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Interviewing Sankara Saranam, Part II

This is Part II of the Australia Yoga Life Interview

22) Do you think the eightfold path of yoga described by Patanjali offers a relevant guide to our lives today? And specifically, to yoga practice today?

I’m fine with the Yoga Sutra, but then I don’t interpret it in a dualistic fashion, which is common and accepted. The singular theory of self that I discuss in God Without Religion has numerous branches and variations that developed over time, but if you go far back enough you’d find a school of Samkhya thought that I call nondual, or advaita. Once you understand that philosophy, the later contributions, regurgitations, interpretations, and frills of Vedanta, Buddhism, Taoism, Yoga, and Tantra, not to mention the other Veda-based philosophies like Mimamsa, are viewed in a more proper context. The Bhagavad-Gita is the best textbook of yoga – as an exposition of the theory of self – and, I feel, deserves to be regarded more highly than any supposedly heard (“sruti”) texts. I ascribe to it absolutely no authority, and its brilliance requires none. Assuming one reads it in the context of a Vaishnavite mythology, which misguided teachers like ISKCON’s Prabhupada did not, it is the foremost exposition of yoga. As concise as it is, it requires far less commentary than the Yoga Sutra, which probably sounds like the code of a secret society for those who are not schooled in its terms and concepts.

23) What do you mean by dualism in the Yoga Sutra?

Patanjala Yoga, or Raja Yoga, is traditionally interpreted as dualistic, and there is good reason for that. Its foundations in Samkhya also support this interpretation. However, I find the dualism to be inappropriate and Samkhya to be inherently monistic. If I could not get away from its perceived dualism, then I would have to take the parts of it that are useful in terms of developing nonfinite self-knowledge, and leave the rest. Meanwhile, its dualism is not in relation to reality but its divisional misperceptions. Ontological categories, whether immanent as part of the body or transcendent as part of the cosmos, do not imply they are absolute, but that providing them in a model can help in the process of deconstruction. After all, we are speaking of the involution of the cosmos. Breaking it up piece by piece, understanding how all the pieces relate, makes more sense then simply saying all is Brahman.

24) What is meant by “heard” or “sruti” texts?

Indian texts are generally classified according to smriti, or remembered lore and sruti, or heard revelation. I think both categorizations and whatever authority applied to them are bogus, but the attitudes they invoked assisted in their transmission through the centuries. The Gita, falling in the Mahabharata, is smriti, but it is rightly elevated to sruti or higher, and elevates itself as well. I don’t think it should be given any authority, but then it doesn’t need any, which is the hallmark of truly brilliant writing. It stands tall on its own.

25) Can you speak on your reference to the Gita’s mythology?

The Gita’s mythological background is steeped in Vishnu worship, in contrast to Siva or Brahma worship, with the three making up the Indian trinity. Understanding that tempers the exclusive worship of Vishnu in his mythic incarnation as Krishna.

26) Can you comment on ISKCON?

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness founder, Swami Prabhupada, failed to read the Gita in its proper historical and mythic context, and so gave far too much attention developing the cult of Krishna as some superior mythic image of the infinite. This is nonsense, of course, but he was no yogi, claiming that human beings in this age didn’t have the right to consider that they could dare ever be yogis. Leave being a yogi to the gods, and let us worship them. Pranayama to him was not approachable in Kali Yuga (Dark Ages), and while it generally may not be, there are exceptions. In any case, he didn’t know we are not in Kali Yuga. This was his attitude toward the practice of Kevali, so we can’t expect much from him or his organization.

27) How do you see your approaches to pranayama and sense introversion relating to the 4th - 8th limbs of Patanjali eight-fold path (i.e., to pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, meditation, & samadhi)?

