Category Archives: F. Indian Philosophical Schools

Yama and Niyama

The words yama and niyama take their origin from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras [more specifically sutra 2:29]. They are the first two limbs of the eight-limbed (ashtanga) raja yoga which Patanjali describes [see: Saraswati 185]. Swami Satyananda Saraswati translates these two words as referring to sets of “self restraints” and “fixed rules” respectively. Farhi describes the yamas and niyamas as being “given as uncompromising, universal truths to be practiced regardless of our race, country, class, or circumstance” (2004:35). Thus the implication is that rather than being a rigid set of “do’s and don’ts”, they are instead behaviours and habits to be adopted at all times, allowing for a state of yoga (mind free of fluctuation) both on and off of a mat.

Despite being the first two limbs of raja yoga these two are often superseded during what North Americans would conceptualize as a yoga class, by pranayama and asana [which are generally taught as breathing techniques and poses, but perhaps more accurately translated as “life energy control” and “comfortable posture” ]. It should be noted that as Maehle points out, when it comes to yoga treatise, “some sources [omit the first] two limbs, the ethics.” Later on, teachers argued that they should be included, as ethics (particularly the fifth niyama) are necessary for achieving samadhi [the eighth limb] (Maehle, 212). Gates also mentions a more complimentary and interplaying role between the eight limbs, suggesting that yama and niyama are more like “spokes on a wheel [than] rungs on a ladder” (Gates et al. 6).

Unlike many religious doctrines which prescribe a set of morals, yama and niyama establish a set of guidelines. As yoga by definition is the cessation of mind fluxation, it is more relevant to understand yama and niyama as the guidelines for not causing fluxations in the minds of others or one’s self. They encourage a harmonious relationship with the atman [monistic consciousness]. Rather than serving as a litmus test for “good and bad”, they foster awareness for the karmic consequences of one’s actions.

The implication of yama and niyama as necessary and adopted disciplines is taken to a further extent by Saraswati who, in reference to bahiranga [These are limbs of yoga which are “exoteric” or of the “external element”, “practiced with objects outside, in relation to the body”. They include: yama and niyama, as well as pranayama, asana, and pratyahara (See: Saraswati 185)] says that “the preliminary part of raja yoga must be practiced in the presence of a group with whom the aspirant must live for some time. When the mind is set into a pattern, [the yogi] can go back to society and live with people” (Saraswati 186). [Please note that to avoid over-repetition, the word “yogi” is used to represent both male and female practitioners throughout this article] This is of course more in line with the traditional study of yoga under a guru.

Taking a less rigid stance, Bell refers to the yamas and niyamas as “guidelines, a framework from which we can begin a process of inquiry.” She goes on to say that “they are not commandments, nor are they intended to be followed mechanically” (Bell: 42). Later on she suggests that “the yamas and niyamas are not intended to be unbending law [but rather] life long practices” and encourages striving towards continual on-going practice, rather than sequestered mastery (Bell: 47).

While the prescribed rigor of learning yama and niyama can vary by teacher, it would be generally agreed upon that these first two limbs form what Farhi describes as “yogic precepts for ethical living” (2006: 11). Farhi goes on to make a distinction between the two stating that yamas are “constraints that [yogis] observe in relationship to the world” and niyamas are “concerned with [a yogi’s] relationship to self and how [they] live when no one else is watching”. Put succinctly, yamas provide instructions on how to be at harmony with the world and niyamas harmony with oneself.

There are 5 yamas and 5 niyamas. The first yama is ahimsa. This word comes from the Sanskrit words a (prefix meaning “not”) and himsa (“harming, injuring, killing, or doing violence”) [The etymologies of these sections are taken from Sovik 43 & 46, except where noted]. It is also commonly read-in (as it is in a host of commentaries on the yoga sutra 2:35) that ahimsa necessitates and leads to compassion towards every living being. [See Farhi 2004: 35]. While it would be easy to think of ahimsa as simply an outward behaviour, it implies a compassionate attitude towards oneself as well. For example, suicide or self-mutilation are violent acts, and show neither compassion for oneself nor those who would cope with the ramifications of them. It can be further expanded to say that ahimsa discourages other acts which are not necessarily violent, but can most definitely be harmful. Exclusion, like that of the mother-in-law whose invitation to a family event was “forgotten”, is an example of this. This act would be lacking in compassion and potentially harmful to the mother-in-law who discovers this, or the grandchild who misses the grandparent.

The second yama is satya from the Sanskrit for “that which exists or that which is,” and is commonly termed “truthfulness”. The practice of satya involves reporting and perceiving things only as they are, rather than how they relate to an ideal. Chopra describes this concept as “separating your observations from your interpretations” (Chopra 33). For example, a university student may become frustrated with a new professor whose teaching style is underdeveloped. A factual observation in this instance would be “the professor is a novice to teaching.” The insinuating interpretation is “this is a bad professor.” The student might go on to tell peers to avoid classes with that same professor because they are “bad”. This causes disharmony between the professor and potential students. Maehle notes that satya immediately follows ahimsa, placing non-violence in higher priority than truthfulness, because “we should never use truthfulness to harm or violate others” (Maehle 213). Satya inherently expresses the concept of being non-judgemental. A magazine might edit their photos. The editors have determined that a model can be more aesthetically pleasing if altered, thereby passing on the interpretation that real images are undesirable. This may cause its readers to develop negative body-image and/or eating disorders. This is not to say that truth is always more pleasant; in fact the avoidance of unpleasant truths can be even more unpleasant. A woman finds a lump in her breast but ignores it, because she can not accept the possibility she has cancer. When truths or realities are disregarded, destructive behaviours ensue.

The third yama is asteya which translates directly as “non-stealing”. Oversimplification would demand defining the act of stealing as taking something tangible which does not belong to us. Shoplifting or stealing a lunch from the fridge at work are examples of this. Other acts of theft such as plagiarism, or pirating mp3’s, where the objects stolen are less tangible, are also to be avoided. The principle of asteya can also be applied to more abstract concepts such as time or concentration. Being late for a meeting can be seen as stealing time from other attendees. Dominating a conversation, or interrupting someone who is speaking, or reading, or meditating, can also be perceived as acts of theft, as they consume their victims’ mental energies.

The fourth and quite possibly most debated yama is bramacharya. Sovik loosely translates bramacharya as “moderating the senses and walking in God-consciousness.” Usually associated with sexuality, the controversy of this yama can be seen in Sovik’s complete absence of direct references to sexuality in his translation. Farhi avoids both divine and sexual inferences using instead “moderation in all our actions” (2006: 94). [Chopra provides some possible etymology as thus: brahman (“unity consciousness”) and achara (“pathway”), or charya (“grazing”) (Chopra 34)]

When it is considered that the yoga sutras are believed to be but a compilation of practices divinely revealed to the risis, many of whom had several wives and children, it could be construed that here, brahman, refers to the consciousness (Maehle 215), and not the god. However, given that the yoga sutras were written long after the Vedic period, Patanjali might not have intended this, as he would have used the word “atman” instead.

Thus, the concept of bramacharya is translated and taught on spectrum ranging from the conservative “sexual abstinence” (Saraswati 197), to the more liberal ideas of Maehle: “Partnership is used in yoga to recognize the inherent divinity in the other. This does exclude casual sex… The yogic view of a relationship is not to consume another person like an object” (Maehle 214). The ensuing arguments are that casual sex is either: a violent act, or a theft act. As a violent act one partner perceives more of an emotional involvement, and is left hurt when that is found to be untrue. As a theft act, both partners are distracting each other from the true nature of each partner involved. Perhaps they just need friendship, or have problems with intimacy because of a previous violent act. Either way it is very taboo. It is perhaps easier to evaluate the practice of this yama by first using the first three to evaluate potential actions of a more intimate nature.

The final yama is aparigraha. This word comes from graha (“to grasp”), and
pari (“things”). Thus, aparigraha can be said to be “not grasping things” or being “non-possessive”, or practising “non-attachment”. As a matter of necessity, yoga aims for liberation (moksa). A mind which harbours attachment or possessiveness to an object (or person for that matter) is on some level chained to it, whether through the need to protect it, or a dependency on it. The mind becomes distracted by the need to own material objects, or exert some form of dominance over others. This yama encourages generosity and material minimalism. Saraswati tells of some yogis who “do not even touch fire and have only one set of clothes. They do not stay in one place. Their mind is so free and relaxed and they are always ready to do any duty anywhere” (Saraswati 199). Sannyasis (renunciates) can be said to be masters of non-attachment.

The first niyama is sauca or which means “purification” or “cleanliness”. It refers to a number of techniques such as sat karmas (cleansing actions) used to keep the body clean. It necessitates the eating of proper foods (those which are natural and pure) and thinking proper thoughts (achieved by being selective about what one allows the mind to be exposed to). We are constantly taking in things around us, whether in the form of air, nourishment, or sensory stimuli. As certain foods can alter the mood (coffee, chocolate, excess sugars, etc.), a balanced diet is encouraged to avoid these mood-swings. Some yogic schools of thought prescribe a vegan diet, for example. Selectively choosing which movies we see, music we listen to, and conversations we engage in, can also help avoid mental imbalance. For example, violent films or hateful music can encourage violent behaviours or prejudice. An argument can cause us to lose sight of the way someone is naturally, and cause us to see them as an enemy, or opposing force.

