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Dīpāvali – Narakacaturdaśī

Warm Dīpāvali greetings from us here at Vedic Cosmos!

The most widely celebrated of Indian festivals, Dīpāvali has deep cultural and spiritual undertones to it. The name Dīpāvali itself means an array of lamps (dīpānām āvaliḥ,) and signifies cheer, wisdom and the triumph of good over evil.

Dīpāvali is associated with Lord Rāma’s return to Ayodhyā after having decimated the rākṣasa-army in Laṅkā, in the northern states of India. In the southern states of India, especially Tamil Nadu, Dīpāvali is called Naraka-caturdaśī, and is associated with the Kṛṣṇāvatāra.

Narakāsura was the son of Bhūmidevī, Mother earth. He was the personification of malice. He imprisoned sixteen-thousand princes and princesses, holding them captive in his dungeon for no apparent reason. He laid siege upon the celestial city of Amarāvatī. He looted Indra of his royal insignia, the parasol, and subjected him to the ignominy of looting his mother’s priced earrings. Indra appealed to Lord Kṛṣṇa, and the Lord arrived at Narakāsura’s city, Prāgjyotiṣapura, amount the redoubtable Garuḍa, with His queen Satyabhāmā by His side. The city was fortified by five moats that the Lord devastated in a jiffy. Past the moats was stationed Mura, a formidable rakṣasa, who charged Kṛṣṇa like the feisty sun of cataclysmic proportions. After decimating him, Bhagavān vanquished the seven sons of Mura, who stood between Him and the hapless princesses who prayed ardently to be rescued. Finally, Narakāsura jumped in the fray and battled Kṛṣṇa. He charged Garuḍa ferociously, and smashed his mace into Garuḍa’s plumes. The avian chariot of Kṛṣṇa stood unfazed, as if assaulted with a wreath of tender blooms. The assault, however, invited the wrath of the Lord. He could stand it no longer, for His dear devotee had been put in harm’s way. He released his Sudarśana-cakra. The brilliant disc, almost imperceptible owing to the its speed, beheaded the rākṣasa and felled him.

Bhūmidevī pleaded with the Lord that her son be redeemed. The compassionate Lord promised her that her son would find redemption in bringing joy to the world by his death, as he had brought misery to it while alive. He promised her that the day her son gave up his body would be celebrated with great pomp and joy. Thus was born, Narakacaturdaśī or Dīpāvali. The word caturdaśī means the fourteenth day of a fortnight. Dīpāvali is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the dark fortnight, and hence the moniker.

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Anger – Abyss Of Negativity

Modern science describes anger as a primary, natural emotion experienced when feeling threatened. It is stated too, that anger has been a tool in survival of man. Evolutionarily, feeling angered has enabled man to stand up to injustice, to defend himself and his loved ones from harm, and to protect his possessions. Mild irritability/anger may also be experienced, it is stated, when one’s basic needs of food, shelter, rest, and sex are not met. The emotion of anger is expressed as behavioural patterns ranging from mild verbal-expression of distaste, aggressive verbal-expressions (yelling,) or aggressive physical-expressions that may cause harm to oneself/property/others. While modern science agrees that behavioural expression of anger is preferable to pent-up anger as far as health goes, it also agrees that management of anger is imperative to sound physical wellness as well as social harmony. While modern science agrees that the emotion of anger is natural, it also adds that anger is largely, a negative emotion that causes more harm than good. The negative emotion is harmful for two basic reasons –

A. Anger is accompanied by a gamut of physiological reactions including increased heart-rate, increased blood pressure, and increased hormonal output (adrenaline, primarily,) that can lead to illnesses, and
B. Increased emotional responsiveness. In other words, human rationale takes flight when anger is experienced, resulting in undesirable expressions of aggression.

The Bhagavadgītā summarizes the consequences of anger most succinctly –

क्रोधाद्भवति संमोहः संमोहात्स्मृतिविभ्रमः।
स्मृतिभ्रंशाद्बुद्धिनाशो बुद्धिनाशात्प्रणश्यति॥

krodhādbhavati saṁmohaḥ saṁmohātsmṛtivibhramaḥ|
smṛtibhraṁśādbuddhināśo buddhināśātpraṇaśyati||

Bhagavadgītā, 2.63

From anger proceeds delusion and there from, forgetfulness (of right and wrong.) From such forgetfulness is born decay of discrimination, and ultimately destruction.

