Category Archives: c. The Six Orthodox Systems

The Vedanta Sutras

The Vedanta Sutras The Vedanta Sutras, also commonly known as the Brahma Sutras, is the fundamental text of the Vedanta school of philosophy. Since the text is so deeply rooted in the ideology of Vedanta, it defines the history of this school as being divided up into pre and post-Brahma Sutra periods (Nakamura 425). The word vedanta itself has several proposed meanings such as, “End of the Veda,” “Dogmas of the Veda,” or “Final Aim of the Veda,” [On the reasonings and development of the proposed meanings, see Deussen (1973)]. Therefore, the Vedanta Sutras are an attempt to systematize and summarize the various themes or threads of the Upanisads, the final book of the Vedas.

Authored by Badarayana, the Vedanta Sutras are thought to be written sometime around the second century B.C.E. This is given by the fact that the Vedanta Sutras refer to most Indian systems (Radhakrishnan 22). At this time, many theories existed among the thinkers and philosophers in the Vedanta school. These theories mainly concerned the interpretations of individual passages in the Upanisads that were left ambiguous or open ended. The Vedanta Sutras set out to summarize, organize, and criticize the many interpretations and to focus the Vedanta philosophy to its fundamental concepts (Nakamura 429). However, others argue that the date of the Sutras’ creation can be placed between 200 and 450 C.E. [For a discussion on the proposed later date of composition, see Journal of the American Oriental Society XXXI, pg. 29].

The structure of the text itself is quite uniform in how it is laid out and divided up. It contains four chapters, or adhyayas, each divided into four parts or padas, and finally each part is divided up into sections or adhikaranas, which are made up of the sutras or aphoristic statements (Radhakrishnan 23-24). Each chapter provides different information on different topics within the Vedanta philosophy. Chapter one deals with samanvaya, and attempts to provide a coherent interpretation of the texts in the Upanisads. Chapter two deals with avirodha; it uses writings of other sages as well as views from other systems of thought to support the previous chapter’s interpretations. Chapter three deals with sadhana; it is devoted to a comprehensive description and explanation of the means of realization of Brahman. Lastly, chapter four deals with phala, or the fruit of knowledge (Radhakrishnan 24).

There are many ideas put forth by Badarayana in the Vedanta Sutras. These cover topics from the nature of reality and the individual self to ideas about karma and bhakti. Overall, however, the essential purpose of the Vedanta Sutras are to provide support to the philosophy of Vedanta, address the idea of Brahman, suggest ways to reach enlightenment, and finally the state which is achieved once one has reach enlightenment [for a discussion in greater detail of the topics and philosophies in the Vedanta Sutras, see Radhakrishnan (1960)].

Many Hindu thinkers and philosophers tend to commentate on the existing texts of the Upanisads, Bhagavadgita, and Vedanta Sutras. These texts are held in such high regard that to do otherwise would bring into question any new teachings being put forth by the new ideology. As such, there are many commentaries on the Vedanta Sutras that exist in which a new teaching or ideology takes the foundation and the ideas put forth and applies them to the new concepts being proposed (Radhakrishnan 26).

Some of the most notable commentaries were produced by Sankara of the Varaha-sahodara-vrtti tradition, Ramanuja of the Bodhayana-vrtti tradition, Madhva of the Haya-griva-brahma-vidya tradition, and Sripati of the Agastya-vrtti tradition [For further discussion on most notable commentaries, see Radhakrishnan (1960)].

Sankara (788-820 C.E.) is said to be the incarnate of Siva on earth. His commentary is well known for its speculative nature and profound spirituality. Sankara proposes that anyone who does not question a view before adopting it “will miss his aim of beatitude and incur grievous loss.” Sankara proposes that the only way to coherently understand and interpret the Upanisads is through a non-dualistic approach (Radhakrishnan 28-29).

Ramanuja (1017-1127 C.E.) wrote the Sri-bhasya, a commentary on the Vedanta Sutras. He takes Sankara’s arguments and expands on them to complement the ideas and philosophies put forth. Although both authors come from the same relative school of thought, Ramanuja approaches the commentary from a more focused and differentiated non-dualistic approach (Radhakrishnan 46-51).

Madhva (1197-1273 C.E.) lived in a time when the non-dualistic ideas of Samkara were most widely accepted and supported. In his lifetime he is thought to have written thirty-seven works. The most famous of these would be his commentaries on principal Upanisads, the Bhagavadgita, and Vedanta Sutras. Madhva was one of the first to establish the reality of a Personal God, and other topics such as the differing qualities of Brahman and the self (Radhakrishnan 60-63).

Sripati (fourteenth century C.E.) took the dualistic approach to the Vedanta Sutras and applied a doctrine of “unity in duality.” This thread of thought stems back even before Sankara’s original commentary as it criticizes a similar theory. Sripati criticizes the view that Brahman is no different from the self, and proposes that this idea can only be established on authority of actual scripture (Radhakrishnan 82-85).


Deussen, Paul (1973) The System of the Vedanta according to Badarayana’s Brahma-Sutras. New York: Dover Publications.

Thibaut, G. (1962) The Vedanta Sutras. Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass.

Agrawal, Madan Mohan (2001) Six systems of Indian Philosophy. Delhi: Chaukhamba Sanskrit Pratishthan. Date, Vinayak Hari (1973) Vedanta Explained. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Radhakrishnan, S. (1960) The Brahma Sutra: The philosophy of spiritual life. London: Allen & Unwin. Nakamura, Hajime (1983) A history of early Vedanta Philosophy. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Padhi, Bibhu (2005) Indian Philosophy and Religion: a readers guide. Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Logic in indian philosophy

Idealism in indian philosophy

Monotheism in indian philosophy

Atheism in indian philosophy

The Six Schools of Indian philosophy

– Sankhya

– Nyaya

– Vaisheshika

– Yoga

– Mimamsa

– Vedanta













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Written by John Witzen (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.


