Friday, August 13, 2010

Critical Thinking and Yoga

Don’t imagine that Yoga is for blockheads. Although most Indian sādhus are illiterate, there has been any number of literate and intellectually gifted Yoga authorities in the course of Yoga’s 5,000 years of existence. Certainly, the writers who produced the great yogic textbooks and the commentaries on them were thinkers to be reckoned with. I am saying this only because there are some contemporary followers of Yoga who like to think that it is possible to practice Yoga without engaging the mind and who are suspicious of anyone with even a modicum of intelligence and a questioning mind. This is a modern phenomenon, which does not deserve further refutation.

There are also those critics who assume that Yoga and reason don’t mix well. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I refuted this biased notion in a short article published in the German magazine Yoga (no. 5) as far back as 1967. Since then, I have championed Yoga’s “rationality” in various books and articles. Let me just state that the universally acknowledged guiding light of Yoga is buddhi, the principle of higher reason. Without buddhi, there can be no Yoga and no enlightenment.

When we read Sanskrit works like Patanjali’s Yoga-Sūtra, Tirumūlar’s Tiru-Mantiram, or Shankarācārya’s commentaries, Rāmānuja’s commentaries, Abhinavagupta’s Tantrāloka, Jnānadeva’s wonderful Gītā interpretation, and the Bhagavad-Gītā itself, we are struck by the consummate intelligence and rationality of their authors. It is obviously possible to talk about Yoga in a meaningful, lucid, and cogent way. Yoga has nothing to do with nebulous mysticism or irrational emotionalism.

Wisdom, as the word suggests, is about true knowledge and not about dullness. It is for those with a lively intelligence and not—sorry—for those who think that reason is an obstacle on the yogic path.


  1. I am curious what you would say is the difference between buddhi, wisdom as you say, and prajna?

  2. Hi, Georg. I agree completely with you. That's one of the main reasons I'm attracted to Yoga--I don't have to artificially believe in anything.

    Once, in a blog about the similarities between Einstein's spirituality and the Upanishads, I wrote, "Yoga is, in many ways, a scientist's vision of spirituality."

    Nonetheless, being ancient documents, there, is in my personal experience, a lot of difficult, seemingly irrational stuff one has to deal with in dealing with these texts.

    In the Yoga Sutra, it's all the paranormal powers. In the Gita, it's a whole rash of things which turns off the reader initially, and have to be dealt with in some way if one chooses to be a rationalist, or even if one wants to reconcile ancient concepts like the caste system.

    My own attempt to do this with the Gita was in Gita Talk #4: Why is the Gita So Upsetting at First. I wrote this because readers were dropping like flies as they hit these obstacles, and I was trying to give them a quick decisive boost that would help them get through it.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed your thoughts about the rationality of Yoga in your blog above. People love Yoga for many different reasons. Philosophical coherence is very high on my list.

    Bob Weisenberg

  3. Pat--
    In Hindu Yoga, buddhi is generally regarded as an ontic real (tattva). In the Yoga-Sutra, it has the meaning of "cognition." It can also simply stand for "wisdom." Everything depends on the context. Prajna is a particular way of knowing--a kind of superknowledge, as it is associated with samadhi, e.g., asam- and samPRAJNAta-samadhi. In Buddhism, the word stands for superknowledge or wisdom.

    I see no problem with appreciating rationalism AND the paranormal powers or the caste system all in their own context. Perhaps you and I have a different understanding of "rationalism."

    I do, however, have a problem with Mitchell's so-called translation of the Gita. I've given up reading his stuff years ago. It's all interpretation rather than translation, which is fine when that's what you want. I prefer translation, as literal as possible, which is why I am coming out with my own Gita translation and commentary plus a distance-learning course.

  4. Hi, Georg. That's great news. When is your version coming out? I'll be the first to read it!

    Do you need any advance readers for feedback or are you beyond that point already?

    Bob W.

  5. Bob--
    The manuscript is with the publisher already (Shambhala) and will be released next year. Thanks, though, for the offer.

  6. I noticed 20 people are voting for a full-spectrum magazine. I concur. But how to finance it?

    Any suggestions?

  7. Yes! Just build it into Elephant (or YogaDork or It's All Yoga, Baby or Linda's Yoga Journey, if they're willing). Instant audience. Completely flexible format and content. All you have to do is manage the writers, edit the content, and organize the material. Can break away to own site later if successful. Easy to organize material with separate blogs or pages and give it a clear identity.

    2nd best alternative, create new Wordpress site and do same. Cost--zero, if you can get the writers you want without paying them. Find pro bono Wordpress geek. Downside--always takes a long time to build an audience.

    Keep it all online at first, consider print only if takes off and can find investment. At best, you'll be in the same position as Elephant is right now in a few years.

    That's just off the top of my head. Happy to discuss further.

    Bob Weisenberg