In the article Pranayama and Raja Yoga it was said:
“The original Ashtanga Yoga system (literally “Eight-Limbed Yoga” for it consists of eight successive stages) of the ancient Hindu sage Patanjali is known as Raja Yoga. It is primarily a mental form of Yoga, in which through progressive degrees of perfection in meditative concentration one elevates one’s consciousness to the point of eventually attaining reunion in consciousness with the Higher Self, the One Spirit, the Divine Essence which is all and in all.
“Raja Yoga is not the same as Hatha Yoga, which is the system that has traditionally placed great emphasis on Pranayama, physical postures (Asanas), chakras, and Kundalini. However, it is undeniable that the third and fourth of Patanjali’s “Eight Limbs” are Asanas and Pranayama. These follow extensive self-purification and ethical development and precede the practice of real meditation.
“How then can Theosophists – who often study, recommend, and even publish the book of Patanjali’s Yoga Aphorisms – be critical regarding the practices of Asanas and especially Pranayama?”
The answer, which was explored at some length in that article, was that Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras were never meant to be taken entirely literally but rather esoterically and symbolically. In various places, H. P. Blavatsky wrote “Read Patanjali’s Yoga Philosophy; but with caution, for it is very apt to mislead, being written in symbolic language. . . . beware of taking the exoteric works on Yoga literally. They all require a key. . . . He who would know more, let him study Vedanta and Patanjali’s Yoga Philosophy – esoterically.”
And it was explained that William Q. Judge, in his comments on various aphorisms in his rendition of the Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali, indicates that Asanas (special physical postures) and Pranayama (in the sense in which it is commonly understood and practised: forceful suppression of the breath and breath manipulation exercises) can be dispensed with in Raja Yoga and one still reach the goal. We then showed that the revered sage of ancient India, Adi Shankaracharya, also taught that these two “limbs” of Raja Yoga are to be understood symbolically and not at all practised literally and physically.
But even in the 20th century Hindu world, this point as made by Theosophy has been made by a very prominent and well known spiritual teacher who is widely revered as a great Yogi, namely Sri Aurobindo, who lived from 1872 to 1950. Readers of “The Theosophical Movement” magazine published monthly by the United Lodge of Theosophists in India may have noticed that he is quite often quoted in there, as is his colleague Mirra Alfassa (1878-1973), generally known as “The Mother.”
It is hard to know exactly what to make of Sri Aurobindo. To the student of Theosophy who is deeply versed in the original and authentic Theosophical teachings, literature, energy, and the esoteric system of the Mahatmas or Masters of Wisdom, Aurobindo stands out strongly as being a very probable example of an initiated chela or disciple of the Masters, working outside any nominally Theosophical organisation but still part of the broader work of the Theosophical Movement in its general and universal sense. There is also this interesting and significant quote:
“Once while I was practicing Yoga, He whom the Theosophists call Master K.H. (Kuthumi) came and stood before me and watched my Yoga. I requested him to accept me as his disciple; but he said ‘Your Master is different.’” (Sri Aurobindo to Kavibhusan B. G. Khaparde, c. 1908-1910)
His deep and inspirational poem about the Mahatma K.H., written in 1910, is included at the end of this article.
He also wrote: “From one point of view I cannot find praise warm enough to do justice to the work of Theosophy; from another I cannot find condemnation strong enough to denounce it.” His denunciations seemed directed at the then-prominent Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater’s version of “Theosophy,” promulgated by “The Theosophical Society – Adyar,” which was very different in almost every way from the Theosophy of H. P. Blavatsky, William Judge, and the Mahatmas, for Aurobindo went on to say, “I admit the truths that Theosophy seeks to unveil; but I do not think they can be reached if we fall into bondage even to the most inspiring table talk of Mahatmas or to the confused anathemas and vaticinations hurled from their platform tripods by modern Pythonesses of the type of Mrs Annie Besant, that great, capacious but bewildered and darkened intellect, now stumbling with a loud and confident blindness through those worlds of twilight and glamour, of distorted inspirations, perverted communications and misunderstood or half-understood perceptions which are so painfully familiar to the student and seeker.”
