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Cultivating Loneliness: The Ethical Fragrance of Yoga

Article of the Month - February 2006
Viewed 48166 times since 2nd Oct, 2008
Gandhiji Consoling the Next of Kin of a Riot Victim
Gandhiji Consoling the Next of Kin of a Riot Victim




In Sir Richard Attenborough's film Gandhi, one poignant scene fails to leave the memory. The setting is somewhere in eastern India, just after the nation achieved independence (1947). Rampant rioting had broken out between Hindus and Muslims, and the worst face of humanity, seething with hatred, was visible everywhere. In this moment of madness, Mahatma Gandhi entered the city. We are shown how the violent perpetrators threw down their weapons at his feet. All the while, the great Mahatma, weak and frail, did not utter a word, but lay still, eyes alert and open, peacefully on a cot. His presence merely was reason enough for the arsonists to surrender their arms, without any residual resentment.




This deeply symbolic episode reminds one of the immortal words of Patanjali:

"When an individual is firmly established in non-violence (ahimsa), all beings who come near him also cease to be hostile." (2.35)

Patanjali's Yoga Sutras With the Commentary of Vyasa and the Gloss of Vachaspati Misra, and an Intro. by Srisa Chandra Vasu by Trans by. Rama Prasada Paperback (Edition: 2005)
Patanjali's Yoga Sutras With the Commentary of Vyasa and the Gloss of Vachaspati Misra, and an Intro. by Srisa Chandra Vasu by Trans by. Rama Prasada Paperback (Edition: 2005)


Patanjali is the author of the de facto text of yoga - 'The Yoga Sutra.'

A sutra literally means a thread and according to the medieval saint Vallabhacharya: "A sutra is a string binding together many gems in a necklace."

The Padma Purana defines a sutra as following:

"A sutra should have few alphabets (alpa-akshara), an unambiguous meaning, be full of essence (sara-yukta), said only after considering all arguments for and against it, infallible and without blemish."

Patanjali's text is made up of 195 such sutras, characterized by brevity and conciseness (laghuta), giving rise to a mnemonic scheme which attempts to condense as much meaning as possible into as few words as possible. Consider for example the following:

"The pain (dukha) which is yet to come is to be avoided." (2.16)



Building a Better Future Through Present Moment Awareness

The crisp statement quoted above is simple enough. It is however, loaded with profound philosophical import, encapsulating within itself, the entire karma theory and its subtle nuances.

This sutra implies that the fruits of our former deeds have been exhausted by the suffering we have already undergone. Therefore, nothing can be gained by thinking about it. The pain we are experiencing at the present moment has already passed into the past, even as we are reading this. Hence, it is only the sorrow which is to come in the future that we can avoid, by ensuring the ethical purity of the karma we are performing now.

Patanjali's scripture not only provides yoga with a thorough and consistent philosophical basis, but in the process, also clarifies many important esoteric concepts (like karma), common to all traditions of Indian thought.

Lord Vishnu on Ananta
Lord Vishnu on Ananta




Patanjali himself is believed to be an incarnation of the serpent Ananta (Skt: endless), well known in Indian mythology as the thousand-headed naga who serves as a couch for Lord Vishnu and is also the guardian of the world's treasures.




Desiring to teach yoga to the world, he fell (pat) from heaven into the open palms (anjali) of a woman, hence the name Patanjali.





His many heads signify omnipresence and since yoga is a treasure trove par excellence it is but natural that he be the one to disperse it for the benefit of mankind.

The terse maxims making up Patanjali's text are divided into four chapters, representing a progressive succession on the path to enlightenment, the last being aptly labeled 'Kaivalya Pada' or the chapter of "liberation." Thus it covers the entire spiritual path from novice to final nirvana. Underlying the text is a strong ethical current, and cultivation of a positive state of mind along with virtuous conduct are both considered necessary pre-requisites for success along the yogic path.