In the Sundara-kāṇḍa of Śrīmadvālmīkirāmāyaṇa is found a practical explication of this particular śloka. Hanumān set out for Lanka, singularly focused on finding Sītā. Insurmountable obstacles mar His path and He conquers them with admirable shrewness and grit, leaving the devas astonished. He reached the shores of Lanka and finds himself confronted by Laṅkiṇī, an irascible and scornful sentinel, who lands Him a blow heedless of properiety. Hanumān is enraged, but not enough to lose perspective. Bridling anger and recognizing she was no match for His strenght, He castigates her just enough to gain entry. He scoures every inch of the land, fervently seeking Sītā. After an arduous search He manages to meet Sītā, converse with Her and to allay Her fears. He then decides to meet with Rāvaṇa so He may afford wise counsel. Hence, He submits Himself willingly to the humiliation of being bound by the vile Rākṣasas. He enters the court like a lion does the forest, striking fear in Rāvaṇa’s heart. He thunders, ‘Set Sītā free if you wish to live!’ Enraged Rāvaṇa decrees Hanumān be slain. Calm and composed, Hanumān stands unfazed. Vibhīṣaṇa, Rāvaṇa’s noble brother rushes to Hanumān’s aid. Upon interecession Rāvaṇa decides to have Hanumā’s tail set on fire.

Hanumān is paraded around the city like a petty thief, bound in nothing but tattered rags, His tail a bright orange from the flame. Hanumān goes along merrily, neither humiliated nor angered. He serveiles the city, unmindful of a burgeoning flame His tail housed! Hanumān had now had enough. He decides to torment the Rākṣasas now. He leaps up into the sky, and begins setting fire to every single house in the vicinity. Fire spreads like a forest-fire in the wind, to envelop the entire city. Hanumān douses his tail in the ocean and turns to face the city that had been burned to the ground. He is overcome by remorse. Fear ceases His being contemplating Sītā too may have perished in the fire. He muses,

धन्यास्ते पुरुषश्रेष्ठा ये बुद्ध्या कोपमुत्थितम्।
निरुन्धन्ति महात्मानो दीप्तमग्निमिवाम्भसा॥

dhanyāste puruṣaśreṣṭhā ye buddhyā kopamutthitam|
nirundhanti mahātmāno dīptamagnimivāmbhasā||

Sundarakāṇḍam, 55.4

Blessed indeed are the superiour souls who douse rising anger in the cool waters of the intellect.

Hanumān goes on to point out,

क्रुद्धः पापं नरः कुर्यात् क्रुद्धो हन्याद्गुरूनपि।
क्रुद्धः परुषया वाचा नरः साधूनधिक्षिपेत्॥

kruddhaḥ pāpaṁ naraḥ kuryāt kruddho hanyādgurūnapi|
kruddhaḥ paruṣayā vācā naraḥ sādhūnadhikṣipet||

Sundarakāṇḍam, 55.5

The enraged man commits gravest of sins. He slays His preceptor and reviles the noble with vitriol.

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Vālmīki – A Testimony

Rāma-Nāma is touted as the tāraka-mantram or the proverbial cruise that ferries man across the ocean of materialistic existence. Much has been said about the efficacy of the Rāma-Nāma. The Viṣṇu-Sahasranāma glorifies a single utterance of the Rāma-Nāma as a peer to the chanting of all thousand names. The most compelling testimony to the efficacy of the Nāma is offered by the anecdote of the dacoit Ratnākara, who miraculously transformed into Sage Vālmīki.

श्रीरामनामसामर्थ्यमतुलं विद्यते द्विज।
नहि पापात्मकस्तावत्पापं कर्तुं क्षमः क्षितौ॥

śrīrāmanāma-sāmarthyam-atulaṁ vidyate dvija|
nahi pāpātmakas-tāvat-pāpaṁ kartuṁ kṣamaḥ kṣitau||

Bodhāyanasaṁhitā

The efficacy of the Rāma-Nāma is such, there is not a sinner upon the phase of the earth whose sin can surpass the ability of the Rāma-Nāma to expiate it.

Ratnākara was a feared dacoit who held sway over an entire forest. Anyone who crossed paths with him owed Ratnākara everything he or she carried on their person. Once, Ratnākara encountered a rather odd individual in the forest. This recluse was dressed in modest garb, but carried a golden vīṇā. It was none other than the celestial sage, Nārada.

