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Yogic insights into human psychology

The essence of yoga

Dr. Alok Pandey


The field of yoga is a fast growing one. Taking advantage of the emerging spiritual evolution in man, there is a growing number of brands through which yoga is being marketed in neat and attractive packages. While all this is being done, is it not important to look at what yoga really is? What is its birthplace? What really makes a process yogic?

Introduction and background

Yoga has been on earth since antiquity. Much before man knew anything about religions and ideologies, much before even nationalities were born and man wandered freely across the hills and the forests that covered the earth’s brown body with green attire, there were men who were awakened enough in their thoughts to seek answers to some fundamental questions of life.

Some of these questions fundamental to man’s very existence are: Who am I? What is this world we inhabit? How did creation and humanity emerge? What was there before the Big Bang of creation? What is the goal of life, if any? Who or what directs and governs our thoughts and will and impulsions? What is death, — is it the end of our existence or merely a brief cessation, a pause, a change over as we cross from one mode of existence to another? Is there life after death? Can we discover the ultimate mystery of creation?

They discovered that the fundamental answer to these perennial questions that has vexed humanity for ages, lie within the silent spaces of man himself. This process of self-discovery as we may call it, was naturally hastened in an age when man had no books, no information at the click of a button, not many distractions. Even the Vedic texts were not there. The Vedic seers themselves refer to the forefathers who went before them and taught the way. Their Yoga was transmitted directly from a Master who had undertaken the journey to those who were willing to step beyond their humanity and discover what the senses do not reveal and what the mind and reason do not know. What was needed was the fire of seeking in his burning heart. Man is indeed born with it. In fact all human beings are born with it.

This is the general background of all yoga. The fact that yoga has been studied and its findings confirmed repeatedly by many yogins down the ages of mankind, cutting across barriers of time and space; the fact that its results, findings and discoveries can be reproduced by others, provided they follow the guidelines and fulfil the conditions (as indeed in all experiments) makes it a science in its own right. Equally the fact that there is no single book, no universal code or rule-book, no single Name of the ultimate Mystery, no single person who holds all the keys is enough to say that Yoga is as far from religion and ideologies as man is from the ape.

In fact religion is very often some kind of an incomplete and imperfect yoga wherein the founder either lost his way or stopped at some half-way home of the Spirit. Or else a religion is born when the Master has gone and man steps in with his own limited ideas, dogmatic beliefs and, in collusion with the king and the priest, creates a rule-book of rituals and common code to maintain their hegemony over the masses. Religion, especially an exclusive religion that discards other approaches, is more of a socio-political construct from the dead shell of what once may have been some kind of a spiritual seeking. That is why in India, the land or the birthplace of yoga, the very way of ideal life discovered by yoga was given a name that is at once universal and all-inclusive. It was called Sanatana Dharma, which very simply means the eternal Law that governs all existence here. Man can align with this law as it unfolds in and through the framework of our individual and collective existence or he can disregard it and follow whatever course his surface nature suggests.

The Law of Truth

Each religion claims that it has found the law of Truth! But the law of Truth is not something engraved upon a hard rock for all times to come. Nor is it a human law that works according to human ideas of justice or moral conceptions of right and wrong. If we look closely at nature we shall discover that she works in an amoral way. Justice there is but it is not about reward and punishment as it is about a constant growth and unfolding. What applies for one creature need not apply to another. What works at one stage of evolution may even become counter-productive at another. However no doubt there is a fundamental Truth that is ever the same, unchanging and immutable behind all the changes going on in creation.

But this Truth unfolds itself differently in different individuals and in different ways, even in the same individual in different stages of his self-development and evolution. But the mind, unable to comprehend this vastness and complexity and plasticity with which God works, tends to crystallise everything into fixed, often narrow and rigid dogmas for all to follow. This tendency is seen sometimes even in different paths of yoga, turning it into a sect if not a religion. Much attention is paid to outer details and external actions leading to specialisation and over-specialisation of each system.

What is lost sometimes in this emphasis on methods and techniques is the core of Yoga. This core is aspiration, the original seeking with which man started his journey. Techniques will lead us to a point but we shall miss the real thing. We will not go beyond what we aspire for through whatever technique we may follow. Thus, for example, when we practise a set of aasanas or prāṇāyāma and even meditation for health and calmness, we shall find that. But this is only a basic preliminary gain, a side-dish of yoga, a starter so to say and not the main course.

The real purpose of yoga is not just some mind-body balancing or some physical vigour and health. All these are good but yoga knows that Truth shines far beyond the limiting horizons of our mind. It seeks to climb to the Home of Truth on wings of fire. It can do so since according to yoga, this fire of aspiration in man has the same essential quality as the sun of Truth. Here it manifests as a seeking, there, in its native home it manifests as the self-aware Splendour of Light and Power. That is how the well-known discovery of yoga has to be understood that boldly declares that man is essentially divine, Sohamasmi, I am That, or Tattvamasi, Thou are That.