At another time, he said: “Mahatmas exist, but they are not omnipotent or infallible. Rebirth is a fact and the memory of our past lives is possible; but the rigid rules of time and of Karmic reaction laid down dogmatically by the Theosophist hierophants are certainly erroneous. Especially is the hotchpotch of Hindu and Buddhist mythology and Theosophic prediction served up to us by Mrs Besant confusing and misleading. At any rate it does not agree with the insight of much greater Yogins than herself. Like most Theosophists she seems to ignore the numerous sources and possibilities of error which assail the Yogin before his intellect is perfectly purified and he has his perfection in the higher and superintellectual faculties of the mind. Until then the best have to remember that the mind even of the fairly advanced is not yet divine and that it is the nature of the old unchastened human element to leap at misunderstandings, follow the lure of predilections and take premature conclusions for established truths.”
He decried the “Theosophical popery” that Besant and Leadbeater had set up for themselves and, later, the Mother (Mirra Alfassa) would warn against the work and writings of both Alice Bailey and Rudolf Steiner, describing them as being absorbed in a dark and harmful energy.
Many students of original Theosophy and ex-students of the teachings of those just named would be liable to agree with this. But part of what makes Aurobindo difficult to wholly assess is that at times he also spoke critically of H. P. Blavatsky and in a way that suggests he had never really understood her work or perceived her for what she truly was – and is. One would expect a chela of the Mahatmas to know that, if that is what he was. But at other times he spoke positively and admiringly of HPB.
As a younger man and prior to starting his main public work for which he became famous, he experimented for a short time with the mediumistic practice of automatic writing and some of the messages that came through informed him that the Mahatmas K.H. and M. do not really exist except as psychic energies and that the energy of M., Morya or Maurya, is a bad and destructive energy. Thankfully, Aurobindo soon gave up automatic writing, deciding that the messages that came through his pen were very unreliable and generally of a low astral, misleading nature. We mention this here as some people online quote those automatic writings on these subjects as if they were Aurobindo’s permanent and settled view on the matter, failing to mention his eventual negative evaluation of the worth and accuracy of automatic writing.
Below is Aurobindo’s essay “Rajayoga” written in 1910 and with added bold emphasis of the parts most relevant to our main subject of discussion. Later, he would coin the term “Integral Yoga” as the name for the type of yoga taught and practised by him. His Integral Yoga has much in common with the real esoteric Raja Yoga but is not quite the same, though the points in which they differ appear to be quite minor.
His whole philosophy is known as Integral Yoga and sometimes as Integral Advaita, “Advaita” meaning non-duality, non-dualism. The philosophical side of his writings is almost exactly the same as Theosophy – though with much brand new terminology, which can take some time to learn and understand – although not going into the same metaphysical depth or detail nor trying to demonstrate the universality of the teachings in the way that HPB does in “The Secret Doctrine.” But this was not Aurobindo’s aim or mission. His writings, or at least his earlier writings, including the book “The Life Divine,” seem aimed primarily at Hindus and with the aim of completely reforming Hinduism in its ideologies, practices, and cultures. He promoted the abolishment of caste, idol worship, temple worship, and a return to the ancient Upanishads, the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Gayatri Mantra. Nonetheless, he was perhaps the least “Hindu” of all Hindu philosophers, as these remarkably Theosophical words show:
“What is kept of Hinduism is Vedanta and Yoga, in which Hinduism is one with Sufism of Islam and with the Christian mystics. But even here it is not Vedanta and Yoga in their traditional limits (their past), but widened and rid of many ideas that are peculiar to the Hindus. If I have used Sanskrit terms and figures, it is because I know them and do not know Persian and Arabic. I have not the slightest objection to anyone here drawing inspiration from Islamic sources if they agree with the Truth as Sufism agrees with it. On the other hand I have not the slightest objection to Hinduism being broken to pieces and disappearing from the face of the earth, if that is the Divine Will. I have no attachment to past forms; what is Truth will always remain; the Truth alone matters.” (from “Letters on Yoga” Vol. 1)
Aurobindo was partly educated in England, studying classics at the prestigious Cambridge University, and there became introduced to and very well acquainted with the field of Western philosophy, which no doubt contributed greatly to his universalised view of things.