Ratnākara said ominously, ‘hand over all that you carry, should you wish to live.’ Nārada’s face belied no fear. Innocent as a rose, he looked up at Ratnākara with eyes drenched in compassion. He said to Ratnākara, ‘why do you thieve? Do you not know it is sinful to covet?’ Ratnākara’s response belied a subtle sense of dharma that lay buried deep within. He said, ‘I thieve not for myself, but for the benefit of my wife and child. It is my duty as a husband and a father, to provide for them.’ Nārada posed in return, a thought provoking question that left Ratnākara rather confused. Nārada posed, ‘Do you believe your wife and child would participate in the consequences of the sin you commit by thieving and terrorizing?’ Unsure, Ratnākara decides to run back to his hut deeper in the forest to find out. He ties Nārada to a tree nearby and rushes homeward. He finds to his utter consternation, neither his wife nor his child is willing to bear the burden of his karma.

Ratnākara recognizes that he alone is responsible for his actions, and the fruit of his actions accrue to him alone. Remorseful of all the sins he had committed in the past, Ratnākara rushes to Nārada, seeking a way to expiate his sins. Compassion incarnate, Nārada consoles the desolate Ratnākara and convinces him, his life too can be redeemed. Nārada endeavors to initiate Ratnākara in the Rāma-Nāma, but Ratnākara’s tongue, inured by the falsehood and cruel words he had uttered, was precluded from pronouncing the redeeming Nāma. Yet again, the compassion of his guru came to Ratnākara’s rescue.

Nārada split the syllables up and inverted them. He initiated Ratnākara, ‘Ma…. Rā…., Ma… Rā…, Ma.. Rā.., Ma. Rā, Marā, Marāmarāmarāma….’ Ratnākara’s cup overfilled with gratitude. He became consumed by the Nāma, lost track of the world around, his mind stilled in the most charming of sounds he had ever heard. Hours turned into days, days into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. Ratnākara was no longer Ratnākara. He communed with the Nāma, becoming inextricably one with it. One fine day, his rapturous trance ended. He opened his eyes and stood up, startling those around. He had just emerged from an anthill that had covered his person. An anthill had formed over him while he was wrapped in the Divine Nāma, oblivious as much to his body as the world outside. He came to be known as Vālmīki from that day forward, born as he was, off an anthill (valmīkaḥ.) Not only had the Rāma-Nāma washed away the dross of his sinful ways, but had transformed him into the perfect receptacle through which would flow the peerless Rāmāyaṇam.

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Śakti – The Supreme

Śrīvidyā is the mystical science of Sanātana-dharma that eulogizes the Supreme as Lalitā-tripurasundarī. She is the embodiment of spiritual potency or Śakti, that animates all creation, including the manifestations of Godheads. Ādi Śaṅkara states,

शिवः शक्त्या युक्तो यदि भवति शक्तः प्रभवितुं
न चेदेवं देवो न खलु कुशलः स्पन्दितुमपि।
अतस्त्वामाराध्यां हरिहरविरिञ्च्यादिभिरपि
प्रणन्तुं स्तोतुं वा कथमकृतपुण्यः प्रभवति॥

śivaḥ śaktyā yukto yadi bhavati śaktaḥ prabhavituṃ
na cedevaṃ devo na khalu kuśalaḥ spanditumapi |
atastvāmārādhyāṃ hariharaviriñcyādibhirapi
praṇantuṃ stotuṃ vā kathamakṛtapuṇyaḥ prabhavati ||

Saundaryalaharī

Śiva, only if united with Śakti is empowered to act. Else, He remains, bereft of potency, even to stir. While so, how does one, devoid of any merit, endeavour to salute Thee or praise Thee, who art worthy of the adulation of the Gods, headed by the Trinity1?

At the highest plane of awareness, the Supreme is an undivided triune of Being (sat), Consciousness (cit), and Bliss (ānanda). At this state, no creation is possible. When the triune splits into distinct sections and unites with the potency (Śakti) of the Supreme, Kriyā (agency) is born, and creation evolves. Thus, the Supreme being too, devoid of potency, is inanimate. Śaṅkara hints here, at this subtle truth behind creation, and glorifies the Devī, from whom proceeds all of creation. He argues to Her Absoluteness by stating it is She who lends Śiva animism, and it is in creation that liberation is found.

