Is Yoga non-dual?

by Dr. Kausthub Desikachar

Non-dualism is a branch of Vedanta philosophy that was propagated primarily by the great Adi-Sankara, who synthesised the essence of many preceding scholars and systematised it as the Advaita-vedanta system. So great was Sankara's influence that succeeding philosophers had to refute his views in order to establish their own schools of thinking. Most notable among these teachers are Ramanujacarya, who established the Visista-advaita-vedanta (qualified non-dualism) and Madhvacarya, who founded the school called Dvaita-vedanta (dualism). Despite this, Advaita-vedanta is currently considered the most influential and dominant school of Vedanta, and has found followers all the world. 

It is imperative to understand that Vedanta is only one among the 6 principle philosophical schools. Mimamsa, Nyaya, Vaisesikha, Samkhya and Yoga being the others. Among these Vedanta became the most prominent and well established system. This can be attributed to two reasons. One is that the first master to propound the school of Vedanta is none other than the great Veda Vyasa, who is considered the most prominent teacher of Vedic culture. Secondly the different Vedanta schools of Advaita, Visista-advaita and Dvaita, were powerful in their influence of philosophical thinking of the time, since they too were propagated by strong Acaryas (preceptors). It is no surprise hence that there are more well known Acaryas of Vedanta philosophy than the other schools. Even though many scholars and teachers existed who were experts in multiple schools of thought, they often identified themselves primarily through their allegiance to the Vedanta system. 

Through the course of Indian history different masters have tried to establish their view of thinking, by interpreting past teachings through the prism of the philosophy they practice. Being the most popular, it is no surprise that Advaita-vedanta masters have been the most prolific commentators on the Darsanas. 

The Yogasutras of Patanjali too has been commented upon by numerous Advaitins, most notably by Sankara himself through a work titled 'Sankara Vivarana'. This apart the great Adi Sankara also composed other works on Yoga titled 'Yogataravali' and 'Aparoksanubhuti', which are essentially Yoga texts from the point of view of non-dualism. Many other significant contributions came from later Advaitins, who not only commented on the Yogasutra-s, but also composed their own treatises based on the Advaita principle. 

Thus the influence of Advaita-vedanta on the field of Yoga gained significant prominence and has lasted till the current day. Today there are numerous practitioners who identify themselves as belonging to the Advaita school of Yoga. 

But is Yoga indeed non-dual? 

Is the teachings of Sankara consistent with that of Patanjali? Or was it that Sankara also utilised the discipline of Yoga to promote the school that he intended to establish? 

Although there can be many more, three strong arguments are presented here for investigating into this question.

Firstly, the fundamental tenet of Advaita philosophy is that it is only Brahman (supreme principle) that is real, and everything else is illusory. Further there is no difference between the Jiva (individual principle) and the Brahman. This is succinctly summarised by Sankara in his text called Vivekacudamani - 'Brahmaiva satyam jagat mithya, jivo brahmaiva naparah' which roughly translates to 'Brahman is the only truth, the world is unreal, and there is ultimately no difference between Brahman and Jiva.'

So according to this view, only the supreme principle. All other objects are false or illusory. However Patanjali's point of view is fundamentally different. Both the Samkhya and Yoga systems very much accept the concept of vastu-tantra (material reality). In fact Patanjali even provides a sutra that defines of how the reality of an object is defined - 'parinamaikatvat vastu tattvam', which translates in the following manner - 'An object has a [particular] reality because of the uniqueness of change.'

Secondly, Advaita's purport that there is no ultimate difference between Brahman and the individual self is also differing from that of Patanjali's system. In Patanjali's school there are three unique entities - Prakrti (matter), Purusa (Individual Consciousness) and Isvara (Supreme Consciousness). And each of these have a unique role and function. So the view that there is no difference between Jiva (also known as purusa) and Brahman is  not consistent with Patanjali's thinking.   

Thirdly, a very significant point of Sankara is that Brahman is nirguna, or devoid of attributes. So when worshipping or meditating on Brahman he proposes a the path of nirguna-dhyana. However, from a careful analysis of Yoga Darsana, it is clear that Patanjali is presenting an Isvara with attributes. Patanjali presents three sutras that define Isvara through the attributes of being free from affliction (Klesa), being the seed of all knowledge, and being the timeless teacher. Further, he also presents that when meditating on this Isvara, we doing it through mantra visualising the attributes. This is made clear through the sutra 'tad japan tadartha bhavanam', which is translated as 'The systematic repetition of this [mantra] is accompanied by a profound meditation on its meaning/attributes.' 

These are three strong arguments that firmly establish that the Yoga path of Patanjali is definitely not non-dual. Hence attempts to establish non-dualism in Yoga is definitely taking Yoga away from its defining principles.

An after thought may occur to many, as to whether Sankara was wrong. It would be unadvisable to think so. Rather it quite probable that Sankara was taking every opportunity to promote the school he advocated and hence found ways to bring this thinking into the work he composed. Hence when we bring in the Advaita pricinples into Yoga, it would be fair to say that it is no more Yoga. But rather its Advaita-vedanta. 

But to argue that Yoga is non-dual would definitely not be a fair estimate to the value of Patanjali's teaching.