Samyagyayoga: Retrieving the Essence of Yoga

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Yoga is one of the most popular strands of Indic tradition that has taken a modern face and form, and attracts people from across countries, cultures, civilisations to adopt it. Some see it as primarily about Asanas (postures) and Pranayama (regulated breath) while others speak of moralistic renditions of Yamas (abstinences) and Niyamas (rules of conduct and existence).

What often however remains untold is the real goal of Yoga: union with Truth. The movement of mind, body and spirit towards the oneness that underlies all of creation, as per ancient Indic thought. In an age of commercialisation of Yoga, one just wonders: have we lost the essence of Yoga? 

Yoga comes down to us as part of an extant traditions that spans millenia. The word Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root term Yuj, which means ‘to join, yoke or attach’. Yoga highlights ways to get rid of the shackles of the worldly, the temporal, the illusory, to get liberated and yoked to the Truth, the oneness inherent in the Absolute Reality of Sanatana Dharma.

What is Yoga?

The formal definitions of Yoga are aplenty and bring to the fore various nuances of its formulation. Patanjali’s Yogasutra gives us the most-cited definition:


which means Yoga is the complete cessation of the perturbations of the Citta (consciousness). The Bhagavad Gita speaks about Yoga in Chapter 2, Verse 48

योगस्थ: कुरु कर्माणि सङ्गं त्यक्त्वा धनञ्जय |
सिद्ध्यसिद्ध्यो: समो भूत्वा समत्वं योग उच्यते ||

which says that the equanimity that characterizes performance of one’s duty with abandonment of attachment to success or failure is Yoga. Kaundinya’s Pancarthabhasya on the Pasupatasutra, a Shaivite text, speaks of Yoga as the union of the self and the Lord, while the Linga Purana talks of Yoga as Nirvana – the condition of Lord Shiva. The Brahmasutra, one of the foundational texts of Vedanta, speaks of 


or Yoga as the means to see (absolute) reality, and goes on to expand on this in various verses such as Sutra 2.1.3 and 2.1.223.  Finally, the Yogabija, a Hatha Yoga text, speaks of Yoga as ‘the union of all dualities’, thereby breaking all barriers of individualism and conceptions of binaries, dualities and multiplicities in this ultimate dissolution of all creation into One.

Besides the Vaiśeṣika Sutra of the Vaiśeṣika Darśana (which defines Yoga as the state where the mind resides only in the soul and not in the senses) and the Nyāya Sutra of the Nyāya Darśana (which speaks of meditation, Yogic ethics and Samadhi), classical era texts like Yoga-YājñavalkyaVisudhimagga and YogācārabhūmiŚāstra speak extensively on Yoga. 

Evolution of Yoga

Yoga is said to have arisen in Pre-Vedic times, with one artifact often cited – the Pashupati seal, discovered in the Mohenjo-daro archeological site of the Indus Valley Civilisation. This connection is speculative and relies on the idea that the figure (in the seal) seems to be sitting in the Mulabandhasana – a specific posture seen in Yogic traditions. The Rig Veda speaks of Yoga in an early form, in a rather abstract manner, in Mandala 5, Hymn 81, Verse 1:

युञ्जते मन उत युञ्जते धियो विप्रा विप्रस्य बर्हतो विपश्चितः | 
वि होत्रा दधे वयुनाविद एक इन मही देवस्य सवितुः परिष्टुतिः ||

which is a prayer to the rising Sun-god in the morning (Savitr) and where the early form of the term Yoga is spoken of, with the meaning of ‘harnessing’ (the holy thoughts and spirit of the priests) for the purposes of invoking Savitr. The Rig Veda in Mandala 10, Hymn 136 speaks of Yogis and attributes and how they conduct themselves, along with their practices:

केश्यग्निं केशी विषं केशी बिभर्ति रोदसी | 
केशीविश्वं सवर्द्र्शे केशीदं जयोतिरुच्यते || 
मुनयो वातरशनाः पिशङगा वसते मला | 
वातस्यानुध्राजिं यन्ति यद देवासो अविक्षत || 
उन्मदिता मौनेयन वाताना तस्थिमा वयम | 
शरीरेदस्माकं यूयं मर्तासो अभि पश्यथ || 
अन्तरिक्षेण पतति विश्वा रूपावचाकशत | 
मुनिर्देवस्य-देवस्य सौक्र्त्याय सखा हितः || 
वातस्याश्वो वायोः सखाथो देवेषितो मुनिः | 
उभौसमुद्रावा कषेति यश्च पूर्व उतापरः || 
अप्सरसां गन्धर्वाणां मर्गाणां चरणे चरन | 
केशीकेतस्य विद्वान सखा सवादुर्मदिन्तमः || 
वायुरस्मा उपामन्थत पिनष्टि समा कुनन्नमा | 
केशीविषस्य पात्रेण यद रुद्रेणापिबत सह || 

where attributes such as ‘long loose locks (of hair)’, they who are ‘girdled with wind’ and wear garments soiled of yellow, and described as a ‘sweet, most delightful friend’. This hymn is often called the Keśin Hymn, since it describes Keśins, who were ascetic-wanderers with purported mystical powers.

This hymn is taken to be among the earliest evidences of Yogis and their spiritual traditions, as per famous Indologist, orientalist and philosopher of religion Professor Karel Werner [1]. Coming to the Upanishads, we see references to elements of Yoga in various texts: the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad in Chapter 1, Brahmana 5, Verse 23 speaks of the Yogic practice of regulated breath – Pranayama (or rather the importance of performing the functions of Prana) in the words

अथैष श्लोको भवति यतश्चोदेति सूर्योऽस्तं यत्र च गच्छतीति प्राणाद्वा एष उदेति प्राणेऽस्तमेति तं देवाश्चक्रिरे धर्म स एवाद्य स उ श्व इति यद्वा एतेऽमुर्ह्यध्रियन्त
तदेवाप्यद्य कुर्वन्ति तस्मादेकमेव व्रतं चरेत् प्राण्याच्चैवापान्याच्च नेन्मा पाप्मा मृत्युराप्नुवदिति यद्यु चरेत्समापिपयिषेत्तेनो एतस्यै देवतायै सायुज्य सलोकतां जयति॥

while the Chandogya Upanishad speaks of the Yogic principle of Pratyahara (withdrawing all senses into the Self) in the eight Prapāṭhaka, section 15:

तद्धैतद्ब्रह्मा प्रजापतयै उवाच प्रजापतिर्मनवे मनुः प्रजाभ्य आचार्यकुलाद्वेदमधीत्य यथाविधानं गुरोः कर्मातिशेषेणाभिसमावृत्य कुटुम्बे शुचौ देशे स्वाध्यायमधीयानो धर्मिकान्विदधदात्मनि सर्वैन्द्रियाणि संप्रतिष्ठाप्याहिसन्सर्व भूतान्यन्यत्र तीर्थेभ्यः स खल्वेवं वर्तयन्यावदायुषं ब्रह्मलोकमभिसंपद्यते न च पुनरावर्तते न च पुनरावर्तते॥

A distinct phase in the evolution of Yoga came from 500-200 BCE, with sections on Yoga in the Srimad Bhagavad GitaShanti Parva in Mahabharata (339.69), with description of an early form of yoga called Nirodhayoga or the ‘Yoga of Cessation’ contained in the Mokshadharma section of this chapter, and other Sramanic texts, particularly early Buddhist texts such as Sattipathana Sutta and Anapanasati Sutta. In these texts, the Buddha spoke of methods to rid oneself of the shackles of the worldly realm to facilitate reduction of Dukkha (sorrow). The evolution of Yoga was closely correlated with the evolution of various Sramanic traditions, from the Ajivikas to Buddhists and Jains. 