The second niyama is santosa or (from the Sanskrit “contentment, delight, happiness, joy”). It can be thought of as closely associated with aparigraha. It is practiced by simply accepting one’s true self, and one’s status in the world (Sovik 46). For example, a sudra who is trying to act as a ksatriya is not accepting their status in the world. They are attached to a caste which is not theirs, and thus not able to be content with their role in the world. A person expecting to return to work right away after a major surgery might not be content with their status as a patient. Santosa is not merely seeing the glass as half-full, it is reacting to even an empty glass as enjoyable, the need to walk to the water cooler to refill it as enjoyable, and the availability of water as enjoyable, even if there is an insect in it. It is the acceptance of mistakes made in the past without self-hatred or self-judgement. It is the abolition of desire to be wealthier, smarter, stronger, or more powerful. It is the apex of equanimity with the good and bad that life delivers.

The third niyama is tapas (“heat”). It refers to the heat that builds during a concerted effort. (Sovik 46) It is also thought of as encouraging austerity. There are going to be challenges and distractions that arise to one’s practice of yoga. Tapas is the resilience to remain dedicated to one’s practice regardless of adversity. It is the key ethical tool used to build sadhana. [Sadhana is the “program” one makes for spiritual development. It varies by individual. It consists of any practice, ritual, rite, or study undertaken with moksa (liberation) as the intent.] Tapas is expressed in the adage, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”.

The fourth niyama is svadhyaya. Maehle points out that according to Vyasa it is chanting Om and moksa sastra [reading scripture to do with liberation] (Maehle 217). Sovik takes a more relaxed approach, saying that reading any literature which encourages or inspires one to develop spiritually is svadhyaya (Sovik 46). It is the removal of samskaras and separation from asmita [Asmita is the “I” or the perception “self” created through the samskaras (psychic lenses/citta vrttis), which separate the aspirant/yogi from the atman]. It is the primary focus of jnana yogis [Jnana yoga is the study of knowledge, more specifically, knowledge which is of a transcendental or divine nature]. It is the study of what remains after all elements of ego are removed.

The final niyama is isvara pranidhana. Isvara refers to “the divine” whether in the form of the nirguna brahman (universal consciousness), or any other deity (Maehle 217). Pranidhana literally means “to surrender” (Sovik 46). This surrender does not refer to some kind of submission to the cosmos, but rather, the active giving of permission to oneself to be present in the universe; to be aware of, and part of a greater whole. It is the acceptance that there is a higher power which is not completely independent of the yogi. Lastly, it is the devotion of all action (and thought) to that higher power. Patanjali points out that practice of this niyama is necessary to achieve samadhi, as it defines the end goal of sadhana (sutra 1:29).

References and Further Recommended Reading

Bell, Charlotte and Rolf Sovik (March/April 2008). “The Forgotten Teachings – Patanjali’s 10 Steps to a Happier Life.” Yoga and Joyful Living, [100], 40-47

Chopra, Deepak, and David Simon (2004) The Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Farhi, Donna (2004) Bringing Yoga to Life. San Francisco: Harper-Collins Publishers

Farhi, Donna (2006) Teaching Yoga. Berkeley: Rodmell Press

Gates, Rolf et al. (2002) Meditations from the Mat – Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga. New York: Anchor Books.

Maehle, Gregor (2006) Ashtanga Yoga – Practice and Philosophy. Novato, California: New World Library

Swami Satyananda Sawaswati (1976) Four Chapters on Freedom. Munger, Bihar, India: Yoga Publications Trust

Recommended Readings

Any number of commentaries on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

Related Topics

Purusha Pramana

Vritti Parinama

Dharmi Raja Yoga

Bihar Yoga Jnana Yoga

Satayanda Yoga Ekagrata

Ahankara Tattva


Useful Websites

Article written by Michael Smith (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Yoga and Shamanism (A Comparison)

Shamanism and Yoga are spiritual practices originally found in Siberia and India, respectively. While Shamanism is practiced in various forms world-wide, traditional Yoga is mainly found in South-East Asia. Although the practices of Shamanism and Yoga share similar qualities, they are not always considered interlinking spiritual practice. Undoubtedly, there are times when the specifics between Shamanism and Yoga become vague and unclear. In order to contrast and compare these two magical/meditational traditions, precise definitions of both terms are absolutely necessary.

Shamans are religious healers and miracle workers, who may appear to be possessed by divine spirits. They are perceived to have power within the realm of the invisible, and thus, have powers outside the mortal world of average human beings (Robinson and Rodrigues 13). Scholars often describe Shamanism as “a visionary tradition, an ancient practice of utilizing altered states of consciousness to contact the gods and spirits of the natural world” (Drury 1). It may seem natural to relate Shamans with magicians or medicine men. However, it is necessary to maintain awareness that Shamans may take on many different attributes depending on their own personal practices. One may become a Shaman through ancestral lineage (considered a “lesser”, or inferior, Shaman), or may be called upon and chosen by spirits through dream or premonition (considered a “greater”, or preferred, Shaman) (Drury 6).

In comparison, the practice of Yoga is based upon the philosophy that seeks integration of one’s true self (atman) and the Absolute (brahman), through rigorously self-disciplined psycho-physical techniques and practices (Robinson and Rodrigues 159). Generally, the term Yoga is used to describe every technique of asceticism and every method of meditation (Eliade 1975:9). A great yogi has ultimate devotion to their discipline, and certain yogis are considered “spiritual masters” (Eliade 1975:7). Yogis are self-helping spiritual beings, due to the fact that they seek liberation (moksa) through meditation. Hinduism includes the methods of several Yogic categories and techniques. In fact, all forms of Yoga are the offspring of Hindu religious practices, as documented in the Upanisads. For those who follow the Hindu tradition, the underlying goal of meditational practices is the attainment of moksa. According to the Hindu tradition, anyone may become a yogi due to the fact that it is a chosen spiritual path.

Shamanism is a world-wide phenomenon that is believed to have begun in vast regions of Siberia. It is largely practiced in small-scale tribal societies, such as the Australian Aborigines, Alaskan Eskimo society, and the Yaquis of northern Mexico (Drury, 12-17). Familiar characteristics of Shamans around the world include trance states, magical flight and contacts with spirits.
In contrast, Yoga has become somewhat of a trend in the Western World in recent years. In India, classical Yoga can be traced back as far as approximately 300 B.C.E., in portions of the Mahabharata (a major Hindu epic, with origins in India). Gradually Yoga began to spread to the rest of the world. Yoga was created by ancient Hindus with intent of providing a more concrete religious experience. It was also intended to make mystical devotion more accessible, intimate and personal in order for the masses to achieve moksa (Eliade 1969:144). Thus, the modern forms of Yoga – such as “power dance Yoga” which induces high energy cardio techniques without any meditational aspects – practiced around the world today do not pursue the same goals of moksa and spiritual knowledge as the classical forms of Yoga.

Practicing Shamanism often includes the use of sweating cabinets to stimulate extreme perspiration, magically raising body temperature (“magical heat”), mastering fire to the point of attaining insensibility of the heat from burning coals (“mastery of fire”), and producing “inner heat” (Eliade 1969:106). “Inner heat”, expressed by a “mastery over fire” and abrogation of physical laws, is fundamental for “primitive” Shamans. Hence, the “heated” Shaman can perform miracles and “create new conditions of existence in the cosmos” (Eliade 1964:412). In this regard, Prajapati (creator god depicted in the Vedas) becomes the epitome of all Shamans.
In Yoga, the parallel of this “inner heat” technique is documented in the Rg-Veda, in the concept of tapas. Tapas originally meant “extreme heat”, but evolved into a term to generally describe ascetic effort. Through tapas, the ascetic becomes almost psychic, and may even incarnate the gods. Furthermore, tapas results in a kind of magical power, creating countless illusions or miracles of the ascetics and yogis (i.e. Magical flight) (Eliade 1969:106). Pranayama (breath control) is “cosmogony in reverse” in the sense that, as oppose to the creation of new miracles, this power enables the yogi to disconnect from the world (Eliade 1964:413). Evidently, these are opposing views in regard to technical practices of Shamanism and Yoga.

In both Shamanism and Yoga, “extreme heat” is obtained by meditating close to a fire, or by retention of breath. Noteworthy to state, respiratory technique and detainment of breath were crucial components during the organization of ascetic practices, magical, mystical, and metaphysical techniques in the practices of Shamanism and Yoga. Here, the lines that differentiate Shamanism from Yoga, and vice-versa, are once again blurred.