The Integral Yoga philosophy is predominantly practise-based, with the metaphysics and philosophy being of lesser and background importance, though still crucial. Those meditative and yogic practices appear to have been safe and accompanied with wise guidance, such as these ever-pertinent descriptions, explanations, and cautions of what Theosophists know from “The Voice of The Silence” as the “second hall” of the Three Halls, the “Hall of Learning,” well described by Aurobindo as “the intermediate zone.”
Whereas Theosophy tells us that Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras were always intentionally esoteric and the Asanas and Pranayamas not intended to be taken in the literal way that they now commonly are, Aurobindo seemed unacquainted with this view of the matter and thought that Patanjali had deliberately and unnecessarily incorporated them as physical Hatha Yoga style practises into his Raja Yoga. Despite this, the end result of his view of Raja Yoga is essentially the same as Theosophy’s, as will now be seen.
He was also – unlike Theosophy – not very keen on the majority of Adi Shankaracharya’s teachings and philosophical reasoning, despite them both being Advaitis or non-dualists. This mainly came down to the fact that Shankaracharya never (or at least not in any of his publicly known teachings) acknowledged there being an evolutionary plan or purpose behind the Universe and behind all life. In Shankaracharya’s writings the aim of the Universe is to escape from it, back into Absoluteness. Most likely he was not permitted to publicly reveal anything different in his time, which – according to Theosophy and most of the Shankaracharya mathams or monasteries – was 2,500 years ago. Aurobindo’s philosophy, which places strong emphasis on cosmic and human evolution and also promotes the compassionate Bodhisattva ideal of renouncing re-absorption into Nirvanic bliss
in order to help, serve, and teach others, is, in these points, much closer to the Esoteric Philosophy of Theosophy than are Shankara’s known works, despite the greatness of the latter. Please click here to see what Theosophy has to say about the nature, role, and also time period, of Adi Shankaracharya.
Students of Theosophy who know of the occult significance of the date 17th November may be interested to learn that “The Mother,” Mirra Alfassa, Aurobindo’s wholly trusted and beloved colleague and spiritual co-worker, who he viewed as his equal in all things, passed away on that date, 17th November, in 1973. Significant or just coincidence? It may be a long time before we are in a position to know for sure but in the meantime it provides some interesting food for thought.
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By Sri Aurobindo, written in 1910
Man fulfilling himself in the body is given Hathayoga as his means. When he rises above the body, he abandons Hathayoga as a troublesome and inferior process and rises to the Rajayoga, the discipline peculiar to the aeon in which man now evolves. The first condition of success in Rajayoga is to rise superior to the dehatmak bodh, the state of perception in which the body is identified with the self. A time comes to the Rajayogin when his body seems not to belong to him or he to have any concern with it. He is not troubled by its troubles or gladdened by its pleasures; it has them to itself and very soon, because he does not give his sanction to them, they fall away from it. His own troubles and pleasures are in the heart and mind, for he is the rajasic and psychical man, not the tamasic material. It is these that he has to conquer in order that he may realise God in his heart or in his buddhi or in both. God seen in the heart, that is the quest of the Rajayogin. He may recover the perception and enjoyment of the body afterwards, but it is only to help the enjoyment of God as Love and God as Knowledge.
