Pranayama is the fourth limb of Patanjali’s Raja Yoga, which was first outlined in his Yoga Sutras.It is also an important part of Hindu asceticism and a vital part of any yoga practice.Prana is the vital energy (breath) in all of us; pranayama is the control of that vital energy.Control of the breath means refusing to breathe as people normally do.Under normal circumstances, breath is non-rhythmic and shallow.However, in pranayama, the breath is deep, even, and controlled by the practitioner (Eliade 55).“A Yogi measures the span of his life not by the number of years but by the number of breaths.One can take in only a certain amount of energy or prana from the air along with each breath.The vital capacity is measured by the greatest amount of air one can inhale after the deepest possible exhalation (Sivananda 269).
Early Textual References
Yoga, one of the orthodox systems of Hindu philosophy, is the psychophysical system of attaining union with Absolute Reality (Brahman).As an integral part of the Hindu philosophy, yoga is mentioned in many influential Hindu texts.Pranayama is identified in the Rg Veda with Brahma as inhalation, Visnu as suspension of the breath, and Rudra as exhalation.In the Upanisads, there is the mention of “obtaining “ecstasy” through concentration on sounds [and] such concentration is acquired only by the application of yogic technique (asana, pranayama, etc.)(Eliade 133) In the Bhagavad Gita also mentions yoga, presenting it as a practical means for attaining moksa through meditation (Eliade 159n).
One of the most important aspects of the practice of pranayama is said to be the preparation for practice.It is said that one must be firmly grounded in asanas, as well as preparing the body by purifying it through the following six kriyas (Sivananda 292).First, one must complete dhauti, or cleansing the digestive track.Then the bowels are cleansed through bastiandthe sinuses through neti.The eyes and mind are cleansed through steady gazing or trataka.Nauli cleanses abdominal churning which eliminates constipation and increases digestive fire.Kapalabhati, which is heavy, fast breathing, destroys excess phlegm.
There are other preliminary considerations for practice.These include a place that is pleasant, quiet, beautiful, private, where there are no disturbances or distractions.The time of day pranayama is practiced is also important, it is best to practice in the spring or fall.In the summer season, the cool early morning hours are the best time of day.The food that the body consumes is also considered and important consideration.Light, moderate, substantial and nutritious food – there are three categories of food which must be balanced.Sattvic foods (i.e., milk, fruit, cereals, butter, cheese, tomatoes, and spinach) make the mind pure.Rajasic foods (i.e., fish, eggs, meat) stimulate passion.Tamasic foods (i.e., beef, onions, garlic) make the mind lethargic and angry.The practice is best approached with passion and earnestness.It is said that the student must have a calm mind, faith in his Guru’s teachings, believe in God, live a life of moderation, and be eager to attain moksa.The final step of suggested preliminary preparation is the purification of the nadis which is done through alternate nostril breathing and creates harmony in the body(Sivananda 296-314):
After preparing physically with yourkriyas and asanas, mental preparation can begin.The first part of practice is the three-part breath.First is puraka (inhalation), followed by rechaka (exhalation), and finally kumbhaka (retention).The time unit used to measure the breath is a matra, usually the syllable Om.It is also suggested that the suitable asanas for pranayama are padmasana, siddhasana, svastikasana, or samasana.
When first starting to practice pranayama, Sivananda recommends that you practice only puraka and rechaka, without kumbhaka for a month or two.Once comfortable with the slowing down of the breath, retention can be added.At first a ratio of 1:4:2 is recommended which gradually will be increased to 16:64:32 (377).This ratio refers to inhaling for one matra, retaining for four matra, and exhaling for two matra.The three types of pranayama discussed by Sivananda are inferior pranayama, which is 12 matras, middling pranayama, which is 24 matras, and superior pranayama, which consists of 32 matras.These numbers refer to the number of matras for inhalation only.
There is more than one way to practice pranayama.Sivananda outlines various exercises which include alternate nostril breathing, deep breathing exercises, pranayama during meditation, while walking and during savasana (deep relaxation of the muscles and nerves), and ujjayipranayama (breathing while partially closing the glottis) to name a few.
Sivanandaalso identifies four stages that accompany pranayama practice.The first is arambhaavastha, which is for the destruction of former sins and often consists of profuse perspiration that should be rubbed into the body with the hands.The second stage is ghataavastha, which is obtained through the regular practice of suppressing the breath.In order to pass through the ghata state one must constantly keep up their yogic practice.The third stage is parichayaavastha.“Through steady practice and concentrated thought the breath now pierces the Kundalini Shakti along with the Agni and enters the Sushumna uninterrupted” (328).The final stage of pranayama is nishpattiavastha, the state of consummation where all of the karmic seeds have been destroyed and the practitioner becomes immortal.
“The yogic practitioner seeks through a careful process of spiritual exercises to reach a state of “isolation”, of the complete separation of spirit and matter” (Embree 195).It is through practicing pranayama that this goal becomes attainable.The goal of pranayama is very much the same as the goal of yoga.There is a reciprocal relationship between breath and the mind.Once able to control the breath, one is able to control the mind and control of the mind allows control of the breath.“If the mind and prana are both controlled, one becomes liberated from the rounds of births and deaths and attains immortality” (Sivananda, 268).