One crucial difference between Shamanism and Yoga lies in their functionary goals. Shamanism follows an ecstatic ideology, whereas Yoga prefers an enstatic approach. The Encyclopaedia of Religion states, “A first definition of the complex phenomenon of shamanism – and perhaps the least hazardous – is that it is a technique of ecstasy” (Jones 8269). This is to say Shamans exercise a sixth-sense, if you will, in the categories of dream analysis, astrology, and spirit possession. This special power is ecstatic, meaning it refers to “out of self” practices. Shamans are thought to have the capability of moving their consciousness beyond “normal parameters.” Shamans use their ecstatic ability to communicate with multiple beings (i.e. animals, nature, deities, and spirits). They are also able to diagnose illnesses, understand and communicate the wishes of a deceased family member, and presume desires of a deity. Shamanism is characterized by its everlasting effort to reach ecstatic flight (Eliade 1964:339). Therefore, Shamans are not solely concerned with their own personal spiritual goals (Robinson and Rodrigues 262). Shamans aid, and may be commissioned by, other persons in forms of healers, psychics, and priests (Drury 1).

Yoga cannot be confused with Shamanism, or considered in any aspect as ecstatic. In effect, Yoga truly contradicts the ecstatic philosophy of Shamanism. Yoga pursues the goal of individual moksa. Yogis are continually striving to achieve absolute concentration, in order to discover their true selves (atman). The “true self” in Hinduism is the person beyond all assumptions, ego formulations, and illusions. This is to say that all classical yogis are searching for their innermost self, as understood in their metaphysical systems. Keeping in mind that “enstatic” means “standing within oneself”, Yoga is appropriately defined as such.

Evidently, Shamanism and Yoga are two distinct, yet intertwining spiritual practices. Although traditional Yoga is found mainly in South-East Asia (specifically India), traditional Shamans are found in tribal communities world-wide. Though Shamanism retains its ecstatic philosophy, while Yoga contrasts with its personal enstatic ideas, the two blend together in several ways (e.g. “inner heat” and pranayama practices). In addition, ideologies of emergence from time and abrogation of history are components that bridge the gap between the two spiritual practices we call Shamanism and Yoga (Eliade 1964:339).


Drury, Nevill (1989) the Elements of Shamanism. Dorset: Element Books Limited.

Eliade, Mircea (1975) Patanjali and Yoga. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.

_____ (1964) Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

_____ (1969) Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Feuerstein, Georg (1980) the philosophy of classical yoga. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

_____ (2002) the yoga tradition: its history, literature, philosophy and practice. New Delhi:

Bhavana Books

Fillozat, Jean (1991) Religion, philosophy, Yoga: a section of articles. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass Publishers.

Gupta, Madan Gopal (2000) Dictionary of Indian religions, saints, gods, goddesses, rituals, festivals and yoga systems. Agra: M.G. Publishers.

Jones, Lindsay, ed. (2005) The Encyclopaedia of Religion (second edition). Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA.

Malotki, Ekkehart (2001) Hopi stories of witchcraft, shamanism, and magic. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Osho (1998) the path of yoga: commentaries of the Yoga Sustas of Patanjali. Pune: Tao Publishing Pvt. Ltd.

Pentikäinen, Juha (1996) Shamanism and Northern Ecology. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Robinson, Thomas A. and Rodrigues, Hilary (2006) World Religions: A Guide to the Essentials. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

Related Topics for Further Investigation








Spirit Guides



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic,M1

Article written by: Jessica Schultchen (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Sankara and Radical Non-dualism

Sankara’s philosophy is known as radical non-dualism or Advaita Vedanta. It was first outlined somewhere around the 8th century C.E. according to most scholars (Cenkner 29). The basis of this philosophy is that there is only one indivisible thing in existence and that is Brahman [Brahman is not to be confused with the creator god Brahma or the priestly class brahmin. All three come from the root brh meaning to grow in Sanskrit and is often used to connote greatness (Masih 66)]. Brahman is indescribable and cannot be fully understood by teachings alone. Since Brahman is indescribable, it is often spoken of in terms of what it is not. For example it could be said that Brahman is not acit (unreal), nor asat (ignorance), nor is it dukkha (suffering). This method of describing Brahman is the reason for Sankara’s philosophy to be termed non-dualism instead of simply monism (Masih 66).

Sankara gives us his ideas on Brahman and Advaita through his commentaries on certain Upanisads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Brahma

Sutra (the three together are known as the prasthana-traya) (Masih 64). Because these texts give seemingly contradictory statements on the nature of Brahman, several schools of thought emerge from them, Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta being one of if not the most highly renowned.

Brahman is said to be changeless and indivisible. The Upanisads describe it as “one without a second”. It is knowledge, consciousness and bliss; it is all things because it is the only thing. Brahman is the source of everything in existence but also the only thing in existence. Its non-existence cannot be imagined. It is essentially derived from itself. These are a few examples of the ways in which Brahman is described. Many attempts in many teachings and scriptures have been made, but according to Sankara they will always be misinterpreted because Brahman is beyond the known and even beyond the unknown (Masih 69-70). All teachings of Brahman are therefore merely aids in discovering it for yourself.

Atman is to be equated with Brahman. Atman is pure consciousness or one’s true self. Atman is the unchanging part of you, the part that is left

after all false identities have been stripped away. Realizing Atman is to realize that there is no you, as an individual, for you are Brahman and

indivisible from it. To realize Atman and therefore Brahman is the ultimate goal in life according to Sankara (Masih 67-68). The essence of his entire philosophy can be described in the sentence “Brahman alone is real, the world is illusory and Atman is identical with Brahman” (Masih 66).

Maya is the power of illusion that comes from Brahman. It is the reason that people find it difficult to realize themselves as Brahman. When

someone achieves liberation (moksa) maya ceases to have an effect on them and they gain ultimate enlightenment. Maya is not different from Brahman,

nor is it an attribute. It is the nature of Brahman and as indivisible from it as anything else (Masih 84).

The origins of the term maya trace back to the oldest of the Vedic literature, the Rg Veda. It is used to describe the superhuman powers of Varuna (Varuna is the Vedic god of the sky and the ocean) and Indra (the Vedic god of thunder) in several different hymns (at least four times for Varuna and as many as thirty times for Indra) (Masih 78). The Upanisads, which Sankara relied on heavily to develop his doctrine, also mention maya in a similar way to the Rg Veda. (Masih 79). The definition of the word maya in these texts is decidedly different than the one Sankara uses. It was however used in sense similar to Sankara’s by a philosopher predating Sankara by a hundred years named Gaudapada (Masih 79). It would seem that Guadapada influenced Sankara in his interpretation of the prasthana-traya texts.

According to Advaita teachings, once liberation has been achieved, one is free from any further karmic rebirths. It would be incorrect to say that one is returned to Brahman, as they were never separate to begin with.

Instead it could be said that one breaks through the illusion of maya and realizes the truth about reality.

When an attempt is made to prove the existence of God, it is usually through one of three arguments: ontological (the existence of the concept of God proves God’s existence), cosmological (all things must have a cause and so the first cause must be God), or teleological (the design of the world is one that must have come from an intelligent source, i.e. God). Sankara uses all three in an attempt to prove the existence of Brahman. Sankara gives these proofs only as an aid to attempt understanding Brahman (which he believes is impossible) and not definitive proof of its existence. He also claims that these proofs do not show Brahman has any quality at all to be proven (Masih 92).

Sankara’s ontological proof is basically the same as that used by any other philosopher. It states that because we have a concept of Brahman it must exist. Even when one tries to refute the idea of Brahman, its existence is established simply by having the idea of the concept of which one is trying to deny. This argument, if believed, is only enough to prove the existence of Brahman, not what it is (Masih 93).

The cosmological proof given by Sankara is slightly different than that used by most. Most cosmological arguments do not explain how it was that God came into existence. Sankara gets around this by saying that Brahman is above causality (Masih 93). To say that Brahman is not above causality is to say that something must have created Brahman, the question could then be asked “what created the creator of Brahman”, this line of thought could continue into an infinite regress making it an unacceptable form of reasoning. Sankara thus claims that logically there must be a “fundamental causal substance” (Masih 95) which is Brahman.

Sankara’s teleological proofs, like his ontological proofs are similar to those given by many religious philosophers. It states that the design of the world must have come from an intelligent source, i.e. Brahman. Sankara uses the reasoning that something with a design cannot come from nothing and must therefore come from Brahman (Masih 96).

Works Cited and Related Readings

Masih, Yakub (1987) Shankara’s Universal Philosophy of Religion. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Cenkner, William (1983) A Tradition of Teachers: Sankara. New Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press.

Roy, Shiva Shankar (1982) The Heritage of Sankara. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Related Websites

Related Research Topics

Mathas founded by Sankara

Modern followers of Sankara

Govinda Bhagavatapada, Sankara’s guru

Article written by Scott Oberg (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Samnyasa (Renunciation)

Hindu renouncers from the Vaisnava sect on their way to the Kumbha Mela in Nasik
Hindu renouncers from the Vaisnava sect on their way to the Kumbha Mela in Nasik

 The exact roots of samnyasa (renunciation) in the Hindu tradition have been a subject of some debate by scholars. Many scholars propose that the roots of renunciation are found in the Vedas, specifically the Rg Veda [For a list of conclusions linking renunciation to the Vedas, see Tiwari (1977)]. With the creation of the Upanisads (c. 8th century BCE) and the philosophy expounded in them(Vedanta) , there was a switch in paradigm which focused not solely on the external merit provided by completing sacrificial rituals, but rather on the internal experience of individuals and the ultimate attainment of moksa (liberation from cyclic worldly existence). The Upanisads introduced moksa as the idea of atman (individual soul) seeking union with Brahman (the universal soul). Moksa was an individual concern, which needed no deities or intermediaries and, therefore renunciation was a release of bonds from both the indenture of society to the brahmins (the priestly caste) for spiritual mediation and the body (see Thapar 843-852). In Brahmanism, samnyasa is the fourth asrama (stage of life) in which the samnaysin (renouncer) turns his [the Vedas and Vedanta texts were most likely written by men and so reflect a male perspective, for a female perspective on renunciation, see Olivelle 84-85] or her focus away from the attainment of worldly concerns, such as artha (wealth) and kama (pleasure) to the pursuit of moksa (liberation) (see Rodrigues 89-94).