The first mention of Yoga in a manner similar to its current form, as a systematic tradition, is said to be in the Katha Upanishad in Section 2, Valli 3, Verse 11:

तां योगमिति मन्यन्ते स्थिरामिन्द्रियधारणाम्‌।
अप्रमत्तस्तदा भवति योगो हि प्रभवाप्ययौ ॥

which highlights how the state (of a person) that is defined by being one of equanimity and where the person is completely unperturbed, when the senses are imprisoned in the mind, that is Yoga. The Katha Upanishad expands on this in section 1, Valli 2, Verse 12:

तं दुर्दर्शं गूढमनुप्रविष्टं
गुहाहितं गह्वरेष्ठं पुराणम् ।
अध्यात्मयोगाधिगमेन देवं
मत्वा धीरो हर्षशोकौ जहाति ॥ 

which speaks of how by means of meditation on oneself, a person can comprehend the transcendent spirit within as God, and with that realisation leave both joy and sorrow behind. The Katha Upanishad, in verses 2.6.6 through 2.6.13 suggests a path to Self-knowledge, and this is the path it calls Yoga. If we specifically look at Section 2, Valli 6, Verses 10 and 11:

यदा पञ्चावतिष्ठन्ते ज्ञानानि मनसा सह ।
बुद्धिश्च न विचेष्टते तामाहुः परमां गतिम् ॥ १० ॥
तां योगमिति मन्यन्ते स्थिरामिन्द्रियधारणाम् ।
अप्रमत्तस्तदा भवति योगो हि प्रभवाप्ययौ ॥ 

we see the pursuit of a state where Manas (mind) with thoughts and the senses are still, and Buddhi (intellect and power to reason) does not waver. This is called the highest path. The Maitrayaniya Upanishad also highlights six limbs of what can be regarded as one of the oldest known descriptions of the Yogic traditions: Pranayama (regulated breath), Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses inwards), Dhyana (meditation), Dharana (concentration of mind), Tarka (contemplation of ideas), Samadhi (a state of complete dissolution into an idea or reality). 

Strands of Yoga

The ultimate aim of attaining union with Absolute Reality can be achieved using disparate strands of Yoga. Some rely on devotion, other on undertaking one’s duties and actions, while still others on realisation and consciousness. 

Bhakti Yoga

This is one of the oldest Yogic traditions, with its primary focus being on devotion to a deity to attain union with the Absolute Reality. The Shvetashvatara Upanishad has one of the earliest references to the word ‘Bhakti’ in Adhyaya 6, Verse 23:

यस्य देवे परा भक्तिः यथा देवे तथा गुरौ ।
तस्यैते कथिता ह्यर्थाः प्रकाशन्ते महात्मनः ॥

which highlights that he who has the highest love and devotion for his Guru (teacher) and God and is high-minded will be able to understand and realise the essence of the teachings and ideas of the Upanishad. Bhakti Yoga finds a preeminent place in the Srimad Bhagavad Gita, with the following words in Chapter 12, Verse 2

श्रीभगवानुवाच |
मय्यावेश्य मनो ये मां नित्ययुक्ता उपासते |
श्रद्धया परयोपेतास्ते मे युक्ततमा मता: ||

which says that Sri Krishna considers those who fix their minds on him and always engage in his devotion with steadfast devotion and faith to be the greatest yogis. Bhakti could be for any deity: Krishna, Ram, Ganesha, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Durga, Kali, Shiva, Vishnu, Agni and Surya, among others. Three important traditions of Bhakti are Shaivism (with devotion to Shiva), Vaishnavism (with devotion to Vishnu) and Shaktism (with devotion to Shakti). We also have the Panchayatana Smarta tradition, which consists of the simultaneous worship of Shiva, Vishnu, Surya, Shakti and an Ishta Devata (worshipper’s preferred deity) such as Ganesha.

Interestingly, speaking of the kinds of people who engage in Bhakti, Sri Krishna says (in Chapter 7, Verse 16)

चतुर्विधा भजन्ते मां जना: सुकृतिनोऽर्जुन |
आर्तो जिज्ञासुरर्थार्थी ज्ञानी च भरतर्षभ || 

which highlight four kinds of pious people who engage in devotion—the distressed, the seekers after knowledge, the seekers of worldly possessions, and those who are situated in knowledge and selfless devotion. It is those who are devoted because of their knowledge of love and without any expectations that Dharmic traditions regard as the highest of the Bhakta (devotees).