Born and raised in South India in 1017 CE, Ramanuja was a philosopher and a theologian whose ideas and writings have had a lasting impact on Indian religious practices. Ramanuja is attributed with the theology of qualified non-dualism, which can be contrasted to Sankara’s radical non-dualism and Madhva’s dualism (see Rodrigues 373-379). Ramanuja belonged to the Vadama caste, within the Brahmin class, who are claimed to uphold the scholarly study of the Vedas (Carman 28). As a result, he was very learned in the Vedic texts and as such left his first guru early because he could not follow his teaching (Carman 29). He later attempted to become a disciple of two non-Brahmin gurus before he was finally able to find another non-Brahmin guru who would take him as a disciple even though he was a Brahmin (Carman 30-31). He became a samnyasi fairly early in life and established a monastic house but soon became very prominent in the Srirangam temple where he started out and came back to many years later (Carman 34, 44).Ramanuja was a devout follower Visnu; furthermore, throughout his life he was very adamant in promoting devotion only to Visnu (Carman 34, 37-44).

The most widely known text that Ramanuja wrote is the Sribhasya, which is a comprehensive commentary on the Vedanta Sutras (Carman 49). However, Ramanuja is also credited with writing a commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, a work titled Vedarthasamgraha (“The Summary of the Meaning of the Vedas”), two commentaries on the Vedanta Sutras, three Gadyas (prose hymns), and the Nityagrantha (a manual of daily worship) (Carman 49). All of these writing were in Sanskrit although Ramanuja’s native language (and the one he taught in) was Tamil (Carman 49-50).

Ramanuja is most widely known for his philosophical and theological teachings. He taught a philosophy called Visistadvaita, which means qualified non-dualism. Sankara taught that the only thing that is real is Brahman, and Madhava taught that there are three entities, Brahman, the soul, and matter (see Rodrigues 373-379). Ramanuja, by contrast, taught that the universe is the body of Brahman, which is the unchanging foundation of reality (Edattukaran 179). He also describes the body as a substance completely controlled by the soul (Iturbe 42), however, they are inseparable (Edattukaran 185). Ramanuja uses the concepts of prakrti and purusa to explain the link between the body and the soul. He says that the body, which is linked to the primordial matter (prakrti,) is governed by purusa (the sentient soul), in a relationship where prakrti is entirely subordinate to purusa (Iturbe 42). The existence of these two related but distinct entities is the grounds for qualified non-dualism. This is also classified as qualified non-dualism because Brahman is not identical with the universe even though it is real (compared to illusory objects as identified by Sankara) and thus remains the eternal changeless single reality while the souls and matter – which are the modes and expressions of Brahman – are constantly undergoing modifications (Edattukaran 190). Ramanuja thus assigns qualities to Brahman, which makes his philosophy qualified non-dualism (see Rodrigues 376-377). Ramanuja has fused some of the previous traditions together by explaining “the body as the essential mode of Brahman’s being” (Edattukaran 187).

Ramanuja also talks about God as the activator while humans are the activated (Iturbe 49). This happens by God seeing humans’ good efforts and granting grace so that humans can properly perform their actions (Iturbe 49). Actions are primarily dependent on humans’ own efforts, but God needs to grant permission for those actions to be performed (Iturbe 48). God allows humans to make their own actions; however, he is favourable to those who are devoted to him (Singh 159). As well, God must choose to reveal himself to someone, and has to be invoked to do so (Raghavachar 388). Ramanuja says that bhakti (loving devotion) is the path that leads one to invoke God to reveal himself to you (Raghavachar 388). This can be accomplished through spending time meditating (dhyana) on God (Raghavachar 388). Through dhyana and bhaki, one can achieve moksa, which is liberation from the cycles of samsara.

Yoga, according to Ramanuja, is the way to attain moksa (Vadakethala 36). Through the practice of yoga, one can learn how to lovingly devote him-/herself to God and how to meditate on God (bhakti and dhyana). There are three types of yoga that are the way to final release, karmayoga (the yoga of work), jnanajoga (the yoga of knowledge), and bhaktiyoga (the yoga of loving devotion) (Vadakethala 36). Karmayoga means to do actions of spiritual detachment, which is a renunciation in action but not of action (Vadakethala 40). This means acting dispassionately and renouncing all attachment to material things and performing the action without becoming attached in any way (emotionally, for example) to the act of performing the action (Vadakethala 42). Jnanayoga means achieving the knowledge of the self; Ramanuja only prescribes jnanayoga to those who already have advanced knowledge (Vadakethala 43-45). Higher than these two yogas is bhaktiyoga, which leads man to a “blissful communion with God” (Vadakethala 45). This loving devotion to God (bhakti) is what draws one away from the material world (allows for someone to detach from the world) and achieve union with God (Vadakethala 49). Bhakti is thus the means of achieving moksa, however through bhakti all three yogas are interrelated because bhakti is shown through karmayoga and jnanayoga (Vadakethala 43). In other words, loving devotion to God is demonstrated through one’s actions and one’s knowledge, however a person’s prime motive should be to lovingly devote his-/herself to God and thus detach his-/herself from the world.

However, if someone does not have the knowledge required for bhakti, or the ability to wait for its progressive maturation (for example, he is from a lower class), he can resort to prapatti, which is the “surrender or taking to God for refuge” (Raghavachar 389-390). This means that anybody has the means to be freed from samsara because if he cannot practice bhakti, he can resort to prapatti and still attain moksa. Thus, Ramanuja claims that because class distinctions do not touch the nature of the soul, anybody can attain moksa (Singh 157). However, there is a weakness in prapatti because the person will desire knowledge, the power of action, and spiritual patience (Raghavachar 391). This desire will draw that person away from the purpose of the trying to attain moksa because it will keep them attached to this world (where the main goal is to detach from the world). However, it is ultimately God who decides who gets liberated, which means that in prapatti the person must stop human initiative in order to prepare for passing the initiative entirely to the Divine (Raghavachar 391). In this way, someone who is using prapatti may attain moksa.