Introspection and the growing urbanization broke the system of control and reciprocity established by Vedic ritual, namely the payment of daksina (payment given to a priest so that the merit from the ritual will transfer from the priest to the patron). In theory, the idea of renunciation could negate the class system altogether, as it was the jnana (knowledge) motivated karma (action) of an individual and not status which determined salvation. In some cases this new doctrine took a path of heterodoxy rejecting the supremacy of the Vedas. Some of the major sects which rejected the Vedas and promoted asceticism and renunciation were Jainism and Buddhism, both of which stressed that knowledge could not be given by a deity and that it must be gained by the individual (ultimately through the distancing of an individual from society in order to attain liberation). The formation of such sects caused a disruption of the power the brahmins held over the other classes and eventually the doctrine of renunciation was incorporated into Brahmanism as one of the four asramas. The asramas linked the samnyasins to a socially productive life through delineating an ideal sequence to life, each stage aiming at specific goals (see Thapar 840-848) [There is debate as to whether or not samnyasa was included in the original creation of the asrama system, for more information, see Kaelber 110-124].

The asramas begin with the brahmacarya (student life) and are followed by the grhasta (the householder’s life), the vanaprastha (the retired life, also called the forest dweller stage) and the fourth and final stage in the asrama system is the samnyasa (life of complete renunciation) (see Tiwari 121,). The goals associated with the stages are dharma (righteousness) attributed to the student, kama (pleasure) and artha (skill, wealth) to the householder, and moksa, being the ultimate goal of all the stages but only being truly attainable after leaving retired life and entering samnyasa. In the Asrama Upanisad, the asramas are further divided into four subsections each, with the goal of each stage being to seek self through the completion of sacrifices. In the last asrama true liberation is found by the mendicant that abandons all perceptions of the world gathered throughout the prior stages, viewing all experiences and people (regardless of class) with lack of judgement. In this way, the samnyasin enacts a final sacrifice, that of her or his worldly self and bridges the notion of sacrifice associated with the Vedas and the complete renunciation of the world elevated in Vedanta (see Olivelle 154-157).

Before the new philosophy of moksa and samnyasa had become established, karma (action) alone was seen to be the way to immortality. The performance of sacrificial offerings of Vedic ritual, was considered to be right action, however without the proper jnana (knowledge) of proper ritual action, as was known to a brahmin priest, ritual action was ineffective. [Texts such as the Brahmanas, Srauta Sutras, and the Dharma Sutras stress the importance of karma and performance of proper ritual, see Kaebler 75] By knowing Brahman, as the brahmin priest claimed to know, one could know all. Moksa and the necessary renunciation to attain it were then dependent on jnana (knowledge) of Brahman and the meaning of karma was extended to cover every action, not just the right action of sacrificial offering. This view coupled with the notion of samsara (the view that a person was part of a cyclic existence of death, rebirth, sorrow, and suffering) illustrated the ineffectiveness of karma to truly attain immortality. All actions are tied to results and are motivated by worldly desires, such as kama and artha, thus only true knowledge could motivate true actions and liberate one from the fruits of their actions (see Kaebler 73-79). Karma, to the elightened one, would be nullified of its imprint as all actions would be filtered through true jnana in its purest sense. The knowledge of Brahman could not be gained through intellectual learning alone, it could only be fully understood through the revelation of self through deep introspection into atman itself. It is here that dhyana (meditation) becomes paramount to the person who wishes to attain moksa. This is evident in a passage from the Katha Upanisad: “This self cannot be attained by instruction nor by intellectual power, nor even through much hearing. It is to be attained only by the one whom he chooses. To such a one the self reveals its own nature” (see Tiwari 68).

So the task of the samnyasin becomes to uncover the forgotten knowledge of self through sruti (revelation) of self in relation as Brahma. In this way, renunciation is not of the true self; it is a renunciation of avidya (ignorance) of the self, and thus, the cause of errors through karma (actions). Renunciation is then directed to the world and its phenomena, or rather the attachment one feels toward the worldly occurrences. This philosophy seems to suggest the outright rejection of the world as a whole, however it is actually a reinterpretation of it. Brahman is the ultimate reality of the universe, so removing the falseness of the self removes the false view of the world, leaving only the absolute reality of both self and the world. Brahman as the pure world also illuminates the goals of the asrama system (dharma, artha, kama, and moksa) as legitimate goals provided by the world, provided that the individual does not become attached to the fruits of their actions in order to obtain them (see Tiwari 67-73, 73-85).

Accomplishment of moksa through self realisation can only be achieved by ridding the self of all of the passions and judgements that make up human conditioning. Realising the atman (self) will free the self from egoism and the desires of the self for gratification, and will also unite the samnyasin with all humankind as atman is seen to be synonymous with Brahman. In this way the samnyasin can turn their focus outward and love all others as one being, regardless of caste, gender, race, or any other social marker. In order to cultivate this, one must rid themselves of the illusions of the mind which give rise to ego and the latent desires which constitute emotional response to one’s experiences (see Tiwari 91-97). In ridding the self of its human conditioning, the Vedanta teaches the overcoming of egoism, as do other renuncitory traditions such as Buddhism, which deny the self as being permanent. As mentioned, this also allows individuals to find their existence in the existence of all living beings. This functions to remove the rights of the individual and still allow the person to fulfill their obligations without the satisfaction of self.

The true self is also revealed by ridding the self of vasanaksaya (latent desires and emotions that give rise to mental conditioning such as anger, jealousy, covetness). In other words, the samnyasin is expected renounce their attachment to ego and to the external phenomena of the world which prevent one from reaching liberation (see Tiwari 97-103). Within the Bhagavad Gita, Krisna tells Arjuna of the importance of meditation to rid the self of passions and ego, “Who puts desire aside without reserve, together with their aims, and binds the senses fast on every side, with intellect held firm, he comes to rest, keeping his mind intent upon the self, thinking of nothing; but, then if the mind should wander needlessly, he leads it back towards the jurisdiction of the self. The highest bliss awaits the taintless man whose passions are subdued, of peaceful mind, for whom all things are Brahman and nothing else” (Hodgkinson 69-70).

The renunciation of society poses some interesting concerns about the progress of society, as a person is given the freedom to leave the obligations of society and no longer is bound by the institutions set up to contain society. The importance of sacrifice in order to sustain rta (cosmic order) is compromised, as the samnyasin is expected to abandon their family ties and to discard the sacrificial string and topknot, extinguish the sacred fire [they are important symbols of the status of a dvija (twice born) and of ritual obligation], and give up any other material possessions that they have acquired during their life (see Rodrigues 78-80). The samnyasin then dons a begging bowl, a staff and an ochre robe as their only possessions and spends the remainder of their life as a vagabond, depending solely on the charity of others for food. It is in this dependency on and opposition to the goals of the grhastha (householder) that highlights the connection of the samnyasin to society. The samnyasin depends on the alms given by the grhastha and, in exchange the grhastha receives the merit from helping a samnyasin in their holy pilgrimage, and also teachings from the samnyasin about the righteous path of life. The acquisition of samnyasa into the asrama system, particularly as the terminal and most noble asrama, affirms the samnyasin as a model of ideal selfless behaviour and also prevents young people from leaving their obligations prematurely (Thapar 882-890,891-900).

The requirement of the samnyasin to leave all accumulated wealth to their loved ones serves as a tool for the smooth transfer of wealth to kin and promotes a work ethic for Indian society which mirrors the Protestant ethic. A person should then work hard with true detachment from the fruits of their actions and yet work hard to attain the fruits for the purpose of passing them on to kin. This is an effective way of dispelling greed, ego, domination and exploitation while reinforcing commitment. As an institution, the renunciants serve to correct social problems, being that samnyasins are renowned for their spiritual discipline and control over their personal behaviour. Samnyasa serves a similar purpose to religious founders in other religions, as it unites followers in a common practice with a universal goal and makes the institution accessible to all persons. This universality can be seen through the reoccurring theme of renunciation in the popular stories of both Rama, and of the Pandavas, which are known to the majority of Indians. These stories reinforce the righteousness of renunciation, even in the life of kings. The universal goal of samnyasa, by recognition of the true self as manifest in all being, also warns society against murder, lying, and other actions which harm others (see Tiwari 118-126,132).

