January 2010


This article is dedicated to Simona and Emina, two good friends and seekers of truth

Why Yoga?

The very word yoga suggests some kind of freedom or elevated state of consciousness. It also suggests a practice that is not confined to culture or religion, to something that is not bound by time or personal bias. The practice of yoga links us to a more ethical, healthy and natural way of living – free from the extremes of worldy happiness and sorrow.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras define yoga as a focussing of the attention “to whatever object is being contemplated to the exclusion of all others” – yogash chitta vritti nirodhah. Nirodah means ‘complete absorption’. Yoga is also intimately connected to the conclusions of spiritual philosophy of the Vedas and Vedanta. There are internal and external sadhanas or practices of yoga that lead the practitioner to the ultimate goal of yoga practice – self-realization.

Mantra Meditation And Yoga

I have been asked by certain friends to explain the meditation techniques practiced by devotees of the Hare Krishna movement.

I have been reading B.S. Iyengar’s book, Light On Yoga. In this very interesting book, Mr Iyengar refers to yoga as ‘the physiology of virtue’ ie. aspiring for something sublime via the medium of the body. The yoga process he is referring to here is astanga-yoga, or the eightfold mystic yoga process.

The great Vaishnava scholar, Bhaktivinoda Thakur, describes two kinds of yoga processes in Prema-pradipa. One is raja-yoga, the process of yoga practiced by the Puranic scholars and philosophers; and the other is hatha-yoga, or the school of yoga practiced by the tantric panditas. ‘Ha’ means ‘sun’ and ‘Tha’ means ‘moon’, relating to the prana or life-force emanating from the sun and the moon.

Bhaktivinoda Thakur gives a simple summary of the eightfold yoga path or raja-yoga in Prema-pradipa:
1. Yama – Negative injunctions ie. refraining from sex, lying, stealing etc. There is a sadhana (consistent spiritual practice) of purification. Certain practices are so difficult to perform that they require the presence of a guru.
2. Niyama – Cleanliness and scriptural study.
3. Asana – Sitting postures (of hatha- and raja-yoga). The practice of asanas helps us to use the body as a tool to shape ourselves for the experience of union with our higher or supreme consciousness. Another aspect of this is dridhakarana or ‘becoming strong’. An asana is only spiritually enhanced when combined with other yoga practices, like pranayama and dhyana.
4. Pranayama – Control of breathing and life airs. Pranayama has to be practiced in a peaceful or sattvic environment (which is very difficult in Kali-yuga). Pranayama purifies the nerves (kumbhaka takes three months). The practitioner achieves laghava or ‘lightness’ through pranayama.
5. Pratyahara – The withdrawal of the senses from the sense-objects. At the stage of dhatrya, or indifference, the body becomes steady.
6. Dharana – Fixing the mind on a place (like the navel or nose). Dharana involves a deepening of concentration.
7. Dhyana – Literally means ‘meditation’. This is a natural development of dharana. Such a yogi experiences direct perception of the divine within and without.
8. Samadhi – Absorption. Here, the yogi is nirliptiharana or ‘free from worldly attachments’. Accomplished yogis understand there is only physical benefit in these systems. They know that it is very difficult to detach the mind and senses from the objects of the senses. It is easy to engage the mind and senses in spiritual activities, however, through the bhakti-yoga process.

Bhakti Yoga (the yoga of devotion), on the other hand, leads the practitioner towards ‘spiritual virtue’ by means of a sadhana or ‘spiritual practice’ based on spiritual activities (or karma-yoga). Bhakti Yoga is a process of the heart and soul – and is, therefore, sometimes referred to as atma-yoga (atma means ‘soul’ or ‘self’ in the ancient Sanskrit language). B.S. Iyengar eloquently explains how the various limbs of the astanga-yoga process can elevate an individual to a state of equanimity and control of the senses. In astanga-yoga the process is painstaking and the rewards are great; in bhakti-yoga the process is easy and the awards, like astanga-yoga, are as good or even greater.

A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the International Society For Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), referred to bhakti-yoga as the ‘topmost yoga system’, in the sense that the goal of yoga is quickly achieved for the sincere practitioner. What is so special about bhakti-yoga? Prabhupada refers to bhakti-yoga as an easy process. Like astanga-yoga, the goal is clearly delineated. The goal is to achieve samadhi (absorption) in spirituality; or, plainly put, to develop love of Krishna/God. The great saint, Prahlad Maharaja, defines the ninefold process of devotional service – sravanam (hearing about Krishna), kirtanam (chanting the glories of Krishna), smaranam (remembering Vishnu or Krishna), pada-sevanam (serving the lotus feet of the Lord), vandanam (offering prayers), arcanam (worshipping the Deity of the Lord), dasyam (becoming the Lord’s eternal servant), sakhyam (becoming the Lord’s most intimate friend) and, lastly, atma-nivedanam (surrendering one’s entire being to the Lord ie. full self-surrender). Of these nine processes of bhakti-yoga, hearing and chanting the glories of the Lord are considered the most important. That is why so much emphasis is placed on the chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra by Hare Krishna devotees.

What is the maha-mantra?