I see it as an honest approach that takes no prisoners and leaves no room for delusions of spiritual grandeur. We are dealing with a very simple challenge: our sense of self is determined by the five senses, mind, and feelings, and all the conditions placed on these faculties of knowledge. According to these avenues, we are human beings born at certain times and places, always to live our lives confined to a certain time and place, and always divided from other human beings by time and space with self-awareness that extends not much farther out than the epidermis. Is there an alternative avenue to self-knowledge that might give us a different picture? If so, how do we investigate this avenue to self-knowledge? How do we know if we’ve successfully investigated it? Yoga is concerned with these questions and has developed the most proactive and direct approach to the issue of an alternative nonfinite avenue to knowledge in the history of human mysticism. The last four limbs of yoga, starting with pratyahara, begin with the breathless state and hence cannot be practiced until pranayama is mastered. In a matter of speaking, samadhi begins at pratyahara and culminates with the obliteration of division between the inwardly intuited self known in the early stages of samadhi (still a more expansive self than the one suggested by the senses) and the infinite self.

28) Do you see the Satyananda practice of yoga nidra as a useful approach to developing sense introversion?

Due to years of habitually entering the subconscious when the body is prone, the upright position is the preferred pose when developing the superconscious intuitive faculties. Where breath regulation is concerned, the upright position places no uncomfortable weight on the lungs, which can occur when lying down. Furthermore, it is technically impossible to practice a technique of pratyahara itself. All techniques leading to it can and will mimic it, but in fact the technique is yet a method of pranayama and can be reduced to the motions of energy and awareness in the body, spine, and brain. Satyananda, a student of the famed Sivananda, was highly influenced by Hatha Yoga. Several of Sivananda’s students came to the West in the second half of the last century, tilting the perception of yoga toward Hatha schooling, almost to the point where yoga without further qualification is synonymous with physical culture. They had help from Iyengar, but the effects of their teachings have not been ideal from the standpoint of developing self-knowledge. Yoga nidra is not a technique to replace pranayama by any stretch, anymore than can proper diet or continence replace pranayama. It is an auxiliary method that I would teach students to practice upon retiring, with the focus being to harness all the powers of concentration and sens-introversion won through the magnetization of the spine and brain with pranayama at the moment when the consciousness would otherwise naturally travel from conscious awareness to subconscious awareness. At that moment there is a window of opportunity to enter superconsciousness. That window is very small, but one can fit through it, as it were, if the eyes do not droop but remain focused upward and the mind remains highly concentrated and still.

29) What do you see as the problems with the subconscious in yoga practice?

The subconscious is the storehouse for memories, impressions, habits, tendencies, and a codified idea of self. When attempting to look within, it scatters the attention as it is made up of scattered patterns of thought in the form of layers of memories and inclinations. As the depository for a particular idea of self, the patterns of which it is composed will accept incoming data only in terms of its view of world and self, thus seeing in terms it wants to see. It is a finite avenue to knowledge that apparently takes a life of its own, or wants to think so. A stocked subconscious warehouse will store all manner of denial. Visiting the subconscious mind, as in going to that warehouse and relying upon its memory wares for knowledge of the self, becomes its own subconscious habit. The subconsciousness of a yogi is clean and nearly empty. Memory is not required for knowledge of the self.

30) How would one know one had entered superconsciousness?

Since one might want to think they had entered superconsciousness or samadhi, I limit my description of the state, avoiding such statements, accurate as they might be, such as it being the state of the self knowing the self directly. That sounds very nice, but what does it mean to someone who knows the self indirectly via the senses and other finite faculties? It often means that if there is any shift in self-awareness, the state will be glorified as a samadhi. So, I call samadhi the breathless state. You know you’ve entered superconsciousness when your breath exhales, does not need to inhale for hours, the senses withdraw, and the heart greatly slows.

31) Please explain the importance of focusing the eyes upward.

The meaning of nasikagram in the Bhagavad-Gita is origin of the nose, or the point between the eyebrows. That spot is the polar opposite of the medulla oblongata. It is to that spot that the gaze of the deceased human or animal looks. As energy elevates, the eyes will naturally upturn. If you wish to mimic the superconscious state, then you would practice this mudra, which is called Siva’s seal, as the yogi gazing upward is mimicking the superconsciousness of the god Siva, mythologically sitting in eternal samadhi on the mountain (of the brain). Since samadhi stills the breath and heart, it is conscious death, and so looking upward also mimics the dying. Dying to this world consciously requires this focus. It is a physiological imperative and has nothing to do with any religion or culture. We look down into subconsciousness when we sleep; so, adding more hours to downward gazing by doing so when we are precisely seeking to move into the superconsciousness is backwards, and we have to thank the Dark Age’s influence on yoga for that.