The processes of the Rajayoga are mental and emotional. Patanjali’s science is not the pure Rajayoga; it is mixed and allows an element of the Hatha in its initial processes. It admits the Asana, it admits the Pranayam. It is true it reduces each to one of its kind, but the method of conquest is physical and therefore not Rajayogic. It may be said that the stillness of the body is essential to concentration or to samadhi; but this is a convention of the Hathayoga. The Rajayogin concedes no such importance to the body; he knows by experience that concentration can be secured in any easy and unconstrained posture which allows one to forget the body; it is often as much helped by rhythmic motion as by stillness. Samadhi, when it comes, itself secures stillness of the body. The pure Rajayogin dispenses therefore with the physical practice of Asana.
The real reason why Patanjali laid so much stress on Asana was that he thought Pranayam essential to samadhi and Asana essential to Pranayam. It is difficult, though not impossible, to do the practice of Pranayam according to Patanjali’s system without perfect bodily stillness. It can be done and has been done even while walking about, but this is not so easy or usual. Now Pranayam in its proper sense, the mastery of the vital force in oneself and Nature, is essential to every Rajayogin, but it can be brought about by much simpler methods. The only physical process that the Rajayogin finds helpful enough to be worth doing, is nadishuddhi [नाडीशुद्धि] or purification of the nerve system by regular breathing and this can be done while lying, sitting, reading, writing, walking. This process has great virtues. It has a wonderfully calming effect on the whole mind and body, drives out every lurking disease in the system, awakens the yogic force accumulated in former lives and, even where no such latent force exists, removes the physical obstacles to the wakening of the Kundalini shakti.
But even this process is not essential. The Rajayogin knows that by tranquillising the mind he can tranquillise the body, by mastering the mind he can master both the body and the prana. This is the great secret of the Rajayoga that mind is the master of the body, creates it and conditions it, body is not the master, creator or lawgiver of the mind. It may be said that the body at least affects the mind, but this is the other discovery of the Rajayogin that the body need not in the least affect the mind unless by our consent we allow it to do so. The kumbhak or natural cessation of the breathing is essential to the deeper kinds of Samadhi, not to all; but even so he finds that by the cessation of the lawless restlessness of the mind, which we mistakenly call thought, we can easily, naturally and spontaneously bring about the cessation of the breathing, a calm, effortless and perfect kumbhak. He therefore dispenses with physical processes, easy or laborious, and goes straight to the root of the problem, the mind.
Rajayoga is of three kinds, sachesta, salpachesta and nischesta, with effort, with little effort, and without effort. Patanjali’s, the only systematised kind, though each is quite methodical, is sachesta, involving great strain and effort throughout. We may best compare the systems by taking each of Patanjali’s steps separately and seeing how the three kinds of Rajayogins will deal with them. In the present article we shall deal with Patanjali. The first step is the preparation of the moral nature, the discipline of the heart, its perfection in the four great qualities of love, purity, courage and calm, without which siddhi in the Rajayoga is impossible.
Patanjali prescribes the practice of the five yamas or regulating moral exercises, truth, justice and honesty, harmlessness, chastity and refusal of ownership, and the five niyamas or regulating moral habits, cleanliness and purity, contentment, austerity, meditation on Scripture, worship and devotion to God. In order to establish these habits and exercises and remove the impurities of the heart it is evident that Patanjali intends us to use the method of abhyasa or constant practice. Anyone who has made the attempt will realise how difficult it is to compass all these qualities and how long and tedious a discipline is required to establish them even imperfectly. Patanjali seeks to purify and quiet the life while the mind and heart are yet impure and restless, a system possible only to hermits in an asrama. For this reason the Rajayoga has fled from the homes of men and taken refuge in the forest and the cavern.
Afterwards Patanjali recommends the quieting of the body and the mastering of the Prana by Asana and Pranayam. The reason of this is clear enough. The Pranayam of the Hathayoga does not lead to purity, but to force and intensity; every quality that it finds potent in the system it raises to tenfold activity and power. Unless therefore the life and character be previously made quiet and pure, Pranayam done in one’s own strength may do immense moral, physical and mental mischief. Allowing for the overcoming of his initial difficulty and for the admission of Hatha into Rajayoga, it must be admitted that Patanjali’s system is admirably logical and reasonable in its arrangement.