Eliade, Mircea (1958) Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. Trans. Willard R. Trask.New York: Pantheon Books
Embree, Ainslie T (ed.) (1972) The Hindu Tradition: Readings in Oriental Thought.New York: Vintage Books
Sivananda, Swami (1981) The Science of Yoga v. 4.Shivanandanagar, Dist. Tehri-Garhwal, U.P., India: Divine Life Society.
Iyengar, B.K.S. (1985) Light on Pranayama. New York:Crossroad
Rosen, Richard (2002) The Yoga of Breath: A Step-by-Step Guide to Pranayama.Boston: Shambhala.
Saraswrthi, Swami Satyanananda (2000) Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha.New Delhi: Bihar School of Yoga.
Raja Yoga, Yoga Sutras, Patanjali
ABC of Yoga (2006) Yoga Breathing (Pranayama) – The Art of Yoga Breathing http://www.abc-of-yoga.com/pranayama/home.asp
Focal Point Yoga (2006) Pranayama http://www.focalpointyoga.com/pranayam.htm
One path to the attainment of liberation (moksa) is through the union of the body and the spirit, most commonly known as yoga. This is a mystical path en route to self-awareness, with the goal to achieve enlightenment. Within its tradition, there are several aspects to the practice of yoga. One specific characteristic is prana. Simply put, prana can be defined as vital energy flow within the body. Georg Feuerstein, one of the foremost teachers of yoga and yogic teachings, defines prana with the origins of the word: pra—“on, forth” and an—“to breathe,” thus denoting the “vital energy, life.” The image of prana was referenced in the Upanishads as “breath to life.” The name prana was given to the “vital breath” and by extension to the bodily inhaled air (Varenne 235). Prana is similar to the Chinese concept of chi—the circulating life energy that in Chinese philosophy is thought to be inherent in all things. Several comparisons with nature are used in the description of prana. Prana is compared to a fire being formed into new life by every inhalation. The flame burns higher, devours the fuel [oxygen] brought in from the outside by air, and then expels the waste [ash] in the forms of exhaled air (Varenne 111). The rhythm of prana is comparable to the ebb and flow of tidal waves (Feuerstein and Miller 26). Furthermore, according to Professor H. Upadhyay, prana is like a knife which he carefully employs to operate on his own mind, to cut out the malicious thoughts and feelings in order to piece through to higher levels of consciousness (Feuerstein and Miller 112).
According to yogic teaching, at birth, we all receive the “vital breath” of prana and the function of respiration is to circulate it through the body. As human beings we need to breathe to survive making prana essential to our existence. Breath is not filled with oxygen, but the all sustaining life-force—prana (Feuerstein 236). Prana is a vital force of life energy which we constantly inhale as we breathe in. The complete withdrawal of prana from our body means death (Feuerstein and Miller 112). It can be said that sensations of hunger, thirst, hot, cold, etc. within the body could be understood as symptoms of prana. Moreover, all physical feelings that flow within the body might also be interpreted as evidence that prana is at work. The presence of prana is said to be what distinguishes a living body from a dead one. When a person dies, the prana, or life force, is thought to leave the body.Our bodies are seen to contain a complex network of channels (nadi) and valves (bandha) that allow prana to flow through the body. For yoga, prana (breath) represents life itself in its most concrete form (Varenne 111). “By means of regulation, control and restraint of prana, the yogi first gains mastery over the prana currents, then over his body.” For breathing in yoga, “there is always a connection between respiration and mental states,” (Eliade 69). Yoga brings about the unity of the senses, the mind, and the vital force—prana (Joshi 57). The breath is the essential maintainer of concentration and the heart of the yoga principle. As such in practice, if a yogi has attained complete mastery over the technique of breathing [he] succeeds in “seeing” the interior of his body (Varenne 208).
Contrary to the ancient Upanisadic belief that prana was breath within the being; Feuerstein takes a variation of the definition. In his book, Yoga and Beyond, he does not think that prana is mere breath, but the “spanda-sakti” (vibratory power) that penetrates the whole cosmos and every living being and even able to exercise influence on the mind (citta) (Feuerstein and Miller 26). This references a very profound union between prana and citta—vital energy and mind. Furthermore, texts such as the Yoga Sutra have not plainly expressed prana as breath. Prana can be seen as “more akin to vital force or life energy,” (Feuerstein and Miller 111-112). On a much more spiritual level prana is defined as, the cosmic breath, the rhythmic oscillation effective on all levels of conditioned existence (Feuerstein and Miller 26).
There are five subdivisions of prana connected with certain functions and distributions over certain regions of the body: prana, samana, apana, udana, and vyana. The particulars of these sectors are described within Vyasa’s commentary in the Yoga Sutra. Prana is located through the mouth and the nose, and its changeability continues as far as the heart. Samana is dispersed uniformly and fluctuates from the navel. Apana leads downward in the body and oscillates as far as the sole of the foot. Udana leads upwards in the body and fluctuates as far as the head. Vyana is encompassing through the entire body system.