The ten days of Navarātri are dedicated primarily, to the worship of this potency that animates creation and enables liberation2. The ten-day festival is informed by the Purāṇic episode of Goddess Caṇḍī slaying the asuras, Madhu-Kaiṭabha and Śumbha-Niśumbha. The Devī-māhātmyam3 describes in great detail, how the malevolent asuras were slain by the Devī. The anecdote is believed also to be, allegorical of the triumph of man over inner rajas and tamas. On this day, the first of the ten sacred days, may the Devī impel our intellect towards Divine knowledge, our hearts towards sacred thoughts, and our hands towards service to fellow man.

या देवी सर्वभूतेषु बुद्धिरूपेण संस्थिता।
नमस्तस्यै नमस्तस्यै नमस्तस्यै नमो नमः॥

yā devī sarvabhūteṣu buddhirūpeṇa saṁsthitā |
namastasyai namastasyai namastasyai namo namaḥ ||

My salutation to that Supreme one (Devī) who shines as the intellect in all creation.

1. Ādi Śaṅkara suggests, ‘If Lord Śiva himself owes His ability to act to (the Potency that is) Devī, how then is he, a mere mortal, and that too, one devoid of any merit (puṇya), to claim authorship of this laudatory verse?’ After all, it is Devī alone, who has the power to act.
2. In some Northern states of India, Navarātri is also associated with the Rāmlīlā festival. Amateur actors don the roles of various characters of the Rāmāyaṇa and enact the itihāsa as related by Tulasīdāsa.
3. Chapters 81-93 of the Mārkaṇḍeya-purāṇa are known as Devī-māhātmyam, and are ceremoniously chanted during Navarātri.
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The Yogic diet

Man is essentially what he eats, is an adage that is popular in modern times. Āyurveda, an ancient science, attests to this fact. According to this science, man’s eating habits play an integral role in his mental make-up as well as his physical well-being. The basic tenet of Āyurveda states that health (svāsthya) is a state of equilibrium of three planes – the physical (and physiological,) the mental, and the spiritual. An aberration (doṣa) in any one of the planes results in ailments. The equilibrium is said to be maintained by the three pillars of healthy eating, sound sleep, and regulated sex.

Āyurvedic texts elaborate in detail, the concept of healthy eating. The most interesting arguments on food revolve around the psychological effects of food on man. Āyurveda states that certain foods result in a contented state of mind, certain foods are excitatory, while certain other foods result in lethargy. In accordance with the psychological responses a particular food engenders, that food is categorized as sātvik (calming,) rājasic (excitatory,) or tāmasic (causing lethargy.)
A diet is chosen keeping in mind the constitution (prakṛti) of the person in question, as well as the tasks he/she intends to fulfill. If for instance, a person intends a yogic life, he/she must adhere to a sātvik diet, a diet that is comprised of foods that have a calming effect. This diet may include vegetables, fruits, tubers, nuts and honey, while eschewing extremely bitter, pungent or sour foods. Svātmārāma allocates a separate chapter to yogic diet in his work, Haṭhayoga Pradīpikā. He states,

मिताहारं विना यस्तु योगारम्भं तु कारयेत्।
नानारोगो भवेत्तस्य किञ्चिद्योगो न सिध्यति॥

mitāhāraṃ vinā yastu yogārambhaṃ tu kārayet।
nānārogo bhavettasya kiñcidyogo na sidhyati॥

[haṭhayogapradīpikā, 5.16]

One who practices Yoga without adhering to a regulated diet invites hordes of ailments and never attains the fruit of Yoga.

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Who is a Yogī?

Since ages, this land has seen many Yogīs who have been great spiritual masters and who have lit the light of wisdom in mankind through their extraordinary contributions. This land has always treated those Yogīs as the embodiments of the Supreme and followed their footsteps. But with the passage of time, the inclination towards spirituality has declined in the people due to many reasons. Nowadays the term ‘Yogī’ is as familiar as the term ‘Yoga’, and when heard, it stimulates a kind of mystical perspective in our minds with multiple conclusions.

Who is a Yogī? What are his qualities? What is his lifestyle? And how  can one become a Yogi? Our ancient scriptures are the sources where we find the answers to all these queries.

