From Matter into Spirit


It is said that Ancient India was a prolific spiritual civilization. The teachings are mystical, magical, practical and popular. There is so much wisdom embedded within the Vedas, the Upanishads, the six orthodox schools of thought which include Yoga, the three heterodox schools of thought which include Buddhism, and possibly more, that it is almost impossible to comprehend. Where did they come from? Are the teachings divine or are they of man? Is it possible to satisfy my intellectual curiosity and reconcile the teachings with my religious and cultural upbringing while practicing some form of what I am learning?

The required reading of my first teacher training included the Bhagavad Gita, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Translation and Commentary by Swami Satchitananda. The cover of that book is light blue with a photograph of Swami seated on a bench wearing flowing pink robes in front of a body of glistening water with trees and mountains in the background. The image conveys so much to me – depth, breadth, height, light, peace, calm, old, new, life, and death. The Yoga Sutras are, indeed, all that and more.

I have spent countless hours in pursuit of the sutras – all that they encompass and what they have to teach us. I am so intrigued that I have become equal parts archeologist, psychologist, philosopher, interpreter, and even skeptic amassing a collection of over 40 editions of commentary and translation of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. While searching libraries and online resources, I learned that Yoga is a vast subject with many branches that was developed by real people, in a real place, at a real time who were trying to make sense of their worldly experience.

Like I do with everything else in my life, when I am interested in something, I go all out. I started at the very beginning, which is a very good place to start, and decided that in order for me to grasp this body of work, I had to learn each word, of each sutra, in order.

As I worked through the 196 sutras, a big question formed in my mind. Why was it that Patanjali describes some concepts clearly and with elaboration while other concepts are there as a given. The answer? Because Yoga does, in fact, accept certain concepts as a given. These are the metaphysical principles of Samkhya, the oldest orthodox system born out of the Vedas, which enumerates a very specific theory of the world. Yoga accepts this theory, and therefore, it is important to understand it as a prerequisite to understanding Yoga.

The theory goes like this. Because of avidya, spiritual ignorance, Purusha, pure consciousness or the Self, misidentifies as prakriti, the experience of the material world which results in suffering. Once there is the understanding that purusha is actually independent of prakriti, i.e., Self-realization, the Self is free and absolute freedom, kaivalaya, arises. Samkhya is a dualistic philosophy outlining the metaphysics of the nature of being holding spirit and matter as distinct and independent entities. In fact, there is only one prakriti, the source of the material world but there are infinite purusha, all of the conscious spiritual beings, i.e., us, that are part of that world.

Samkhya enumerates 25 tattvas or true principles. Twenty-four are evolutes of prakriti and the 25th is simply purusha. Everything that exists on the material plane evolves out of prakriti. At the highest level are the gross elements known as the mahabhutas: earth, water, air, fire and ether. The next level are the five organs of cognition, sensing or knowing. These are called the jnanendriyas or the entrance doors: the ears, the skin, the taste buds on the tongue, the nose and the eyes. The next level are the five organs of action or expression or the exit doors, the karmendriyas: the mouth, feet, hands, anus and genitals. The objects of the five senses are the subtlest of the gross levels of prakriti and are called the tanmatras: hearing, touch, taste, smell and vision.

Prakriti continues to evolve and postulates subtler levels of material existence. The lower mind, the manas, supervises the ten senses and is said to be where thought originates. The ego, what we equate to I-am-ness, is the ahamkara. And then there is the doorway to inner wisdom, the higher mind, the intellect, known as the buddhi. Ultimately these evolutes end in the great principle of prakriti itself, which is the subtlest material essence of the universe, material nature, known as alingam. Purusha is pure consciousness, absolute and unchanging. It is not a product of prakriti nor is it the cause of prakriti.

This theory is just one of many that explains the nature of being. Patanjali and his comrades based their practices on this theory pursuing a direct personal experience of purusha as outlined in Samkhya. Following teachings from scriptures that came before, these yogis set out to separate their experience of the material world from their pure, perfect spiritual consciousness compiling their practices in what became known as the Yoga Sutras.

It is in this separation that Self-realization is achieved. We are, in fact, spirits in the material world.