Ramanuja’s theology is one of qualified non-dualism in which Brahman is the ultimate reality in which humans strive for union with, but Brahman has qualities that make this theology qualified (see Rodrigues 376-377). According to Ramanuja, God chooses who he wants to liberate from samsara based on their karma, jnana, and bhakti (Raghavachar 388, 391). Yoga is the means of attaining union with the divine, and bhaktiyoga is claimed as superior to karmayoga and jnanayoga (however all three types of yoga are interrelated) (Vadakethala 36, 45). Ramanuja also states the prapatti is another path that can lead to liberation, however it is a weaker path (Raghavachar 391). Ramanuja’s ideas have made a significant impact on Hindu religious practice and have thus been compared and contrasted with the ideas of many other great thinkers.

References and Further Recommended Readings

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

Edattukaran, Wilson (2002) “Consciousness Incarnate: Concept of Body in Merleau- Ponty and Ramanuja.” Journal of Dharma, 27, no. 2: 178-192.

Iturbe, Mariano (2003) “The Concept of Human Action in Ramanuja and Thomas Aquinas.” Philosophy, Culture, and Traditions: A Journal of the World Union of Catholic Philosophical Societies 2: 39-55.

Raghavachar, SS (1978) “Concept of Moksha According to Sri Ramanuja.” Vedanta Kesari, 65: 384-391.

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

Singh, Abha (2004) “Social Philosophy of Ramanuja vis-à-vis Professor Sangam Lal Pandey.” Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 21, no. 1: 153-164.

Tsoukalas, Steven (2006) Krsna and Christ: Body-Divine Relation in the Thought of Sankara, Ramanuja, & Classical Christian Orthodoxy. Milton Keynes: UK.

Vadakethala, Francis (1977) “A Yoga for Liberation: Ramanuja’s Approach.” Journal of Dharma 2: 35-52.

Related Research Topics:












The Bhagavad Gita



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Article written by Kelsey McMullen (Spring 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.

Sri Madhvacharya (Madhva)

Sri Madhvacharya (Madhva) was born in approximately 1238 CE. During his lifetime, he influenced various philosophical aspects of Hinduism, through diverse means. Beyond being a Vedantic Acharya [Acharya is the last name of some Brahmins, meaning teacher] (Acharya, 2009), mountain climber, great debater, and large supporter and follower of Vaishnava Hinduism, Madhva began the Dvaita School of Vedanta and the Brahma Vaishnava Sampradaya. His devotion to Hindu philosophy began at a young age (Armstrong 2). According to tradition, as a prodigious boy, he already thoroughly understood the Vedanta. Furthermore, by 7 years of age, Madhva meticulously memorized the Vedic texts. At that time, the expectation was to begin learning about the texts with his peers, at the prominent Totanillaya in India, rather than already fully understanding them. In addition to being very intelligent, he also had supernormal powers (siddhi), as per stated in tradition. Madhva made numerous intellectual advancements throughout his life, and possessed powerful inner strengths, which caused him to contribute his philosophical insights to the Hindu community (Armstrong 3).

Madhva’s accomplishments continued past his childhood years. As a young man, with great insight towards his true inner self (Atman), the world, and divinity, he entered into Samnyasin (renunciation stage) at the age of 16. This was a very early age to enter into the typical final stage of life, according to traditional Hindu practices. Samnyasin is also a stage in which few actually ever experience. Typically, the average 16-year-old Hindu boy would be in the midst of his Brahmacarya (student) stage, although Madhva was not a typical 16-year-old boy. Because of that characteristic, Madhva became an Acharya and Sannyasin renouncer in the Ekadandi Order (Armstrong 5-7).

Like Madhva, Ramanuja and Sankara were also great Acharyas, with conflicting views (Sharma 345-354). During his teenage years, Madhva began his on-going debates with Sankara institutions about Atman, in addition to various other ideologies that Sankara possessed. First, Madhva believed that is was essential to understand the Rg Veda in order to grasp the Brahman concept. Beyond the Rg Veda, Madhva stressed the importance of thoroughly understanding scriptures as a part of religious devotion and practice. He also expressed that he did not favor Sankara’s idea that “the ultimate reality of Brahman is nirguna” (Stoker 31). Many of Madhva’s arguments with Sankara were supported in his belief of Visnu’s supremacy, which Sankara did not adhere to (Stoker 47-77). He also contrasted with Ramanuja, who was also a monotheist and a supporter of Vaisnava Hinduism. Madhva believed that there was only one agent whereas Ramanuja believed that God and human were both agents. The on-going debates with the other Acharyas led to greater public awareness pertaining to the different philosophies within Hinduism (Yandell 544-561).

Madhva also spread his values and beliefs through various pieces of literature. He wrote approximately 37 books in his lifetime, including the Tattvodyota and the Laksna Granthas (Sangha 25), as well as commented on various types of Hindu literature including the Karmanirnaya and the Chandogya Upanishad Bhasya (Sangha 24). His main literary goals were to contest monism, which was extensively promoted by other sages, such as Ramanuja (Yandell 544-561). Madhva also believed that theism should be taught through experiencing, reasoning, and thoroughly understanding Hindu literature. This was expressed through his 4 main beliefs in his writings, which included “a determination to remain true to experience above all, in the spirit of science, a commitment to sound reasoning, a fervent devotion to a personal God [Ista-Devata] that drove all of his actions, and a fearless tenacity in expounding his vision in the most hostile environments” (Varghese 121). Madhva believed that research and experience were important aspects within spirituality (Varghese 118-131).