Samnyasa promotes the spiritual growth of the individual, but also allows for the individual to participate in social cohesion. Its institutionalisation through incorporation in the Vedanta literature, helps to make the ideas of renunciation both universal and still remain a profoundly individual endeavour. Jivanmukti (attainment of moksa in one`s lifetime) is obviously a difficult goal, and must be looked at as an ideal to be attained through faith and dedication and not as a guaranteed attainment . The significance of samnyasa lies in the recognition of the actual possibility to reach a stage in this life in which ultimate peace is found. It becomes an enlightened view of the world and the individual as part of it (see Tiwari 111).

References and Related Reading

Hodgkinson, Brian (2003) The Bhagavad Gita: A verse Translation. Delhi: Books For All.

Kaelber, Walter, O (1989) Tapta Marga: Asceticism and Initiation in Vedic India. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

Olivelle, Patrick (1992) Samnyasa Upanisads: Hindu Scriptures on Asceticism and Renunciation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary P (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge.

Thapar, Romila (2000) Cultural Pasts: Essays in Early Indian History. New Delhi: Oxford University Press

Tiwari, K.N (1977) Dimensions of Renunciation in Advaita Vedanta. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Related topics For Further Investigation


Bhakti Yoga (Loving devotion as the path to liberation)

Gayatri mantra (Vedic verse to be chanted thrice daily for twice born classes)

Jati (Hereditary Occupational Caste)

Jnana Yoga (Knowledge as a path to liberation)

Karma Yoga (selfless action as a way to liberation)

Monastic renunciation

Pativrata ideal (renunciation of self for the well-being of one’s husband)

Renunciation specific to Buddhism or Jainism

Rg Veda evidence of asceticism and renunciation


Samsara (Cyclic worldly existence)

Samskaras (rites of passage)

Sraddha ritual (death ritual)

The asrama system (four life stages)

The Bhagavad Gita

Upanayana (Investiture with the sacred thread)


Vanaprastha (forest-dweller stage)

Varna system (class system)

Women as samnyasin

Helpful Related Websites (The Bhagavad Gita and the Siva Samhita online) (Directory of sites related to numerous Hindu topics) (online versions of many texts) (insider views on Yoga and philosophy) (archived articles about renunciation and other topics

Article written by Daniel Manson (2008) who is solely responsible for its content

Tapas (Ascetic Heat)

Tapas, derived from the Sanskrit root tap– meaning “to consume or destroy by heat” (Kaelber 192) is an important concept in Hindu asceticism. Tapas or “inner heat” is obtained through ascetic practice. There are other meanings however. It can also be used to refer to penance (Kaelber 207), the destructive nature of heat (Kaelber 198), as well as sexual heat (Kaelber 343). It is believed to be a fundamental aspect to the religious experiences associated with fire and heat (e.g. ascetic practices and austerities) (Knipe 101).

Some of the ascetic concept of tapas is related to the creation of the cosmos. It takes part in an ongoing idea of the cosmos being associated with a spiritual unit or “mystical universe” (Knipe 36). For instance, the stars are believed to be created by Prajapati exerting himself in tapas for a thousand years. It is said that the stars are created from the pores of his heated body (Knipe 115). In another example, it is the creative power of this ascetic heat (tapas) which is the beginning in all myths regarding the creation of the universe (O’Flaherty 41).

As previously mentioned, tapas can be used to refer to the heat of asceticism. This type of heat is sometimes referred to as voluntary or “unnatural” heat. In this respect, tapas not only refers to the heat created through asceticism but to the practice of asceticism itself (Kaelber 343). Tapas, when being used for spiritual rebirth is always a voluntary, self-imposed asceticism rather than natural (Kaelber 359). These types of voluntary practices include such things as seclusion or isolation, silence, fasting, and brahmacarya or chastity, to name a few (Kaelber 359). It is important to note however that tapas can also be used to refer to natural heat, such as that given off by the sun or fire (Kaelber 343). According to the Brahmanas, tapas are understood as a sort of personal austerity or asceticism (Kaelber 201). Individuals, who undergo this asceticism, purify themselves through tapas; the impure condition of that individual is overcome which moves him from the state of impurity to the purity (Kaelber 205). This then allows for individuals to rise to a celestial condition (Kaelber 207). Tapas then, refers to the practices performed; it is the practice of asceticism. Tapas, however, also refers to the result of that asceticism (e.g. the heat generated through ascetic practice). Through asceticism (or tapas) the ascetic becomes heated (Kaelber 360).

The concept of destructive tapas is observed both in the Rg Veda and the Atharva Veda. The pain which is associated with this kind of tapas is both undesirable and unpleasant and can be either physical or mental (Kaelber 198). Destructive tapas is correlated in ritual literature with “the external purification of ritual objects” (Kaelber 196). This is believed because the destructive heat of the fire is said to purify directly. For example, in the Dharma Sutras, when they refer to the purification of objects at sacrifices, these objects are said to be cleansed of their impurity by being exposed to the flame of Agni (Kaelber 197). In this sense, it is tapas that comes to be viewed as the power of purification (Kaelber 197)

Tapas is also used to refer to sexual heat (e.g. heat of sexual yearning, the heat of sexual excitation, and the heat generated during intercourse) (Kaelber 343). The association of tapas and sexual heat is more directly seen in the relationship between tapas and the notions of love, desire, or lust. These three ideas are often translated into the Sanskrit word kama meaning “pleasure” (Kaelber 347).

We find tapas to be associated with many of the gods in Hinduism. Siva, an extremely important figure in Hindu mythology, is often referred to as the great lord of tapas (Knipe 101). In many Hindu myths, we find the mention of tapas. For example, in the myths regarding Parvati trying to win Siva as her husband, she sets out to perform tapas (austerities). By setting out to perform tapas, it is believed that she leaves her world of the householder and enters into Siva’s world, which is that of the renouncer (Kinsley 43). This concept is also associated with the Hindu god Agni whose consuming heat is one side of his tapas-producing character (Kaelber 194). In close association to this we find that Agni-Prajapati is born of tapas or “cosmic heat” (Knipe 115). We find that tapas and Brahman (ultimate reality) are also associated, “by tapas seek to know Brahman (for) Brahman is tapas” (Knipe 119). This statement implies a direct association between the Hindu concept of Brahman and the concept of tapas. In Hindu mythology, it is believed that one of the most effective ways to obtain what it is a person wants is to perform ascetic austerities (tapas). With enough persistence, so much heat (tapas) will be generated that the gods will have no choice but to grant the ascetic a wish to save themselves from being burned by the tapas (heat) of the ascetic (Kinsley 42).

We see that tapas is an important ascetic practice and concept within Hinduism. It can also be used to refer to many different contexts such as ritual-ascetic heat/sweat, sexual heat/semen, etc (O’Flaherty). In some myths for example, it is the spilling of seed which translates into these contexts (e.g. Brahma becoming overwhelmed with lust while looking upon Sati, his seed spills to the ground and forms clouds which release water upon the land [O’Flaherty 42]). Given the many different meanings behind tapas, it is in this sense that it can be viewed as both process and product.


Kaelber, Walter (1976) “Tapas”, Birth, and Spiritual Rebirth in the Veda. History of Religions,

15(4), 343-386.

Kaelber, Walter (1979) Tapas and Purification in Early Hinduism. Numen, 26, 192-214.

Kaelber, Walter (1989) Tapta-Marga: Asceticism and Initiation in Vedic India. Delhi: Sri

Satguru Publications.

Kinsley, David (?) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious

Tradition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Knipe, David (1975) In The Image of Fire. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

O’Flaherty, Wendy (1973) Siva: The Erotic Ascetic. London: Oxford University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation







Dharma Sutras





Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Sarah Hammett (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Carvarka (Materialist) Philosophy

The Carvaka (sweet-talkers), also known as Lokayata philosophy, is a heterodox Hindu philosophy named after its founder and often classified with its fellow dissenter philosophies of Buddhism and Jainism. However, unlike Jainism and Buddhism, Carvaka has not turned into its own religious sect and remains a philosophical ideal. Being a heterodox school of thought means that Carvaka rejects the idea that the Vedas are revealed texts (sruti) and also rejects the power of the Brahmin priestly class (see King 19). It is a materialistic philosophy that places most of its emphasis on the here and now and life as we perceive it as we live through it. The Carvaka system only accepts perceived knowledge to be true and therefore dismisses the concept of an afterlife. Although the philosophy is believed to be quite old, there are very few texts that deal directly with the system itself.

There is no single piece of extant literature that is solely based on the materialistic philosophy of the Carvaka. The few writings that clearly relate to the system are not very old in Hindu terms (a few centuries) but many scholars believe that there is evidence of criticisms of the Carvaka principles in earlier writings by adversary philosophers such as Sankara (Hiriyanna 187). The Carvakas played a significant role in the history of Indian philosophy (King 21). It was very unnerving to the leaders and priests of the orthodox tradition because of the rejection of their sacred texts and the rejection of immaterial forms of existence. The importance of the materialist philosophy is most likely underplayed because of the lack of extant texts of Carvaka or Lokayata itself. The Brhaspati Sutra apparently set out the principles of the system but the text has been lost. The orthodox opposition wrote the only known writings pertaining to the philosophy. The only possible extant writing on the Caravaka philosophy is Destruction of Philosophical Theories (Tattvopaplavasimha) by Jayarasi Bhatta (King 19). Even this is not directly Carvaka; it is explained more as radical skepticism than materialism. Still the fact that Jayarasi was from a school of skeptical Lokayatikas gives writings that are closely related to and are not completely critical of the Carvaka philosophy.

