• Listen to today’s talk
    Living in Communion — We …

The Meaning and Purpose of Yoga

A talk given by Phiroz Mehta at Caxton Hall, Westminster, London on 7th April 1971


Scattered through the scriptures of the world are affirmations of a great realization. The poet-seers of the Ṛg-Veda, such as Kaśyapa, Pragātha, Bṛhaddiva, Prajāpati Parameṣṭhin and Vamadeva and a host of others, stated that they had discovered the Gods, attained the light, realized immortality. In the Gāthās of the Avestā, which are the scriptures of Iran, Zarathushtra affirms:

Then did I behold Thee as the most bountiful One, O Ahurā-Mazdā, when the Good Mind encircled me completely.

Perhaps the first words of the Buddha after the Enlightenment when he speaks to his group of five bhikkhus were:

The Deathless has been won.

If you look at the Old and the New Testaments, you will find certain extraordinary statements. In the fifth chapter of Genesis it is said that:

Enoch walked with God: and Enoch was not; for God took him.

It is said of his predecessors after Adam and of his successors up to Noah that they all lived so many years and died, but of Enoch it is only said that he lived 365 years and he “walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.” You also know that remarkable narration in the Second Book of Kings where Elijah and Elisha walk along together talking. And then suddenly there appeared a chariot and horses of fire and parted Elijah and Elisha asunder. And Elijah was taken up by a whirlwind into heaven. We find statements like this scattered through all the scriptures, and particularly in the Upaniṣads you find the great affirmation that he who realizes Brāhman becomes Brāhman or realizing the Ātma, becomes immortal , realizes immortality here now whilst alive in this world. You remember also the words of Jesus:

I and my Father are one. Believe that the Father is in me, and I in him.

The end of the Kaṭha Upaniṣad is particularly interesting for all of us who are concerned with Yoga. That Upaniṣad gives a description, or attempts to give a description of the conversation between Naciketas and the Lord of Death, and the Upaniṣad ends thus:

Then Naciketas, having gained this teaching from the Lord of Death and the whole rule of Yoga, attained Brāhman and became free from death, and so may any other who knows this.

The Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad states that he who knows Brāhman becomes Brāhman.

He crosses over sorrow. He crosses over sin. Liberated from the knots of the heart, he becomes immortal.

Note those words carefully: “He crosses over sorrow. He crosses over sin.” In the 7th chapter of the Chāndogya Upaniṣad the saintly sage Nārada approaches his teacher Sanatkumāra and begs him to declare the truth about Brāhman. Sanatkumāra tells him: “Tell me first what you know and then I will tell you further.” Nārada gives a succinct table of contents of all he knows, and we may deduce that he was one of those extraordinary people with an encyclopaedic knowledge. “But,” says Nārada, “I am as one who only knows the sacred sayings, the words. I have heard from those who are like you, Sir, that he who knows the Ātma crosses over sorrow. I am a sorrowing one. Do you teach me how to realize the Ātma and cross over all sorrow.”

It is very important for us to appreciate the significance of the meaning of sorrow in the religious context. The religious context is the context of Transcendence, not the worldly context. You will notice that all the great teachers of the world were profoundly stirred by the sorrow of human beings in the world of affairs, in a worldly manner. But if you study the religions of the world carefully and above all live them, you will discover this extraordinary thing, that the answer they gave was not in worldly terms, nothing to do with politics, or economics, or social organization or education, but the answer was the Transcendent answer and the Transcendent answer only. This is extremely significant. The terms used are Brāhman, Ātma. What do these terms mean? There are tomes and tomes, philosophic works expounding Brāhman and Ātma. But if you yourself have ever been able to be touched by the reality of Brāhman and Ātma, you will discover something quite extraordinary. When you yourself are utterly purified, when all evil mindedness is completely burnt out of you, when you yourself are immerged in that silence which is the Transcendent reality of Being, then the One Total Reality comes to full consciousness through you. It is not that you have attained anything at all. You are not. It is the One Total Reality, it is Transcendence itself that flows in and out of you because you are now utterly unresisting. You are a transparent, purified, focal point for this which is beyond anything that we know in our ordinary mortal existence. And it is this state in which you are which is the meaning of the word Brāhman, the meaning of the word Ātma. You will see therefore how this goes right beyond any sort of logical, discursive, intellectual presentation. And it is most important, if we are to be Yogis in the real sense, not only to understand this intellectually as a starting point but to realize it in terms of that awareness where all isolative self-consciousness is completely out.