Many of Madhva’s opinions and teachings were depicted in his commentary on various Hindu scriptures. Specifically, he added insight to the Paramopanishad as per the following (see Varghese: 119):

“The difference between the jîva (soul) and Îshvara (Creator), and the difference between jada (insentient things, e.g., matter) and Îshvara; and the difference between various jîvas, and the difference between jada and jîva; and the difference between various jadas, these five differences make up the universe.”

Within the 5 principles, Madhva highlighted 3 main areas. The 3 main areas were based around the following concepts: “How We Know,” “God and the World,” and “Matter and Spirit” (Varghese 119-120). The first, “How We Know” ideology, was explained as achieved through “experience, reason and divine revelation.” The second ideology of “God and the World” was based around the thought that the entire world relies on God, and that He has no imperfections, and controls everything (prasada). Moreover, the third ideology, “Matter and Spirit,” focused on the reasoning that the world is composed of things that are concrete, such as material goods, while still maintaining/balancing one’s spiritual side. The third ideology took a critical look at the connection between both the spirit and material items (see Varghese: 118-120). Furthermore, Madhva continually incorporated his idea that beings “cannot infer anything without the evidence of [their senses]” (Armstrong 45). That is, the highest sense being Sakshin, and using Sakshin to become more self-conscious. Madhva went beyond ancient Hindu literature to gain further insight and express new ways of interpretation and thinking with not only his students, but the Hindu community as a whole (Armstrong 45).

As Madhva aged, he began to spread his knowledge further. His intellectual abilities, along with his siddhi, led him to attain moksa (liberation), and to also expand his theories regarding the achievement of moksa. In contrast to leading Hindu philosophies, Madhva believed that some members of society would never achieve moksa (Krishnananda 9). Madhva’s expressions of his differing ideologies were crucial components of his teachings, while travelling. In addition to sharing his beliefs, he travelled extensively through India and surrounding countries to further his knowledge on the Vedanta, which led to Madhva creating his own Vedantic philosophy—the Dvaita (binary) Vedanta. He also completed pilgrimages that connected him with Vyasa, at Uttara Badri, to further his understanding of Hindu literature, which led Madhva to special religious insights. At that point, he had a few loyal followers and disciples who accompanied him and assisted in spreading his philosophies (see Armstrong: 38-53).

From few to many, Madhva’s philosophies became very popular among the Hindu community. This was especially apparent after the philosophical convention, in Rajamahendri, which occurred in approximately 1270CE. While travelling, Madhva partook in the convention. There, he shared his philosophical ideologies, which led to him winning a debate over Puri Swami Shastri, who was a famous Sanskrit scholar (Armstrong 48). The following summarizes Madhva’s 9 major philosophies, which were developed throughout his lifetime, as summarized in the Prameya Shloka by Sri Vyasa Tirtha (1460-1539), as follows:

1. Hari (Visnu) is Supreme.

2. The world is real.

3. The differences are real.

4. The various classes of jivas are cohorts of Visnu.

5. They reach different states (lower or superior) ultimately.

6. Mukti, liberation, is an experience of one’s own nature.

7. Mukti is achieved by pure devotion.

8. The triad of perception, inference and testimony are the sources of valid knowledge.

9. It is Hari alone who is praised in the Vedas.

These philosophies were the guiding principles behind Madhva’s arguments and teachings. They were primarily taught in his schools, which were included in the 5 schools of Vaishnavism. The exceptional schools were highly influential in the northeast provinces in India, including Bengal, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh. The philosophies have since expanded geographically and continue to be practiced throughout Hinduism (Armstrong 44).

Madhva contributed greatly to Hindu philosophy, and education systems. He left the physical world approximately in 1317 CE (or Kali Yuga 4418), at the age of 79. The last known existence of Madhva was high up in the mountains of the Himalayas—a place where he learned, then developed many of his philosophies (Armstrong 44, 53). Madhva left Hindu scholars and worshippers new insight regarding the presence of God, Sanskrit writings, Vedic knowledge, and spiritual insight. In addition to philosophical contributions, Madhva’s established temple, the Udipi Sri Krsna, not only stands as a devotional area for those who worship Krsna, but also now serves to commemorate Madhva’s contributions to Hinduism. Many of Madhva’s ideas, written works, commentaries, and religious structures have greatly influenced to Hinduism today.

References and Further Recommended Readings

Acharya, M. (2009). Personal Communication.

Armstrong, J. (2008). “Difference Is Real.” Hinduism Today, 30(3), 38-53.

Krishnananda, S. (n.d.). “An Analysis of the Brahma Sutra.” The Divine Life of Society, ch. 9

Sangha, V. (1999). “Beginner’s Guide to Sri Madhvacharya’s Life and Philosophy,” pp. 21-25.

Sharma, A. (1977). “For a Sociology of India: The place of conversion in Hinduism.” Contributions to Indian Sociology, 11(2), 345-354

Stoker, V. (2004). “Conceiving The Canon In Dvaita Vedanta: Madhva’s Doctrine Of ‘All Sacred Lore’.” Numen: International Review for History of Religions, 51(1), 31, 47-77.

Srivastava, P. (2008). “Sri Madhva’s Challenge.” Hinduism Today, 30(4), 12.

Varghese, R. (2004). “The Wonder of The World.” pp. 118 -121.

Vyasa Tirtha. (1460-1539). “A summary of the tenets of Tattvavada.” Prameya Shloka. Tyr Publishing. pp. 118-131.

Yandell, K. (1999). “Faith and Philosophy.” Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers, 16(4), 544-561.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Brahma Vaishnava Sampradaya


Chandogya Upanishad Bhasya

Dvaita School of Vedanta

Ekadandi Order






Laksna Granthas







Puri Swami Shastri



Sannyasin Renouncer


Sri Vyasa Tirtha



Udipi Sri Krsna

Vaishnaiva Hinduism

Visnu Vyasa Noteworthy

Websites Related to the Topic

Written by Kasey-Leigh Martin (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.