This does not mean that man in his surface nature is divine. It is in his depths that man is divine. He carries within him the seed or spark of the divine Consciousness that is unfolding in his life through a number of bodies and births. Yoga is only a conscious means of arriving at this great fundamental realisation. The Law of Truth also can be discovered for each one only when he discovers this secret fire within, the immortal soul in man and the divine Will that is ingrained within it. Or else, it can be discovered through a long and arduous journey towards the sun. This is the tremendous adventure of yoga symbolised in the stories of Jatayu and Sampati, of Hanuman leaping towards the sun in Indian mythology and of Icarus and Daedalus in Greek mythology. But when we glimpse some reflection of the sun from afar without undertaking the real journey then we tend to turn the Law of Truth into a set of fixed, unalterable rules which all must follow. But the sun reveals itself differently in different seasons, so too the law of Truth reveals itself differently at different stages of life and our self-growth.

Realigning to Truth

In other words our life, as we live and experience it, begins to fall out of tune with its rhythm that it is meant to be. As a farmer who tills the soil and sows the seeds in the wrong season fails to harvest the sowings, so too our life, failing to take note of this unfolding of Truth and progressive evolution, often fails to reap the divine harvest from within the soil of human nature. Or to take another example, just as a musical instrument or a vehicle needs to be tuned to give its best, so too our life and its instruments need to be tuned once again to our depths and heights for a truer and fuller living. Yoga is a means to tune our life to its intended rhythm.

The animal is attuned to nature with the power of instincts. It knows instinctively what it must do or not do to keep itself in tune with the environment and material nature that surrounds it. Man has lost this instinctive harmony. He has bargained it for something else. The animal instincts in him have taken a backseat as the powers of thought and mind began to emerge. The mind must now re-attune our being, first by the development of discriminative intellect and next by growing towards higher and higher possibilities of the mind itself until it arrives at intuition.

This growth of intuition in man will be the human equivalent of the instinct in animal. But there will be a big difference between the two. Instinct is largely unconscious. The animal itself does not know why it does what it does. There is no thinking involved. It is not aware even of the fact that it has an instinct! Intuition is however conscious. It not only helps us make the right gesture, the right action but it also straightens our will that has been distorted and deviated by the rush of adrenaline and excitement and desires and fear and anger and lust and all that we have inherited from the animal past.

Now the appearance of a conscious will in man is the gift of reason that compels us to make choices. This will, trained by the discriminative intellect, is now ready to go further and tune through the power of intuition into the universal Will. By doing so we once again discover the harmony we have lost. But unlike the animal instincts we have grown conscious. This is the big gain of this complex mental evolution through which we move. It is a narrow stifling passage where, unlike the animal, we become aware of our ignorance and blindness so that we may develop a new sight and a new vision.

Yoga is the means given to us of developing a new vision and ascending towards intuition. This recovery of intuition is symbolised in many Greek and Vedic legends, notable among them being the legend of Angiras and the cows/cattle of the sun that are lost in dark caverns. They must be recovered and released for the good of mankind. Two things help towards this end, — the descent of an intuitive consciousness and the power of the mantra.

The double nature in man

According to yoga man is born divine. His has a soul which is the divine element in him. In fact this is his true being, which is covered up with his nature just as a source of light can be covered up by a thick mantle. The shadow of his soul falling upon his nature gives him the sense that he is simply a bundle of movements, taking place within the field of nature. Thus identified with these movements of nature, his thoughts, feelings, impulses, behaviour, he develops an ego-self. But his true self, the soul within him remains covered and hidden deep within just as a river-bed remains hidden below the water that is ever in flux. If the water is clean and still the river-bed can be somewhat seen but if the water is turbid and turbulent the bed cannot be seen over which the water is running.

Therefore the first glimpse of the soul can be had only if we learn to quieten and still the mind and thoughts and feelings driven by all kinds of impulses and desires. When nature is restless and turbulent or stormy and excited, as with movements of anger, jealousy, hate, lust, fear, greed or clouded with doubts and darkened with depression, then we get disconnected from our soul and instead begin to live and act under the impulsion of these forces, whose end-result is a state of increasing confusion and unhappiness mounting towards despair and eventually a loss of all will to progress or even live, a veil falling over hope and faith and trust.

Therefore many yoga practices teach and train us to quieten the restless surface activities of nature. Hathayoga trains the body to be still and not restless. Prāṇāyāma (part of Hathayoga and Rajayaoga) trains the life-energy to flow smoothly and in a quiet rhythm. Rajayoga properly trains the mind to be quiet and still. The triple path of the Gita teaches us to quieten our thoughts, feelings and desires by the practice of equanimity and niskama karma (giving up the desire for fruit in an action). The nature is also trained to turn its activities, thoughts and feelings and will in a Godward direction. All this helps us to gain peace, calm and quietude in our otherwise restless and hyperactive life, driven by all kinds of forces. Once nature is quietened then the sadhaka enters the inner territories until he is able to touch the real bed, the stable self, the soul within. He is no more identified with the ever shifting ego-self that keeps changing its colours and moods by the hour. There he discovers the true nature of man which is fundamentally divine.

