Yoga Mimamsa

: 2021  |  Volume : 53  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 31--34

The ideal yogi: A man without qualities

Tommaso Bianchi 
 Yoga Teachers Trainer of the School for Yoga Teachers of Metamorfosys Association, Via XXX Ottobre 19, Trieste, Italy

Correspondence Address:
Tommaso Bianchi
Via Della Tesa 20, 34138 Trieste


Introduction: The comparison between East and West can be played at different levels. At a religious level, we find numerous analogies. On a more cultural level, we may detect more differences than identities. Culture in the West has long been represented by literature. Perhaps, it is to the latter that Westerners have entrusted the expression of their ideal of man. It may therefore be interesting to make comparisons with the figure of the ideal yogi as it was outlined in India. Materials and Methods: On the one hand, some recent masters and some older texts on yoga have been examined and compared with some European writers, as far as they say about the ideal of man. Results: We found that the Western man, in XIX and XX centuries, has gone through a crisis. This crisis does not seem to have touched Indian thought, at least as far as yoga is concerned. The ideal of the yogi in India has withstood the blows of criticism to which the concept of ego in the West has been subjected. Discussion: While in the West, the ego was considered as a sovereign that performs acts of government and when it fails, a crisis occurs, in yoga, the ahaṃkāra is an aspect that must be transcended in the direction of a further development of the self. These differences in the conception of ego may partially explain the success and spread of yoga in the West.

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What is the ideal of person to which the teaching of yoga aims? Is yoga limited to training people free from small physical ailments, calm, and able to positively face everyday existence, as it is understood today in the common opinion of the West? It would already be a great achievement for a humanity suffering from a general crisis of adaptation to face the growing globalization. Adaptation crisis that is tangible in the exponential increase in pathologies is detected by physical and mental health operators. However, the masters of India teach us that yoga is not just this. Sri Aurobindo (1872–1950), in the last century, warned us that we are not the last link in the chain of evolution, but that man is a being in transition in the race to achieve his own divinization. On the same wave, we find Paramahamsa Yogananda (1893–1952), who claimed to teach a method to become increasingly capable of receiving, in body and soul, the very powerful divine energy. He too claimed that there was a natural evolution, although it was far slower than that obtainable with yogic practice. Yogi Bhajan (1929–2004) pursued the ideal of forming healthy and happy people, yes, but also saints. Bhakti yogis such as Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), Śrīla Prabhupāda (1896–1977), and today, Paramahamsa Vishwananda (1978) show us in the loving fusion with God the point of arrival of our research.

Swami Kuvalayananda (1883–1966), prophetically, founded this journal in 1924. Its purpose was to publish studies that scientifically tested the beneficial effects of yoga, thus creating a bridge between East and West. It was an era in which the scientific method was making room in the West. Like any novelty, this method, which had its foundations already in the period of the enlightenment, claimed to make a clean sweep of previous knowledge, branding it as irrational and, ultimately, useless to increase knowledge. Today, we know that this is not the case. People from India have arrived in the West who have helped to re-evaluate the interest in spirituality in the noble attempt to respond to the discontent deriving from the insensitivity of science toward the highest yearnings of the human being. The aforementioned Yogananda and Prabhupāda spoke of a science of God, without which life is meaningless, and they have been listened to, as proof of the thirst for the divine that still resides in Western hearts. The encounter with the East in general and India in particular has also stimulated Westerners to re-evaluate their own tradition, religious, and spiritual, and to make comparisons on this ground as well. A scholar who followed this last path having a good following was the French René Guénon (1886-1951) who, in particular in his books “Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines” (Guénon, 1921) and “Man and His Becoming according to the Vedanta” (Guénon, 1925), offered Westerners the rudiments to understand the Hindu tradition, underlining its analogies with the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic tradition.

The West has a lot to offer regarding reflection on the human being. At the beginning of the Jewish-Christian Bible, considered a sacred book also by Islam, it is explained how man is originally “composed:” “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being (soul)” (The Holy Bible. Genesis 2, 7). Several other books of the Bible provide meditations on human nature such as the book of Psalms (8, 3-5), where the author says: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, / the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, / what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?/You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor.” A systematic discussion of what man is for the West would require a study dedicated to it and it would already be little, so we will focus only on two authors.