Isolative self-consciousness is the trouble. Yoga is a way, a means by which man realizes freedom from isolative self-consciousness. And when that happens he is re-joined to the One Total Reality. He is restored into the harmony of the whole. This re-joining, this restoration is the real meaning of Yoga and the state of Yoga. The word, as probably all of you know, is derived from the root yuj, meaning to yoke or to join together. We must appreciate that in this re-joining there is nothing for me, as a separate entity. If I take to Yoga or if I take to any spiritual discipline for the sake of obtaining some material worldly result, for the sake of helping others, as I say, serving God or man or whatever you like, all of which are projections of my separate self magnified, then I am making a mistake, to put it very gently. There must be no self-seeking whatsoever. It is fundamentally important, if you want to be a real Yogi. Perhaps if you appreciate that, you will understand the significance of those words in the Old Testament: “And Enoch was not.” There was only the one Total Absolute Reality. This utter purity of approach means that the Yogi has to scale the height of sinlessness and plumb the depth of selflessness. This is no light task.

All Yoga, and you know that there are various so-called different Yogas, Mantra Yoga, Laya Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Raja Yoga, Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga and so forth, essentially consists of eight elements, eight aspects. The first is called yama, which is self-discipline, self-control, forbearance, and the fulfilment of all morality, realizing purity. And this has no compromise possible with the ways of the world. That is yama. The next is niyama which we may translate as religious observances, somewhat corresponding to what in Christianity we call the external instruments of grace. There are some correspondences, but not altogether. Then there is āsana, posture, prāṇāyāma, which is breath control (that is the usual translation, but we shall consider some other meanings too of these two words), then there is pratyāhāra, usually translated as the withdrawal of the senses from the objects of sense. I think it would be wiser to look at it this way — freedom from attachment to, or aversion from all sense objects. Then there is dhāraṇā. Dhāraṇā literally means a holding, some translate it as concentrating the mind, all sorts of translations are given, but the word dhāraṇā is derived from the root dri– which means to uphold, and its essential meaning is to uphold continuously the awareness of Brāhman. You may wonder why there are these two words, Brāhman and Ātma. Why not just one word alone? We can put it quite simply and precisely. How did the Yogis realize Brāhman? How did they realize Ātma? Asking the question, “What is the ultimate reality, the objective search?” they ended up with the realization which they termed Brāhman. Asking the question, “Who am I?” they ended their search with the realization which they called Ātma. Ātma is subjective in flavour, Brāhman is objective. The point is this, Brāhman and Ātma they declared were absolutely identical. How do you get such an identity? Bear in mind that mankind through the ages has always placed the Transcendent outside himself, up above there, not here, not in me, “I am the mortal creature only.” But these people said, “No, Brāhman and Ātma, the objective and the subjective ultimates, are identical”, for the very simple reason that, whilst the questions were couched in the objective and the subjective form, the way which led them to the final result was the identical way, namely that of the complete denudation of the mind, the freeing of the mind completely from all its accumulated memories, beliefs, convictions, desires and all the rest of it. When that mind was completely denuded, it entered into its own. It became completely transparent, and then the awareness which shone through that transparent mind as the result of the objective search was termed Brāhman, and that same awareness, answering the question, “Who am I?”, was termed Ātma. If Brāhman were to say “I”, then that “I” is the meaning of the word Ātma. When you and I say “I”, we merely mean this isolated, self-conscious, separated entity, divorced from the One Total Reality. There is the root of all sorrow and misery in life. So you see how important it is to understand the reality of “I”. In the ṭejobinḍu Upaniṣad the great God Śiva answers Kumāra the Kārttikeya in a long discourse in which he says among so many other wonderful things one extraordinary thing. Remember he is the great God Śiva. “I am the I that has given up ‘I’.”