Next comes the mastery of the mind, that restless, self-willed and shifting force which is so difficult to control. Again, as in his previous steps, Patanjali relies wholly on abhyasa or practice. He arranges concentration in four stages of development, Pratyahara or the drawing inward of the senses from their objects; Dharana, or the success in this process resulting in the fixing of the mind for a moment on a single thought, feeling or object, — such as a single part of the body, the tip of the nose or the centre of the brows for preference; Dhyana or the continuation of this state for a fixed period; Samadhi or the entire withdrawing into oneself for an indefinite time. The preliminary process once successful, the rest follows with comparative ease, but the preliminary process is itself so enormously difficult that one would be amazed at Patanjali’s putting it first, if one did not perceive that he is relying on the rigorous and thorough mastery of each step before the next is attempted; he trusts to the Hathayogic kumbhak to bring about Pratyahara with comparative ease. Even as it is, most Yogins prefer to take the Dharana or concentration on a single object first, trusting to the practice of Dharana to bring about Pratyahara by a natural process. This is undoubtedly the more easy and straightforward process, though Patanjali’s is the more logical and scientific, and, if mastered, may lead to greater results.
Concentration once attained, we proceed to what Patanjali evidently considers the essence of Yoga, the coercion of all vrittis or functionings of the mental and moral qualities so as to arrive at sanyama or turning of the whole passionless intelligent Will in the spirit on whatsoever the Yogin wishes to possess, from the realisation of God to the enjoyment of mundane objects. But how is this silencing of the vrittis to be effected? for the yamas and niyamas only establish certain good habits of life, they do not thoroughly purify mind and heart. We have to do it by a process of removal by replacement, always depending on abhyasa, replacing bad vrittis by good, the many good by the few better, the few better by the one best, until we arrive at absolute sanyama. This can be done, not easily but without insuperable difficulty if the power of concentration is thoroughly attained by Patanjali’s method.
Sanyama is a mighty power. Whatever the Yogin does sanyama upon, says Patanjali, that he masters. The knowledge of one’s past lives, of the thoughts of men, of men in this world and spirits in the other, the vision of the past and the future, the knowledge of all that is in the present, the mastery of Nature, the siddhis of the Hathayogin, the realisation of God, all power, all bliss, all knowledge is in his grasp. As to what he shall do with the power, Patanjali leaves the choice to the successful Yogin.
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By Sri Aurobindo, extracts from “Letters on Yoga” Vol. 2
“No use doing asanas and pranayam. It is not necessary to burn with passion. What is needed is a patient increasing of the power of concentration and steady aspiration so that the silence you speak of may fix in the heart and spread to the other members. Then the physical mind and subconscient can be cleared and quieted.”
“The true breathing is not merely the inspiration and expiration from the lungs which is merely the mechanism of it, but a drawing in of the universal energy of Prana into every cell of the body.”
“Pranayam is not a part of the sadhana [i.e. spiritual practice] here.”
“There is [i.e. in Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga] no willed opening of the chakras, they open of themselves by the descent of the Force. In the Tantrik discipline they open from down upwards, the Muladhara [i.e. the chakra at the base of the spine] first – in our Yoga, they open from up downward. But the ascent of the force from the Muladhara does take place.”
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The Mahatmas – KUTHUMI
By Sri Aurobindo, written in 1910
(This poem is purely a play of the imagination, a poetic reconstruction of the central idea only of Mahatmahood.)
The seven mountains and the seven seas
Surround me. Over me the eightfold sun
Blazing with various colours – green and blue,
Scarlet and rose, violet and gold and white,
And the dark disk that rides in the mortal cave –
Looks down on me in flame. Below spread wide
The worlds of the immortals, tier on tier,
Like a great mountain climbing to the skies,
And on their summit Shiva dwells. Of old
My goings were familiar with the earth,
The mortals over whom I hold control
Were then my fellows. But I followed not
The usual path, the common thoughts of men.