32) What are your views on the ‘mindfulness-based’ strategies popular in the West today?

They are a gross misunderstanding of the Buddha’s teachings of yoga. When the Buddha said to be mindful, he might have just as well said, “remain in samadhi” for what he meant. Since people have no training in samadhi, the path of affectation has replaced mindfulness. It is a very absurd state of affairs, with cliques of Buddhists with serious Buddhist identities enacting their Buddhist mindfulness, requiring heavy doses of suppression and leading to the same guilt they knew as Catholics. Buddhists, which are nothing more than human beings narrowly identified with a particular ism of thought, have to ask themselves the same questions we all need to ask. These questions are concerned with the development of a nonfinite avenue to knowledge. How can the mindfulness practiced today conserve energy when its façade requires so much energy to maintain? The Bard said to assume a virtue if we have it not, but Buddhists are imitating the wrong people and are projecting far too much authority onto their lamas, rinpoches, and gurus. Since the Buddha, the quintessential ascetic and student of Samkhya, meant to embody a philosophy (darsana, or viewpoint) that moment-to-moment would conserve energy, how would he have meant mindfulness to accomplish this continuous centralization of power in the spine, with ease of doing so? Locking our awareness in the higher spine and brain through the successful performance of pranayama – a method indispensable to the Buddha’s yogic path – produces an effortlessly mindful individual. Before this kind of success, calmness and seeing all conditions as neutral is the proper mimicry of the mindful yogi.

33) How do you view spirituality as different to religion?

As concepts, free of human involvement, I define spirituality as the sacrifice of the narrow sense of self and the nescience (ignorance, and specifically ignorance of a larger self) it represents as a product of division; the involution of existence from division back to the absolute; and the reversal of the sempiternal sacrifice necessary for phenomenal existence to emerge from the infinite. I define religion in the framework of organized religion, not merely as some regimen to which one binds oneself. As such, it is an institution of centralized power, localized in a particular time and place, having a beginning and end. Historically, it plays on the fear of death and other insecurities while promising salvation from death and misery to win converts and support. It has also used more physically aggressive means that reflected its psychological belligerence. One of its main by-products is divisiveness in the human world, which has been found to be of great use to the elite of the two other centralized power systems: the corporate and the political. Of course, when humans get involved, you’ll find a great deal of organized religion in spirituality and spirituality in organized religions.

34) What do you mean by sempiternal sacrifice?

As opposed to seeing this cosmos as a creation with a creator, created at a certain point in time and space, or perhaps beginning space-time, the theory of self moves away from this linear thinking, seeing the cosmos as the finite expressions of infinite being, with its never-ending rhythms, without a beginning or end. Instead of a singular sacrifice for the infinite to be finite, it is rather an eternal and continuos sacrifice that goes on all the time, forever. Without that sacrifice, called the yoga of the infinite, there would be no cosmos. However, the theory of self asserts that whether or not there is a cosmos is another matter. The sacrifice, in fact, does not make the infinite finite or mean there is indeed a finite, but rather is the very nature of the infinite in the infinity of its infiniteness. Our expansion to infinity is the expression of its own infinitude. It is so incredibly beautiful it brings tears to the eyes of yogis.

35) How can yoga teachers in Australia contribute to the development of yoga as a spiritual discipline?

The single most important ingredient is to practice yoga and develop the nonfinite avenue to knowledge by stilling the breath and mastering the senses. Everything follows from that discipline. By being exemplars of yoga, yoga will flourish. It is the dearth of exemplars of self-realization that not only bodes poorly for yoga, but for human progress.

36) How can yoga maintain its integrity as it changes?