In the Bhagavad Gītā, Lord Kṛṣṇa says:

अनाश्रितः कर्मफलं कार्यं कर्म करोति यः।
स संन्यासी च योगी च न निरग्निर्न चाक्रियः॥

anāśritaḥ karmaphalaṁ kāryṁ karma karate yaḥ।
sa saṁnyāsī ca yogī ca na nirgnirna cākriyaḥ॥

[Bhagavad Gītā, 6: 1]

One who performs his prescribed duties by renouncing the fruits of his actions is both a Saṁnyāsī and a Yogī, but not someone who has merely given up performing sacrifices or other prescribed duties.

People in general have a misconception about a Yogī or a Saṁnyāsī, that he is someone who does not shoulder any responsibilities and who renounces all activities. But here, Lord Kṛṣṇa upholds the true practice of Dharma. He says that no one should ever discard his prescribed duties. Everyone should execute his duties with utmost devotion. Among the doers of duties, a true Yogī is one who discharges his duties for the duty’s sake and is in no way attached to the fruits of his actions. The Lord further asserts that the practice of Yoga is not different from Saṁnyāsa, as no one becomes a Yogī without renouncing Saṅkalpa (selfish desires). In his Yoga Sūtras, Maharṣi Patañjali describes the means to attain Yoga, which are Abhyāsa (practice) and Vairāgya (renunciation).

Lord Kṛṣṇa describes the Yogī who has attained the peaks of Yoga as:

यदा हि नेन्द्रियार्थेषु न कर्मस्वनुषज्जते।
सर्वसङ्कल्पसंन्यासी योगारूढस्तदोच्यते॥

yadā hi nendriyārtheṣu na karmasvanuṣajjate।
sarvasaṅkalpasaṃnyāsī yogārūḍhastadocyate॥

[Bhagavad Gītā, 6: 4]

When one is free from attachments to the sense objects as well as the actions, and has renounced all selfish desires, he is said to have ascended the peaks of Yoga.

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What is Dhyāna?

Dhyāna has in today’s world come to mean meditation. In fact, dhyāna is a highly esoteric yogic practice, not apparent to most. Sage Patañjali enlists dhyāna as one of the eight limbs of asṭāṅga yoga. It is only after practicing and perfecting the limbs of yama, niyama, āsana, prāṇāyāma, pratyāhāra and dhāraṇa, can a yogī establishes himself in the practice of dhyāna. Perfection in dhyāna in turn, results in the stilling of the mind, a state referred to as samādhi.

Maharṣi Patañjali defines Dhyāna thus –

तत्र प्रत्ययैकतानता ध्यानम् । 

tatra pratyayaikatānatā dhyānam । 

[Patañjali Yoga Sūtra, 2.3]

There, a continuous single-stream of cognition is called meditation.

Meditation is the stream of cognition (pratyaya) focused on the object of contemplation (dhyeya.) The stream of cognition must be incessant, steady, and unmoved by interruptions. Such a practice of dhyāna, states Maharṣi, leads the practitioner to samādhi (absorption) and enables yoga (union.)

The Agni Purāṇa explains dhyāna as follows,

ध्येयावस्थितचित्तस्य प्रदेशे यत्र कुत्रचित् ।
ध्यानमेतत्समुद्दिष्टं प्रत्ययस्यैकभावना॥

dhyeyāvasthitacittasya pradeśe yatra kutracit ।
dhyānametatsamuddiṣṭaṃ pratyayasyaikabhāvanā॥

[Agni Purāṇa, 374.4]

Meditation is defined as contemplation, where the mind is firmly and incessantly fixed on the object of contemplation.

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Why Prāṇāyāma?

Modern Science establishes Prāṇāyāma as one of the leading mechanisms to a hoard of health benefits. Prāṇāyāma is known to lower blood glucose levels and serum cholesterol levels, regulate systolic and diastolic blood pressures, enhance blood circulation and sleep, and combat depression. By regulating the breathing process, Prāṇāyāma relaxes the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, thereby resulting is a lowered stress response. By balancing the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, Prāṇāyāma results in better mental and physical health.

प्राणायामात् खेचरत्त्वं प्राणायामादरोगता।
प्राणायामात्तथाशक्तिः प्राणायामान्मनोन्मनी।
आनन्दो जायते चित्ते प्राणायामी सुखी भवेत् ॥

prāṇāyāmāt khecarattvaṃ prāṇāyāmādarogatā।
prāṇāyāmāttathāśaktiḥ prāṇāyāmānmanonmanī।
ānando jāyate citte prāṇāyāmī sukhī bhavet ॥

[Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā, 5.57]

By practicing Prāṇāyāma, one can attain power of levitation, salubrious living, Śakti (divine energy,) and stillness of mind. An inexplicable joy is experienced, and the practitioner remains ever happy.