From the Mahabharata:
The breath called prana, residing within the head and the heat that is there, cause all kinds of exertion. That prana is the living creature, the universal soul, the eternal Being, and the Mind, Intellect and Consciousness of all living creatures, as also all the objects of the senses. Thus the living creature is, in every respect, caused by prana to move about and exert. Then in consequence of the other breath called samana, every one of the senses is made to act as it does. The breath called apana, having recourse to the heat that is in the urethra and the abdominal intestines, moves, engaged in carrying out urine and feces. That single breath, which operates in these three, is called udana by those that are conversant with science. That breath, which operates, residing in all the joints of men’s bodies, is called vyana. There is heat in the bodies of living creatures which is circulated all over the system by the breath called samana.
(The Mahabharata Santi Parva, Section CLXXXIV)
Prana is associated with many entities and objects. One of the eight limbs of yoga is dependent on prana, pranayama. Pranayama is breath control and the “rejection to breathe like the general run of men…in an unrhythmic fashion,” (Eliade 69). Pranayama regulates the flow of prana through the channels (nadi) and valves (bandha) of the body. Regulating the breath then leads to the control of prana through the body. Through the evolution of human beings, we become tone deaf towards the “original rhythm” of the cosmos. Pranayama is used to “restore the primeval rhythm and cosmic harmony,” (Feuerstein and Miller 26). Prana is the cause of spiritual progress within the practice of pranayama (Varenne 158). The rhythm found in pranayama is divided in to three phases of prana: inhalation (puraka), exhalation (recaka), and the retention of air (kumbhaka) (Eliade 71-72).At the time of inhalation, the breath occupies internal space, which is said to be felt from the palms of the hands to the soles of the feet. At exhalation, the external space can be felt at the tip of the nose (Dasgupta 146). Also associated with prana (or life-energy) is the wind god Vayu. In the Vedic system Vayu is the master of life, inspirer of that breath or dynamic energy called prana. Vayu is seen as the “companion to the breath of life” (Feuerstein and Miller 110). All the vital and nervous activities of the human being fall within the definition of prana and belong to the domain of Vayu (Aurobindo 323). Prana is identified as the wind in the hymn XI.4 of the Atharva Veda: “Breath they call Matarisvan; breath is called the wind; in breath what has been and what will be, in breath is all established.”
Yoga is a traditional Hindu act towards the attainment of absolute liberation (moksa). On this journey towards liberation prana is an important aspect to the practice of yoga and to life itself. Prana aids in the achievement of total concentration within the yogic tradition. According to many texts and practices, prana is the essence of life and without it we are dead. Even though there are several meanings to prana, it can simply be said that it is the vital energy flow to life. Prana is essential to one of the eight limbs of yoga, breath control or pranayama. Without the proper utilization of prana, pranayama cannot be executed successfully. Furthermore, there are five subdivisions within prana, found throughout the body, which altogether function to bring prana to the highest power. But prana in its explicit form is most essential. To quote the Yoga Darshana Upanishad: “prana, like the sun, travels though the signs of the zodiac; each time you inhale, hold in your breath before expelling it.” Prana is found in every living being, but in order to have full control over it, it must be practiced with pranayama. These features together in formation with the other seven limbs of yoga are the quintessential model for the achievement of moksa.
Dasgupta, Surendranath (1978) Yoga: As Philosophy and Religion. Delhi: Indological Publishers.
Eliade, Mircea (1976) Patanjali and Yoga. New York: Schocken Books.
Feuerstein, Georg and Jeanine Miller (1972) Yoga and Beyond: Essays in Indian Philosophy. New York: Schocken Books.
Feuerstein, Georg (1991) Sacred Paths: Essays on Wisdom, Love, and Mystical Realization. New York: Larson Publications.
Joshi, K.S., “On the Meaning of Yoga.” Philosophy East and West. Volume 15, Number 1, January 1965, pp. 53-64.
Varenne, Jean (1976) Yoga and the Hindu Tradition. London: The University of Chicago Press.
Feuerstein, Georg (1980) The Philosophy of Classical Yoga. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Feuerstein, George (1983) Self-realization of noble wisdom: The Lankavatara Sutra. California: Dawn Horse Press.
Feuerstein, Georg (2002) The Yoga Tradition: its history, literature, philosophy and practice. New Delhi: Bhavana Books
Pandit, B.N. (1997) Specific principles of Kashmir Saivism. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers
Singh, Shail Kumari (1983) Religious and moral philosophy of Swami Vivekananda. Patna: Janaki Prakashan
The practice of Yoga is a spiritual tradition in which millions of people worldwide have studied for many years.The word “Yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit root “yuj” meaning “to join” or “to yoke” (McCartney 2).Modern Yoga which is practiced in the West is mainly thought of as postures and exercises aimed at keeping the body fit.This type of Yoga, also known as Hatha Yoga, involves proper breathing and meditation.Besides Hatha Yoga, many other types exist not only to keep the body fit but also to keep the mind fit spiritually.This includes a variety of actions devoted to each individual practice of Yoga involving techniques such as meditation and concentration to train the mind.The concept of meditation involves a method by which a person is able to stop all the turnings (vrtti) of thought (citta) one has.By detaching oneself from all thoughts, there is a shift from an external focus of attention to an inner one (Feuerstein 1991:187). Orthodox Hinduism holds that Yoga is more than just postures and exercise; its real power is said to be in training the mind to achieve moksa.Moksa can be understood as spiritual liberation or an ultimate state of realization (Singh 150).With knowledge of the transcendental Reality, we can answer some basic questions of human existence: Who am I? Where do I go? Why am I here? What must I do?Hinduism ideals suggest that without answers to these questions, one is merely adrift (Feuerstein 2003:15).Through proper practice one is believed to be closer to God and knowledgeable of the true nature of reality.