The Russian writer Fëdor Dostoevskij (1821–1881) expresses significant words on the ideal of man when in a letter to his poet friend Apollon Nikolaevic Majkov (1821–1897) he presents what will be the protagonist of his novel “The idiot” (1867–1869): “An idea had tormented me for some time, but I was afraid of making a novel out of it, because it is too difficult an idea and I am not prepared for it, even if it is extremely seductive and I love it. This idea is to portray an absolutely good man. In my opinion, nothing can be more difficult than this, especially nowadays” (Dostoevskij, 1867). The ideal of man pursued in the novel is that, updated and Christianized, of the ancient Greek καλοκαγαθία (kalokagathìa), whose meaning is “good and beautiful”. Dostoevskij substitutes the Greek term kalokagathìa with the Russian term prekrasnyj, which can be translated both by “good” and “beautiful”. In another letter, Dostoevsky will specify his intention to throw a 19th-century Jesus Christ into the protagonist, Prince Lev Nikolàevič Myškin (Dostoevskij, 1968).

Among other relatively recent writers, we mention the Austrian Robert Musil (Klagenfurt 1880-Geneva 1942) who, in the title of his most famous novel, “Man without qualities,” seems to echo that adjective nirguṇa that Vedanta attributes to the highest Brahman, but which in reality is much more historicized, as it refers to the decadent man who repudiates the previous bourgeois society and its values (Musil, 1930–1943).

Between the end of the 19th century and along the entire course of the 20th century, the decline of Western civilization and its culture – based on a unitary and rational vision of reality, on the myth of the positive objectivity of knowledge and of man as a cohesive subject that governs and regulates itself and the world around it – is consumed. This period, known as decadence and as an epoch of crisis, is represented in all its cracks and problems by many literary works, among which the novel “Man without qualities” by Robert Musil stands out for its depth and analytical clarity. Remained unfinished and divided into three volumes, the first two were published respectively in 1930 and 1933, the third posthumously in 1943. In this “encyclopedia” of 20th-century decadentism and nihilism, certain themes dominate closely linked to the decline of a vision of the world and of man full of omens and solicitations of a spiritual and mystical nature. The work is a philosophical and anthropological manifesto of the dissolution of the ego and its possibilities of relating to other egos and things in a logical, unitary way, expressable with language. Although the novel, set in turn-of-the-century Vienna caught in a culminating moment such as the eve of the celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph, does not have a narrative center, nevertheless, the main spokesperson for the crisis of the ego understood as a unitary and transparent agglomeration of moral, spiritual, intellectual, and pragmatic qualities (attributes), is the character of Ulrich, the man without qualities of the title. “The ego – Musil writes in the book, speaking of the “protagonist” – loses the sense it has had so far, of a sovereign who performs acts of government” (Musil, 2014, p. 538). Ulrich himself, in the course of his meditations, to express his condition of unstoppable dissolution of everything that has always been understood as an ego endowed with objectivable and dominable attributes/qualities, gives voice to this process by transposing it into a linguistic and grammatical metaphor. He understands reality “as a task and an invention” to which the indicative is no longer suitable but the subjunctive which is the mode of possibility and not of given and unchangeable reality. The man without qualities who elects the subjunctive as his identity code “does not say, for instance: Here this or that has happened, will happen, must happen. He uses his imagination and says: Here such and such might, should or ought to happen. (…) Such possibilitarians live, it is said, within a finer web, a web of haze, imaginings, fantasy and the subjunctive mood” (Musil, 2014, p. 13). Ulrich, whose friend Walter, to say the lack of a substance and a defined identity, says that his fundamental characteristic is to devote all his strength and his will only to things that are not necessary, he gradually empties himself, deconstructs himself, breaks down, and falls apart, experiencing the loss of all qualities in a totalizing way. Even if the register adopted by Musil is not tragic but ironic, Ulrich places himself in an endless process of despoiling quality and floats in this continuum without center and without direction, which in the great religions or mystical currents is precisely the first step – the annulment of the only illusory qualities/attributes of ego at the helm of itself – of a path of liberation and spiritual elevation that culminates in the ecstasy and fullness of one's being. Only in the Fragments left by Musil as possible endings of the unfinished novel, Ulrich together with his twin sister Agathe glances beyond this loss of center and this taking leave of any form of knowledge and grip on reality. Beauty, which man perceives only as a fragment of a whole – the curve which is a beautiful form only because it is part of a circle, an image of perfection – calls him toward other horizons, which nevertheless remain indefinite and unattainable, confused and elusive promises, to which the ego without qualities cannot access. Everything moves away, fades, and gets lost in Musil's novel: the historical reality, the characters, their actions, the environment, the projects, the great ideals, and passions. However, pars destruens, necessary in every path of initiation, is not followed by pars construens, reason why it could be said that decadence was not only dissolution and loss, crisis and nihilism, but the first step in a path of enlightenment that remained unfinished. The Ego, transfixed from a monolithic entity to a momentary aggregation and in continuous becoming of many crazy atoms, takes the first initiatory step which is the stripping of every attribute/quality, but it stops here and remains in a state of endless suspension to which Western culture has offered as a remedy, on the one hand, the opium of activism and on the other, the eternal narration and research of psychoanalysis.

