What is Yoga?
The word Yoga is now a very well-known and popular term all over the world. But except for a few deep and discerning thinkers on the subject the true meaning and aim of what is called as “Yoga” is not fully understood by the popular mind or even by the thinking intelligentia who talks and writes about it. The popular understanding of Yoga is confined to the narrow province of hatha-yogic asanas and pranayama or at the highest, “meditation”. The moment we come across the word “Yoga” or “Yogi” the images which spontaneously raise in our mind are someone doing asanas or pranayama or sitting cross legged in meditation with closed eyes. Those who are a little bit more well-versed in the Indian religious and spiritual lore understand the word yoga to mean union with the Divine, or God or union of the individual Soul with the Universes Soul. Among this last category of people, a few who have a deeper understanding of the Indian vedanthic philosophy, Yoga means conscious union or conscious identity with our own highest eternal and universal Self. Yoga for the Indian vedanthin is the path for the realisation of the highest spiritual aim of life which is the discovery of the supreme truth of the identity of the individual I with the Universal I. Here we come close to a scientific, psychological and spiritual understanding of Yoga.
Yoga is the psychological and spiritual methods of self-discipline, self-exploration, self-development and self-knowledge. It is an adventure of consciousness, a voyage in the inner space of our own being, an exploration of our inner cosmos. It is also a path of self-development because an increasing self-knowledge leads to an increasing awareness and activation of the hidden potentialities, powers and faculties of the deeper, higher and inner layers of our being. The ultimate aim of yoga is to pass out from the ordinary mental consciousness revolving around the separative ego-centric individuality into the spiritual consciousness of our own highest, egoless, universal and eternal Self and manifest the light, power and values of this higher self in the individual and collective life. This is in essence the highest aim of yoga conceived and attempted in the ancient Indian spiritual tradition. All yogic systems of India did not have this highest aim nor is this aim expressed in the same language. For example manifestation of the psychological and spiritual powers of consciousness is not a conscious aim in most of the Indian Yogic system of India. The way of approach and the language and terminology of expression may differ sharply among various systems of Yoga. In the Indian puranic system it is theistic, religious and mythological; in the vaishnava yoga it is devotional, poetic and symbolic, in Rajayoga and Buddhism it is non-theistic, scientific and psychological; in Githa and Tanthra it is intuitive, synthetic and spiritual. Whatever may be the differences in the method and language, all systems of Indian yoga agree in principle on two fundamental truths; first on the existence of an eternal, infinite and timeless Reality, Consciousness and Power beyond mind as the ultimate essence, ground, depth, source and self of the individual and the universe; and second, the ultimate aim of life is to realise conscious union of the individual soul with this supreme Reality which is its source.
The Evolutionary Aim of Yoga
We have travelled far from the ordinary popular conceptions of Yoga and arrived at a much deeper understanding of the aim of yoga. But there are still certain fundamental question which remain unanswered even by this deeper vision of Yoga. What is the evolutionary significance of Yoga? Is the spiritual consummation of the individual the whole and entire aim of Yoga? What is the aim and purpose which yoga serves in the evolution of the individual and collectivity?
There is no clear answer to these questions in ancient Indian Yoga. But without a clear understanding of this evolutionary aim Yoga, it will remain as a freak and isolated mystic phenomenon or endeavour pursued by some exceptionally gifted souls without any relation to the rest of human endeavour or life as a whole. Here comes the importance of the teachings of modern exponents of Yoga like Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo. It was Swami Vivekananda who first brought to the front the evolutionary aim of Yoga in the individual. Yoga, according to the Swami, is compressed evolution. It is the systematic method of self-discipline bywhich the psycho-spiritual evolution of the individual can be quickened. What may take many centuries when left entirely to the slow and subconscious process of the ordinary methods of evolutionary nature, is sought to be achieved in Yoga in a few years by a willed and systematic methods of conscious inner self-development and concentration of energies. But even in Swami Vivekananda’s teachings the collective aim of Yoga in the humanity as a whole still remains unclear. Only in Sri Aurobindo’s evolutionary vision of Yoga the individual and collective aim of Yoga is revealed with a crystal clear clarity, comprehensiveness and precision.
The Yoga of Nature
According to Sri Aurobindo, the entire evolutionary history of Earth is a vast yoga of Nature trying to unite with her own eternal Being through a progressive self-manifestation of her potentialities from the inconscience of Matter, vital response of the plant life, sense-conscious life and mind of the animal and arriving at the self-conscious rational mind of Man. This Yoga of Nature, which was proceeding through a subconscious process in her material, biological and animal phases of her terrestial evolution, with the advent of conscious Mind, acquires the possibility of becoming fully self-conscious in Man. But the self-conscious rational mind is not the highest self or highest possible potentiality in Man. The next step in Nature’s evolutionary march is towards a gradual unveiling of the true and highest self in man as a superconscious spirit beyond Mind. Man, the present epitome of Nature, is her self-conscious thinking instrument and laboratory in whom and with whose conscious consent and collaboration, Nature is experimenting with her third supreme and inevitable step in her evolutionary march: to manifest and deliver the veiled spirit in the thinking and living matter. Only in mysticism and spirituality, or in other words, in the lives and realisation of the great spiritual personalities, this higher evolutionary aim of Yoga becomes more or less a conscious self-directed process.
