Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Vienna conference: Dominik Wujastyk on the Buddhist element in the Yoga Sutra



    At the conference on "Yoga in Transformation" (Vienna, September 2013), Prof. Dominik Wujastyk highlighted some less frequently realized Buddhist elements in Patañjali's Yoga Sutra. The final editing of the Yoga Sutra is conventionally dated to the 4th century (though the text's core may be centuries older), some 4 centuries after the final editing of the Pali canon and at least 7 centuries after the Buddha. 


    Among the more obvious and widely acknowledged Buddhist elements in the Yoga Sutra are the four Brahma-Vihara-s (divine states): maitri (benevolence), karuna (compassion), mudita (fellow-joy) and upeksha (indifference), all four together attested in the Buddhist canon. Incidentally, the Buddha's choice of the term Brahma-Vihara is very inconvenient to those who would like Buddhism to have been a "anti-Vedic revolt".


    Already in the interbellum, Louis de la Vallée-Poussin of Ghent University noted a number of items in the Yoga Sutra that could only be properly understood by taking the Buddhist or Jain surroundings into account. Among these are such key concepts as kaivalya, "isolation" (corresponding to Jain "kevala"), karma, duhkha ("suffering"), and, most consequential and controversial of all, isvara. Wujastyk didn't go into the latter example, but I will apply his insights here.


    I advisedly write isvara without capital, because in Buddhism and Jainism it never had the sense of "Creator" (the universe's endless causal chain not admitting of a beginning) or "Supreme Being" -- and neither did it for Patañjali. The interpretation of isvara as "God", leading even to Madhva's 13th-century division of the Sankhya school (of which Patañjali was a consistent exponent) into Nirisvara Sankhya ("godless Sankhya", or just Sankhya) and Sesvara Sankhya ("Sankhya-with-God", being Patañjali's Yoga), is now a common assumption among Hindus. Yet, if Patañjali had wanted to define isvara as "God" and yoga as "Union with God", he would have said so explicitly. But he doesn't. Isvara is simply a person or consciousness unit without desire -- a realized being or guru, otherwise strangely absent from this yoga classic. If he had wanted to turn isvara into the Creator or so, he would have left us in no doubt about that.


    Now, in this paper, Wujastyk proposed to focus on a few cases that are not so well-known yet. The first one is YS 1.11, containing the word asampramosa, "(memory is) not forgetting". Numerous mediëval commentators and modern translators till today explain this from the root mos,"to steal", or medial "to disappear", so that "memory is non-slippage"; but in fact, it is a clumsy sanskritization of Pali mus-, "forget", corresponding to Sanskrir mrs-, "forget".,' attested in the Buddhist Sutra of Golden Light: "so that the memory may not be forgotten".

    The second one is YS 2.47, containing the word "anantya-samapatti", the attainment of infinitude. Many commentators and translators, mostly in the past, interpret this word with reference to Ananta, "the infinite one", a name of the world snake. In fact, among the 8 samapatti-s ("attainments") or stages of Buddhist meditation (several of which are continuations of practices the Buddha in his apprentice years learned from "Hindu" yogis), the 5th and 6th stages are called the Akasa-Anantya-Ayatana and the Vijnana-Anantya-Ayatana, i.e. focusing on the "infinitude of space" and the "infinitude of consciousness". Both the Buddha and Patañjali borrowed from an existing culture of meditation practices. 


    Finally, the reference in YS 4:29 to dharmameghah, "the cloud raining down righteousness", actually refers to one of the Buddhist descriptions of the duties of a king: being like a cloud (megha) that rains down righteousness (dharma) on his people. Wujastyk concludes what his data suggest, viz. that Patañjali was a child of his time, borrowing from or re-applying concepts from his intellectual environment, including Jainism and Buddhism.

Some commentators on the YS mistranslated phrases because they had become unaware of the Buddhist context. This observation can also be applied to passages not discussed here, such as the references to isvara, where an entire doctrine has been elevated among late- and post-mediëval Hindu philosophers attributing theism to Patañjali, all on the basis of a mistaken interpretation of the word isvara.

I might add that the reverse is also true: as Johannes Bronkhorst shows in his book Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism, the Buddha repeatedly referred to passages of Yajñavalkya's Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, and Pali Canon editors misunderstood these passages because they did not recognize their referential character. This is what you can expect from Hindu sectarianism: as I first noted among Western followers of Hindu gurus, but later also among born Hindus: most people only know their own sectarian tradition and have no grasp at all of the larger picture. Both the followers of Patañjali and those of the Buddha were so fixated on their own sectarian traditions that they failed to see how their own respective masters had borrowed from other traditions, which were beyond their ken.

