a bias.   Sānkhya postulates that the negative bias towards another object is the cause of human stress in the world.  Bias leads to occupation, subjugation, exploitation, violence and self-rationalization.  We suffer through it and cause suffering to others.  We live with such stress in the world,  Sānkhya provides an analysis of the stress.


So, what is the way out?  Here comes the yoga philosophy.  While Sānkhya describes what could be happening, it does not give us a tool to understand it.  This is done through yoga.  Yoga explores Sānkhya’s core that the human being by creation must have been a joyful product and the stress in life is local and self-induced.   Having made the bold assertion that a joyful self is always carried by us, it makes a prescription that the joy in the self is disturbed by the thought processes in our mind.  It is the memory of our past that creates bias in us and does not let us operate in an objective manner.  Hence yoga would say that in order to get back to our joyful self we must not allow arbitrary thoughts to cloud our thinking.  Our past memory is our pain.  We must suppress it, substitute it.


We do not know how such an observation was arrived at, but very quickly wise people moved to test the theory.  Through testing they verified the basis of the theory and prescribed a whole regimen of disciplines through which the negative bias in the mind may be “cleaned.”  This regimen of disciplines has been compiled by Patanjali that we discussed in the earlier articles.  We have not analyzed if the disciplines form a complete set, or if one attribute is superior to the other.  What we do observe is that the practice of yoga principles makes us feel more positive about ourselves and our boundary of friendship can continue to expand.  The basis of such friendship is our own transformation, so we do not judge others but we operate with a loving attitude to all objects we encounter.  It does not mean that we may not be fooled or tricked, but it means that we may get a premonition of the impending trouble before the trouble really appears.  Our vision gets clearer, we hear sharper; the intellect is more attuned to the task.  We develop insight, we see through the problem.


Acknowledgement of human bias and hard path one has to follow in order to clean oneself is a part of traditional belief system in India for a long time.  Declaring the worldly operations as crooked, there has been a tendency to renounce life and live as a recluse. This has been the image of a traditional yogi in India.  Since the human biases could be genetically embedded, it is not easy to clear them out by simple practices.  Some invoke successive births multiple times in order to clear the bias.  Sri Krishna, as bright he was, wanted to change this by redefining yoga that one can practice as well as lead an active life.  He said yoga could be accepted as a path of excellence and excellence in performing a task is not reached until we have overcome our local limitations.  We acknowledge our limitations and discover our aptitude that he called svadharma (see a previous article on the topic). Through our svadharma we can hook on to a path and gain excellence in it.  When we seriously apply ourselves, our mind can become one-pointed and in the intensity we could connect to the large cosmos taking us in yoga. Sri Krishna said that this can happen in any field of pursuit.  He made a model in his own life.


Patanjali ‘s theory take this to another high level.  By discovering our aptitude we can make ourselves a channel to receive the cosmic potential that sustains the universe.  Here the theory is subtle and it works through our mind.  We realize that there is a cosmic mind that is responsible for all happenings in the universe.  All we do is tune ourselves to the cosmic mind through the particular aptitude we pursue.  Through such process, we may claim enormous potential in our limbs, organs and intellect.  The result has been called vibhūti in yoga literature.  Thus our positive attitude can manifest in positive energy that we can apply through our life.  We must warn that the potential of abuse also exists and many yogis go astray after achieving this success of procuring strength through yoga.


Everything I stated in this essay can be practiced and tested thus making yoga a science.  Yoga is human empowerment declaring the freedom of man.  That a human being is the source of all knowledge and that knowledge can be discovered by contemplation and observation is the basis of yoga.  How one goes about accomplishing it might differ among individuals, but the ultimate result is a joyful worry-free living since a yogi has no competition, he has no pretension.  One lives true to oneself accepting one and all while pursuing excellence in a task of one’s choice.   Freedom from fear is the beginning of yoga.


Let Sai bless all.

Bijoy Misra

December 19, 2013


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