Then we have dhyāna which is the definite act of contemplation through the various stages. In Buddhism we use the term jhāna. And finally the eighth, samādhi. Samādhi has also been translated in various ways, but I cannot think of a better translation in the English language than the English word communion. Samādhi is the peak point of Yoga, it is communion. And, as you probably already know, there are two aspects to this communion, the communion in which there is still this separative consciousness of “thou and I”, and then when one crosses over the limitation of regarding the Total Reality, the Transcendent as something other than oneself, it is not “thou and I”. There is only It, the Ultimate Real. It is not you and I, it is Us, and an Us in which the separation does not exist. It is a non-duality. That is samādhi, which Patañjali for example in his Yoga Sutras talks of as the asaṁprajñāta samādhi. The samādhi where there are the two, thou and I, is called the saṁprajñāta samādhi. But either way it is the state of communion. It is this state which is the meaning of the statement, “realizing immortality here and now.” Immortality has nothing to do with continuity in time and space, nothing at all. For you and me there is absolutely no continuity in time and space. There is neither the survival of personality nor is there annihilation. Be careful, these are terrible doctrines. One has to be very strong, very balanced, very capable in order to absorb them and understand them and blossom out into one’s true humanity.

Yama is the first preliminary, the essential basis for Yoga, absolute purity. Why? Yoga involves the utilization of power, of psychical and spiritual energies. He is a foolish one who tampers with power.

All of us know something about the history of man, of our own country or of the world generally. Here we not seen through the ages that power, even in the worldly sphere, is inevitably and invariably misused, unless there is the preliminary basis of the harmony of love and wisdom which have come to fruition? Then only power may be handled safely, because it is no longer the separately self-conscious you, whose interests will clash with somebody else’s interests, who is handling power. It is only the One Total Reality, the Transcendent Real, which is manifesting its power in the world. Therefore the supreme importance of the basis of purity — this is yama. I would like to suggest a meaning of yama which you will not find in the Sanskrit dictionary as such. I have found it suggested in some work which I read many years ago — unfortunately I cannot quote chapter and verse — that yama can be regarded as mortification, not mortification in the monkish sense of torturing oneself — not a bit of it! Mortification really means this. You know that the immediate now is the only reality here for us. The previous moment is gone, it is dead. The future is not yet here. The immediate moment is now. If we are wholly and completely attentive to the immediate moment, we completely work out everything that belongs to the immediate moment, and therefore there is nothing left over. If we do that, we let the totality of the now go completely into the past and we are free. This means that from moment to moment, if we are to live completely and fully, we have to die utterly to every moment as it passes into the dead past. That is the real mortification, the past. The Yogi does this. Can you and I do it? No. Why? We hold on to the things of the present out of fear, out of desire. Therefore we drag into the immediate now the corpses of the past, and this is what burdens us and weighs us down, these corpses of the past.