The Bhagavad-Gita or “Song of God,”a sacred text of Hindu philosophy, seems to have a large influence on Yoga.Included in The Bhagavad Gita is a conversation that took place between Krsna and Arjuna on the battlefield in the epic The Mahabharata. There, Arjuna struggles over killing his family and friends.Krsna, being a great friend and mentor, consoles Arjuna with his transcendental teachings on human nature and the purpose of life.Among these teachings, Krsna outlines three Yogic paths.These are Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga.
Karma Yoga is the Yoga of action.This Yoga focuses on self-less deeds or sacrifice undertaken for the sake of the Supreme and to purify the heart.According to a famous practitioner, Sri Chinmoy, Karma Yoga does not focus on the result of actions or the thought of gain by performing particular actions (Sri Chinmoy 382).With this immunity to the reactive and negative consequences of actions, it is believed that one can better manage mental associations.In this sense, one is thought to be unselfish and can therefore achieve moksa.It is commonly stated that being a Karma Yogi is not an easy endeavour.The process of working without a sense of attachment is a difficult task.But it seems that with patience and determination, it becomes easier and more pleasant to do.
Karma itself teaches that nothing happens by accident.It is said that it is either the outcome of a previous cause or it is the cause of a later effect.This is also why Karma Yoga is sometimes referred to as “cause and effect” Yoga (McCartney 114).Humans are free to act as they like, but it is the responsibility the way in which they act that is theirs (Singh 73).It is within the laws of Karma that states that nothing happens to a man/woman except insofar as it is the result of his/her own deed (Singh 73).We can also see Karma Yoga being practiced whenever the action being performed is for the benefit of others.Therefore, performing any task that is not for your benefit, such as cleaning up in a temple, is believed to be a part of Karma Yoga.“He whose understanding is unattached everywhere, who has subdued his self and from whom desire has fled — he comes through renunciation to the supreme state transcending all work” (Radhakrishnan and Moore 161).For the Karma Yogi, work is primarily for service and not for means of economic survival or psychic gratification (Feuerstein 1991:81).It is commonly understood that Karma Yogis work to protect and nurture everyone, including nonhuman beings.It has been said that a Karma Yogi does not succumb to failure, nor does he/she gloat on success.Karma Yogis do not forget or ignore the world but rather live for the world.In this view, one can be understood to have an ongoing sense of worldly struggles, but is never totally overcome by them.Everyone is forced to act in some way by Nature, but he who can do this selflessly and without attachment can attain inner wholeness and be a true Karma Yogi (Feuerstein 1996:20).
It is believed that selfless action comes before both Bhakti Yoga (love) and Jnana Yoga (knowledge) (Feuerstein 1991:82).In this sense, it seems logical for anyone who is interested in practicing and learning ancient techniques of Yoga, to start with Karma Yoga so as to learn self-realization first.
Jnana Yoga is the Yoga of Knowledge.This knowledge is of the Self, the Nature of God, the Universe and their mutual relationships (McCartney 191).It is thought that with this knowledge, the true realization of Brahman can be achieved.The Jnana Yogi feels that it is through the mind that this goal will be attained.Yogic martyrs claim that fulfillment of the mind is of supreme importance.As McCartney recalls, a person can stand on a cliff and see blue waves rolling up the beach and hear large waves breaking upon the sands and be filled with pure exhilaration by the experience.We would also be able to see the same pictures through a camera, or hear the same sounds from a microphone.It is the presence of exhilaration that would be missing from the latter experience.This means that something exists in humans which is absent in mechanical processes (cameras and microphones).
It is commonly stated that Jnana Yoga is the abolition of the concept dualism, which eventually leads to ones realization of the unity of the individual self with the Supreme Self (Sri Swami Sivananda 137).It is the process that converts the simple acts of seeing and hearing into an experience that is “I,” or the absolute true self and knowledge.Jnana Yoga has been thought of as being the “shortest and steepest” path to God, and also the most difficult one (McCartney 193).The process of discrimination between real & unreal and eternal & temporal is not easy.It is a long and difficult path, but can be very rewarding.One example in discriminating between reality and illusions would be to look at a piece of cloth.Cloth is made of thread.In the beginning the piece of cloth was thread and in the end, all that would be left of the cloth is thread.So in the end, a Jnana Yogi would see cloth as an illusion and only the thread as being real.Jnana Yogis do not want to escape life or death because they know that there is no such escape.It seems there is only escape of such ignorance into Knowledge and Light (Sri Chinmoy 383).Before practicing and mastering Jnana Yoga one must be involved in the lessons of other Yogic paths.This is beneficial because the acts of selflessness and strength of body and mind should be achieved before Jnana Yoga can be understood.