    Leaving Wujastyk for now and developing my own conclusions, I would say that this does not illustrate what most people would like to read into it, viz. that Patañjali was essentially a variator on Buddhist thought, and that everything profound in Hinduism is but an outgrowth of Buddhism. Instead, what Patañjali had in common with the Buddha was partly borrowed from the Buddha, and partly elements of an older tradition from which Buddhism had borrowed. This is already suggested by the common indebtedness to Kapila, the legendary founder of the Sankhya school whose conceptual framework Patañjali uses and who donated the land for the town in which the Buddha grew up, viz. Kapilavastu. Sankhya has influenced both the Upanishads and Buddhism, the main "orthodox" and "heterodox" traditions, and is thus a truly pan-Indian school.
Of course, it has been eclipsed at least by the time of Sankara (8th century) by Vedanta, and more recently totally eclipsed by theistic Vedanta, the conceptual backbone of the devotional (Bhakti) mass movement. Sankara also holds it against Patañjali that he doesn't quote the Vedas or concede to them any position of authority, which is perhaps not such a bad thing. At any rate, Hindus would do well to rediscover and revaluate Sankhya and admit Patañjali a place of pride within it.

Another far-reaching conclusion which I venture to draw from this analysis of misunderstandings: the commentators and even the masters, who together form the venerable "tradition", were only fallible human beings. The tradition contains many mistakes. Some stray examples from other fields: the Puranas discuss the relation between the Vedic seers Visvamitra and Vasistha in terms of caste rivalry, when caste was not yet an issue in early Vedic times; the Puranic genealogies of the Vedic seers conflict with the information on the seers which a close analysis of the Vedic texts themselves reveals; the Puranas call the Kanvas and Atris the first seer families, when the Rg-Veda clearly starts with the Angiras seers, etc. So, unlike traditionalist Hindus who crawl before tradition and venerate it to the letter, and whose boastful knowledge of tradition does not amount to more than quoting it by heart, we are free to dissent from tradition and deal with it critically.


அரவிந்தன் நீலகண்டன் said...

Take also into consideration Saiva Siddhanta were the Guru and the highest conceptio of Divinity are one and the same. In Saiva Siddhanta Siva comes as Guru when one attains a critical mass towards enlightenment. Nevertheless Saiva Siddhanta also says that the souls like Siva are uncreated.

sandalwood said...

Excellent blog, Dr. Elst. I wonder how you would date the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and if you agree with Dr. Kazanas in this.

Turbolag Panja said...

Dr. Koenraad Elst dates the Upanishads between 1500BC--400BC...please go to the december and January posts...with Brihad. being the earliest

sandalwood said...

Thanks Turbolag. I had a look and see that Dr. Elst sees the Brhd Upanishad as being at least 500 years older than the commonly held date of 800-900 BCE.

If I am not mistaken, there is a list of 50 or so gurus in this Upanishad which are said to predate sequentially the time of the composition, and to whom the knowledge in the Upanishads is accorded. So the Upanishad itself adds about a 1000 years this way (according to Dr. Kazanas) to its own historical genesis. To me, this adds a further wrinkle to the dating process.

Turbolag Panja said...

For Dr. Elst the Mahabharata war is critical in the dating process....the three articles where he at length discusses this are 1)Dilli,Indraprastha article of 2009,

2) the Astronomical Evidence for the Upanishads from dec. 2013 and 3) The Arundhati Omen from feb. 2014

Could you please tell me which chapter of the Brihad. are you referring to regarding the list of 50 Gurus?

sandalwood said...

The list is in Part 2, chapter 6... as found here: (scroll down a bit)

Koenraad Elst said...

I promise an in-depth and comprehensive contribution to the Vedda-Mahabharata question. I have some ideas, of which you already know the drift. It holds the middle between the traditionalist chronology (MBh war in 3139 BCE) and the AIT chronology, and in this case I have the impression that the middling position also happens to be the true position supported by the source texts.

Turbolag Panja said...

Thank you,Dr. Elst. We will be looking forward to it. Could you please also tackle the question of as to where Ramayana should be placed in your chronology? Or will it be too much of a project given the paucity of corroborating evidence?Sir, while you are at it, could you please shed some of your opinion on the construction and dimension of chariots in the Vedic and the immediate post-Vedic times? (Mbh war time). I have tried to find as many resources on this as possible but the only scholarly resource I have been able to find is "Chariots in the Veda" by M.Sparreboom from 1985..It is available partially on Google books ...So Sir what is your opinion...were Indian chariots nimble and light like those of the Egyptians and the later racing chariots of the Romans? or were they much heavier and longer as we are used to in our TV shows from the 80s? Did they use four horses to draw a chariot since the Indian breeds had not developed by then? (I remember in the Dhammapada Buddha had said the horses of the Sindhu region were excellent,noble and thoroughbred---Dhammapada verse 323)

and there are few maps on Ancient India doing rounds on Wikipedia which stem from the "Epic India" and "Epic/Ancient Indian Cities" maps created by an Indian history buff and also from worldhistorymapsdotinfo...After a fair bit of research I have found out that they draw their information primarily from Joseph.E.Schwartzberg's A Historical Atlas of South Asia....though its cumbersome it has been enlightening....those maps also seem to concur with your view that the original Aryavarta didnot include lower Sindh, Rajasthan,Madhyapradesh or Eastern Bihar and Chattisgarh

Many Indian History Buffs are yearning for good academic resources regarding maps of Ancient India and allied regions....are these good ones to
have a trust in based on the current knowledge that the historians possess? (For others who may be interested the Historical Atlas of South Asia is available at the Digital South Asia Library site of U of Chicago---the maps are a bit cumbersome to look at)

Shaas said...