Sankhya Philosophy

Sankhya Philosophy is best described as a form of substance dualism. This form of substance dualism has a division between consciousness and matter, which is seen as independent from one another and relying on one another at the same time (Schweizer 846). This division is described in several ways, such as: thoughts and feelings versus intellect, nature versus soul, non-eternal versus eternal, non-spiritual versus spiritual, and impure versus pure to name a few (Majumdar 1926a: 255) (Everett 311). The most significant division related to Sankhya Philosophy is between the entity Purusa and the entity Prakriti. The other listed divisions are used to describe or explain Purusa and Prakriti (Majumdar 1926a: 255).

In order to understand Sankhya Philosophy it is necessary to understand that Purusa and Prakriti are two separate elements of consciousness (Everett 314). However, Purusa and Prakriti are not and cannot be independent from one another. “… Purusa has the power of perceiving, but no power of acting, whereas Prakriti has the power of acting, but no power of perceiving” (Majumdar 1925: 52). This quote describes the guidance versus activity relationship that Purusa and Prakriti share. Moreover, this quote demonstrates the point that Purusa needs Prakriti just as Prakriti needs Purusa. The union between Purusa and Prakriti is required to move through one’s life (Majumdar 1925: 53).

Although Purusa and Prakriti are united, each has distinct features of their own. Prakriti is in reference to objects, matter, all material that includes the mind and body. Antahkarana means inner instrument and refers to the three components of the mind, which is associated with Prakriti. The first component is manas, which means mind. Manas is described as cognition, perception, and low intellect. The second component is buddhi, which means intellect or reason. Buddhi is described as a high level of intellect function that uses intuition, insight, and reflection. The final component is ahamkara, which means ego. Ahamkara is described as what claims ownership and what makes something personal (Schweizer 848). Prakriti alone is subconscious, but is capable of consciousness through the influence of Purusa. This is clarified through an example; “… fire burns only when in contact with a combustible thing…” Prakriti is the fire and Purusa being what makes fire burn (Majumdar 1926b: 56).

Since Prakriti is mostly in reference to the subconscious it is understandable that Purusa is mostly in reference to consciousness. Each individual is thought to have their own Purusa and each Purusa is unique from the next, but all Purusas have similar characteristics (Majumdar 1925: 61). Purusa is described as awareness, intelligence, the subject, the self, and the soul (Schweizer 849) (Everett 311). A look at the features of both Prakriti and Purusa gives further knowledge in interpreting the Sankhya philosophical view of Prakriti and Purusa’s union with each other.

The union between Purusa and Prakriti is additionally explained through the concept of bandha, which means bondage. There are three kinds of pain associated with bondage. These pains are intrinsic, extrinsic, and supernatural. The pains arise from Purusa’s experience with Prakriti (Majumdar 1926a: 253). Purusa is eternally bound and never separate from Prakriti. Prakriti is emotions, possessions, wants, desires, etc. Purusa is consumed with Prakriti. Purusa is a forgotten self and only identifies itself combined with what Prakriti is. Misery is what results from the delusion of what Purusa identifies itself as (Majumdar 1926a: 254).

According to the Sankhya Philosophy there are different kinds of knowledge. The delusion that Purusa has of what it identifies itself as is due to avidya, which means false knowledge (Majumdar 1926a: 255). The false knowledge that Purusa holds is that it needs to separate itself from Prakriti and identify itself as an individual entity. However, separation of Prakriti and Purusa is not possible. What must happen is a modification of one’s view or perspective. This can be achieved through vidya, which is discriminative knowledge or the knowledge of distinction. Vidya can be found through extensive religious training and practices. When vidya is attained it is then possible to see that Prakriti and Purusa are both the same and separate. Furthermore, the relationship between Prakriti and Purusa is relative not absolute (Majumdar 1926a: 266).

The union of Prakriti and Purusa is not perfect. The Sankhya Philosophy comments on the imperfect union by reflecting that things do not begin as perfect, but have the possibility to become perfect (Majumdar 1926b: 63). The goal is to achieve liberation or release. However, liberation or release cannot be achieved through just one life. Liberation and release may be achieved through many lives of true knowledge (Majumdar 1926a: 259).

The union of Prakriti and Purusa in Sankhya Philosophy view is equal to creation (Majumdar 1925: 57). The creation of this union allows one to move through one’s life. This is done by means of actions and guidance interacting with one another. Prakriti produces deliberate actions because it has the desire to release Purusa, but this is only made possible because Purusa guides Prakriti to do so. However, this is only workable after Purusa has had complete satisfaction of knowledge and enjoyment by Prakriti. Only then can liberation or release come (Majumdar 1925: 55).

Since Sankhya Philosophy considers the union of Prakriti and Purusa as creation and a beginning that consists of imperfection, Sankhya Philosophy also considers the union of Prakriti and Purusa as evolution. The perspective of Prakriti and Purusa being referred to as evolution comes from the many experiences Purusa goes through with Prakriti (Majumdar 1926a: 253). As with any other belief system, this philosophy is not different in acknowledging that every experience brings change and growth. The difference, however, is that this philosophy views that change and growth is done through many lives full of many experiences and acquirement of knowledge, not just one life’s worth of experiences and knowledge (Majumdar 1926a: 259). Therefore, according to Sankhya Philosophy, the union of Prakriti and Purusa from creation to liberation or release is a system that evolves through time.


Everett, C. C. (1899) “The Psychology of the Vedanta and Sankhya Philosophies”. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 20, 309-316.

Majumdar, A.K. (1925) “The Doctrine of Evolution in the Sankhya Philosophy”. The Philosophical Review, 34 (1), 51-69.

Majumdar, A.K. (1926a) “The Doctrine of Bondage and Release in the Sankhya Philosophy”. The Philosophical Review, 35 (3), 253-266.

Majumdar, A.K. (1926b) “The Personalistic Conception of Nature as Expounded in the Sankhya Philosophy”. The Philosophical Review, 35 (1), 53-63.