One modern Hindu sage, Ramana Maharsi, demonstrates the Jnana Yoga path.He taught a certain form of self-inquiry, of self-pondering inquiry, where one focuses on the I-thought and its source.This technique of inquiry is also known as vicara.This an adamant search in pursuit of the question “Who am I?”
Bhakti Yoga is simply service in Love and Devotion to God.It is the practice of Karma Yoga that will lead a person directly to Bhakti Yoga.It is known as the Yoga of Love and Devotion because of ones surrender completely to God.The Bhakti worshipper (Bhakta) worships a personal God.There is no concern of the “Absolute” or Brahman as in the other Yogas discussed thus far.Bhakti Yoga is monotheistic in that one believes in one, single, universal, all-encompassing God.Mainly, this has been devoted to the worship of Siva or Visnu (McCartney 150).The Bhagavad Gita was the first Hindu text to depict the Bhakti Yoga path.Depicted in the Bhagavad Gita, Krsna is seen as the object of love and devotion, hence the rise of Bhakti Yoga.
In Bhakti Yoga, one practices meditation by imagining his/her God being right there with them and by sharing their deepest thoughts and feelings one can be brought closer to their God.The Bhakta has a large commitment because through prayer, worship and rituals, one is being surrendered solely to God.This can be seen by an outsider as devotion and love to one’s parent or lover.“Through all his senses he realizes it as if it were a sensuous delight; with his heart and soul he feels it as a spiritual intoxication of joy.” (Feuerstein 1996:22).There are many aspects which illustrate the Yoga of Devotion.The true devotee is passionate, patient, self-controlled, determined and treats friends and foes the same.This is a person who is dear to their God (Radhakrishnan and Moore 144).
Bhakti Yoga can be traced as far back as 300 B.C. and seen as one of the oldest forms of Yoga (McCartney 150).One assumption for its presence can be based on its simplicity and because of this, its attraction from “commoners” who may be untutored (McCartney 149).It is believed that Bhakti Yoga does not require a lot of intellectual skills or great amount of knowledge.All it requires is emotion as a loving state of mind and the urge to worship.Bhakta Yogis believe that meditation is of great importance.It is thought that through meditation one can “graduate” the stages of devotion to God.There are two stages.First, an elementary stage which is the love for and worship of a personal God (such as love existing in a relationship between parent and child).Second, is a pure devoted love that comes to exist.God is now worshipped as the all-knowing Absolute (McCartney 160).As a Bhakta, every act performed everyday is one of devotion, regardless of getting anything in return.This love is believed to be demonstrated in action.One can spend a life time thinking about loving thoughts, but if these thoughts are never expressed, it is thought that one will have never loved at all (Feuerstein 1991:86).Bhakti Yogis believe that love is not a temporary high that comes and goes, but one that needs to be nourished as an ongoing spiritual disposition (Feuerstein 1991:85).Even when one is sad, hurt, angry or bored, love needs to exist.It is in these moments of doubt when love is needed the most.
One well known spiritual teacher, Sri Swami Sivananda, stated that each Yoga is a fulfillment of the preceding one (Sri Swami Sivananda 1).Karma Yoga leads to Bhakti Yoga which brings Jnana Yoga (knowledge).So to understand Jnana Yoga, one must first be experienced with Bhakti Yoga and Jnana Yoga.It is thought that any practice or belief that is sincere will go straight to the Source.If you sincerely believe in something and practice it with good intentions, you will be rewarded.
Yoga is an extremely old and popular spiritual tradition.From a broad perspective, all types of Yoga seem to have the same purpose.This is for one to become less focused on the self and more focused on a “higher” Reality (Feuerstein 1996: 1).It is possible for anyone to practice Yoga regardless of age, sex, race or religious beliefs.Yoga is commonly known as a discipline rather than a therapy.Therapy is for those who are sick and unhealthy, discipline is needed even when one is healthy (Osho 21).Yoga has been said to be helpful in many ways including spiritual, physical and psychological.It is believed that by understanding and having total faith in what you practice be it Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga or Bhakti Yoga, one can be more in tune with oneself and the world around them.
Feuerstein, Georg (1991) Sacred Paths: Essays on Wisdom, Love and Mystical Realization.Burdett, NY: Larson Publications.
Feuerstein, Georg (1996) The Shambala Guide to Yoga.Boston: Shambhala Publications.
Feuerstein, Georg (2003) The Deeper Dimension of Yoga. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
McCartney, James (1969) Yoga: The Key to Life. Johannesburg: Rider & Company.
Osho (1976) The Path of Yoga: Commentaries of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. MS, India: Thomson Press.
Radhakrishnan, S., and C.A. Moore (eds.) (1989) A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy.Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Singh, Balbir (1981) Karma Yoga: The Discipline of Action.New Jersey: Humanities Press.
Sri Chinmoy (2000) The Wisdom of Sri Chinmoy. San Diego: The Blue Dove Foundation.
