Understanding the Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali Yoga as a Social Movement

by M. Govindan

For more than 100 years, Indian Yogis have been teaching in the West. Their influence has been profound, despite the fact that there has been little acknowledgement of this by historians, sociologists, politicians or the media. Where the influence has been noticed, for example, by the leaders of Western religious institutions, it has been usually in the form of alarm. Western religious institutions have felt threatened by the teachings of Yoga, fearing that they will lose influence, or out of ignorance, that there is something harmful or un-Christian about an Eastern spiritual practice.

This is really nothing new. Organized religions have always sought to maintain their power base and to increase their influence at the expense of their members. It is in the nature of any institution to put its own needs and position ahead of the needs of its members, for which it organized originally. Organized religious institutions are fear and guilt based enterprises, which maintain their power by first warning of the danger of hell, the devil, or damnation, and then offer an insurance policy against such imagined threats, usually a set of beliefs or rituals which are supposed to nullify the effects of one's bad behavior, termed "sin" in Western circles, or "karma," in eastern circles.

Those who follow seriously a spiritual path, however, find themselves on a mostly solitary route. While they may have fellow travellers or guides along the way, this usually occurs only for relatively short periods. When, historically, they have joined to form monasteries or communities, they may have been tolerated by the prevailing religious institutions around them for awhile, but not trusted. This can be seen, for example, in the case of the empty monasteries all over Italy today. Four hundred years ago, they were filled and vibrant with mystics. However, if you are a mystic, you do not need a priest, much less a pope, because you can communicate directly with the Lord, through the contemplative methods of your order. So, while tolerated for a time, such communities were not encouraged.

Mystics, which is the Christian term for Yogis, are not unaware of society's ills. Nor do they ignore them. Because of their expanded consciousness and opened heart chakras, they are even more sensitive than most. But how can they express themselves in contemporary society? Mystics are generally looked upon with much suspicion, and because of the practices and experiences, even with fear.

How then can the modern mystic, as solitary as he or she is, expect to have any influence on society? Must they organize to do so? Is Yoga an actual social movement, or only potentially so?

"No man is an island" said John Donne, the English poet, and this applies to the mystic or Yogi. In Classical Yoga, the first limb, the "yamas" or restraints, govern the Yogis social behavior: non-harming, non-stealing, non-lying, greedlessness and chastity. These are observed not to satisfy some moral principles, but because their observance is both a pre-requisite for and an expression of the enlightened state. By observing them, one comes to experience that there is no "other," but only One - the ultimate social state.

The determined observance of these restraints by a number of dedicated Yogis can and will have a profound impact upon society. And this does not even require that one become a political leader, as in the case of Mahatma Gandhi, who was a Kriya Yogi, and the father of the non-violence movement which gave birth to India's independence, the American Civil Rights movement, and the ending of apartheid in South Africa. In any social interchange, whether it is with family members, work colleagues, clients, supervisors, or strangers, there is an interchange of energy. That energy may be infused with love and compassion, which is profoundly yogic by definition, or infused with anger, greed, impatience, competition or antipathy. We feed one another with our love and compassion, helping one another to be who we truly are, conscious, universal beings, or we poison one another with our egoistic tendencies. On the contrary, the determined observance of their opposite, for example, by the extremists in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in Northern Ireland, the Catholic-Protestant conflict, produces only unending sorrow. One can imagine that if the Palestinians had also adopted a non-violent approach to national liberation, they would have gotten their own nation thirty years ago.

Yoga is a social movement, for it seeks to awaken and to transform one human being at a time from the ordinary egoistic state. Our modern pluralistic culture is largely inspired by the principles of individualism, materialism and consumerism, which amount to a recipe for egoism. To the extent that one practices Yoga, beginning with the restraints or yamas (cited above) and observances, the niyamas (purity, contentment, self-study, intense practice, and devotion to the Lord) one is engaged in a kind of guerrilla war against the prevailing culture. The word "culture" is derived from the Latin word "culte" which means "worship." So, in our modern materialistic, consumer, individualistic culture, most members of society worship or value, above all, those things which are material, which can be consumed and which enhance their feeling of being special.

A Yogi on the other hand values or worships the Lord, the Absolute Reality, and this is found within, in the spiritual plane of existence, initially, until, in the enlightened state, one begins to perceive it in everything transcendentally. He does not feel that he is anything special, and does not even see himself as the "doer." The Yogi recognizes the hand of the Lord guiding and empowering at every stage.

How to change this perspective is the concern of Yoga, and while it is the responsibility of each practitioner to raise himself up (by his own efforts) there is an undeniable aid, which is provided between members of the Yoga community or sangha. The word sangha, or in Tamil, sangam, means literally, the place where rivers meet. So, each of us is a river, in this sense, and when we meet there is an exchange. When a person is discouraged or confused, and this may occur even in the case of Yoga adepts with much experience, the presence of fellow Yogis, will usually serve to heal or inspire. While this exchange is most clearly seen in the exchange of vital energy between two people, a kind word or thought on the mental plane, a bit of advice on the intellectual plane, or a smile and expression of joy on the spiritual plane may be enough to remove the discouragement or confusion. It is therefore essential that all practitioners of Yoga, not isolate themselves as a rule. By sharing their love and compassion they learn to integrate their spiritual realizations at all levels of existence, to overcome egoism, and to serve as a pure instrument for the Divine, in bringing about a more compassionate, conscious and Divinely inspired society.

While as many as 20 million people in North America, by some estimates are now practicing Yoga, and ninety percent of these practice it only as a physical exercise, this does not mean that the influence of Yoga is limited only to the fields of health or physical fitness. If one continues to practice Yoga, the effects begin to include the nervous system and the mind, and consequently there is an expansion of consciousness into the spiritual dimension. This occurs even without trying, as a natural and spontaneous effect. What begins as a physical need, or a means to control the effects of stress, eventually becomes a very personal spiritual path. A spiritual path leads one to increasing levels of personal freedom from the round of habitual tendencies fostered by our social conditioning. As we begin the constant practice of detachment (vairagya) we begin to let go of what we are not, including our social conditioning, and experience who we truly are. The experience of Self-realization replaces the confusion of egoism, the habit of identifying with what we are not: thoughts, emotions, memories, habits, sensations. As our consciousness expands we become a witness, and perhaps the Witness. "I am a man, a professional, black, white or Asian" says the ego. "I am That I am" says the awakened Yogi. The social implications of such a change in consciousness is profound and wide-ranging. Not only does the Yogi become a source of peace and well-being for those who enjoy his or her company, but a dynamo of energy, guided by unusual clarity and insight. Such a person can and will act as a powerful agent for the Good, solving the problems of this world in a spirit of compassion and wisdom.

We live in a period of history wherein the interdependence of everyone on the planet has never been so great. This social crisis, wherein a flu epidemic or an act of suicide in one part of the world, can instantly affect the economy and political stability of society on the other side of the planet, requires nothing less than the discipline of Yoga by millions of inspired practitioners. The media has become the greatest tool of those who would seek to terrorize society. The greatest defense against terrorism is Yoga, for it strikes down at its source the fear which permits terrorism to be effective. Fear is simply imagination of the possibility of suffering, without evaluating the probability of its occurrence. This requires mental discipline, the practice of detachment, and the calm clear thinking, which Yoga inspires. Furthermore, the societal effect of one Yogi's positive thinking or blessing, is much more powerful than the dispersed negative thinking of a thousand ordinary folk.

May Yoga practitioners all come to recognize the power that they have to bring peace and enlightened solutions to the world's diverse problems, in every moment and every situation.

Copyright 2003 M. Govindan. All rights reserved.






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