So now, the importance of yama regarded as mortification. The Śāṇdilya Upaniṣad gives a list of all these yamas, there are ten in this list. Several of the other Upaniṣads also give ten and some give more and some give less. Harmlessness, truth, non-covetousness, continence, kindliness, equanimity, patient endurance, steadiness of mind in gain or loss, abstemiousness in eating and drinking, cleanliness of body and mind, those are the ten which the Śāṇdilya Upaniṣad gives. Patañjali in his Yoga Sutras gives only five. He gives harmlessness, truth, non-covetousness, continence, and as the fifth non-greediness, non-amassing of possessions. In contrast to the Brahmanical presentation, which we find in the Upaniṣads, in Patañjali and so forth, we will find that the Buddha and his great disciples like Sāriputra present the situation in what we would commonly call the negative form. They tell us all the evils we have to get rid of, rather than telling us the positive good qualities that one might think one has to cultivate. The list given is rather a tremendous list in the Buddhist scriptures — greed, ill-will and covetousness, anger, malevolence, hypocrisy, spite, envy, stinginess, deceit, treachery, obstinacy, impetuosity, arrogance, pride, conceit, indolence — there’s a nice list to get rid of! Let us not think therefore that this psychological insight which makes the Buddha present the situation in the negative form is lacking in the Upaniṣads, or in Patañjali. Far from it. Patañjali for example talks of the obstacles to Yoga — disease or illness, dullness, doubt, carelessness, sloth, worldly mindedness, false notions, missing the point, instability. These are accompanied, he says, in the practice of Yoga by pain, despair, nervousness, disturbed inspiration and expiration. He adds in the second section of the aphorisms ignorance and the isolative ego-sense (asmitā). (I think you will find that is probably the best translation). We have to have a self-sense, we have to be self-conscious, otherwise we could not even cross the street in safety, but not the isolative self-consciousness. The Yogaṭaṭṭva Upaniṣad gives laziness, idle talk, association with bad characters and, note carefully, dabbling with mantras, the words or phrases of power, indulgence with the opposite sex. The ṭejobinḍu gives absence of right enquiry or investigation, laziness, inclination to sense pleasures (and of course the Buddha is very strong on this point, he points to the sense pleasures as perhaps the greatest obstacle to the realization of Nivana), absorption in mundane matters, sloth, distraction, impatience, absent mindedness. The Yogakuắdalī gives discontinuing the practice of Yoga out of fear of disease, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sleep, sensuality, delusion, lack of perseverance. The Amṛṭanāḍa gives fear, anger, laziness, excessive eating or fasting, excessive sleeping or waking. Aristotle’s Golden Mean perhaps!

We should consider for just a few moments the psychological insight in presenting the situation in the negative form. One may say: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind … Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” But do you and I know the meaning of love? We know what attraction is, we know what attachment is, we know what possessiveness is, but do you and I really love, absolutely, Transcendentally? Or do we love conditionally? “I will love you provided you will, etc.” We are shopkeepers. And we have the same relationship with God. “I will serve you, O Lord my God, if…” And some may go so far as to feel, “I didn’t quite expect that of you, O Lord!” So do we know this spiritual value in its positive, Transcendental sense, similarly with wisdom, truth, goodness, beauty, take any value you like? Do we really know it? Not a bit of it. What we do know is the opposite, or that rather which goes by the name of the opposite. We know what it is to be angry, to hate, to feel ill-will, to be greedy, to be lustful, to be self-indulgent. We know all that. We know what it is to be stupid, to be dull, but we do not know what it is to be wise in the religious sense, that is in the Transcendent sense. Therefore there is remarkable psychological insight in the way in which the great Teachers have presented this matter. They have asked us to look into ourselves and to be mindful of everything that comes up in consciousness, and not to be misled by the apparent manifestation of what we call virtues. Virtues cannot be cultivated. You cannot seek virtue. You cannot seek ultimate truth. These things in their Transcendence are there. But what we commonly call the vices are the obstructions which emerge out of us because of our state of ignorance, our self-seeking and the urge to fulfil any desire or whim or appetite as it comes up. So let us look to what is wrong. Remove the wrong, transform it and what is right is there. Supposing you have a room which is dirty, you cannot put cleanness into it, you can only remove the dirt. When you have removed the dirt, the room is clean. So you see, the so-called negative presentation is really the practical, the sensible one. The positive presentation is perhaps not quite so practical.