Prāṇāyāma practices have been scientifically proven to enhance cardiorespiratory responses. Prāṇāyāma is helpful, also in detoxifying the body. The most significant contribution of Prāṇāyāma to a better lifestyle, is the mental calm it engenders. By regulating the HPA axis and its response to stress, a deeper sense of calm is experienced; a mental stillness that allows man to better function in society and to better identify himself with a higher force.

प्राणायामेन युक्तेन सर्वरोगक्षयो भवेत्।
अयुक्ताभ्यासयोगेन सर्वरोगसमुद्गमः॥

prāṇāyāmena yuktena sarvarogakṣayo bhavet।
ayuktābhyāsayogena sarvarogasamudgamaḥ॥

[haṭhayogapradīpikā, 2.16]

When practiced properly, Prāṇāyāma helps in combating diseases, and when (Haṭha) Yoga is practiced in the absence of Prāṇāyāma, the practice paves the path to ailments.

By lowering the heart-rate and regularizing systolic-diastolic blood pressures, Prāṇāyāma is believed to enhance life expectancy.

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Maharṣi Patañjali

Maharishi patanjali yoga book

Maharishi Patañjali is believed to be an incarnation of Ananta or Ādiśeṣa, the divine serpent upon whom Lord Viṣṇu reclines. Accordingly, he is depicted in a half-serpent and half-human form. His mother is believed to have been a great Yoginī named Goṇikā. It is believed she once prayed to Sūrya (Sun God) to bestow upon her a son and a disciple. It is believed that Patañjali fell (पत्) right into her cupped palms (अञ्जलिः) and therefore came to be known as Patañjali. According to the Tamil Siddha tradition, Patañjali is one of the 18 Siddhars, and according to Tirumūlar’s Tirumandiram, Patañjali is one of the eight disciples to have studied Yogam directly from Nandi-deva. Although the traditional narratives vary with regards to the Maharṣi’s origin and life, there is little dispute regarding His stupendous accomplishments as a Yogī.

Traditionally, three works are attributed to the genius of Patañjali – Yoga-sūtra, Mahābhāṣya and Caraka-pratisaṃskṛta. Yoga-sūtra, Patañjali’s most renowned work, is a compendium of aphorisms regarding Yoga-śāstra. Mahabhāṣya is the celebrated commentary to the Aṣṭādhyāyī of Paṇini, a extensive grammatical work, and the Caraka-pratisaṃskṛta is an extinct treatise on Āyurveda. This three-pronged contribution of Patañjali is the basis for the following popular Śloka of Śivarāma in his commentary to the Vāsavadattā, a classical work –

योगेन चित्तस्य पदेन वाचां मलं शरीरस्य च वैद्यकेन।
योऽपाकरोत्तं प्रवरं मुनीनां पतञ्जलिं प्राञ्जलिरानतोऽस्मि॥

yogena cittasya padena vācāṁ malaṁ śarīrasya ca vaidyakena|
yo’pākarot-taṁ pravaraṁ munīnāṁ patañjaliṁ prāñjalir-ānato’smi||

To Him, Patañjali, my reverential obeisance, who with Yoga-Śāstra (Yoga-sūtra) did away with the dross of the mind, with Pada-Śāstra (Mahabhāṣya) did away with the impurities of the tongue, and with Vaidya-Śāstra (Caraka-pratisaṃskṛta,) drove away the ailments of the body.

Several traditional texts owe their origin to inspiration/knowledge found in the Yoga-Sūtras of Patañjali. Yoga-vāsiṣṭha, Śiva-saṃhitā, Gheraṇḍa-saṃhitā, Haṭhayoga-pradīpikā, are a few such texts. The Yoga-sūtras seem to have spread far and wide, even in the ancient world. An Arabic translation of the Yoga-sūtras called ‘Kitāb Patañjal’ attributed to the Persian scholar Al-Birūnī is a notable one. The Indonesian text ‘Dharma-Patañjala’ composed in the island of Java is an extant treatise of great importance to the Indonesian-Hindu tradition to this day. Interest in the Yoga-sūtras has only increased with the passage of time. Today the Sūtras have become the subject of in-depth academic research at Universities across the globe. Cognitive scientists and prominent Physicists like Prof. Dr. David Bohm and Prof. Dr. Harold Dean Brown express their fascination with the work. The treatise is authoritative text on the nature of the mind and the traditional methodology employed in stilling the mind.