Karma Yoga

This is the path of unselfish action that leads to union with the Truth. It considers right action to be a form of prayer. Its fundamental teaching is that spiritual seekers must act as per Dharma and more importantly, must act without being attached to the fruits of an action, be it success or failure. This invariably leads to a state of equanimity and a certain dispassion. Each action, for a Karma Yogi, is an offering to God. In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna speaks of this path, in Chapter 3, Verses 3 and 4:

श्रीभगवानुवाच |
लोकेऽस्मिन्द्विविधा निष्ठा पुरा प्रोक्ता मयानघ |
ज्ञानयोगेन साङ्ख्यानां कर्मयोगेन योगिनाम् || 

न कर्मणामनारम्भान्नैष्कर्म्यं पुरुषोऽश्नुते |
न च संन्यसनादेव सिद्धिं समधिगच्छति || 

where Sri Krishna says that there are two paths leading to enlightenment: the path of knowledge and the path of work. He goes on to say that one cannot achieve freedom from Karmic reactions by simply abstaining from work, nor can one attain perfection of knowledge just by physical renunciation. An important point to note here is the rejection of the renunciate-ideal by Sri Krishna here. He does not glorify the idea of renouncing the world for attaining God. 

There is a beautiful commentary on Karma as a Yajñá or a ritual sacrifice in the same chapter (Verse 9)

यज्ञार्थात्कर्मणोऽन्यत्र लोकोऽयं कर्मबन्धन: |
तदर्थं कर्म कौन्तेय मुक्तसङ्ग: समाचर ||

where Sri Krishna speaks of how work must be done as a Yajña to the Supreme Lord or else work causes bondage in this material world. The aim of Karma Yoga is highlighted in Chapter 3, Verse 19

तस्मादसक्त: सततं कार्यं कर्म समाचर |
असक्तो ह्याचरन्कर्म परमाप्नोति पूरुष: || 

where Sri Krishna suggests that giving up attachment, one must perform one’s actions as a matter of duty, for by working without being attached to the fruits, one attains the Absolute Reality

The Yoga-Vāsiṣṭha, one of the historically popular and influential texts of Sanatana Dharma, speaks of a fate-less universe wherein actions and events may be important but they are not an end in itself. Similar is the position of Buddhism that talks of a relational reality in the Universe with Sunya (void) underlying this. Therefore, the non-attachment to the results of one’s actions naturally arises from the realisation of these ideas. Actions and duties must not become the cause of moorings to the material world and this can only happen with the sense of non-attachment to their results. This is also reinforced by the realisation from Jnana Yoga that there is no ‘I’ (ego consciousness) and the Universe is working through us all, and therefore there is no point of overt identification and attachment with one’s actions and the results of those actions. Texts like the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, texts of the Mīmāṃsā Darśana, Bhagavat Purana and Narada Purana speak of Karma Yoga as well. 

Jnana Yoga

This is the path of introspection and speculation to attain Jnana or true knowledge and realisation of what defines our existence. More importantly and fundamentally, it seeks to answer key questions like what is the mooring for our existence, and is there anything beyond the worldly, the temporal and spatial. One of the greatest Jnana Yoga texts is the Avadhuta Gita by Sri Dattatreya, teacher of Sri Parasurama. In this text, dualities are taken as two sides of One, as is also highlighted by the famous Nāsadīya Sūkta of the Rig Veda

नासदासीन्नो सदासीत्तदानीं नासीद्रजो नो व्योमा परो यत् |
किमावरीवः कुह कस्य शर्मन्नम्भः किमासीद्गहनं गभीरम् ॥ 
न मृत्युरासीदमृतं न तर्हि न रात्र्या अह्न आसीत्प्रकेतः |
आनीदवातं स्वधया तदेकं तस्माद्धान्यन्न परः किञ्चनास ॥
तम आसीत्तमसा गूहळमग्रे प्रकेतं सलिलं सर्वाऽइदम् |
तुच्छ्येनाभ्वपिहितं यदासीत्तपसस्तन्महिनाजायतैकम् ॥
कामस्तदग्रे समवर्तताधि मनसो रेतः प्रथमं यदासीत् |
सतो बन्धुमसति निरविन्दन्हृदि प्रतीष्या कवयो मनीषा ॥
तिरश्चीनो विततो रश्मिरेषामधः स्विदासीदुपरि स्विदासीत् |
रेतोधा आसन्महिमान आसन्त्स्वधा अवस्तात्प्रयतिः परस्तात् ॥
को अद्धा वेद क इह प्र वोचत्कुत आजाता कुत इयं विसृष्टिः |
अर्वाग्देवा अस्य विसर्जनेनाथा को वेद यत आबभूव ॥
इयं विसृष्टिर्यत आबभूव यदि वा दधे यदि वा न |
यो अस्याध्यक्षः परमे व्योमन्त्सो अङ्ग वेद यदि वा न वेद ॥

