Ian Whicher on Yoga and freedom

In his article ‘Yoga and Freedom: A Reconsideration of Patanjali’s Classical Yoga’1 Ian Whicher has sought to counter a dualistic and isolationist interpretation of Yoga he believes is presented by many scholars. He does this by analysing cittavrttinirodha (‘cessation of the turnings or modifications of the mind’), a notion central to Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra. He argues that far too often misinterpretations and misrepresentations have resulted from partial and misleading definitions of terms. His argument is built on the assertion that Patanjali defined Yoga as ‘the cessation of (the misidentification with) the modifications (vrtti) of the mind (citta)’.2 Rather than purusa misidentifying a relationship with prakrti – a relationship he holds to be of fundamental importance, Whicher locates the misidentification within that necessary relationship.

He claims that scholars and other writers argue that Patanjali taught a radical dualism on the basis of nirodha meaning a negation of the ‘mind’ for the purpose of spiritual liberation, resulting in the separation of purusa from prakrti (of which citta is an element), the divorce of pure consciousness from the world. By explaining nirodha as the cessation of vrttis, scholars have presented Yoga as a form of world-denial, rendering life in the world for the yogin as a purposeless existence that has no connection with consciousness. For Whicher, nirodha refers to the cessation of the empirical effects of the vrttis on the yogin’s consciousness, not the complete cessation of vrttis. He asks how one could attempt to obey a teaching that advises ‘death’ of the ‘mind’ when the ‘mind’ is what is necessary to both daily life and to the path of liberation. Exclusive identification with material existence as one’s true self is the source of duhkha. It is this misidentification and not the ‘mind’ that must be discarded. Not only is nirodha not the cessation of vrttis, it involves an expansion of perception such that the yogin can, as untainted pure consciousness or purusa, perceive the interconnectedness of reality. Further, the process of nirodha involves sacrifice of the yogin’s ego and surrender of his perspective and prepares him for a life of ethical compassion and service, a life very different from that led by the disengaged person who would result from the dualism that Whicher critiques.

Again, Whicher opposes those interpreters of Yoga who subscribe to a separation between purusa and prakrti leading to the eventual disappearance of prakrti. This impoverished split between spirit and matter derives from the Samkhya philosophy and Whicher argues that to apply this split to Patanajali’s Yoga trivialises it. Such separation implies the absence of the body. What Yoga involves is the absence of ego, towards the ending of samsara. Whicher writes that to even question why purusa would want to be integrated with prakrti is elitist. He questions when they have ever been separate – the integration of both is a unification and liberation of seer and seeing. Patanjali utilised the concepts of purusa and prakrti in the Samkhya world view to instil an orientation in the yogin that is both spiritual and practical, in which body, ‘mind’ and the world are not denied as is the case in idealistic interpretations. Purusa brings consciousness to prakrti and prakrti brings the content of experience to consciousness so that consciousness can function practically. To separate purusa from prakrti would result in an imbalance that would reflect on notions of the self inimical to Yoga – narcissism, egocentrism or a sense of isolation impelled towards self-negation might result.

Citta can be harnessed, not to ‘disentangle’ purusa from prakrti but to disentangle the nature of their true relationship, that between reality and appearance. The state of kaivalya (‘aloneness’) that Patanjali advocated was not one of solipsistic isolation nor a dualistic state in which there is a division between knower and known, seer and ‘seeable’ as is often maintained as the goal of Yoga, it is the ineffable ‘aloneness’ of the power of ‘seeing’ in its purity and clarity.3 Its attainment requires the integration purusa and prakrti in the act of pure seeing – purusa provides the consciousness of the seer and prakrti the realm of the seeable. In it, prakrti has been liberated from ignorance and purusa and citta attain a sameness of purity and balanced harmony. In it, the yogin has no misidentification with vrtti.

The yogin, having undergone the process of nirodha, lives a balanced and fulfilled life in this world, free of attachment, able to express the full range of emotions without being overtaken by them. This is obviously very different from the yogin who severs all ties with the world. Patanjali’s Yoga, defined as cittavrttinirodha is the eradication of spiritual ignorance. It is this ignorance that is the cause of our misidentification with and attachment to the world. Whicher argues that Yoga is a highly developed and integrated state of mystical illumination that enhances our self-identity, that Patanjali’s Yoga does not imply the extinction of our selfhood, together with the material world, but it entails the opposite.

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Notes

1. Ian Whicher, ‘Yoga and Freedom: A Reconsideration of Patanjali’s Classical Yoga’ Philosophy East and West, vol. 48, no. 2 (April, 1998), pp. 272-322

2. Ibid., p. 273

3. Compare with the concluding words of The Enneads VI,9.11: ‘This is the life of gods and of the godlike and blessed among men, liberation from the alien that besets us here, a life taking no pleasure in the things of earth, the passing of solitary to solitary.’ Plotinus, The Enneads, third ed. abridged.,  Trans. S. MacKenna. London: Penguin, 1991, p.  549

The expunged two thousand year history of Indian materialism

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