In addition to religion and literature, also philosophy, European and American, is full of models of man and, more recently, even international law, with its declarations on human rights, has expressed its point of view. Then, there are the different theories developed by psychology and medicine. They are models that change over the course of various historical periods and often several different models coexist in the same period. Then, today, we are faced with the not inconsiderable models offered on the one hand by pedagogy, the art of building the man of tomorrow, and on the other by the mass media in general and more particularly by cinema. In the present, in which the values of democracy and freedom are pursued, numerous different models of man seem to coexist: almost a supermarket in which everyone is free to stock up on the goods that most attract him in building his own identity.

But let's get back to yoga. India does not seem to have gone through the crisis of the West that Musil embodied in his character. But does the perfect yogi, as described by the founding texts of this discipline, represent a universal model of man that can be proposed in our times? The aforementioned René Guénon teaches us that true metaphysics is timeless, in the sense that it does not change historically. What was true in the time of the Vedas is also true today. It is up to man, always fallen, to rise again to the level of the teachings offered. According to his perspective, therefore, Patanjali's Yoga Sūtra, and even more so the Vedas themselves, remains to this day very valid as an expression of a timeless truth. Moreover, in the Hindu sphere, this is true of all six orthodox darśana.

“The kaivalya comes when the yogi has realized the puruṣārtha, the four purposes of life, and has transcended the guṇa. Purposes and guṇa return to their source, and consciousness settles in its natural purity.” This is the conclusion of Patañjali's Yoga Sūtra (I century BCE-V century CE) (Iyengar, 2002). Iyengar comments: “When freedom is achieved, the limiting qualities of consciousness and nature cease to exist. At this point in the journey, the yogi realizes that the seeker, the seer and the instrument used to recognize the seer are ātman. This absoluteness of consciousness is none other than the seer, who has now stabilized himself in his true nature. This is kaivalyāvasthā” (Iyengar, 2002).

In another text of the yoga tradition, Yoga Yājñavalkya (IV century CE) attributed to the sage of the same name, yoga is thus simply defined: “Yoga is said to be the union of the individual (jīvātmā) and the supreme self (divine or paramātmā)” (Mohan & Mohan, 2013). From this, it follows that the perfect yogi will be the one who has achieved the union of his self with God, that is, who has managed to overcome his own finite, determined individual characteristics by merging, like the river into the ocean, in universality, in infinity, and in the indeterminacy (the neti neti of Advaita Vedānta) of the Brahman (Ātman = Brahman).