Sri Swami Sivananda (no date) Science of Yoga (vol.5). Pondicherry, India: Swami Krishnananda.
In traditional Hindu life, there are four stages which a Hindu would, theoretically, complete in order to acquire the greatest chance of attaining the ultimate goal of moksa (liberation). These stages include the sisya (student) stage, the grhasta (householder) stage, the vanaprastha (forest-dweller) stage and the samnyasin (renouncer stage). This last stage of the samnyasin is one of total renunciation of social and material things. It would typically be this time in one’s life when one would dedicate oneself entirely to attaining moksa, particularly by engaging in specific practices. One such set of practice that these renouncers would often adopt was asceticism. However, it is important to note that ascetic practices are not limited to the samnyasins. Many laypeople also practice forms of asceticism, such as Vrata [On Vrata and the Pativrata Ideal, see Rodrigues 2005: 160-167], to achieve higher objectives. Nevertheless, in general, the asceticism practiced by renouncers is usually more concentrated and intensely followed. This essay will be focusing mostly on the asceticism of the samnyasin. Therefore, any reference to asceticism or ascetic practices will refer to the customs of the standard samnyasin, unless otherwise stated.To go into great detail of all the differentiations and variations of ascetic practices would probably construct a small book. I can only give a brief background, explain the practices that are most widely used, and give the example of a famous ascetic who has contributed to modernization of the practice.
Before discussing the particularities and practices of asceticism, it is important to look at the background and origin of this practice. According to David M. Miller and Dorothy C. Wertz, in their book Hindu Monastic Life, the word “ascetic” is a translation into the word sadhu, which actually translates as “holy man” (Miller and Wertz 2), a term often used to describe a renouncer.This can give us an idea of what the literary origin is, but to discern the actual foundation of the practice is quite a bit harder.As Patrick Olivelle informs us in his translation of the Samnyasa Upanisads, there are many theories about where the practice of asceticism originated (Olivelle 19-22).He breaks these down into two main theories: that asceticism is a development of the Vedic tradition, and that asceticism is a newer practice than the traditional Vedic religion which “challenged and transformed the Vedic religion” (Olivelle 20).Olivelle sides with the assertion that ascetic practices did not develop out of the old Vedic tradition, but that they are a recent custom which tested and criticized the old Vedic ways. Even so, Olivelle states clearly that ascetic practices could not have appeared out of nowhere and says that “[he does] not subscribe to the view put forward by some scholars that ascetic modes of life were non-Aryan in origin” (Olivelle 21).Olivelle suggests that, even though asceticism has close ties with sacrificial religion and even though the Vedic religion set the conditions in which asceticism is set, asceticism acts as an original element that challenged some of the old Vedic traditions, such as sacrificial theology.
With this brief background of asceticism we can begin to discus what asceticism really is.To become an ascetic means to give up completely, as mentioned before, social and material things. The ascetic is then meant to meditate and concentrate on attaining the final goal of moksa. Since ascetics do not have anything at all, except perhaps a begging bowl and a staff, they rely totally on the lay community to provide for them food and sometimes clothes and shelter. As Vail F. Lise says in his article “Unlike a Fool, He Is Not Defiled: Ascetic Purity and Ethics in the Samnyasa Upanisads”: “ascetics are told to remain in solitude as much as possible, meditating and dis-identifying with their bodies. Nonetheless, Upanisadic passages about the virtues and behaviour proposed for samnyasis are unexpectedly rich in ethical reflection” (Lise 374). Lise is commenting on how, although ascetics are prescribed to not care about any worldly thing, they are taught to be moral, just, and wise among other men. Lise explains this further by saying that “the liberated renouncer is a master of silence, quite patient, and wise in matters of Brahman” (395). In response to this, a question that might arise is: how would one know about these rigorous ascetic practices and ways? The answer is in the Samnyasa Upanisads which “provide a basis in Vedic revelation for the institution of renunciation (samnyasa) and for the rules and practices associated with that state” (Olivelle 5). Therefore, the Samnyasa Upanisads are used as a guideline as how to live the life of the holy man. These Upanisads have been studied rigorously and elaborated on as the practice of asceticism grows and popularizes. Nonetheless, one of the only ways to fully understand true asceticism is to watch and learn from a genuine ascetic. It is important to remember that the customs mentioned are the typical routines practiced by Hindu ascetics. There are many people who do not follow the samnyasin path quite so rigorously and there are those take it to the extreme.
There have been many significant Hindu ascetics in the Indian history; for example, Mahatma Gandhi who helped India fight for independence from Britain [For additional information on Mahatma Gandhi see Robinson and Rodrigues (2006) pg 160; and Rodrigues (2005) pg 47-48, 422-424, and 249-250]. In their article “Karma Samnyasa: Sarkar’s reconceptualization of Indian asceticism” Shaman Hatley and Sohail Inayatullah discuss the life of the guru (teacher) Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar. Sarkar was a Tantric [On Tantrism see Robinson and Rodrigues (2006) pg 158-159] teacher who lived in the 20th century and who revolutionized Hindu asceticism. Hatley and Inayatullah go into detail about what Sarkar thought that asceticism really was, as they say, “the ascetic stands as a critic of society – not merely a post modern literary critic but one that questions the basis of current society by attempting to transform it” (Hatley and Inayatullah 14). In this way, Sarkar is saying that asceticism is not only about the physical state of renunciation, but also about the exercise of proper mental ethics. The article also emphasizes how Sarkar’s studies did not hold much interest in the traditional ways of Hinduism, but wanted to transform the religion by using asceticism to “eliminate elements based in social custom (such as asrama) and myth” (Hatley and Inayatullah 14).By studying Sarkar, Hatley and Inayatullah have introduced an interesting, modern, way to look at the practice of asceticism.