In these verses, the composer famously breaks the final level of dualities by saying that in the beginning there was neither existence nor non-existence. With such counterintuitive and yet profound ideas, the Avadhuta Gita and the Vedas made the listener undertake the journey of discovery and a quest to seek the truth, through introspection, intuition, meditation and speculation. Sri Dattatreya goes even further by even breaking dualities at the meta-level, by saying that we are both (existent and non-existent) and neither of those! This was also the path of Sri Adi Shankaracharya, Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Swami Vivekananda, Ramana Maharshi and Sri Aurobindo. The fundamental questions to ask, when pursuing Jnana Yoga is

Who are we? Are we just being conditions by our emotions, circumstances and experiences? Or are we beyond?

One of the most powerful expressions of Jnana Yoga (and Advaita Vedanta) is Neti, Neti or ‘not this, not this’. This expression is an analytical meditation that helps a person understand the nature of the Absolute Reality, the Ultimate Truth by first understanding what it is not. This expression also helps negate any rationalizations and distractions from the meditative, non-conceptual awareness of reality. The Avadhuta Gita speaks of how we all are manifestations of the Ultimate Truth with the word ‘Thou art that’

तत्त्वमस्यादिवाक्येन स्वात्मा हि प्रतिपादितः ।
नेति नेति श्रुतिर्ब्रूयाद अनृतं पाञ्चभौतिकम् ।। 

but this Truth is said to be indescribable and undefinable. Therefore, at best, one can try to highlight how it cannot be related to anything in our world, in the physical realm, and that is where the ancient idea of Neti, neti comes in. 

A point to remember here is that Jnana cannot be crudely translated to intellect. Jnana is not just brain-related and about scholastic or cognitive capabilities, since it speaks of accessing a truth beyond the transient and the worldly. If our brain itself is active till the point we live, surely its faculties cannot be the source of this Jnana. So what is Jnana? Jnana is related to the fundamental level of consciousness that underlies Buddhi (intellect), Mahat (the first evolute ‘Great’ principle) and Ahamkara (the ‘I’ or ego-consciousness). Through Jnana Yoga, we seek the union of this consciousness with what is regarded as the universal consciousness. Intellect may be important and gets us going on this path but that is not the end in itself. The realisation that the universal cosmic principle or the Absolute Truth and Reality gives rise to the diversity of phenomena we see is important. The realisation that there is no ‘I’ but that we are all part of one transcendent spiritual field is what the Vedas tell us, particularly as part of the famous Puruṣasūkta

सहस्रशीर्षा पुरुषः सहस्राक्षः सहस्रपात् ।
स भूमिं विश्वतो वृत्वात्यतिष्ठद्दशाङुलम् ॥

पुरुष एवेदं सर्वं यद्भूतं यच्च भव्यम् ।
उतामृतत्वस्येशानो यदन्नेनातिरोहति ॥

एतावानस्य महिमातो ज्यायाँश्च पूरुषः ।
पादोऽस्य विश्वा भूतानि त्रिपादस्यामृतं दिवि ॥

त्रिपादूर्ध्व उदैत्पूरुषः पादोऽस्येहाभवत्पुनः ।
ततो विष्वङ् व्यक्रामत्साशनानशने अभि ॥