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Aṣṭāṅga Yoga — the eight limbs of Yoga

The path of Yoga propounded by Maharṣi Patañjali, is known as Asṭāṅga Yoga. As the name suggests, Asṭāṅga Yoga is comprised of eight limbs or aṣṭa aṅgāni. The goal of the path is Kaivalya (liberation) that results from the stilling of the mind (citta-vṛtti-nirodha) through a systematic process comprised of the eight limbs.

The eight limbs of Yoga

यमनियमासनप्राणायामप्रत्याहारधारणाध्यानसमाधयोऽष्टावङ्गानि॥

yama-niyama-āsana-prāṇāyāma-pratyāhāra-dhāraṇā-dhyāna-samādhayo’ṣṭāvaṅgāni (2.29)

The eight limbs are –

  1. Yama – Literally means abstention. Sage Patañjali enlists five yamas:
    • Ahiṁsā – abstention from injuring another
    • Satya – truthfulness (abstention from falsehood)
    • Asteya – abstention from thievery
    • Brahmacarya – celibacy (abstention from indulging in the senses)
    • Aparigraha – abstention from accepting anything from another

  2. Niyama – Literally means discipline. Sage Patañjali enlists five niyamas
    • Śauca – cleanliness
    • Santoṣa – contentment
    • Tapaḥ – penance
    • Svādhyāya – scriptural study
    • Īśvara-praṇidhāna – surrender to the Supreme.

  3. Āsana – Āsana is defined as a stationary posture that can be maintained for long, comfortably. The posture must be such that it does not distract the practitioner from his impending mental union with the infinite. It is this limb of Yoga that is popularly practiced worldwide today, and is referred to as Haṭha-yoga. The Yogī who has perfected Āsana is said to never be swayed by the pairs of the opposites such as heat-cold, pleasure-pain, likes-dislikes, and so on.
  4. Prāṇāyāma – ‘Prāna’ means breath and ‘āyāma’ means both restraining and extending. The practice of manipulating breath by extending the inhalation/exhalation (pūraka/recaka) or by retaining breath within/without (kumbhaka) is referred to as Prāṇāyāma. Sage Patañjali states that mastery of Prāṇāyāma removes the veil that obscures the light of wisdom in man, and enables him to establish his mind firmly on an object with sustained attention.
  5. Pratyāhāra – Pratyāhāra is the withdrawal of the senses of perception (jṅānendriyas) and senses of action (karmendriyas) from sensory objects, by turning the mind inward. Pratyāhāra, it is stated, results in mastery over the senses.
  6. Dhāraṇa – Dhāraṇā is the fastening of the mind to a single focal point. The focal point can either be internal or external. Internal focal points are enlisted as the cakra of the navel, the lotus of the heart, the crown of the head, light at the tip of the nose, or the tongue.
  7. Dhyāna – Dhyāna is the continuous stream of cognition of the chosen focal point, uninterrupted by wavering thoughts. This is the necessary precursor to Samādhi.
  8. Samādhi – Samādhi is the final state of the Aṣṭāṅga Yoga, where the aimed object alone shines forth.

The eight limbs are further classified into two, namely bāhyāṅgāni (external limbs) and ābhyantarāṅgāni (internal limbs.) Bāhyāṅgāni comprises of what is also termed as Kriyāyoga. Bāhyāṅgāni are yama, niyama, āsana, prāṇyāma, pratyāhāra. Ābhyantarāṅgāni, also called samyama, are dhāraṇā, dhyāna, samādhi. Sustained practice of samyama, states Sage Patañjali, results in wisdom (prajñāna.)

Maharṣi Patañjali describes the benefits of Aśṭāṅga Yoga as follows –

योगाङ्गानुष्ठानादशुद्धिक्षये ज्ञानदीप्तिराविवकेख्यातेः ॥२.२८॥

Yogāṅgānuṣṭhānād aśuddhi-kṣaye jñāna-dīptir
āviveka-khyāteḥ ||28||

By practicing Yogāṅgās (the limbs of Yoga), the impurities of the mind are eliminated and the light of wisdom dawns by way of discernment. Discernment in turn, leads to Kaivalya (liberation).