That was a really weak conclusion to an otherwise interesting article.
You seem to take the scriptures literally in the same way as the persons you so generously critise for doing so.

Golden Reed said...

@Turbolag: I just read through the posts you mention, and I don't see Brhadaranyaka being said to be the oldest Upanishad. In fact, internal evidence shows that Aitareya is oldest, followed by Chandogya & Taittiriya, followed by Brhadaranyaka & Kaushitaki. Aitareya Up. was written by Mahidasa Aitareya, who is mentioned in Ch. Up. to have lived to 116 years. Further, the "protagonists" of Ch. Up. such as Śvetaketu, Satyakama Jabala and Uddalaka Aruni are mentioned in Brh. Up. as seeking to learn new teachings. The reverse mentioning does not occur, i.e., Ait. Up. doesn't mention Satyakama Jabala, etc; Ch. Up. doesn't mention Yajnavalkya. If these teachers were so famous and comtemporaneous, they would certainly have been mentioned.

Also, I wonder if this statement in the Ch. Up. has caught anyone's attention: (3.17)"This doctrine was taught by Ghora Ᾱṅgirasa to Kṛṣṇa Devakiputra, and by that he never again suffered thirst." Of course, the names Kṛṣṇa and Devaki are very common, but the former being the latter's son might be a little rare. How pertinent is this to the dating of Upanishads and Mahabharata?

Golden Reed said...

Dr. Elst, interesting that you cite the example of Viśvāmitra and Vasiṣṭha. Ever since I became better acquainted with the Rgveda and Nirukta, I have doubted the Puranic story of their rivalry. Three facts stand out:

(1)There is no evidence (as far as I know) in the Rgveda that Viśvāmitra or his ancestors were kings. There are hymns composed by kings in the Rgveda, but they clearly make that known. If Viśvāmitra gave up his kingdom to become a sage, he would certainly mention this momentous change in his life at least once in his hymns. He certainly is not shy about declaring his moment of illumination, "I am Agni" (3.26.7).

(2)An early medieval commentator on the Nirukta, Durgacarya, omits commenting on a Viśvāmitra verse on the grounds that the verse insults Vasiṣṭha, and Durgacarya being of the Vasiṣṭha lineage. The reason is very frivolous: the use of the word "lodha" (="lubdha" greedy) in 3.53.23 is supposed to refer to Vasiṣṭha, which is not the case.

(3)If there really was a history of clashes, then Veda Vyasa, the great-grandson of Vasiṣṭha was clearly in a prime position to do damage to Viśvāmitra's legacy by expunging all of the latter's hymns from the Rgveda or some such thing. It seems unbelievable that an older descendant doesn't know of this rivalry, whereas a much younger descendant makes much of it.

pro_scribe said...

Dear Dr. Elst,

An illuminating blog, as always. Apropos your glowing reference to the Samkhya School, Acharya Rajneesh / Osho shares your view. Although he wasn't a scholar, he did have an understanding of a breadth of Dharmic themes as an exegete. And while he didn't write any commentaries or books himself, some of the compilations of his discourses I've come across establish how highly he rated Samkhya.

I tend to think amongst all the 20th century Indian-origin religious figures / scholars, he was perhaps the only one to do so. I specifically refer to his exposition on the `psychology of Bhagwat Gita' in which he takes one of the passages referring to Kapila to bring forth the preeminence of Samkhya. In fact, three of the books based on his numerous lectures which I've read broadly uphold Samkhya, and not the more popular Mayavaad of Shankara, to be the key. He certainly refers to Samkhya overwhelmingly, with almost little or no mention of Vedanta. Amongst the Vedantic texts, he was partial towards the Ashtavakra Gita.

Max Muller noted in his introduction to the translations of Shankara's works that he faced his biggest challenges from the rigorous Samkhya scholars from amongst all the orthodox schools.

Best regards,

Turbolag Panja said...

Golden Reed I personally think the Krishna of Chandogya Upanishad is the Krishna we speak of...I more or less will agree with your position ...but have to study more the genealogy provided by sandalwood..thanks for the new info regarding Chandogya being antecedent to Brihad.