तस्माद्विराळजायत विराजो अधि पूरुषः ।
स जातो अत्यरिच्यत पश्चाद्भूमिमथो पुरः ॥

यत्पुरुषेण हविषा देवा यज्ञमतन्वत ।
वसन्तो अस्यासीदाज्यं ग्रीष्म इध्मः शरद्धविः ॥

तं यज्ञं बर्हिषि प्रौक्षन्पुरुषं जातमग्रतः ।
तेन देवा अयजन्त साध्या ऋषयश्च ये ॥

तस्माद्यज्ञात्सर्वहुतः सम्भृतं पृषदाज्यम् ।
पशून्ताँश्चक्रे वायव्यानारण्यान् ग्राम्याश्च ये ॥

तस्माद्यज्ञात्सर्वहुत ऋचः सामानि जज्ञिरे ।
छन्दांसि जज्ञिरे तस्माद्यजुस्तस्मादजायत ॥

तस्मादश्वा अजायन्त ये के चोभयादतः ।
गावोः ह जज्ञिरे तस्मात् तस्माज्जाता अजावयः ॥

यत्पुरुषं व्यदधुः कतिधा व्यकल्पयन् ।
मुखं किमस्य कौ बाहू का ऊरू पादा उच्येते ॥

ब्राह्मणोऽस्य मुखमासीद् बाहू राजन्यः कृतः ।
ऊरू तदस्य यद्वैश्यः पद्भ्यां शूद्रो अजायत ॥

चन्द्रमा मनसो जातश्चक्षोः सूर्यो अजायत ।
मुखादिन्द्रश्चाग्निश्च प्राणाद्वायुरजायत ॥

नाभ्या आसीदन्तरिक्षं शीर्ष्णो द्यौः समवर्तत ।
पद्भ्यां भूमिर्दिशः श्रोत्रात्तथा लोकाँ अकल्पयन् ॥

सप्तास्यासन् परिधयस्त्रिः सप्त समिधः कृताः ।
देवा यद्यज्ञं तन्वाना अबध्नन्पुरुषं पशुम् ॥

यज्ञेन यज्ञमयजन्त देवास्तानि धर्माणि प्रथमान्यासन् ।
ते ह नाकं महिमानः सचन्त यत्र पूर्वे साध्याः सन्ति देवाः ॥

which speaks of the omnipresence of the Universal Being, which was all that existed in the past and will exist in the future. This transcendent field is said to be greater than all greatness, and pervades all that is living and non-living. By meditating on the greatness of the essence of this field, a spiritual aspirant can become the ‘Shining One’ themselves. This harks back to the understanding that those who realise the Absolute Truth become one with it, as per Vedanta. 

Raja Yoga

Initially Raja Yoga was taken to be the aim of Yoga, the supremum of all Yogic practices – the state of Samadhi primarily. More recently, since Swami Vivekananda wrote on the subject, especially highlighting the facets of Patanjali’s Ashtanga (eight-limbed) Yoga, Raja Yoga has become a method to attain union with the Absolute Reality.

One finds an early reference to Raja Yoga in the Amanaska, a Shaiva Yoga text, from around the 12th century CE, where a dialogue between Lord Shiva and Vamadeva leads to an elaboration of what is Raja Yoga. The text says that Raja Yoga – literally ‘King Yoga’, enables a spiritual aspirant to reach the ‘king’ within oneself – the supreme self, so to say. It is declared as the destination of Yogic practices that has a Yogi experience the bliss of absolute bliss, calm and contentment. The famous text Haṭhayogapradīpikā by Svātmārāma speaks of Raja Yoga as follows

राजयोगः समाधिश्च उन्मनी च मनोन्मनी | अमरत्वं लयस्तत्त्वं शून्याशून्यं परं पदम || 
अमनस्कं तथाद्वैतं निरालम्बं निरञ्जनम | जीवन्मुक्तिश्च सहजा तुर्या चेत्येक-वाचकाः || 
सलिले सैन्धवं यद्वत्साम्यं भजति योगतः | तथात्म-मनसोरैक्यं समाधिरभिधीयते || 
यदा संक्ष्हीयते पराणो मानसं च परलीयते | तदा समरसत्वं च समाधिरभिधीयते || 
तत-समं च दवयोरैक्यं जीवात्म-परमात्मनोः | परनष्ह्ट-सर्व-सङ्कल्पः समाधिः सोऽभिधीयते || 

where the emphasis on the connection between Raja Yoga and the ultimate state of Samadhi is seen. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, who ideas Swami Vivekananda connected with Raja Yoga, synthesise a system that extracts elements from three traditions