A thirst of knowledge and a sense of power,
A passion of divine beneficence
Pursued me through a hundred lives. I rose
From birth to birth, until I reached the peak
Of human knowledge. Then in Bharat born
I, Kuthumi, the Kshatriya, the adept,
The mighty Yogin of Dwaipayan’s school,
To Vyása came, the great original sage.
He looked upon me with the eye that sees
And smiled, august and awful. “Kuthumi,”
He cried, “now gather back what thou hast learned
In many lives, remember all thy past,
Cease from thy round of human births, resume
The eightfold power that makes a man as God,
Then come again and learn thy grandiose work,
For thou art of the souls to death denied.”
I went into the mountains by the sea
That thunders pitilessly from night to morn,
And sung to by that rude relentless sound,
Amid the cries of beasts, the howl of winds,
Surrounded by the gnashing demon hordes,
I did the Hathayoga in three days,
Which men with anguish through ten lives effect,–
Not that now practised by earth’s feebler race,
But that which Rávan knew in Lunca, Dhruv
Fulfilled, Hiranyakashipu performed,
The Yoga of the old Lemurian Kings.
I felt the strength of Titans in my veins,
The joy of gods, the pride of Siddhas. Tall
And mighty like a striding God I came
To Vyása; but he shook his dense piled locks,
Denying me. “Thou art not pure,” he cried.
I went in anger to Himaloy’s peaks,
And on the highest in the breathless snows
Sat dumb for many years. Then knowledge came
Streaming upon me and the hills around
Shook with the feet of the descending power.
I did the Rájayoga in three days,
Which men with care and accuracy minute
Ceaselessly follow for an age in vain –
Not Kali’s Rájayoga, but the means
Of perfect knowledge, purity and force
Bali the Titan learned and gave to men,
The Yoga of the old Atlantic Kings.
I came to Vyása, shining like a sun.
He smiled and said, “Now seek the world’s great Lord,
Sri Krishna, where he lives on earth concealed;
Give up to him all that thou knowst and art.
For thou art he, elect from mortal men
To guard the Knowledge,– yet an easy task
While the third Age preserves man’s godlike force,–
But when thou seest the iron Kali come,
And he from Dwarca leaves the earth, know then
The time of trial, help endangered Man,
Preserve the knowledge that preserves the world,
Until Sri Krishna utterly returns.
Then art thou from thy mighty work released
Into the worlds of bliss for endless years
To rest, until another aeon comes,
When of the seven Rishis thou art one.”
I sent my knowledge forth across the land;
It found him not in Bharat’s princely halls,
In quiet asrams, nor in temples pure,
Nor where the wealthy traffickers resort;
Brahmin nor Kshatriya body housed the Lord,
Vaishya nor Sudra nor outcaste. At length
To a bare hut on a wild mountain’s verge
Led by the star I came. A hermit mad
Of the wild Abhirs, who sat dumb or laughed,
And ran and leaped and danced upon the hills,
But told the reason of his joy to none,–
In him I saw the Lord, behind that mask
Perceived the Spirit that contains the worlds.
I fell before him, but he leaped and ran
And smote me with his foot, and out of me
All knowledge, all desire, all strength was gone
Into its Source. I sat, an infant child.
He laughed aloud and said, “Take back thy gifts,
O beggar!” and went leaping down the slope.
Then full of light and strength and bliss I soared
Beyond the spheres, above the mighty gods,
And left my human body on the snows;
And others gathered to me, more or less
In puissance, to assist, but mine the charge
By Vishnu given. I gather knowledge here,
Then to my human frame awhile descend
And walk mid men, choosing my instruments,
Testing, rejecting and confirming souls,
Vessels of the Spirit; for the golden age
In Kali comes, the iron lined with gold.
The Yoga shall be given back to men,
The sects shall cease, the grim debates die out,
And Atheism perish from the earth
Blasted with knowledge, love and brotherhood
And wisdom repossess Sri Krishna’s world.
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