Towards a Non-Violent World

Crowned Buddha in Abhaya Mudra
Crowned Buddha in Abhaya Mudra

We have already seen, from the example of Mahatma Gandhi, how the fragrance of one deeply established in non-violence (ahimsa), affects favorably those near him or her. This is also echoed in the incident where the Buddha, when confronted by a rampaging elephant, managed to pacify the latter by just raising his right hand. This gesture later came to be known as the Abhaya mudra (posture of fearlessness).

Literally, the word himsa means violence and the prefix 'a' negates it. Actually, its essence runs deeper and connotes a complete absence of a desire to harm others, directly or indirectly.

Violence can be of three types:

a). Done by oneself

b). Got done by another

c). Approved when done by other.



Each of the above can again be of the following kinds:

1). Violence because of greed, for example killing of an animal for its meat and skin (lobha).

2). Through anger, if we feel the other has wronged us in some manner (krodha).

3). Through delusion (moha), thinking for example that by sacrificing animals in rituals we can acquire merit.

Ahimsa is mentioned as one of the five basic ethical precepts, which must be first cultivated for purifying and calming the mind, as a stepping-stone towards ultimate enlightenment.

These five fundamental moral instructions (2.30) are:

a). Ahimsa

b). Satya (Truthfulness)

c). Asteya (Non-stealing): Not coveting what rightfully belongs to another.

d). Brahmacharya (Celibacy)

e). Aparigraha (Non-hoarding of material objects): A few people having control over the majority of the world's resources leads to unequal distribution. Someone may own several empty mansions, even while there are many who do not have a ceiling over their heads. Similarly, godowns may be overflowing with grain even as people die of starvation in many parts of the world.

Indeed, from a point of view, all the five represent an injunction against some sort of violence or the other (often even sex is considered a violent act). No wonder, the Mahabharata extols this virtue in a grand manner:

'Ahimsa is the greatest dharma. Ahimsa is the highest self-restraint. Ahimsa is the greatest charity (dana). Ahimsa is the highest penance (tapas). Ahimsa is the highest sacrifice (yajna). Ahimsa is the greatest fruit. Ahimsa is the greatest friend and ahimsa is the highest happiness (sukham).' (Anushasanparva: 116: 38-39)

Vision of a Universal Humanity

Patanjali's is a far-sighted vision of universal humanity; a perspective much relevant to the world of today, torn apart as it is by sectarian strifes. He clearly states that the above practices are to be applied without the limitations of social or geographic conditions or any consideration of time and circumstance:

"These are universal and great vows (maha-vrata). They must be practised without any reservations as to species (jati), place, time, or sense of duty." (2.31)

Again, for example, consider the first vow of ahimsa. A fisherman may say that he would kill nobody except fish, thus limiting his violence to a particular species only. Or, another would put it thus: I will not kill at a place of pilgrimage," or, "I will not kill on the day of Diwali since it is sacred," (time). A kshatriya (warrior) may similarly justify killing on a battlefield on grounds of duty. All of the above are unacceptable to Patanjali.

These moral attitudes are meant to bring our impulsive life under control. The desire not to harm others is an essential ingredient in cultivating a mental state recognizing the essential unity underlying all living beings, leading towards ultimate mystical union, envisaged as the final goal of yoga.

From I-It to I-Thou - Martin Buber and Patanjali's Yoga

Martin Buber (1878 - 1965)
Martin Buber (1878 - 1965)

The ethical precepts enumerated above have all a social implication, i.e. they involve a 'violence' perpetrated by one on another for selfish gains. By helping us rechannel our powerful survival instincts, these five practices enable us to outgrow our "I-ness" which according to the eminent philosopher Martin Buber is dependent on our encounters with others. He calls such a relationship, based solely on self-interest as "I-it". For him, it is desirable that such an engagement evolves into an "I-Thou" involvement, which is a direct, non-purposive encounter. In Buber's scheme, god is the ultimate thou (situated in our own depths according to yoga).

After first helping us transcend our ego (I-ness), by regulating our social interactions through moral discipline, Patanjali next suggests ways in which the psychophysical energy thus freed can be further harnessed to take the yogi to the next level.