The lives and realisation of great mystics and yogis of the world represent the Nature’s attempts in her few exceptional individual instruments to exceed her collective realisation and reveal a glimpse to the mankind of her higher and future possibilities. So, the mystic and the yogi is not a spiritual freak of Nature, but a specialist and a pioneer laboratory inwhich Nature had tested and experimented with her future possibilities. The aim of the yoga of Nature in the individual is, as we have said already, to quicken the evolution of the individual by a rapid and concentrated application of her normal universal evolutionary process — which proceeds in a leisurely process through aeonic periods with a lot of apparent waste — working through a quick illumination, purification and energisation of all the levels of his being. Through the process of Yoga, Nature reveals to Man, all the parts and planes, the heights and depths and the truths and laws of his own self, her evolutionary plan, purpose process and goal in the universe and the higher truths and laws of her own eternal and transcendent being beyond the universe. Thus through yoga, Nature aims to make Man the fully conscious master of all the depths and heights of his own being and conscious collaborator in her cosmic or terrestial evolutionary endeavour. When this happens, that is, when the universal yoga of nature becomes fully conscious in the individual and conterminous with his individual yoga, then we can say with perfect justification all life is yoga.
But very few among the spiritual traditions of world had a clear vision of the goal or purpose of the universal evolutionary aim of Nature in man. Most of the spiritual traditions of the world conceived the ultimate purpose of life as a rejection of life and an emergence of the soul in the pure timeless existence of the spirit. Then why at all the spirit should create the world or the human soul should forget its true nature or home and fall into the ignorance? It is rather philosophically clumsy and revolting to our intuition to conceive that the Spirit created this world or the human souls descended into this universe inorder to realise the blunder or futility of its action and return back to its source. What is the purpose of this fall into ignorance, falsehood, death, suffering and evil and the apparently hopeless struggle against them and the heroic attempts of the higher elements in man to understand and overcome them under and heavy odds and the straining of these nobler elements in man for heavenly verities? Whether all these are only to awaken the soul of man to the futility of life and make him abandon life and turn to the spirit or is there a greater purpose behind it? According to Sri Aurobindo the great adventure of the soul in space and time and history is not just an idiot’s tale but conceals a deep purpose of the spirit. A great spiritual gain is waiting for the human soul when it finally emerges out after passing through ignorance. The soul emerges as a “godhead greater by the human fall” spiritually enriched by a cosmic experience in Time which it would not have had if it remained in its timeless altitudes.
Even apart from this philosophical consideration when we examine the course of human evolution with a discerning eye we can find that Nature never functions through a process of rejection but by a process of transfiguration, inclusion and integration. When Nature evolved Life from Matter, she did not reject matter but created living Matter by a transfiguration of the energy and substance of Matter by the Life-energy and integrating Life and Matter in a new equilibrium or syntheses. In a similar way, when mind emerged from life, again Nature did not reject matter and life but created a thinking and living matter through a further transformation of the energy and substance of living matter by the emerging light and energy of mind and creating a still higher level of integration of the matter, life and mind. There is no reason why Nature should change her evolutionary logic in her future progress. Here next supreme step in evolution, if we follow the evolutionary logic of Nature, has to be to create or rather manifest a supramental being or a god made of superconscious living matter. This means a supreme and perfect integration of the body, life, mind and spirit in a divine harmonic whole inwhich each of these member of our individual self-functions spontaneously according to the deepest truth and law of its being, without interfering with that of other members but in harmony with them, under the supreme and direct guidance and control of the supreme Self and Spirit.
Towards the Kingdom of God on Earth
But the transformation of a few individuals is not the aim of Nature. The aim of Nature in this great terrestial evolutionary endeavour is to generalise the possibility of this integral spiritual transformation for the whole race.
So, a Yoga which aims at a total and conscious participation in the evolutionary endeavour of Nature, individual liberation or transformation cannot be the goal. The liberated and transformed soul lives in the consciousness of integral union with the super-nature of the Spirit. One of the fundamental laws of this supernature is Unity, an indivisible Unity manifesting in an infinite Diversity. So, the liberated soul who lives in this consciousness of unity feels the entire universe as a part of his own self and an intimate oneness in mind, and life and even in the body with all the beings in the universe. Such a soul cannot remain satisfied with its own solitary salvation. For how can I enjoy a solitary bliss when a large part of my own self in others is languishing in the hell of ignorance, evil and sorrow? This is probably the central spiritual intuition or experience behind the Mahayana Buddhism and the great vow of Amithava Buddha who resolved not to enter into pari nirvana until the last living being in the world is liberated from suffering and ignorance.
This then is the evolutionary aim of yoga. For the individual, the higher aim of Yoga is not personal salvation, but to become a free, liberated, illumined and divinised instrument of the divine self and spirit and participate consciously in the evolutionary endeavour of our universal Mother in the collective redemption of the human race. Such a yogi becomes a conscious instrument of the spirit for the progressive manifestation of the divine will in the universe and a pure, flawless and radiant channel of the Spirit. The collective aim of Yoga is an uplifting ascent of the consciousness of humanity from its present condition of ego-centric mental consciousness towards an egoless, universal and supramental consciousness; and as a result a transfiguring descent of the light, love and power of the spirit into the physical, vital and mental life of man; remoulding human life in the image of the Divine, or in other words the long awaited Millennium, the kingdom of God on Earth.