Hatha Yoga and the Bhagavad-gita
by Steven J. Rosen
Article courtesy of BTG International Magazine - based in Florida, USA
In sutra 3.2, for example, we learn that dhyana, or meditation, is the one-pointed continuous movement of the mind toward a single object. But Patanjali’s technique can be used for concentration on any object, not just on God. And even though he tells his readers the point of his sutras—to get closer to God—one may be tempted to use his methods for selfish ends, as he says later in the text. Ultimately, one-pointed concentration is for focusing on God, though it’s not until one graduates to the Bhagavad-gita that one clearly learns how to do this.
As Professor Edwin Bryant points out in his excellent article “Patanjali’s Theistic Preference, Or, Was the Author of the Yoga-sutras a Vaishnava?”1 Patanjali was trying to gear his diverse audience toward the worship of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, even if he was doing so in a roundabout way. Much like today, many forms of religion beleaguered the India of his time; practitioners worshiped numerous aspects of the Supreme. Consequently, he opted for a stepwise approach in his Yoga-sutras that he believed would accommodate his varied audience.
Still, he asserts that the ultimate object of meditation is Ishvara, which means “controller” and generally refers to God. Although there are many controllers and many forms of the Godhead,Bhagavad-gita (18.61) says that the ultimate ishvara is Krishna. Other texts tell us this as well. Consider the ancient Brahma-samhita (5.1):
anadir adir govindah
“Krishna, who is known as Govinda, is the Supreme Godhead [ishvarah-paramah]. He has an eternal blissful spiritual body. He is the origin of all. He has no other origin, and He is the prime cause of all causes.”
Patanjali advises his audience to choose an ishta-devata, a deity of their choice. His reasoning is transparent: He is trying to teach a method of meditation, and learning this method is easiest if one practices on a subject close to one’s heart.
Did Patanjali have Krishna in mind when he outlined the yoga process and its goal of love of God? For one learned in the Vedic literature, it is obvious that the answer is yes. In the words of Edwin Bryant:
Krishna is … promoted by the Gita as possessing all the … qualities listed by Patanjali as pertaining to ishvara, namely, being transcendental to karma, of unsurpassed omniscience, teacher of the ancients, untouched by Time, represented by om, and awarding enlightenment. Krishna is not touched or bound by karma (Gita, IV.14, IX.9), and, in terms of omniscience, he is the beginning, middle and end of all (X.20 & 32), who pervades the entire universe with but a single fragment of himself (X.42). Krishna taught the ancients (here specified as Vivasvan, the sun god, who in turn imparted knowledge to Manu, the progenitor of mankind [IV.1]) and is himself Time (X.30 & 33; XI.32). He is also the syllable om (IX.17). And, of course, Krishna assures his devotees that he will free them from the snares of this world such that they attain the supreme goal (IX.30-32; X.X; VIII. 58). There is thus perfect compatibility between Patanjali’s unnamed ishvara and Krishna as depicted in the Gita.2
The commentarial tradition of the Yoga-sutras bears this out. Patanjali’s major commentators were Vyasa (fifth century CE, not to be confused with the compiler of the Vedic literature), Vachaspati Misra (ninth century CE), Bhoja Raja (eleventh century CE), and Vijnanabhiksu (sixteenth century CE). All identify the ishvara of the Yoga-sutras with Vishnu or Krishna and show how the Bhagavad-gita expresses the culmination of all Vedic wisdom relating to yoga.
The Gita’s Eight Limbs
The Bhagavad-gita addresses all eight limbs of raja-yoga, the form of yoga popular today as ashtanga yoga or hatha yoga.3 For example, yama, the first limb, consists of five ethical principles: truthfulness, continence, nonviolence, non covetousness, and abstention from stealing. These fundamental disciplines of yoga are mentioned in the Gita, as is niyama, the second limb, which consists of things like worship, cleanliness, contentment, austerity, and self-reflection.
Now, the third limb of Patanjali’s method, asana, is less obvious in the Gita. The term asana appears infrequently on Lord Krishna’s lips. But when it does, it refers to “the place where one sits for spiritual practice.” The Gita does not give tips on sitting postures. Its Sixth Chapter, though, comes close. Verses 11 and 12 state: “To practice yoga, one should go to a secluded place and should lay kusha grass on the ground and then cover it with a deerskin and a soft cloth. The seat [asana] should be neither too high nor too low and should be situated in a sacred place. The yogi should then sit on it very firmly and practice yoga to purify the heart by controlling his mind, senses, and activities and fixing the mind on one point.”
Here Krishna uses the word asana in a general rather than technical sense. He is talking about sitting to focus the mind.
It’s easy to lose focus, and that’s basically Arjuna’s argument against hatha yoga. In fact, Patanjali himself identifies nine obstacles on the path: doubt, disease, lethargy, mental laziness, false perception, lack of enthusiasm, clinging to sense enjoyment, lack of concentration, and losing concentration. His commentators list several others as well, including inordinate attraction to yogic powers, a misconceived view of meditation, oversimplification of yoga’s eight limbs, and irregularity of practice. All of these problems are traceable to the difficult nature of Patanjali’s method and are why Arjuna views hatha yoga as virtually impossible. By the end of the Sixth Chapter he denounces it as too difficult. Krishna agrees, telling Arjuna that the ultimate yogi always thinks of God. He further tells him that such meditation is real yoga, implying that using one’s body and mind in Krishna’s service is the perfect asana.