If the first pentad of rules gives a positive restraint to our relationship with others, the following five (2.32), address our individuality, finally detaching the yogi from the outside world, situating him into his own, inner self:

1). Purification (shaucha)

2). Contentment (santosha)

3). Penance (tapas)

4). Self-Study of sacred texts (svadhyaya)

5). Surrender to God (Ishvara pranidhana)

The Results of These Five Individual Disciplines

"(Attempts towards) Physical purification leads to disenchantment with one's own body" (2.40). This is because however hard we try to cleanse it, our bodily functions are bound to generate impurity continually.

"Contentment leads to unsurpassed happiness." (2.42)

"Tapas destroys impurity and leads to fulfillment of the body and sense-organs" (2.43). The sense organs and the body both depend on the external world for their gratification. When they are thus fulfilled, and have served their purpose, the yogi has no attachment left for the world.

"Self-study leads to union with the desired deity (ishta-devata)." (2.44) Such an individual has no need for external aids to achieve his spiritual purpose.

Closeup of Ramakrishna's face in Samadhi cropped from a photograph taken on 21st September 1879
Closeup of Ramakrishna's face in Samadhi cropped from a photograph taken on 21st September 1879







"Surrendering oneself wholly to god leads to perfection of samadhi." (2.45) Samadhi is a state where the yogi remains super consciously absorbed, oblivious to the outside world.





Patanjali's Method of Cultivating the Contrary

Things however, are not simple. There are many distractions on the path of yoga. Patanjali suggests a solution which is almost poetic in its simplicity, but awesome in its implications:

"When bothered by distractions, opposing thoughts must be cultivated." (2.33)

"Cultivating opposing thoughts means realizing that distractions such as violence, greed etc, result only in pain and suffering." (2.34)

On our way to yogic achievement, we may be beseeched by tempting thoughts having the power to deviate us. We can be enamored by a corrupt neighbor, who has succeeded in amassing a significant wealth, while we toil away with honesty without any apparent reward. In such moments, it is helpful to think about the extremely strong punishments scriptures lay down for those acquiring money unethically.

This is not however, a negative subjugation of mental cravings, but rather, a neutralization of distractions by cultivating equally strong thoughts and a healthy reflection that such actions eventually lead to unhealthy consequences. This is the positive impact of what Patanjali calls contrary thinking (prati-paksha-bhavana).

Loneliness - The Final Liberation

"Loneliness is the way by which destiny endeavors to lead man to himself." - (Hermann Hesse)

"Loneliness vanishes completely in the stillness." - (Paul Brunton)

Having successfully laid the ethical foundation enjoined by Patanjali, the adept is now poised towards the ultimate goal - liberation. Patanjali however, doesn't denote this culmination with conventional labels like 'moksha' or 'nirvana'. He calls it 'kaivalya,' derived from the word 'keval', meaning 'only'.

This is the detached isolation that those lucky amongst us feel in a crowd. Yoga guru B.K.S. Iyengar describes it as an absolute state of aloneness. It is living in constant communion with a higher reality centered within our own selves - the ultimate fulfillment of yogic practice.

References and Further Reading:

Post a Comment
  • Thank you for aricle above. It helps one to bring clarity to understanding. Om Shanti
    by sadhana on 27th Feb 2011
  • Indeed many thanks for a very enjoyable article. It is rare to be presented with such a clear explanation in simple terms, of a subject which is all too often infused with unnecessary complexity by modern writers.

    I have a small comment on what you say here:

    On our way to yogic achievement, we may be beseeched by tempting thoughts having the power to deviate us. We can be enamored by a corrupt neighbor, who has succeeded in amassing a significant wealth, while we toil away with honesty without any apparent reward. In such moments, it is helpful to think about the extremely strong punishments scriptures lay down for those acquiring money unethically.

    This would seem to be exactly like the familiar Western dualistic doctrine of "reward vs. punishment". And yet this is also a struggle from which the yogi should probably remove himself altogether. If the only reason for abstaining from one's desire is fear of punishment - then we continue to be enmeshed by the materialism from which the yogic path should offer an escape.