Schweizer, P. (1993) “Mind/Consciousness Dualism in Sankhya-Yoga Philosophy”. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 53 (4), 845-859.

Related Topics for Further Investigation





The Sankhya Pravachana Sutram

Yoga Sutram

The Sankhya Karika





The Ekadasa Indriya


Noteworthy Websites Relate to the Topic

Written by Lynnette Johnson (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Yoga Sutras

The Yoga Sutras are ascribed to varying dates around the second century CE (Rodrigues 201). They are not recognized as the establishment of yoga, because yoga and concepts of self-discipline and meditation had been practiced for thousands of years before the writing of the Sutras. Buddhist texts indicate that methods of dhyana (meditative state) (Rodrigues 405) and samadhi (contemplative absorption) (Rodrigues 562) had been well established by the time of the Buddha (Dasgupta 47). Patanjali, a great Sanskrit grammarian, is sometimes credited with the creation of the Yoga Sutras. However, many scholars think the grammarian Patanjali was a different person. Although Patanjali contributed greatly to the growth and doctrines of Sankhya school of Yoga, commentators like Vyasa [To read further on the commentaries by Vyasa see Baba (2005) to help clarify the explanation on the Sutras] concluded that Patanjali was not the originator of yoga but that he was its “editor” (Dasgupta 51). This is position is reinforced when analyzing the character of the book. The Sutras are divided into chapters (pada), which leads on to believe that Patanjali was providing a system of organization to knowledge that already had a thorough foundation. The first three chapters, or padas, are “written by way of definition and classification” (Dasgupta 52) which indicates that this knowledge was “already in existence” (Dasgupta 52). The fourth chapter appears to be a later addition.

If the title of this great work is correctly translated it provides an intensified clarity of the purpose and direction that the Sutras are intended to take. Yoga, essentially meaning to “yoke” and is rooted in Sanskrit literature within the word yuj, (Dasgupta 44) meaning to join and to form a union or connection (Dasgupta 43). Yoga is essentially the act of yoking and/or joining the senses. In older Upanishads the word is understood “in the sense of austerity and meditative abstractions productive of mighty achievements” (Dasgupta 43); this is consistent with the era, as the practice of austerity was popular amongst many devoted Hindus and Buddhists and several other religious philosophies. The word yoga originally applied to the control of steeds and in several sacred texts the senses are often referred to as “uncontrollable horses” (Dasgupta 44). This understanding of the word as a controlling action, or perhaps inaction, is entirely plausible, as the practice of yoga further develops to tame the senses through intense meditation and physical discipline. (Sutra meaning, “thread,” provides the organizational consistency that is needed when such a definitive work is being written. These sutras, or threads, help weave together the fabric of the principles and philosophies of yoga. This provides a legible and tangible blanket of knowledge that allows for expansions and meditation on specific principles to amplify one’s practice.) It is important to understand the linguistic features of the practice of yoga for it helps portray a long history that predates the creation of the Yoga Sutras.

The sage Patanjali depicted according to the myth linking him with the anjali (folded hand gesture)
The sage Patanjali depicted according to the myth linking him with the anjali (folded hand gesture)

Yoga cannot be learned by oneself; it is a lifelong spiritual journey that requires the guidance of a guru (“teacher”) (Eliade 10) to further one’s practice. A guru of yoga is often referred to as a yogi (masculine) or yogini (feminine) and he/she is often committed to a journey of samsara (rebirth) and the attainment of moska or nirvana (Eliade 11) liberation or transcendence of rebirth. There are different Hindu schools that claim one should access or attain moksa or nirvana. Yoga is one of the six orthodox Hindu schools and is best represented by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and its subsequent commentaries. Patanjali’s work is framed hand-in-hand with the Samkhya philosophy [see Worthington V for an in depth analysis of the Samkhya philosophy. It is important to note and understand the six orthodox schools of Hinduism and the connection and differences interconnecting them all]. Samkhya and yoga are inextricably intertwined with one another and bear much resemblance to one another. It should be noted that Patanjali’s work is the “coordination of philosophical material” (Eliade 16) and the physical practice, which elevates it to an almost philosophical system as opposed to a “mystic tradition” (Eliade 16).

The Yoga Sutras consist of four chapters (pada). The first chapter is the “chapter on yogic ecstasy” (samadhipada), containing fifty-one aphorisms or sutras; the second called sahanapada, contains fifty-five sutras and is the “chapter on realization”; the third chapter, vibhuti, “marvelous powers” also contains fifty-five sutras. When analyzing the fourth chapter it is important to note the amount of sutras because it has noticeably fewer sutras, suggesting perhaps it was a later addition (Eliade 13). The fourth pada has only thirty-four sutras and is called the kaivalyapada, “isolation” (Eliade 13).

The first chapter, samadhipada, pertains to the consciousness of the mind. It is the understanding of thought, or vrtti, and how the human mind is a natural roadblock to reaching the true self. The samadhipada outlines several techniques that try to harness the mind and avoid distractions. In the samadhipada: (Sutras 38) Patanjali proposes a physical guideline to obtain a mental achievement. It appears that by practicing proper breathing techniques one gains control over a sense that is almost entirely involuntary, which reinforces the union of physical and mental to obtain control and release of the constant fluidity of the conscious.

The sadhanapada is the “practical way” of attaining a spiritual awakening. Patanjali discusses the eight limbs of yoga [For further information on the eight limbs of yoga, visit Doran’s website] as a way of practicing union of the mind and body and dismissing obstructions to spiritual attainment. The obstacles that block the path to the attainment of union are outline in this pada, sadhanapada (Sutra 10) and illustrates that the acknowledgement of these hindrances will help dispel them. The sadhanapada also makes note of other branches of yoga and the importance to achieving oneness of mind and body i.e. Ashtanga yoga (meaning the eight limb practice).