  1. The idea of discernment and right discrimination between Purusa (transcendent spirit) and Prakrti (nature) as part of  the idea of Adhyavasaya (‘reflective discernment’) from Samkhya Yoga, besides its epistemic methods to gain reliable knowledge as well as its metaphysical rationalism.
  2. The pursuit of altered state of awareness and realisation from Abhidharma Buddhism (and its idea of Nirodhasamadhi), albeit with a physical and realist side that believes in every individual having a self and a soul.
  3. The ascetic traditions of introspection, meditation and isolation, besides the Yogic ideas from texts such as Shvetashvatara Upanishad and Katha Upanishad.

Ashtanga Yoga is a systematic way to attain Samadhi. The ultimate goal of this way is to attain unbroken discrimination of what is real and what is not, as beautifully highlighted by these words from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra

णववकख्याणतयणवप्लवा हानोऩाम्

which means the means of destruction of ignorance is unbroken practice of discrimination. The limbs of this system are given as follows

मभणनमभासनप्रािामाभप्रत्याहायधायिाध्यानसभाधमोऽष्टाव अङ्गाणन ॥

which says that Yama (abstinences), Niyama (rules), Asana (postures), Pranayama (regulated breathing), Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses to oneself), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (dissolution into the Ultimate Reality), are the limbs of Yoga. The Yama (abstinences) are defined as

अहिंसासत्यास्तेयब्रह्माचार्यपरिग्रहा यमाः

which are non-killing, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence and non-receiving. The Niyama or rules are given by

शौचसंतोषतऩ्स्वाध्यामश्वयप्रणिधानाणन णनमभा्

which are contentment, purification, mortification, study, and worship of God. There is emphasis put on the right posture or Asanas:

णस्थयसखभु आसनभ

which says that posture is that which is firm and pleasant. Also important is regulated breathing or Pranayama

तस्मिन् सति श्वासप्रश्वासयोरगतिविच्छेदः प्राणायामः

which speaks of the controlling of the motion of the exhalation and the inhalation. After this, the drawing in of the senses is highlighted, in the concept known as Pratyahara

स्वस्वविषयासंप्रयोगे चित्तस्य स्वरूपानुकर वेन्द्रियानां प्रत्याहार:

which speaks of the the drawing in of the organs is by giving up their own objects and independent modifications, and taking the form of the fundamental mind-element. After this come the three most important elements – Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi.

देशबन्धश्चित्तस्य धारणा

which means Dharana is holding the mind on to some particular object. This slowly translates to sustained meditation or Dhyana. When this, giving up all forms and constructs, just puts forth the meaning and essence, one reaches the state of Samadhi. These three, when practised together, with regards to one object, gives rise to the state of Samyama

त्रयं एकत्र संयमः

and by the conquest of that comes the light of knowledge:

तज्ज्यात प्रज्ञालोकः

This is the comprehensive system by which Patanjali and various other proponents of Raja Yoga have laid the basis for attainment of Samadhi.


The hunger to attain union with the Truth (Mumukshatva) can lead help one begin on this quest to systematically approach the state of Self-realisation. Yoga is the mode and way to do this, with its sundry approaches and methods, which have evolved over the years. With the westernisation of Yoga and convenient projections of this ancient tradition, we must remain cautious against misprojections and distortions. While it is important for a healthy body and mind, as many people today see it as, those are but subsets of a larger set of ideas, practices and elements of a rich tradition of Indic thought, philosophy and spirituality. We must stand up for Samyagyayoga (सम्यग्योग) or true Yoga and union with the Truth. We must reach out to people and engage with them, to share and cherish the beauty of, and truth in, Yoga. 


[1] Werner, Karel. “Yoga and the Ṛg Veda: An Interpretation of the Keśin Hymn (RV 10, 136)”. Religious Studies. 13 (3): 289–302. 

Dr. Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar: Mrittunjoy is a physicist, activist, writer, social worker and philosopher.