This is a great difference in the yogic and the prevalent psychological understanding of mankind. According to yoga, man has fundamentally a divine nature which is now covered but can be recovered by removing the veils. According to prevalent psychology and even some religions, man has an animal-human nature and there is no hope of his ever having a divine nature. He can try to make the animal in him more acceptable (the psychological view) or else be forgiven and redeemed for his sins by accepting a certain belief-system (Semitic religious viewpoint). It is left to each one to go by what one feels more comfortable with. In yoga there is no idea of any conversion or exchange of one belief over another. It is grounded in practice and rooted in the experience of countless yogis. One has to go beyond beliefs and practice the yoga and find for oneself.

However while the typical Rajayoga, Hathayoga, Jñānayoga and even a type of Bhaktiyoga need specialised practices for which we must find separate time, the Karma yoga of the Gita opens a wide path on which one can walk even as one is engaged in all the countless activities of our everyday life. This is a big difference especially in our age that keeps us busy in many more ways than the forest dwellers of yore. In fact a proper practice of the specialised systems of yoga such as the Hathayoga and Rajayoga or even Jñānayoga with its requirement of intense meditation is difficult to undertake without a certain degree of withdrawal from the worldly life and its manifold activities. That is why perhaps over a period of time yoga and spirituality began to get alienated from life, so much so that they were seen as irreconcilable opposites. It was so believed that one can either lead a material life or a spiritual one.

But the yoga of the Gita opened a new chapter in this journey by integrating life with yoga. This new chapter was taken to its full logical conclusion by Sri Aurobindo whose Integral Yoga not only reconciles the material life and the spiritual but also attempts to transform the material and bodily existence of man by the pressure of a growing spiritual consciousness within.

Reprogramming our nature

Nevertheless this does not mean that the Gita or the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo can be practised while one is busy dancing as a puppet of nature and its lesser forces. These, whose names are greed, lust, anger, jealousy, fear, have to be excised and removed. We have to remind ourselves that this is not me but an imposition from universal nature or the earth nature as it stands today. Here we need to consider the double nature of man. There is in man a true soul-nature. It contains the original and authentic blueprint of his evolutionary course. We may call it the original programming done for him by the Creator or the Creatrix Consciousness if we want to use a more acceptable term.

However, when his soul is born upon earth it also takes upon itself all that earth nature is presently constituted of. The snake hisses and darts in his tongue, the dinosaur groans in his underbelly, the rabbit and the mouse live as fear in his smaller parts, the predatory instincts of the tiger and leopard flow in his blood, the monkey runs around restlessly in his mind. Not only this but also the past human forms that once inhabited the earth and stamped their law and way of life upon it, the Asura, the Rākṣasa, the Paśu and all else, enter through hidden doors in our subconscient nature as viruses that infect our computers and corrupt the original programming. These elements and forces, once needed for earth and still necessary for the animal kind and continue to linger in man, come in the way of our further evolution.

In other words man inherits the entire evolutionary past of the earth. This would not have mattered if man were to stay at a fixed station as the animals do. But man is born to participate in a conscious evolution and therefore he experiences the evolutionary drag from the past. To remove these forces of a past animal and asuric nature is therefore not from any moral point of view but from a practical one. That is the rationale behind the yogin’s effort to reject some of the movements of the past that cloud and come in the way to discovering our true divine nature.

The sign that we are on the road to this discovery is a growing peace and joy. On the other hand, a state of unhappiness and fear and suspicion is the sign that we are off-centre. This then is the secret of joy and peace that comes through yoga. It is not so much a matter of techniques and processes and methods as of the sincerity of our aspiration to find our true self, to live a beautiful and divine life. It also means living a more authentic life since it is lived from the one true centre within us. Yoga connects us with our central seeking, our core aspiration. In the normal course of our life we get progressively disconnected from our core. Aspiration is replaced with ambition, beauty is replaced with artificiality, true joy is replaced with momentary pleasures and passing happiness, peace is replaced with inertia, love that springs from the core of our being is mixed and replaced with hate and lust and attachment and fear, knowledge is replaced with heaps of information strung together by the glue of ignorance that prevents us from understanding the real value of things.

Yet nothing is lost. It is all there in our depths even as gold buried inside mud. All that is needed is to extract the real and the true and remove the sordid mixture and the artificial substitute. It is thus that we can lead a true and authentic life and not simply by following the whims and fancies of our ego-self and desires, taking them to be ‘our self’. It is only by discovering this inner fire and its upwards ascension towards the vast infinity of the Divine Consciousness that we can discover true and lasting and unconditional freedom and bliss.

Dr. Alok Pandey, an editor of NAMAH and a member of SAIIIHR, is a doctor practising at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

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