The third chapter called the vibhutipada is an expansion on the powers that are “matured with practice.” Gaining and controlling such subtle powers leads to a state of awareness and contemplation (samadhi).

The kaivalyapada is the final stage and goal of yoga and the isolation of one’s self. This chapter essentially focuses on liberation, or moksa, as the yogi/yogini has learned to separate himself/herself from the bondages that obstruct true consciousness. This pada is, as noted, most likely a later addition to the Sutras, as it no longer focuses on the directional guidance, but rather it is a concluding remark on the practice and end point of a spiritual pathway (Johnston).

The Yoga Sutras is undoubtedly one of the most influential texts on yoga, and is influential within the Hindu tradition and for any practicing yogi and/or yogini. The composition of the Sutras does not mark the birth of yoga; rather, it is the systematizing of the yogic pathways towards spiritual attainment. The Sutras provide an organized approach towards the practice of yoga and the union between physical and mental aspects of the human body. The purpose of the Yoga Sutras is not to provide a narrow hallway towards spiritual awakening; rather, it is a guide and allows for meditation and contemplation of every pada and physical step. This text is not self-explanatory, but the journey that the self takes with the help of the Yoga Sutras explains the connection between theory and practice.


Varenne, Jean. Yoga and The Hindu Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Whicher, Ian. The Integrity of the Yoga Darsana: A Reconsideration of Classic Yoga. New York: State University of New York, 1954.

Rukmani, T.S.. Yogasutrabhasyavivarana of Sankara. 1 and 2, Samadhipadah and Sadhanapanah. New Delhi: Munishram Manoharlal Publishers, 2001.

Dasgupta, S.N. Yoga Philosophy: In Relation to Other Sytems of Indian Thought, India: Shri Jainendra Press, 1930, 2974, 1979.

Eliade, Mircea. Patanjali and Yoga. United States of America: Shocken Books, 1975.

Baba, Bangali. Yogasutra Patanjali. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2005.

Johnston, Charles. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: The Book of the Spiritual Man. Kensinger Publishing, 2006. NOTEWORTHY WEBSITES ON THIS TOPIC (Worthington V) (Doran)


Ashtanga Yoga


Eight Limbs of Yoga


Hatha Yoga



Raja Yoga

Samkhya Philosophy

Six Orthodox Schools


Article written by: Kelsay Gault (March 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.

Hatha Yoga

The ultimate goal of Hatha-yoga, like all forms of yoga is to transcend the self and realize the ultimate reality (atman) (Feuerstein 38). It is different from other forms of yoga because of its focus on using the body and developing its potential so that when the person achieves atman the body is able to withstand the onslaught of ultimate reality (Feuerstein 38). Therefore, Hatha-yoga is designed the help achieve the Ultimate Reality in a finite human body. The practitioner of Hatha-yoga wants to design and construct a divine body (divya-sharira) for themselves that would guarantee immortality once atman is attained (Feuerstein 39). Hatha-yoga is also considered to be an off shoot of Tantrism as it deals with both the body and the mind, two key aspect in the Tantric practice (Feuerstein 505). The term Hatha-yoga can be explained as the union (yoga) between sun and moon or the two different aspects of the body-mind union. Most Hatha-yoga practitioners use and follow the Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika, as it is the most popular Hatha-yoga manual (Feuerstein 38).

Hindu teachings associate the creation of the Hatha-yoga tradition with Goraksa Natha and his teacher Matsyyendra Natha (Feuerstein 510). They are thought of as the founders of Nathism. Siva is considered to be the father of the Natha lineage and thus is considered to be the ultimate yogi (Feuerstein 510). Other masters of Nathism include: Jalandhari, Bhartrihari, Gopicandra, and Caurangi (Feuerstein 513-514). As well as references to these masters in Hindu traditions, there are also references to the same people in Tibetan traditions (Feuerstein 513).

In Tantric practices, the life force (prana) is divided along the spinal axis “where the dynamic pole (represented by Sakti) is said to be at the base of the spine and the static pole (represented by Siva) at the crown of the head” (Feuerstein 518). The practitioner of Hatha-yoga works to unite these two poles. For this to happen he/she must first stabilize the alternating life current that flows up and down both the left and right side of the body (Feuerstein 518). The primary objective is to intercept the left and right current and bring the energy into the central channel which starts at the anal center (muladhara) (Feuerstein 518). It is at this anal center that the kundalini [could be considered the manifestation of primordial energy (see Feuerstein 473)] is believed to be asleep (Feuerstein 518). By regularly trying to redirect the life force into the center the kundalini is mobilized (Feuerstein 518). This action could be considered forceful, hence the meaning of the word hatha as “force”. “Hatha-yoga is a forceful enterprise in which the body’s innate life force is utilized for the transcendence of the self” (Feuerstein 518). According to the Sage Gheranda, there are only seven limbs of yoga. He divides the asanas (postures) and the mudra (locks) into two different limbs while he does not regard the moral rules (yama and niyama) as independent features (Feuerstein 521).

A pillar at Srirangam Temple depicting a Yogi performing a variation of the tree posture (vrksa-asana), commonly practiced in Hatha Yoga
A pillar at Srirangam Temple depicting a Yogi performing a variation of the tree posture (vrksa-asana), commonly practiced in Hatha Yoga

