The Hermeneutics of Confusion


“Anyone who isn’t confused really doesn’t understand the situation.” Edward R. Murrow

At the conclusion of my previous blog post I asked a not so rhetorical question: where does the popular association of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra with non-dualistic philosophy come from? A good example of how this happens played out a few months ago: A respected teacher of yoga philosophy spoke about the Yoga Sutras at a local yoga studio. He gave an insightful overview of the Sutras from Patanjali’s definition of yoga all the way to asamprajnata samadhi; the stage at which the yogi relinquishes the mind altogether and experiences the fully liberated self by direct perception.

Elaborating on this final stage of self-realization, the speaker matter of factly stated that, according to Patanjali, all sense of our individuality, along with the apprehension of a multiplicity of beings, disappears as we experience the absolute oneness of pure awareness.

The key words that caught my attention were “according to Patanjali”. I felt obliged to ask a question: “Where does Patanjali say this?”

The speaker replied, “If we understand Patanjali through Vedanta, then…”

Well, that’s different: seeing the Yoga Sutras through the lens of Vedanta philosophy – by which he meant Advaita Vedanta or absolute non-dualism, one of many schools of Vedanta philosophy – is a common but nonetheless very indirect approach to interpreting Patanjali’s treatise. The Yoga Sutras are widely regarded as a theistic text that proposes a duality consisting of two categories of being: Ishvara and everyone else. Patanjali clearly advocates that beings in one category – those challenged by the obstacles to yoga – would be well advised to surrender to a being in a different category – a being beyond the influence of the obstacles to yoga. That’s a duality any way you look at it: either two categories of being or beings in two categories.

The concept of an absolute unity of being obviously denies any form of duality. This is why I think that trying to understand Patanjali through Vedanta is more likely to obscure rather than illuminate the philosophical conclusions of the Yoga Sutras. And I’m not alone on this: here’s an excerpt from the introduction to a translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra by Shyam Ranganathan:

Typically, translations of the Yoga Sutra available to students do not explicitly recognize that they are based on interpretations of Patanjali according to schools of philosophy that were historical contraries to Patanjali’s thought. The source of the interpretation is masked, and the student is presented with a text as though it were the universally accepted translation of the Yoga Sutra. Translations of the Yoga Sutra read into Patanjali’s text the contrary schools of Sankhya, Advaita Vedanta, and even sometimes Buddhism… The unfortunate result is that students of yoga, wishing to gain an understanding of the philosophy that underlies practices as diverse as posture flows and meditation, are confused as to the theoretical underpinnings of such practices.” (emphasis by the author)

The speaker, however good his intentions, was clearly presenting an interpretation as if it were a fact, without any qualification or contextualization to help his audience understand where his interpretation was coming from or that it even was an interpretation in the first place.

So does Patanjali say that when one attains stillness of the mind one merges into an Absolute Oneness of Being? Nope. But plenty of yoga students – and many yoga teachers – think that he does. Now you know why.

Next: why does it matter?

4 Comments

  1. Posted April 20, 2011 at 12:53 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks for this Hari-kirtan. I so often hear assumptions or interpretations about Vedanta passed around as fact. Westerners, like you, who have made a lifetime study of Vedanta need to speak.

  2. Posted April 23, 2011 at 1:09 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Hello Hari! I am really enjoying your nlogs. On the above matter – my “study” of yoga philosophy is not broad. Still, I do pass on my love for the Eight Limbs to my students by describing personal experience. I wouldn’t dare present my interpretations as facts – even if I were highly “schooled.”

  3. Posted April 23, 2011 at 1:10 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Hehehe. That’s “blogs,” not “nlogs.”

  4. Posted April 23, 2011 at 3:01 PM | Permalink | Reply

    @ Pranada: Thanks for your encouragement. @ Holly: Thanks for your comment; I think there’s a huge difference between what you do, which is share your personal realization of the sutras as you’ve applied them in your life, and what so many teachers who subscribe to non-dualistic philosophy do, which is artificially superimpose one school of thought onto the other. I think the former allows for a personal exploration whereas the latter is just misleading.

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