Overall, the practice of asceticism is a broad topic with a rich history and development.Ascetic practices have been used to help change and develop the Vedic Hindu tradition.Even the concept of the samnyasin has become increasingly revolutionized as more people become interested in these ascetic ways.This practice has, recently, even travelled to the West. Westerners are becoming increasingly interested in Hindu practices. Many books on ascetic practices such as meditation, renunciation, and cleansing of the mind now line the shelves of Western bookstores.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READINGS
DeBary, William (1966) The Hindu Tradition. New York; Random House Inc.
Hatley, Shaman and Sohail Inayatullah (Feb 99) “Karma Samnyasa: Sarkar’s
Reconceptualization of Indian Asceticism”. Journal of Asian & African Studies
(Brill). 34:139, 14
Kaelber, Walter (1989) Tapta Marga:Asceticism and Initiation in Vedic India. Delhi; Sri
Miller, David and Dorothy C. Wertz (1976) Hindu Monastic Life: the Monks and
Monasteries of Bhubaneswar. Montreal and London; Mc Gill-Queen’s
Narayan, Kirin (1989) Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu
Religious Teaching. Philadelphia; University Press
Olivelle, Patrick, trans (1992) Samnyasa Upanisads: Hindu Scriptures on Asceticism and
Renunciation. New York; Oxford University Press
Robinson, Thomas and Hillary Rodrigues (2006) World Religions: A Guide to the
Essentials. Peabody, Massachusetts; Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2005) Hinduism: The eBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics; Online
Vail, Lise (Fall 2002) “Unlike a Fool, He Is not Defiled: Ascetic Purity and Ethics in the
Samnyasa Upanisads.” Journal of Religious Ethics. 30:373-397, 25
Jainism is the heterodox branch of Hinduism, with roots tracing all the way back to 500 B.C.E. Some say the existence of Jainism is much older, but it has not yet been proven. The Jains trace their origins back to India, where their existence represents a little less than a million and a half of the world’s population. European scholars, who familiarized themselves with Jainism through samples of Jaina literature, hastily came to the conclusion that Jainism was just a subsidiary of Buddhism. It has now been proven beyond reasonable doubt that Jainism is not an offshoot of Buddhism, and is at least as old as Buddhism (see Dasgupta 169-170). The leader of Jainism is attributed to Vardhamana Mahavira, the last prophet, also known as Tirthankara of the Jains. Jainism has twenty-four Tirthankaras: Risabha (being the first), Ajita, Sambhava, Abhinandana, Sumati, Padmaprabha, Suparshva, Candraprabha, Puspadanta, Sitalnatha, Sreyamsa, Vasupujya, Vimala, Ananta, Dharma, Santi, Kuntha, Aara, Mallinatha, Munisuvrata, Nami, Nemi, Parsvanath, and last but not least, Mahavira.
“According to belief of orthodox Jains, the Jaina religion is eternal, and it has been revealed again and again in every one of the endless succeeding periods of the world by innumerable Tirthankaras” (Dasgupta 169). All the Tirthankaras have attained moksa at their death, and are regarded as “Gods” by the Jain worshippers. There are two main sects of Jain worshippers: The Svetambaras and the Digambaras.
The Svetambaras are known as “the wearers of white clothes,” whereas the Digambaras are known as “the cloth less.” Digambaras are found mainly in Southern India but also in the Northwestern provinces such as: Eastern Rajputana and the Punjab. The Svetambaras on the other hand, are mainly found in Gujarat, and Western Rajputana, but they can also be found all over Northern and Central India. Although both sects generally agree on all the fundamental principles of Jainism, the Digambaras keenly believe that perfect saints such as the Tirthankaras live without food, and that a monk who owns any property and wears clothes cannot obtain moksa. They also contend that no woman can obtain moksa. The Digambaras deny all canonical works of the Svetambaras and state that the values the Svetambaras have were lost immediately after Mahavira. The Digambaras, who separated from the Svetambaras, developed eccentric religious rituals. Sanskrit works of the Digambaras go way back before the works of the Svetambaras if we do not include the canonical works of the Svetambaras. The views of these two sects differ when it comes to the true meaning of existence (samsara) but both believe that Mahavira was the true leader of this complex religion.