The first step in affecting the channel of the life force into the center is breath control (pranayama), the fifth limb of yoga (Feuerstein 518). However, before working on this breath control one must undergo intense and extensive purification (Feuerstein 518). Thus, the Sage Gheranda describes six purification practices. They are as follows: dhauti (cleansing) is broken into four different techniques: antar-dhauti (inner-cleansing), danta-dhauti (dental cleansing), hrid-dhauti (heart cleansing), and mula-shodhana (root purification) (Feuersein 519). The second purification practice is called vasti or basti (bladder) (Feuerstein 519). This is follwed by neti, lauli or lailiki (to and fro movement), trataka, and finally kapala-bhati which in itself contains three different practices. These are: vama-krama (left-process), vyut-krama (inverted process), and shit-krama (shit process) (Feuerstein 520) [for a more detailed description of each of the purification techniques see Feuerstein 519-520]. Once purification has been done, the yoga practitioner may start to work on their breath control (pranayama). Sage Gheranda describes eight different types of breath control which he calls retentions (kumbhaka). These different retentions are as follows: sahita-kumbhaka (joined retention) -broken into two parts: sagarbha (with seed) and nigarbha (without seed)- surya-bheba-kumbhaka (sun –piercing retention), ujjayi-kumbhaka (victorious retention), shitali-kumbhaka (cooling retention), bhastrika-kumbhaka (bellows retention), bhramari-kumbhaka (bee-like retention), murccha-kumbhaka (swooning retention), and finally kevali-kumbhaka (absolute retention) (Feuerstein 527-528) [for a more detailed description of the different breath control techniques see Feuerstein 527-528]. According to Gheranda there are three different levels of pranayama control. The lowest level of control generates heat in the body, the second level causes tremors in the limbs and the third level actually causes levitation (Feuerstein 528).

Along with pranayama is a focus on different bodily postures (asanas), which is the second limb of yoga. These different postures also help prepare the body for the realization of atman. Siva the founder of yoga is believed to have taught these postures (Burley 73). There are a few different accounts of how many were taught (see Feuerstein 521), the Gheranda-Samhita describes the following thirty two: “siddha-asana (adept posture), padma-asana (lotus posture), bhadra-asana (auspicious posture), mukta-asana (liberated posture), vajra-asana (diamond posture), svastika-asana (svastika posture), simha-asana (lion posture), gomukha-asana (cow-face posture), vira-asana (hero posture), mrita-asana (corpse posture), gupta-asana (hidden posture), matsya-asana (fish posture), matsyendra-asana (Matsyendra’s posture), goraksha-asana (Goraksa’s posture), pashcimottana-asana (back-stretch posture), utkata-asana (extraordinary posture), samkata-asana (dangerous posture), mayura-asana (peacock posture), kukkuta-asana (cock posture), kurma-asana (tortoise posture), uttana-kurmaka-asana (extended tortoise posture), uttana-manduka-asana (extended frog posture), vriksha-asana (tree posture), manduka-asana (frog posture), garuda-asana (eagle posture), vrisha-asana (bull posture), shalabha-asana (locust posture), makara-asana (shark posture), ushtra-asana (camel posture), bhujanga-asana (serpent or cobra posture), and yoga-asana (Yoga posture)” (Feuerstein 521)[for a more detailed explanation of the postures as well as pictures of them see Feuerstein 522-523 and Burley 258-271]. While some of the postures are designed to help with sitting for long periods of time while meditating, others are designed for helping to regulate the life force within the yoga practitioner’s body (Feuerstein 521).

Linked with the postures are seals (mudra) and locks (bandha), the third limb of yoga. The seals signify far more advanced techniques and at times merge with some meditative practices. The locks are special maneuvers that are supposed to help restrict the life force within the trunk and thus stimulate it (Feuerstein 523). The seals (mudra) and locks (bandha) are named as follows: maha-mudra (great seal), nabho-mudra (sky seal), uddiyana-bandha (upward-going lock), jalandhara-bandha (Jalandhara’s lock), mula-bandha (root lock), maha-bandha (great lock), maha-vedha (great penetrator), khecari-mudra (space-walking seal), viparita-kari (inverted action seal), yoni-mudra (womb seal), vajroli-mubra (thunderbolt seal), shakti-calani-mudra (power-stirring seal), tadagi-mudra (pond seal), manduki-mudra (frog seal), shambhavi-mudra (Shambhu’s seal), ashvini-mudra (dawn-horse seal), pashini-mudra (bird-catching seal), kaki-mudra (elephant seal), bhujangini-mudra (serpent seal), and finally the five concentrations (dharana) on the five elements-earth, fire, water, air, and ether (Feuerstein 523-525)[see Feuerstein 523-525 for a detailed description of all the locks and seals].

The fourth limb of Hatha-yoga according to Gheranda is detachment from the senses (pratyahara). This involves removing attention from external- sensory objects (Feuerstein 525-526).

The sixth limb is in regards to meditation (dhyana) which can be understood as visualization (Feuerstein 528). The Gheranda-Samhita talks about three types of dhyana: “visualization having a ‘coarse’ (sthula) object, such as a carefully visualized deity; visualization having a ‘subtle’ (sukshma) object, namely the Absolute in the form of the transcendental point-origin (bindu) of the universe, as explained in connection with Tantrism; and contemplation of the Absolute as light (jyotis)” (Feuerstein 528)[for a more detailed description see Feuerstein]. According to Gheranda, with contemplation, the attention is inverted onto the inner essence of Self (atman). He explains it as the process of awakening the kundalini and it merging with atman and then rising to the center at the crown of the head bringing one to samadhi (Feuerstein 528).

Samadhi according to Gheranda is the seventh and final limb of yoga. It is liberation from the states of consciousness and separation of the mind from the body. Reaching this point is reaching the ultimate level and thus moska for the Hatha-yogin (Feuerstein 528-529).


Burely, Mikel (2000) Hatha-Yoga: Its Context Theory and Practice. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.

Feuerstein, Georg (2002) The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice. New Delhi: Bhavana Books & Prints.

Sivananda, Swami (1981) Science of Yoga. India: Divine Life Society.

Sivananda Radha, Swami (1987) Hatha Yoga: The Hidden Language: Symbols, Secrets and Metaphor. Porthill: Timeless Books.

White, David Gordon (1996) The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation




Siva Nata-Raja













Raja Yoga

Jnana Yoga

Karma Yoga

Bhakti Yoga

Kundalini Yoga

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Caylee Dutnall (2009) who is solely responsible for its content.

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.

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.