The lack of texts to support it made the tradition unlikely to survive, unlike its fellow heterodox traditions of Buddhism and Jainism adhering to their own sacred texts. The only possible extant writing on the Carvaka philosophy is Destruction of Philosophical Theories (Tattvopaplavasimha) by Jayarasi Bhatta (King 19). Even this is not directly Carvaka; it is explained more as radical skepticism than materialism. Still the fact that Jayarasi was from a school of skeptical Lokayatikas gives writings that are closely related to and are not completely critical of the Carvaka philosophy. There is also evidence of the Carvaka system in the Rgveda. The poets of the Rgveda never show a desire to reach another world but instead put emphasis on the here and now facts of life, just as the Carvaka system does (Raja 24). The philosophy receives much ridicule in ancient literature. This is presumed to be because of the gaps and deficiencies in the system of thought itself because fellow heterodox systems that reject the Vedas and authority of the priestly class do not receive such negative commentary. Since most of the writings on the Carvaka are by followers of opposing schools of thought, it may be misinterpreted and its weaknesses overly emphasized.

One of the reasons that many philosophers reject Carvaka is because of the dogma of perception. The doctrine states that the only valid knowledge (pranama) is that which is directly perceived– sense knowledge. Reasoning is completely rejected as a valid way of acquiring knowledge (King 132). The explanation for this is that there is not sufficient cause for believing in the truth of the inductive relation that forms the basis for the idea. The inductive relation can be different to each individual and is not physically apparent. It takes on the approach of modern science (Raja 30). Universal relationships can be accepted only if they can be warranted by direct observation (anubhava), much like a science experiment. Inference requires perceptual knowledge to establish its validity. Giving probabilities rather than definitive answers was the main reason for resistance to inferential reasoning (King 133). The limitations on thought and reasoning provide a rigid barrier to giving deeper meaning to life and thereby contribute any new ideas or perspectives to Indian philosophy (darshanas).

In ancient Hindu society the upper three varnas were allowed to participate in Vedic ritual practices and receive an education. The lack of inclusiveness of commoners may have provided a base for their support of Carvaka. Not being allowed to participate in Vedic rituals and having the powerful priestly class causing dissent made the philosophy’s position of rejection of the Vedas and Brahmins very appealing (King 17). It is easy to reject the power of the Vedic text when one is not allowed to participate in rituals or is unable to read them.

The specific purposes of human existence are undecided from the Carvaka philosophical viewpoint. In traditional Hindu society righteousness (dharma), pleasure (kama), worldly success (artha), and liberation (moksa) were the basic principles of human existence. The materialists believed that the main goal of life was kama or the pursuit of pleasure (King 18). A follower of the doctrine would try to maximize the pleasures in his or her life. The Carvaka promotes a lifestyle based on the avoidance of sorrow or suffering. Some scholars also believe that success or wealth (artha) was another main goal of the Carvaka life. The philosophy is often criticized because of these materialistic purposes for life. In later writings distinctions seem to have been made between refined materialism, which had a hierarchical scheme of pleasures, and approving of intellecual over sensual pleasure, and a more crude materialism (King 18). The hierarchal system is probably a more valid description of how the original philosophy was practiced, with intellect being important and adherents not having blatant disregard for the moral issues that go along with the attempt to have artha and kama.

Lokayata often has a negative reputation because of the lack of dharma as an absolute goal of life. The philosophy cannot just be projected as an unreflective hedonistic perspective. Dealing with moral issues and rejecting the actions that may cause harm to others has evidentiary support (King 19). Since there was a lack of the goal of righteousness derived from dharma, the idea of kama controlled actions of the followers. Kama was not believed to be for just oneself, but a universal goal to avoid suffering for oneself and others. Carvaka also condemned war and the Vedic animal sacrifices much like the Jainas and Buddhists (Chattopadhyaya 31). Both of these practices add to the suffering of other individuals, making them unacceptable to the Lokayata.

The doctrine dismisses all gods, devas and supernatural beings (Hiriyanna 193). It is also recognized that there is no god who governs the universe, no life after death, or conscience (dharma). The material world is all that exists and there are no other worlds in which to be reborn. This fixates a follower totally on the world of sense around them and does not inspire elevated thoughts of a deeper reality. There is no god who created the world, but a conglomeration of matter that is able to produce things out of itself (Dasgupta 175). Carvaka rejects the idea of Brahman because nobody has come back to relate to us what happens after death. Brahman is inferred, and cannot be perceived by the senses. Therefore the Carvaka rejects Brahman. Only the four elements of earth, fire, water and air are recognized and these together produce intelligence that is destroyed when the body perishes. Just like intelligence, atman or the soul is not believed to be a separate entity from the body as it is unable to be demonstrated that it does exists.

Although there are no remaining practitioners of the Carvaka philosophy it still remains an integral part of Indian philosophical history. There may be resurgence in the interest and study of such materialistic philosophies such as this with the changing views of western culture today.

References and Further Recommended Readings

Chattopadhyaya, D. (1968) Lokayata: A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism. New Delhi: People’s Publishing House.

Dasgupta, Surendranath (1962) A History of Indian Philosophy: vol. V. New York, N.Y.: The Cambridge University Press.

Hiriyanna, M. (1968) Outlines of Indian Philosophy. London: George Allen & Unwin LTD.

King, Richard (2000) Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought. New Delhi: Maya Publishers PVT. LTD.

Raja, Kunhan C. (1974) Some Fundamental Problems in Indian Philosophy. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Related Topics for Further Investigation




Brhaspati Sutra












Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by Megan Gajdostik (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Karma Yoga

Karma Yoga is the path of action. It is a means of preparing oneself for the attainment of moska, self-realization, which is the final goal of life in Hindu tradition (Rao 45). The concept of Karma Yoga has long been acknowledged in Hinduism, but it was not until the emergence of the Bhagavad Gita, a text dealing with the concepts of religion within one’s daily life, that it was viewed as a path toward self-realization. The Bhagavad Gita is based upon a scene in the epic Mahabharata, in which Arjuna is faced with the dilemma of obeying his dharmic duty to fight his cousins, the Kauravas, for rulership of the kingdom, or to ignore dharma, and renounce into a peaceful life, in which he may strive for moksa. Krsna, who identifies himself as the manifestation of god, advises Arjuna to enter battle (see Rodrigues 227-236). Traditionally, moksa was cultivated in the final stages of life, in which one renounces their life within society, to live as a forrest-dweller and samnyasin (see Rodrigues 148-159). This conflict, to choose between a life within a society or a life in which one may become liberated, is resolved in the Gita. The Gita teaches of there being more than one path to reaching the Absolute, the God-head, to attaining moksa (Sivaraman 188). Krsna teaches Arjuna of three paths to liberation: Jnana Yoga, the path of trancedental knowledge, Bhakti Yoga, the path of loving devotion, and Karma Yoga, the path of action. These paths may be undertaken by a person at any stage in life; therefore the Gita teaches of cultivating a renouncer attitude, without being a renouncer. Transforming the notions of karma and yoga, the Bhagavad Gita presents the notion of niskama karma, acting without interest or desire in the results of one’s actions, and applies it to yoga as a path of spiritual development, preparing an individual for pursuing moksa (Rao 48). The teachings of Karma Yoga are inspirational to ways of life. One exemplifier of such inspiration is Mahatma Gandhi, a political activist responsible for transforming both Indian and African societies (see Rodrigues 252-253). Karma Yoga is more than a path preparing one for moksa, it is a way of life both for individuals, as well as society.

Karma, in its original sense, is the “law” of cause and effect (Sivaraman 181). It is the notion that every action that one takes in the world, both of physical (act) or mental (thoughts, feelings) nature, leaves an impression on both the cosmic and human realms of the world and thus bears a consequence or result (Sivaraman 181). Karmic consequences, good or bad, are attached to the individual, and therefore determine their current, and future conditions (Sivaraman 181). Therefore, karma refers to the performance of deeds, which include specific caste duties, sacrifices and rituals that maintain the order of the world. The Hindu concept of spiritual re-birth lies within karma, as those who possess good karma may be subjected to a better rebirth, which includes being re-born into a higher caste (Sivaraman 181). Therefore, the original concept of karma suggests that human beings are attached to life in the world, and so, should act in a manner reflective of their desire to live a content life, and improve their place of re-birth (Sivaraman 181).

The notion of karma was reformed through the Bhagavad Gita. Karma refers to the performance of actions as a result of a motive, which is either egoistic or nonegoistic. Such actions do not bear consequences on the individual, as the result of any action is determined, and produced by god, and thus should be attributed to god (Singr 56). According to the Gita, it matters not what results come of any action, what matters is the motive behind each action (Sighr 71). Niskama karma, acting in the world disinterested in the results of such actions, and without desire for certain outcomes, is the reformed karma of the Bhagavad Gita (Rao 48). Embracing niskama karma in life while examining the motives behind each action one takes constitutes Karma Yoga (Singr 71).