Mahavira was a ksatriya (warrior) of the Jnata clan. He was the second son of Siddhartha and Trisala. The Svetambaras believe that the embryo of Mahavira was transferred from a Brahmin (priestly class) lady named, Devananda to the womb of Trisala. This story however, is frowned upon by the Digambaras. Siddhartha and Trisala gave him the name Vardhamana (Vira or Mahavira). Mahavira later went on to marry Yasoda, who later gave birth to their only daughter. At the age of thirty, Mahavira’s life had changed drastically. With the death of his parents and the permission of his brother, Mahavira became a monk, and after twelve years of self-humiliation and meditation “he attained omniscience” (see Dasgupta 173). He eventually attained moksa in 480 B.C.E. after preaching for approximately forty years making him the very last Tirthankara known to Jains. Mahavira was also an avid follower of the five great vows (panca-mahavrata), which consist of: Ahimsa, Satyam, Asteyam, Brahmacaryam, and Aparigraha.
Ahimsa is defined as “abstinence from all injury to life” (Chatterjee & Datta 107). Life is seen as existence that goes beyond the “moving beings.” Plants and beings inhabiting bodies of the earth are also seen as being part of ‘life’. Thus, the ideal of the Jains is, therefore, “to avoid abusing life not only through the moving beings, but also of the non-moving ones” (Dasgupta 169). Often seen throughout India, are Jain saints who try to follow this ideal. They are seen wearing a piece of cloth that is tied over their noses so they do not inhale and destroy the life of any organism floating in the air. “The Jaina attitude of ahimsa is the logical outcome of their metaphysical theory of the potential equality of all souls and recognition of the principle of reciprocity” (Chatterjee & Datta 107). This basically means do to others, what you would want done to you. The typical Jain tries to perform this duty in everything he or she does, because he or she wants to be consistent with the principle he or she has adopted. Not only is ahimsa practiced through action, but it also must be practiced through thought, speech and action. The next vow is to abstain from falsehood.
Satyam does exactly this through the vow of truthfulness, which consists of speaking of things that are not only true, but also moral and pleasant. Without the moral and pleasant qualifications, speaking the truth can lead to “vulgarity, frivolity, vilification, etc” (see Chatterjee & Datta 108). In order to carry out the perfect maintenance of satyam, Jains must surmount greed, fear, anger and even stealing.
Asteyam is the vow to abstain from stealing. It emphasizes the point to never take what is not given to you. A Jain writer once said, “wealth is but the outer life of man and to rob wealth is to rob life.” This alludes back to the vow of ahimsa with the “sanctity of property” being a direct comparison of the “sanctity of life” (See Dasgupta 180-211).
Another vow that has extreme importance in the conducting of Jain principles is that of brahmacaryam. This is the abstinence from self-indulgence. Brahmacaryam is seen in the context of abstaining from celibacy, however it goes deeper than that. It is interpreted as the vow to give up kama (self-indulgence) of every form. Jains believe that although physical indulgence may stop, the continuation of self-indulgence may still occur through subtle forms such as: speech, thoughts, and in the hopes of enjoyment hereafter in heaven. In order to abide by this vow, a Jain must, therefore, resist all forms of self-indulgence whether it is external or internal, subtle or obvious, and even direct or indirect.
Last but not least comes aparigraha, the abstinence from all attachment. “This is explained as the vow to give up all attachment dealing with the five senses: pleasant sound, touch, color, taste and smell” (Chatterjee & Datta 108). Attachment to any of the world’s objects means the soul is placed under bondage to the world, and according to sources, it causes rebirth, and liberation is unattainable without the withdrawal of attachment. The only way to overcome this attachment is through “right knowledge, faith and proper conduct.” When a person successfully overcomes the forces of all passions and karmas, the soul becomes free from its bondage and in turn attains liberation (moksa). When liberation is attained, Jains believe the fourfold perfection is achieved. It consists of: infinite knowledge, infinite faith, infinite power, and infinite bliss (see Chatterjee and Datta 109-111). Mahavira as well as the other twenty-three Tirthankaras achieved these five great vows and to assume the role of the prophets in Jainism.
Although these prophets are sacred and revered, they are not considered Gods. In fact, Jainism does not believe in God. The skepticism of the Jains is based on the following grounds: “Like the existence of God, the qualities of omnipotence, unity, eternity and perfection, are generally attributed to Him” (Chatterjee & Datta 110). If God is the “all mighty” (omnipotent), then God is supposed to be the cause of all things. The Jains however, argue that through the omnipotence of His character. They feel that He did not create everything and through that the Jains come to reject the belief in God. The Jains do, however, feel it necessary to meditate on and worship the liberated souls. The tirthankaras already possess the perfections, as mentioned earlier, and so they easily take the place of God in the eyes of the Jains. “The liberated souls serve only as beacon lights” (Chatterjee & Datta 111). This guides the Jainas to ultimate liberation.
The Jain religion is undoubtedly one of the oldest religions out there that are still being practiced to this day. Despite Jains being dispersed all throughout the world presently, the total Jain population hasn’t changed much. Its strict rules thus make it a “religion of the strong and the brave” (Chatterjee & Datta 111). It has recently become a scholar’s fervor to explore this antediluvian religion, due to its teachings, and its ability to function without a God. The complexity of this religion will most definitely have scholars enticed to find out more about this religion and perhaps dig its roots back to before 500 B.C.E. when it was first noted as being found.