Monday, November 17, 2008

yoga , vedanta, and the identicality of purusas

One striking difference between the darsanas of yoga (/samkhya) and vedanta is the unity of the consciousness principle in vedanta (i.e., brahman) and its diversity in yoga (the purusas). Why this is so has long been debated, and I have myself thought much about the question. An idea I found in Peter Pesic's book Seeing Double has helped the matter get clearer for me. In trying to make ordinary language sense of quantum physics he invented the term "identicality" for the fact that elementary particles such as electrons are exactly like one another in all ways. As Pesic says, their "species is their individuality," meaning that electron-ness is all that an electron is. The analogy in yoga is to see that purusa-ness is the whole being of any particular purusa, for example "mine." (Of course even to say this is to reveal a profound misunderstanding, as I belong to the purusa and not the reverse. As the texts tell us, purusa is the svamin or "lord.") The consciousness in me is not different in any way from the consciousness in you. But if this is so, why do we say that there are as many purusas as there are persons (linga-sariras)?

The answer has to lie in the fact that spiritual liberation is an individual matter, even though the ultimate reality is in no way individual. For yoga (and samkhya) the path to liberation lies through discriminative awareness of the radical difference between consciousness and its contents. This awareness of difference, paradoxically, brings with it a state of deepening unity (samadhi) within the personality as the grasping and misunderstanding of the ego resolve themselves into a state of apophasis, a via negativa that lives in recognition that "I am not, I have nothing, there is no 'I' in me" (naham na me nasmi, Samkhya Karika 64). Becoming more and more like to the purusa that witnesses its dissolving, this transformed ego is all that defines the purusa as "this" purusa, and (again paradoxically) the more it becomes itself the more it recognizes that this consciousness is and has always been itself.

Yoga is on the surface at least more of a path of sadhana, spiritual work. While there is an implicit guru in yoga (I am referring to the "Lord of Yoga" or yogesvara who is probably understood implicitly as Siva), this is not emphasized. Vedanta, as a form of mimamsa or Veda-based path to enlightenment, teaches that we achieve enlightenment when our inner buddhi (the same faculty as in yoga) is brought to the level of brahman by the guru, or--which is the same thing--by hearing the "great statements" (mahavakyas) at the moment when that buddhi is ripe. My teacher's teacher used to tell a story about a meeting between a highly accomplished yogi and one of his disciples. The yogi said, "the difference between our paths is that we are given a bag of unhulled rice, a bucket of water, and sticks of firewood. We have to hull the rice, light the fire, and cook the rice for ourselves. Your guru puts a cooked ball of rice into your mouth." This expresses the difference between yoga and vedanta succinctly, but it also shows how they are the same. It is the same mouthful of rice, the same nectar of consciousness, that in the end satisfies both disciples.