When we think of the word mantra, we immediately think of the repitition of a word or of certain words. The newspapers might refer to the crowds calling, ‘O-bama, O-bama’ as a mantra. But the word, like most of the Sanskrit words adopted in our western lexicon, has deeper significance. The word mantra is composed of two Sanskrit words – manas and tra. Manas means ‘mind’; and tra means ‘to free’ or ‘to liberate.’ Mantra, therefore, can roughly be translated as ‘a chant that frees the mind (from material absorption or thoughts).’ And maha is a Sanskrit word that means ‘great.’ So, the maha-mantra is ‘the great prayer or chant of deliverance of the mind.’ There are many, many mantras in the Vedic Culture. But there is only one maha-mantra. And that is why we place so much emphasis on the chanting of this mantra – Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna/ Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama/ Rama Rama, Hare Hare. The Vedic scripture give many references indicating that the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra is the process for self-realization in the present Age, the Age of Kali.

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‘A pure devotee’s attraction to Krsna in conjugal love is called devotional service in conjugal love. Although such conjugal feelings are not at all material, there is some similarity between this spiritual love and material activities. Therefore, persons who are interested in material activities are unable to understand this spiritual conjugal love, and these devotional reciprocations appear very mysterious to them. Rupa Gosvami therefore describes conjugal love very briefly.

The impetuses of conjugal love are Krsna and His very dear consorts, such as Radharani and Her immediate associates. Lord Krsna has no rival; no one is equal to Him, and no one is greater than Him. His beauty is also without any rival, and because He excels all others in the pastimes of conjugal love, He is the original object of all conjugal love.

In the Gita-govinda, by Jayadeva Gosvami, one gopi tells her friend, ‘Krsna is the reservoir of all pleasure within this universe. His body is as soft as the lotus flower. And His free behaviour with the gopis, which appears exactly like a young boy’s attraction to a young girl, is a subject of transcendental conjugal love.’ A pure devotee follows in the footsteps of the gopis and worships the gopis as follows, ‘Let me offer my respectful obeisances to all the young cowherd girls, whose bodily features are so attractive. Simply by their beautiful attractive features they are worshipping the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krsna.’ Out of the young gopis, Srimati Radharani is the most prominent.

The beauty of Srimati Radharani is described as follows: ‘Her eyes defeat the attractive features of the eyes of the cakori bird. When one sees the face of Radharani, he immediately hates the beauty of the moon. Her bodily complexion defeats the beauty of gold. Thus, let us all look upon the transcendental beauty of Srimati Radharani.’ Krsna’s attraction for Radharani is described by Krsna Himself thus: ‘When I create some joking phrases in order to enjoy the beauty of Radharani, Radharani hears these joking words with great attention; but by Her bodily features and counterwords She neglects me. And I even possess unlimited pleasure by Her neglect of Me, for She becomes so beautiful that She increases My pleasure one hundred times.’ A similar statement is found in Gita-govinda, wherein it is said that when the enemy of Kamsa, Sri Krsna, emraces Srimati Radharani, He immediately becomes entangled in a loving condition that gives up the company of all other gopis.

In the Padyavali of Rupa Goswami, it is stated that when the gopis hear the sound of Krsna’s flute, they immediately forget all rebukes offered by the elderly members of their families. They forget their defamation and the harsh behaviour of their husbands. Their only thought is to go out in search of Krsna. When the gopis meet Krsna, the display of their exchanging glances as well as their joking and laughing behaviour is called anubhava, or subecstasy in conjugal love.

In the Lalita-madhava, Rupa Goswami explains that the movement’s of Krsna’s eyebrows are just like the Yamuna and that the smiling of Radharani is just like the moonshine. When the Yamuna and the moonshine come in contact on the bank of the river, the water tastes just like nectar, and drinking it gives great satisfaction. It is as cooling as piles of snow. Similarly, in the Padyavali, one constant companion of Radharani says, ‘My dear moon-faced Radharani, Your whole body appears very content, yet there are signs of tears in Your eyes. Your speech is faltering, and Your chest is also heaving. By all these signs I can understand that You must have heard the blowing of Krsna’s flute, and as a result of this, Your heart is now melting

(From A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, Nectar of Devotion, ch.44 entitled, ‘Devotional Service In Conjugal Love’, pp.353-4)

I revelled in my newfound independence.  But the novelty of writing an MA in History soon wore off.  It became routine. Like a job. I was reading official documents – court records, government letters and deeds – to find myself back at law, only this time through the lens of history.

I had difficulty reconciling my wide philosophical perambulations with the narrow focus of my project: the slave trade to the Cape from 1797-1818. I met my supervisor, Nigel Worden, every six months. Nigel would ask the same question: ‘What is your thesis?’ A blank stare. ‘Michael’, Nigel explained, ‘A thesis is an argument or theory, based on original research, that contributes to the existing knowledge of the discipline of history’.  He continued, ‘What are you trying to say?  What is your argument?  Your contribution to knowledge?’ We were both frustrated. What was my thesis?

I wanted to present to the world a broad and expansive history – like Braudel’s langue duree – of the slave trade to the Cape. Nigel always brought me back to the essence of my task: ‘Why?’ he would ask,’ Why is this relevant?  Why is this information necessary?’  Nigel was an exceptional teacher.  My thinking process was diffuse and holistic, but Nigel coaxed me into seeing the cause-and-effect of historical processes – for myself. I sympathised with John Stuart Mill, the child prodigy, who had a nervous breakdown when his father asked him, ‘What is a theory?’  (He later cured himself with Wordsworth’s poetry!).

The demands of my research and the promptings of Professor Worden had a profound effect on me.  Critical thinking gave way to ethical and existential enquiry. The study of ethics helped me understand people’s decisions and actions.  I, like Diogenes Laertius, wanted to establish a personal code of ethics.  How was I going to do this?