Hindu philosohpy, specifically Sankhya philosphy, speaks of the dualistic nature of reality. Reality is composed of two entities: Purusa (the self) and Prakrti (the non-self) (see Rodrigues). Purusa is the soul within beings, and represents truth. Prakrti, on the other hand, is a force, it is our nature. Prakrti manifests as the buddhi (intellect), ahankara (ego) and manas (inner feelings of the heart and mind) of a being. According to the Gita, Prakrti is responsible for all action, while Purusa is unaffected by all that takes place (Singr 46). Ignorance is said to be the cause of all sorrow, and its force is bestowed upon a being when they identify themselves as the doer of action. Attaching actions, and results to the self feeds the ego self, motivating future actions and causes suffering when results of an action are un-agreeable (Edgerton 165). Ignorance binds the soul to the physical being, and blinds a person from seeing truth, from discriminating between Prakrti and Purusa. Moksa is thus, unattainable while in a state of ignorance (Singr 118). Karma Yoga allows a person to overcome ignorance through the purification of the mind (Rao 46).

Karma Yoga is the “discipline of detached activity” (Singr 71). Action is seen as inescapable, it is in the nature (prakrti) of beings to act helplessly, but it is in their power to control such actions (Deutsch 39). Prakrti is composed of three gunas (elements): rajas (passion), sattva (illuminous) and tammas (obstruction). The gunas are the controlling force over all action. Rajas, as the Gita teaches, is the “enemy”, as passion is thought to masque knowledge. Manas and buddhi, the mind and the understanding of a being, are impacted by rajas, as passion becomes internalized and seen as stemming from the self (Deutsch 39). In the epic, Mahabharata, Krsna teaches Arjuna that the mind is greater than the senses, reason is greater than the mind, and it is the being himself who is greater than reason (Deutsch 39). Through the practice of Karma Yoga, a person becomes able to examine and conceptualize the nature of action, non-action and wrong action, beginning to work at understanding the “way of action” (Deutsch 39). A being is seen as detached when they are able to truly discriminate the soul from the gunas of prakrti, understanding its separation from action (Singr 66).

The path of Karma Yoga is followed physically through detached action within the world, and mentally through the conditioning of the mind, appreciating the nature of action and the power within oneself to control the forces of prakrti. Yajna (sacrifice), is the technique used within Karma Yoga to lead one towards self-realization (Deutsch 163). The followers of Karma Yoga give up their lower self, their ego self containing desires and attachments, in light of their higher, spiritual self, their soul (Deutsch 164). The being is sacrificed for the soul. When a person chooses to follow the path of action they must concentrate their attention on the divine, their actions are expressions of the divine power that lies within their being. The actions a person takes should be selfless, having no underlying desire, not even the desire to achieve moska (Singr 103). Yajna is performed by taking selfless actions within the world, sacrificing the ego-self, as a being redirects involvement in its actions away from the results and toward their spirit (Singr 103).

The path of Karma Yoga leads a being through four stages of karma. Initially, karma influences the actions one takes for selfish reasons, such as desires and attachments. The actions begin to be motivated from the being’s enlightened desire to know their true self. Next, as one discovers the power of their own being, actions are determined by their personal dharmic law. Finally, actions are taken for the goodness of the action, they are disinterested and are the essence of a being’s true self (Singr 74). The stages of karma are steps in cultivating the essence of Karma Yoga. Through Karma Yoga, a being purifies their mind, and prepares itself to enter the path of knowledge (Rao 50).

Acting for the social good is an essential characteristic of Karma Yoga. The emergence of the path of action has led to the development of many social programs such as Rama krishna mission hospitals, as well revolutions within society (see Rodrigues 251-252). Mahatma Gandhi was a political activist who encompassed the essence of Karma Yoga. Gandhi’s life was characterized by detached action, for the benefit of others and for society. As the reality of social injustice came to his awareness, Gandhi set out on a journey to evoke change. Basing his life on the notion of niskama karma, and karma yoga, Gandhi created the concept of satyagraha (holding fast to the truth), and applied this to political activism (Cherian 86). Mahatma Gandhi reformed societies of South Africa and India through the concept of Karma Yoga, taking action for just causes without being concerned of the consequences such action might relay on an individual. It is through Gandhi’s active, non-violent resistance to social injustice that such societies began to change (Cherian 86).

The path of action purifies the mind of a being, and in so prepares it for attaining the transcendental knowledge characteristic of moksa (Rao 50). Karma Yoga can be adopted at any stage in life, and with so, can be viewed as a lifelong journey toward spiritual development, and ultimately the journey toward moksa. To embrace the path of Karma Yoga, one must take actions in the world, despite their results, and examine these actions with respect to their underlying motive and their nature, attributing the results of such actions as determined by god (Singr 63). To practice this path of action, one must sacrifice their ego-self, and focus their involvement in action on their true-self (Singr 73). Complete detachment from the results of action is the goal of Karma Yoga (Rao 49).

References and Further Recommended Readings

______ (1944) The Bhagavad Gita. Trans. Franklin Edgerton. Ed. Walter E. Clark. New York: Harvard UP.

______ (1968) The Bhagavad Gita. Trans. Elliot Deutsch. Canada: Holt, Rinehart and Winston of Canada Limited.

_______ (2003) Hindu Spirituality: Volume Two. Ed. K.R. Sundararajan and Brithika Mukerji. India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Ltd.

Cherian, Kenneth M (1984) The Life of Mahatma Gandhi: Book Review. Journal of Religious Thought 40.2: 86-90.

Rao, P (1992) The place of Morality in Karma Yoga. Darshana International 32.4: 45-50.

Rodriques, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The e-Book. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books Ltd.

Singh, Balbir (1981) Karma-Yoga. New Jersey: Humanities Press Inc.

Sivaraman, Krishna (1989) Hindu Spirituality. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.

Related Research Topics



Bhakti Yoga

Jnana Yoga

Mahatma Gandhi

Dharma, Dharmic Duties

The Bhagavad Gita

The Mahabharata

Yajna Rituals

Sankya Philosophy

The Stages and Goals of Life in Hinduism



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Article written by Patricia Eyolfson (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Kundalini Yoga

Although Tantric literature has gained popularity throughout the world, Kundalini Yoga remains one of the most mysterious subjects within Hinduism. Perhaps this is because it is one of the most radical forms of worship in Hinduism, and to work with Kundalini is to work with the occult.

Kundalini is the name of the serpent energy that Tantric physiological models say is located in the base of the human body. When utilized properly, one can use this energy to achieve moksa and reach levels of indescribable bliss. However, teachers of this approach warn that it is a grave mistake to attempt to reach these goals without proper guidance, as this may lead to complete moral and spiritual degeneration (Kapoor et al 1074).

Kundalini is envisioned as a serpent that lies dormant in most people throughout their lives, idly coiled around herself three and a half times. The serpent occupies a point in the body lying two fingers above the rectum and two below the generative organs, the location of muladhara plexus. (Kapoor et al 1074). However, it is important to note that the serpent lies not in the physical body, but rather in what is known as the “subtle body.” She, for Kundalini is also considered to be a goddess, rests there before being awakened, and scholars differ in their opinions on where she ends up after her awakening. Some say that after reaching the highest point in the body, she stays there permanently, although others argue that she returns to her base at the muladhara plexus (Kapoor et al 1074).

The female nature of the serpent is important, as Kundalini is regarded as Sakti manifested as the serpent energy. Kundalini at the muladhara is regarded by Tantrics as the whole primordial Sakti (Woodroffe 306). Sakti is the female principle, perceived as primordial force, a causal matrix which spews out matter and endows it with forms, colours, and other attributes, called prakrti (Fic 28-9). Sakti is said to both create and obscure the material universe, also known as maya (Fic 29).

The process to moksa through Kundalini begins with consultation with a guru who has been through the process before. With an understanding of the aspirant’s mental and intellectual capabilities, the guru should be able to tell from experience whether it is possible for him or her to succeed in this task (Woodroffe 25). It is said that for every thousand individuals who embark on this path, only one will succeed (Woodroffe 26).

Before being able to understand the process of awakening Kundalini, though, one must understand the concept of the cakras. At various locations of the subtle body, there are six centres of operation, each depicted as a lotus flower with a different number of petals. These centres are: muladhara, as mentioned above; svadisthana, located around the generative organs; manipura, around the navel region; anahata, the region around the heart; visuddha, the region connecting the spinal cord and lower portion of the medulla oblongata; and ajna, located between the eyebrows (Bhattacharyya 144). Above all of these lies the sahasrara, known as the cakracita, or “beyond cakra” (Thakur 106). This lies on the top of the cerebral part of the brain. Each cakra and cakracita is depicted as a lotus flower with a different number of petals. The numbers are, respectively, four, six, ten, twelve, sixteen, two, and the sahasrara having 1000 (Thakur 106). The total of the number of petals (excluding the sahasrara) is 50 – the number of characters in the Sanskrit alphabet. It is said that Sakti creates the world by singing her song using all 50 characters, and after propagating the world, rests in the individual’s muladhara cakra (Stutley 260).

