Knotting the body to untie the soul. A Christian and Gandhi on four paths of yoga that lead to the great goal.
The routine of the course has now begun. For early risers, the day starts at 6:30am with yoga, which I’ve never done before. Inhaling through alternate nostrils, or scores of staccato exhalations in one breath; twisting legs into the lotus, swastika, cow positions; bowing to greet the rising sun; stretching like a cobra or a lion; balancing on one leg with hands together above your head; or lying on your back and humming like a bee. A nice way to limber up at dawn, though I’m disappointed we haven’t yet learnt to levitate.
At least I haven’t knotted myself up there irrevocably like this poor devil drawn by cartoonist R K Laxman:
Yesterday afternoon, a young yoga master explained some theory behind the practice. The word “yoga” comes from Sanskrit for yoke or unite. On one level, this means uniting body and mind in harmony, but ultimately aims to unite the individual soul with the universal Brahman. Our teacher outlined the traditional paths of yoga, which some classify slightly differently.
Raja yoga is the path of willpower and self-control. It begins with the mild physical exercise we’re doing to control stress and keep fit. It culminates in Indian ascetics who sleep on beds of nails, survive on almost no food, live naked in the Himalayas, slow or even (some claim) stop their hearts. A little like the austerities of some early Christians who would fast for weeks, sleep upright and wear scratchy hair shirts to overcome the sinful nature.
Jnana yoga is the path of knowledge and illumination. Hindu sages strive through meditation and Scripture study to penetrate the veil of illusory Maya that hides our unity with the divine. Christian monks reflect on tomes of theology, racking their brains to grasp the mysteries of divinity.
Karma yoga is the path of action or service without self-seeking motives. Christ taught his disciples to do good deeds for God’s sake, not human praise or reward. Mahatma Gandhi put it like this:
It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing.
It’s been said that Indian traffic observes this teaching – drive for all you’re worth, and don’t consider the consequences – while the government follows it by passing noble-sounding laws and remaining indifferent to the outcome, as they are never implemented (Luce 2006 329).
Bhakti yoga is the path of passionate devotion to God, of total surrender to his will. Hare Krishnas practice bhakti as they drum and dance in ecstasy, and the Bible makes love and trust of God our primary calling.
Many Hindus say that any of these paths, faithfully followed, will bring one to the divine goal. I like the way Hinduism recognizes that different personalities may spiritually grow in different ways – recalling the popular “Five Love Languages” books on different ways we express affection. As an intellectual type, I feel closest to God when fresh understanding leads to wondering adoration – you might say jnana yoga leads to bhakti. I love this title of a study on mediaeval monasticism, and were it my epitaph I should die content: “The Love of Learning and the Desire for God”.
A healthy spiritual life, however, should probably combine all strands. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength”, with every part of your being, or, one might almost say, with bhakti, jnana, karma, and raja all together at once.
In human terms, the path to God is often long and hard – be it rising at 6 a.m. to make pretzels of one’s limbs, meditating on Scripture until you see the light, helping your griping ungrateful neighbour, or learning to sacrifice your all in love. Even Gandhi lamented, well into life, he was still far from seeing God face to face. To comfort those of us who wearily struggle, one theologian here translated the words of Christ, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light”, into Indian terms as “my yoga is easy”, needing only simple trust.