    In addition, envy such as you refer to could ordinarily be aroused by any type of wealth much greater than our own, not necessarily wealth that was acquired by "unethical" means. We can take this a step further and claim that ANY great fortune carries corruption with it, and then this would be identical with what the New Testament says about the camel and the eye of the needle (and would fit with theories which claim that Jesus got many of his notions from India). Wealth itself is seen as an Attachment to the materialistic world, which keeps us from advancing Spiritually.

    But fear of punishment, such as not getting into the Kingdom of God for example, is in itself an attachment - an attachment to fear. Perhaps Patanjali meant something else here: the yogi denies himself wealth not because he fears suffering should he acquire it, but by realizing that there is no such thing as "wealth". Then there is nothing to desire.

    by Sol on 8th Mar 2006
  • Om Namah Sivayaya

    I have been enjoying your monthly emails for a few years now, but I felt I had to write to congratulate you for February's offering. Yoga is very much a part of my life (I teach hatha yoga) and I continue to strive to do good in my life and improve my sadhana wherever possible.

    I wanted to thank you for such an inspiring article which I plan to use quotes from during one of my classes in order to inspire my students too!

    With much appreciation

    Om Shanti,
    by Victoria Austin on 1st Mar 2006
  • Many thanks for this recent article, Cultivating Loneliness: The Ethical Fragrance of Yoga - it is a very informative and easy to understand article and well illustrated. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    Best wishes and please keep up the great work,
    by Helen on 24th Feb 2006
  • Life is a major learning curve, all experiences incorporate learning curves. I have had an amazing opportunity to meet a Lama from Indonesia, H.R.H. Prince Ratu Agung Sri Acharia Vadjra Kumara Pandji Pandita, a re-incarnation of King Pandji Sakti. He is my root Lama. Prince Ratu saved me from my former self too. Prince Ratu left His body in May 2003. I miss Him so much, that i thought my heart would never heal, but thru chanting Mantra's doing the Practices i received while on Retreat with Him, I have managed to come thru to now. I would love to meet another Lama, to receive teachings, maybe one day this will happen.
    I do know that it is not outside myself I need to look for answers, but to truly go within. This i know, yet I also know that i need teachings to help me understand, & the know how to give myself a chance to reach enlightenement, Though I know that I do not have to do anything to get there either as I & all are already there. It is to find & relax in our own true nature that we will find our true selves.

    I have the privelidge to work with young adults with Autism, Aesperger's Syndrom. From these young adult's i receive regular teaching's every day in school. I must be one of the luckiest people in the entire Universe. I see how they live in their world. My job is to try to go into their world, bring them out into ours, so they can learn basic social skill's, so they can live without being descriminated against. But i am so reluctant to do this, as i have realised that in becoming aware of their world, i see that they practice every day what we are striving to achieve, that is to be in the moment. I watch them as they transend, without any effort, as we struggle to practice doing just that, being in the moment,it is truly amazing. My biggest lesson that i have learnt is, & i repeat is as often as i can, is, " if i don't go within i will go without "

    Thank you for the priviledge of reading such an honourable story, exercise, teaching, it helps to keep me on the path i have only had the priviledge to begin in my later years.
    by Chempaka Dewi on 19th Feb 2006
  • Very nice article. The clarity and purity of Patanjali is so nice.

    The principles he extols such as ahimsa and surrender to God keeps the process simple as possible for we who are complicated. In Kali Yuga practicing non-violence and chanting gods holy names with bhakti is a wonderful process chalked out by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.

    I also appreciate your pulling things together so nicely.