Now the Yogaṭaṭtva Upaniṣad says that scanty eating is the most important yama and harmlessness is the most important niyama. This question of eating and drinking is more important than we imagine it to be. But let me say at the outset that there is no point in making a fetish in relation to what we eat and drink. If we have any good sense, we can use it. Everyone of us has commonsense to some degree or other, but I am talking of good sense, which is rather a different thing. You can work that out for yourselves. But if we have good sense, we will be very careful as to what we eat and drink, not merely because it is necessary to keep the body healthy. What we eat and drink undergoes a transformation and becomes this body, and this body, especially for the Yogi, is that in which is locked up all power and energy, and not only energy and power in the ordinary, physical scientific sense of the word, measurable energy. This whole universe that we apprehend through our senses is a universe in which there are continuous energy exchanges, the entire universal process is a system of energy exchanges, and these energies are all measurable, electricity, heat, light, every form of energy that we know is measurable. But apart from that there is something which modern science is perhaps just beginning to have an inkling of, but which it cannot deal with for the very simple reason that this is im-measurable. It belongs to a dimension of being and consciousness which is not finite, and the In-finite necessarily is im-measurable. It is neither big nor small. It is not finite, and the realm of pure mind and the realm of the spirit, which transcend both speech and mind, have this element of the non-finite about them. And this energy, this power is immeasurable, invisible. You can have no dealings with it, it deals with you all the time. You may ask, “If it is in-finite, im-measurable and so forth how can you talk about it?” If you live in terms of purity, if you live in such a manner that you awake, really awake, to these deep things, you will be transformed by it, by this energy, and you will know it. You will know the transformation but you will never know how that energy works. That is the unknowable, but it works! And the person is transformed, the person is different. That is how all the old Holy Ones knew these things and made certain suggestions which could be helpful to us, if we also take the trouble to become purified and become silent and quiet within ourselves, a silence which is not the mere opposite of noise or sound but which completely includes all sound. Sound is only a fraction of the totality which is silence, just as the entire physical manifested universe is just a fraction of that immensely greater Totality which we call empty space. Eating and drinking are concerned with the transformation of this body which embodies these energies. How these energies will be used, how they will manifest in our everyday life is partly dependent upon what you serve up to this body in terms of your food and your drink, hence the importance. You yourself must decide what you will do about your food and your drink. I am not out here to convert you to eating meat or to abstain from meat or to become fruitarians or anything. Whatever you do, remember the basic rule of the spiritual life — never take leave of good sense.

The next point is harmlessness. The Yogaṭaṭṭva says that harmlessness is the most important religious observance. It is one of the curious facts in the teachings of all the great religions of the world that harmlessness is perhaps emphasized more than anything else. The Buddha for instance made an extraordinary statement. He said, “He who lives not hurting himself, not hurting others, lives with the self become Brāhman.” It takes a long time, it takes a lifetime of strenuous, arduous mindfulness and action to realize the significance of that statement. “He who lives not hurting himself, not hurting others, lives with the self become Brāhman.” And remember that all these yamas and niyamas, the basic purifications and so forth, have to be observed in thought and feeling, in speech and in action. The Upaniṣads repeat this again and again, always in thought and feeling, in speech and action. This is the preliminary.

And then one comes to the practice of the postures, the āsanas and to prāṇāyāma. If there is the basis of purity, every āsana, every posture will express that which represents the Transcendent Reality of our existence, and remember that through the day the body is in some posture or other. Observe in the ordinary way how a person walks, how he sits, how he stands, how he talks, how he comports himself. Doesn’t that tell you a story? Every single posture is an interplay of your own living organism with the total universe. Leave alone the total universe, it is rather large! But it shows your interplay with your own immediate environment. How do I interplay with the environment, in terms of harmony, grace, beauty, in terms of real human relationship with everything, how do I interplay? What is my posture in relation to the situation now, here, inanimate, the chairs, the table, the room, etc. and animate, all of you, what is the relationship? Now you see, the posture has a significance, has it not? Any gesture that a man makes has its meaning, has it not? If we make gestures, if we adopt postures which are merely studied postures, because that is how we have been brought up, very nicely and properly, you see, then a person with any clear insight will see at once that this is just put on, it is a cloak, it is not the reality. But the āsanas of Yogic training are calculated to so affect the body that the body will naturally have the right posture in any and every situation. So now one begins to see something of the importance of posture. What does the ṭejobinḍu Upaniṣad say with regard to the inner significance of posture?

That should be known as āsana in which one can meditate uninterruptedly or undisturbed on Brāhman, and meditate with ease and without fatigue.

The Maṇdalabrāhmaṇa, which is the most remarkable Upaniṣad really, says:

Being firm in the unshaken spiritual wisdom constitutes posture.

These are statements which give you an insight into the esoteric significance and meaning of the physical training in postures.

We have seen the meaning of Yoga, we have seen its purpose. The meaning is to rejoin the separated individual to the Totality, and the purpose of the training is obviously therefore to bring about this happy consummation.


Tim Surtell
Website Developer and Archivist

© 1959–2024 Being Truly Human