By and large, the disseminators of yoga have not maintained its integrity in the East or West. The case may be a little better in the West (most people romantically think the East is a bastion of spirituality, while nothing could be farther from the truth) but yoga’s falling began long before any of us were born, long before the 20th century for that matter. The Dark Ages did yoga and a lot of other sciences in. We are now, in this evolving age, reacquiring the taste for questions and scholarship is far more irreverent than it ever was, but we still have a long way to go before we shake off the ignorance of the past. Built into yoga was its foolproof test for infinite self-knowledge: yoga power. An entire chapter of the Yoga Sutra was dedicated to this subject for no other purpose other than to keep the student of yoga honest. Of course, few today consider that knowledge is power, or that yogic states must have tests. And where nonfinite power is lacking, our mystification of our teachers and gurus provides plenty of subjective proof of their unity with the infinite. We glorify those with whom we identify in a cheap attempt at glorifying ourselves. The result is the perpetuation of ignorance. This state of affairs can be corrected by asking the hard questions – the questions that our self-defensive denial do not want to hear. As members of the cult of our own selves, we have an obligation to break free of that cult and worship a larger identity. The questions are within us.

37) It would surprise most spiritually inclined Westerners to hear that the East is not more spiritually inclined than the West.

Most of the masterpiece books read by Westerners that come from the East are centuries if not millennia old. Western books written by Easterners living in the West are in abundance, and most are trash repeating Dark Age beliefs. Simply ask yourself: where is there a truly original and revolutionary spirituality emerging from the East? Everything written is simply repeating what has been said for ages. These authors are all coasting, and they know it. Yoga teachers there have no self-knowledge but are there for the tourists. We have Disney Land, and they have ashrams. Both are rides that take you nowhere. Iyengar’s novelties that he brought to yoga, if you absolutely insist on calling it that, are laughable. Then, any book that is 90% postures has a lot of nerve calling itself Light on Yoga. And yet he dedicates the book with a straight face to Patanjali, who would be rolling in his grave at the thought of a book like that. Pranayama is largely unknown in India. It is largely poor, dirty, crowded, corrupt, uneducated, materialistic, and full of backwards attitudes, superstition, and unearned pride. If it did not have it’s ancient texts, which if anything gives India license to house more quacks than one planet could possibly ever need, it would have what it is attempting to excel in at this very moment. It is home to a lot of educated and intelligent people, too, but by in large self-mastery is no longer part of its culture. The elite want to move in the direction of Western values, though with their own cultural twist. As far as its wandering ascetics, assuming they aren’t on drugs, I’ve spoken to sadhus in the Himalayas who couldn’t tell pranayama from a mango. Save your money that you’d spend on a ticket, if learning yoga is the exclusive purpose of your travel. If you must mystify a peoples or a place, it might as well be your own hometown.

38) What do you mean by yoga power?

Knowledge is power, and nonfinite self-knowledge must come with nonfinite power. Without yogic power, yoga knowledge is a sham. And if there is no yoga knowledge that cannot be known via the senses, then we might as well venerate the people with greater material knowledge, meaning scientists, because all those gurus are grafts onto society, feeding on the vulnerable who prefer to see holiness in the exotic. The third chapter of the Yoga Sutra was not dedicated to yoga power for any other reason but the mental health of the yoga student in the avoidance of delusions of grandeur. It is not there for followers of gurus because yogic powers can be faked, or at least some can, and believers will interpret commonplace events as miraculous in the presence of their cult leader in an effort to protect the narrow self from doubts. Yogic power proves nothing because the avenues used to witness events are still finite, so yogis do not display them. They are for the sincere student to test his or her own abilities. So-called gurus should apply them as well, and in so doing get a hit of realism and perhaps seek another profession.

39) Why do you say that yogic states must have tests?

States must have tests. Without tests of a state, students will call their states whatever they feel like. Yoga then becomes another free-for-all instead of a science. The tests of states make it a science, and a very challenging one to measure against. That is the way it should be, and so-called yogis that don’t like or agree are better calling themselves gymnasts or counsellors or performance trainers or cult leaders or best of all, unemployed.