    Hare Krsna,
    by NImai Caitanya Das on 17th Feb 2006
  • Thank you for the article, but I have a headache now because I don't understand some points. It starts out saying that Patanjali, the siddha, teaches us, "When an individual is firmly established in non-violence, all beings who came near him also cease to be hostile." Then I cannot in my mind accept at all that Gandhi was a perfectly nonviolent individual. Something in his thoughts or feelings must have been there, maybe even some karma from some little white lie he told or was thinking about telling, or something he concealed and was not straightforward about, because he died a violent death, murder, so that man who shot him with a gun did not cease to be hostile in his presence, and I think I recall that his sikh bodyguards had a whole conspiracy on how and when to assassinate him, so I just see a seeing whirlwind of violence. I know he is a national hero in India, credited with almost singlehandedly winning Indian independence from Great Britain but there were a lot of other people in India praying and fighting for independence too. So, I don't understand how Gandhi is a valid example at all. I would never had picked him because he died a violent death and that man who murdered him according to Patanjali did not cease to be hostile near him. And I understand that anger is supposed to be wrong, but I look at television everyday and see all the wrongs and I can't stop any of it, so I just get upset and angry at human beings, and I don't even like the meat eating animals and I wonder why God created all this suffering and beings who have these tendencies. Is it fair that we have to be done here and be tortured and tormented and afraid most of the time. How can we not get upset when people lie, cheat, steal and attack? What does Patanjali expect us to do? Just sit still and go into trance? I don't get it. I'm trying to be a saintly yogini, but some of these ideas don't make sense to me at all.

    Anyway, thank you, please send some more article, and I'll meditate on it some more. I guess I'm just not very intelligent. I just keep asking myself and the air, WHERE IS THE LOVE? WHERE IS THE KINDNESS?
    by Kamalopama Narayani Devi Dasi on 17th Feb 2006
  • Thank you for your article on Bapu-jee.

    Have you considered that the Mahatma's death was a good career change. No, I am not being cynical. I have always had high regard for the Mahatma, but he did not appreciate the military message of Lord Krishna.Had he continued to live in India and carried on with his ahimsa he would have died a lonely rejected figure. To illustrate " he saw no rape in Noakhali.; his espousal of Urdu (a dying language artificially maintained as the State Language of Pakistan and one of the issues leading to Bangla Desh), as a national language. The Moslems overwhemingly rejected his peace overtures. Surhawaddy sneered on his death. Some people say he was a saint, while George Bernard Shaw perhaps hit the nail on the head saying, " This shows how dangerous it is to be too good." Even today BanglaDesh which we saved as a nation acts in a predatory and hostile manner. Because of our high standards we Hindus are judged so harshly. Witness the murder of one Graham Staines and his two children burnt to death. If a Hindu preacher were to preach in the US Baptist South (as their missionaries do that Hinduism is evil and the work of the Devil) and attack Christianity, he would meet a worse fate than Staines, would he not? Besides, we Hindus are still smarting from one Babri Masjd, a three lotus domed Hindu temple representing Brahma Vishnu and Mahesh, and have to prove our secularism by accepting that it was Moslem mosque, when it had in the interiour all the trappings of a Hindu temple, like niches for statues. It is a pity that the BJP did not obtain a archeological survey of it and place it on the internet. Take the Taj Mahal and all its Hindu trappings and even today we call in a Mongol monument.
    by Karan Ramrakha on 16th Feb 2006
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The Light That Enlightened Millions
(The life of Buddha in the popular mind)
"She has always believed that this would redeem her of her distress….A coconut, otherwise an ordinary dried fruit or the source of edible, or at the most, beauty oil, has always been revered as an auspicious object effecting good and well-being and the food that gods most loved….The tree in the Buddhist tradition was later identified as Bodhi-tree, seated under which Buddha had attained Enlightenment….Body gestures and symptoms, signs, indications among others must have been the early man’s tools of communicating oneself and knowing and understanding the world around….Kirttimukha was initially conceived as a mystical mask….Lion does not figure in the wide range of animal toys or figurines excavated from Indus sites."
Auspicious Symbols in Indian tradition
"No one spends even a single moment without doing some action or the other....We generally notice in history that almost all civilizations acquire a lot of material affluence in the beginning and after sometime they go into oblivion....We very well know that it is only the work based on well thought plan that solves problems and not our worry.....The success of any action depends not only on visible parameters but also invisible one....We are carried by the slogans of the times and move in the turbulent waters of life in a rudderless boat.....Want to give us a state of pleasure which is constant and never ending."
Dharma: The Only Remedy for Modern Man
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