Another important concept in this yoga is the asana. Simply put, asana means position or posture. However, there is much more to it than that. 84 asanas are mentioned in various works, but there are believed to be 8 400 000, of which only 84 are known to human beings (Stutley 21). One important idea is that it is essential in asanas is that all extremities of the limbs must be pressed together to keep an uninterrupted flow of life energy by ensuring the energy radiated by nerves in fingers and toes is kept in a closed circuit and not wasted (Stutley 21).

One last concept important to understanding the awakening process is prana. Prana is the “vital energy” that is all around us and in the air we breathe. Prana in the body of the individual is just part of the “Universal Breath” (Woodroffe 199). The yogi aspiring to awaken Kundalini must grab hold of prana in the process.

To utilize the energy of Kundalini, one must get her to pierce all six cakras and rest above them at the sahasrara. This is to be done through a complex process, focusing mainly on meditation under the supervision of a guru. There is no simple, generally accepted set of rules for the process of awakening the energy, but all processes tend to be very similar. One method suggests that the yogi should fill the body with prana by breathing in slowly, and eventually hold the breath. Then, he or she should relax to lower the heart rate, move the prana downwards, contract the anus and direct prana through a semicircular motion, left to right around the muladhara, all while slowly saying a secret bija-mantra. Doing this will warm up and stir Kundalini (Kapoor et al 1074).

Another process is much simpler, but the yogi must have a higher level of expertise to do it. The yogi is to take up a specific asana as assigned by a guru. The breath is to be held by curling the tongue to the back of the throat, and then the sexual energy is to be aroused. This alone is enough to awaken Kundalini, since the sexual energy dwells near the muladhara cakra (Stutley 156).

To try and hasten the process, some tantric schools incorporate sexual practices with some asanas to achieve simultaneous immobility of breath, thought, and semen (Stutley 156).

Once she is awakened, Kundalini can be directed up the central column through nerves that lie in the subtle body. These nerves are known as nadi, and conduct prana through the body (Woodroffe 109). There is no confirmed number of nadis since the Bhuta-Suddhi Tantra speaks of 72 000, the Prapancasara of 300 000, and the Siva-Samhita of 350 000, but the most commonly agreed upon number is 72 000 (Woodroffe 110). There are fourteen main nadis, but in Kundalini Yoga, only three are really emphasized: ida, pingala, and susumna. Ida and pingala meander upwards through the body transporting prana, and susumna goes straight up the body and is the channel through which Kundalini flows. All three of these nadis meet at the cakras as they travel upwards through the body (Woodroffe 151). Ida is a white, feminine nerve beginning on the left side of the spinal cord and ending in the left nostril and is a symbol of the moon (Bhattacharyya 70). Pingala, on the other hand, begins on the right side of the spinal cord and ends in the right nostril. It symbolizes the waking state and leads individuals to violent actions (Bhattacharyya 123).

As Kundalini moves upward through the susumna, it opens up a myriad of nadi at every cakra it pierces for prana to flow through. It starts with the muladhara cakra, which is inverted prior to Kundalini’s awakening and turns upright after. The cakra is the location of the prthvi-tattva, meaning element of solidity, and is the grossest form of manifest energy (Thakur 159). The second cakra is the svadisthana cakra, which translates to “own abode of Sakti” (Woodroffe 118). The next cakra up, the manipura cakra, also known as the jewel city, is so called because the lotus is said to be as lustrous as a gem (Woodroffe 119). This cakra is the location of the teja-tattva, meaning element of heat (Thakur 159). When Kundalini reaches the anahata cakra, the yogi can supposedly hear the anahata-sabda, or the “sound which comes without the striking of any two things together” (Woodroffe 120). The visuddha cakra is the location where the biological self is purified by a vision of the true self, or atman (Thakur 160). Finally Kundalini reaches the ajna cakra, which provides the yogi with supernatural powers, or siddhi (Woodroffe 127). Finally the serpent reaches her ultimate destination: the sahasrara, the location where the serpent causes the yogi to reach moksa.

Physical effects also take place at each of the cakras once they are pierced by the serpent. These effects are called nimitta, meaning, literally, “signs” (Kapoor et al 1074). These signs are profuse sweating, an increase in body temperature, and a stinging sensation (Kapoor et al 1074). Some yogis say that as the energy moves up, all the cakras below return to a cold temperature, even described as “corpse-like” (Stutley 158).

Once piercing all six cakras (this is known as the sat-cakra-bheda), the Kundalini energy reaches the sahasrara, her ultimate destination. It is said that on the center of the sahasrara lotus shines the full moon, within which rests a triangle of lightning containing the most secret bindu. All gods worship this hidden bindu and it is said to be the basis of moksa (Thakur 160-61). Some yogis maintain, however, that after reaching the sahasrara, the energy returns to the muladhara (Fic 34). Some also say that Kundalini needs to pierce only three cakras, the muladhara, anahata, and ajna, to reach the sahasrara (Kapoor et al 1074). There are many different descriptions of the events that take place once Kundalini reaches the sahasrara. Some describe it as a very simple experience, whereby the yogi reaches a full understanding of the self, then returns to his or her normal life and repeats the procedure often to maintain control of the energy (Fic 36). Others describe a much more complex occurrence starting with the yogi perceiving the “inner sounds” – sounds that start like a roaring ocean, becoming progressively quieter until they are like a bee, and finally the nada, or “unmanifested” sound (Kapoor et al 1074). Often, the yogi is said to see a taraka; that is, a small, intensely bright light resting between and in front of the eyebrows (Bharati 265).

Although the entire process of using Kundalini to achieve moksa in this lifetime may seem relatively simple and straightforward, the yoga is not something to be toyed around with. Less documented than the theory and practice of this yoga are the potential negative consequences. Two of the main fears are that increased energy in the lower region will cause an insatiable sexual desire, and that awakening Kundalini will lead to moral and mental instability (White et al 460). The latter fear may become a reality for someone who suddenly awakens Kundalini, due to the increase in energy flow in the nervous system (White et al 198). Often, individuals who have improperly awakened Kundalini report symptoms such as short or long-term disorientation, severe anxiety, and a general mental incapacity (White et al 205-6).

It is important to keep these ideas in mind when considering Kundalini Yoga as a means to moksa, but they should not be discouraging as it is still a fascinating subject. Therefore, although the serpent energy is to be revered, with caution, a thorough knowledge of the subject, and the guidance of a guru, one can certainly consider the path of Kundalini for their own liberation.

References and further Recommended Reading

Bhattacharyaa, Narenda Nath (1990) A Glossary of Indian Religious Terms and Concepts. Delhi: South Asian Publications.

Bharati, Agehananda (1975) The Tantric Tradition. New York: Samuel Weiser Inc.

Fic, Victor M. (2003) The Tantra: its Origin, Theories, Art, and Diffusion from India to Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia, China, Japan, and Indonesia. Delhi: Shakti Malik / Abhinav Publications

Kapoor, Subodh et al (1999) Encyclopedia of Hinduism vol. 3. Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2005) Hinduism: the e-book: an Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.

Stutley, Margaret (2002) A Dictionary of Hinduism. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

Thakur, Dr. Manoj K (2001) The Tantras: An Introductory Outline. Delhi: Book Land Publishing.

White, John et al (1979) Kundalini, Evolution and Enlightenment. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books.

Woodroffe, Sir John (1978) The Serpent Power. Madras: Ganesh and Co. Publishing.

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Written by Urvil Thakor (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.

Related Readings (On Madhva and Dualism (Dvaita))

Puthiadan, I. (1985) Visnu the Ever Free: A Study of the Madhva Concept of God. Madurai: Dialogue Publications.

Rao, S. S. (trans.) (1936) Vedantasutras with the Commentary of Madhva. Tirupati: Sir Vyasa Press.

Sharma, B. N. K. (1960-61) A History of Dvaita School of Vedanta and its Literature, 2 vols. Bombay: Booksellers Publishing Co.

_____ (1961) Madhva’s Teaching in His Own Words. Bombay: Bhavan’s Book University.

_____ (1962) Philosophy of Sri Madhvacarya. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Related Readings (Ramanuja)

Balasubramanian, R. (1978) Some Problems in the Epistemology and Metaphysics of Ramanuja. Madras: University of Madras.

Bharadwaj, Krishna Datta (1958) The Philosophy of Ramanuja. New Delhi: Sir Sankar Lall Charitable Trust Society.

van Buitenen, J. A. B. (1965) Ramanuja on the Bhagavadgita. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Carman, John B. (1974) The Theology of Ramanuja: An Essay in Interreligious Understanding. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Govindacharya, Alkondavilli (1906) The Life of Ramanuja. Madras: C. N. Press.

Sharma, A. (1978) Visistadvaita Ved??nta: A Study. New Delhi: Heritage Press.

Thibault, George (trans.) (1904) Vedantasutras with Ramanuja’s Commentary. In Sacred Books of the East (SBE), F. Max Müller (gen. ed.), vol 48.

Yamunacarya, M. (1963) Ramanuja’s Teachings in His Own Words. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.