The aim and practice of Yoga: Yoga etymologically
As Yoga etymologically denotes union or, in other words, the merger of the embodied individual soul with the all-pervading Isvara or Brahman, it follows that every practice or method, whether adopted singly or in combination with others, which tends to bring about this fusion can be called Yoga. For this reason Bhagavad Gita, Puranas, and other books mention various forms of Yoga: Dhyana-Yoga, Karma-Yoga, Jnana-Yoga, Mantra-Yoga, Laya-Yoga, Bhakti-Yoga, Hatha-Yoga, Surta-SabdaYoga, etc.
The system adumbrated by Patanjali is sometimes called Raja-Yoga in contradistinction to Mantra-Yoga and Hatha-Yoga of the Tantras.
Several of the methods used in one form of Yoga are more or less common to other forms also, with more emphasis on this or that practice than on others.
Since every form of Yoga is designed to lead to moksa (liberation) on attainment of knowledge of the self it follows that cittavrtti nirodhah (restraint of the fluctuations of the mind-stuff) is not the only way to attain the unitive state but that it can be obtained, perhaps more easily and with greater fulfillment, through other paths, such as the path of bhakti (devotion), jnana (intuitive knowledge), karma (religious observances with selfless action), and upasana (constant devout thought of the Deity) also.
Purity of mind, detachment, self-discipline, and chastity are the common ingredients necessary to be acquired on any of these paths. That the goal of all forms of Yoga is the same is asserted by the Gita (xiii.24 and 25) in these words: “Some by meditation behold the Self in themselves with the help of pure reason, others by proceeding along the path of knowledge and others, again, by treading the path of action. Others, however, not knowing this, take to worship (upasana) by hearing from others, and they, too, who are thus intent on hearing, transcend death.” From this it is clear that all forms of Yoga ultimately lead to a state of inner illumination.
This point is further clarified in the Gita (V.5), while discussing the relative merits of Sankhya and Yoga schools of self-discipline:
“The supreme state which is attained by Sankhya is also reached by Yoga. He who sees that Sankhya and Yoga are one really sees.”
The implication of the synthesis, attempted in Bhagavad-Gita, is obvious. To the casual observer it merely signifies that all paths ultimately lead to God. For the common man the same view is also expressed in Gita (iv.II): “By whatsoever path men approach me even so do I meet them, for all men follow My path from all sides.”
For an earnest seeker, however, who wishes to go to the root of the matter, this position gives rise to a host of problems which must be answered if Yoga is to be made acceptable to the modern highly sophisticated intellect.
If constant practice of meditation in a fixed posture with regulated breathing (pranayama) and eyes fixed on the tip of the nose or the place between the eyebrows, can lead to the same supersensory state, after years of hard endeavour, to which mere repetition of the name of the Lord or the mantra “Om” without a regular posture or pranayama, or mere singing the praises of God in a devotional frame of mind, or pure intellectual deliberation on the Real and the Unreal, or simple performance of daily work in a spirit of dedication, or any other act of worship can pave the way, it undeniably signifies that the conventional techniques of Yoga are not the only means to gain access to higher states of consciousness or to the occult areas of the mind. On the other hand, it shows that there are varying states and varying degrees of responsiveness in the minds of the seekers.
This accounts for the diverse nature of the methods, some easy and some difficult, that must be adopted, according to the aptitude and the state of development of each seeker, in order to lead to a successful conclusion of the endeavour.
The modern books on Yoga, presenting a stereotyped version of the Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali or of Hatha-Yoga, as propounded in the ancient manuals on the subject, have been instrumental in creating a wrong impression, especially in the West, that the practices enjoined in these systems induce a special psycho-mental condition, by the elimination of sensory impressions and thought, in which the spirit, liberated from these fetters, perceives its own glorious, ever blissful and immortal nature. If it is accepted that a transcendent state of consciousness can proceed only from the suppression of the activity of the mind, and by completely shutting out stimuli coming from the senses, the question immediately arises as to how, in that case, does the same state of transcendence supervene in the case of a Bakhta (devotee) or a Karma-Yogi (man of selfless action), who merely adores the Lord in his heart or surrenders all his actions to Him? In such cases as well as in that of the illuminati who possess the condition from birth, the higher state of consciousness can manifest itself, and has indeed manifested itself on occasions, without the arduous mental training and rigid disciplines of regimented Yoga. This is an enigma hard to explain in the light of the current psychological explanations offered for the final state of Samadhi attained by Yoga. However difficult it may be to solve the riddle, the fact remains that in all authoritative canonical books and other spiritual literature of the Hindus the equality of opportunity for the attainment of the highest state to all the aspirants, namely, the orthodox Yogi, the man of dedicated action, the devotee, the discriminating intellectual and the man of unwavering faith and piety, has been unreservedly guaranteed.
This possibility is recognized clearly by Patanjali in Sutra I of the fourth book of his Yoga Sutras wherein he says: “Siddhis (psychic powers and perfection) proceed from birth or from drugs or from spells (mantras) or from austerity or samadhi.” This aphorism plainly signifies that the siddhis resulting from concentration and samadhi, gained through the methods advocated by him, are naturally present in some men at birth or can be attained by the use of certain drugs or by spells or austerity (tapas). In this way Patanjali has equated the possession of psychic powers and mystical faculties, exhibited by some individuals as a natural endowment at birth, and the trancelike states, caused by certain drugs or by the casting of spells or by fasting and other forms of austerity, with the Siddhis proceeding from samadhi and the long, elaborate course of self-discipline and concentration prescribed by him.
Critically examined this passage is of tremendous significance. If drugs and spells can bestow the same intuitive state of knowledge and the same psychic gifts as result from the extremely arduous discipline of Yoga, leading to cessation of karma and to liberation, the ultimate goal of all yogic disciplines, it means that potions and charms can be as effective in cutting asunder the veil of maya and the fetters of karma as all the virtues demanded and the difficult efforts required in the practice of Yoga for many years—self-sacrifice, devotion, and righteousness—all dedicated to God.
Such an idea would, no doubt, strike those who believe in the infallibility of divine justice as most revolting. It would equate the mescaline addict, sunk in sensuality, with the mystic and the saint whose immaculate life has been one long sacrifice to a holy cause.
Obviously there is a veil of mystery surrounding the entire subject. This prevents us from probing more deeply into the inner recesses of the spirit in order to reconcile the striking anomalies which bewilder those who would like to have a rational explanation for the varied phenomena attending spiritual unfoldment, in order to obliterate their doubts.