From this simple comparison between two texts of the yoga tradition, we can already experience that unity of purpose of all six Hindu darśana. Here, in particular, we see how Yoga darśana has a strong analogy with Vedanta darśana. Although in fact Yoga and Samkhya stop at the study of man, they nevertheless indicate that the purpose of the latter is, in the final analysis, the same as that of Vedānta, that is, fusion with God. It may be interesting to note that Patañjali places the realization of the kaivalya at the end of the life cycle. First one must realize the puruṣārtha, the four purposes of life: kāma, artha, dharma, and mokṣa. Then, the yogi can walk toward Brahman. The yogi would therefore not be a misfit mystic, self-exiled from the concreteness of the world, but a man with roots firmly planted in the earth and branches and leaves reaching toward the sky. And, on the other hand, he would not even be a man devoid of morals, understood in the sense of right behavior, of adherence to the dharma, such as the one taken as a model of marginal and extremist philosophical traditions that see in the liberation from ethics the end of liberation. This approach, on the other hand, is confirmed at the beginning of the work when Patañjali places the prohibitions and precepts of yama and niyama as the basis of the building, or roots of the tree, of yoga, which curiously correspond to all “Commandments” of the great religions.

But let's move on. From another perspective, Svātmārāma concludes his Haṭhayoga Pradīpikā (15th century) in the following way: “As long as the Prāṇa does not enter and flow into the middle channel and the Bindu does not become firm by the control of the movements of the Prāṇa, as long as the mind does not assume the form of Brahma without any effort in contemplation, so long all the talk of knowledge and wisdom is merely the nonsensical babbling of a mad man” (Svātmārāma, 2009). Here, the specificity of haṭhayoga is stated, which insists more on the aspect of practice, an insistence absent in more philosophical texts. However, in the passages preceding the one quoted, the author gives a description of the yogi in samādhi which, in other words, confirms what Patanjali said about unhooking from the guṇa. It should then be noted that, although haṭhayoga represents the technical part of the doctrine rather than the sapiential or ethical one, nevertheless, the Haṭhayoga Pradīpikā shows, at the beginning, to take for granted the yama and niyama recommended by Patañjali, confirming the fact that haṭhayoga represents rather a deepening of particular aspects than an alternative to rājayoga. The same approach appears in the Gheraṇḍa Saṃhitā (16th–17th century): it too concludes, as a tradition, with a chapter on samādhi, realized which the yogi can say is perfect (Gheraṇḍa, 2009). A little more complex is the ending of the Śiva Saṃhitā (17th–18th century), in which the author lists the impediments to enlightenment (Unknown Author, 2009). The first are enjoyments, among which even family ties play a negative role. Then come the impediments deriving from religious practice. Thus, we learn that the yogi can find an obstacle even in excessive piety and observance of the ritual prescriptions. Finally, there are even the impediments represented by the knowledge (and practice) of particular yogic techniques, such as: “Sitting in the Gomukha posture and practising Dhauti… trying to awaken the Kuṇḍalīnī-power by moving quickly the belly…and knowledge of the action of the Nāḍīs…” However, particular food practices are also not recommended, such as the use of potions and even some meditation on Brahman: “Brahman is in the body or is the maker of form, or has a form, or has no form, or is everything – all these consoling doctrines are obstacles. Such notions are impediments in the shape of Jñāna.”

The author goes on to list the four types of yoga and the ideal students, then deals with pratīkopāsana (the invocation of the shadow), the nāda (mystical sound), the different types of dhāraṇā, the seven cakra, the three sacred rivers, the moon of mystery, and the mystical Mount Kailāsa to finally arrive at that definition of yogi which is the object of our study: “When the modifications of the mind are suspended, then one certainly becomes a Yogī; then is known the blemishless Supreme Being having the form of indivisible Gnosis.” It is a perfect resumption of the beginning of Patañjali's Yoga Sūtra (”Yoga is the extinction of the fluctuations of consciousness”), followed by the continuous practice of the secret mantra, to conclude as follows: “Living in the house amidts wife and children, but being free from attachment to them, practising Yoga in secrecy, a householder even finds marks of success (slowly crowning his effort), and thus following this teaching of mine, he ever lives in blissful happiness.”

From this brief excursus, comes out a detached and happy yogi, and happy because detached. He has quieted his mind from its wandering and fixation, and he may be well inserted in any context of life. But let's take a few steps back, where we find more enthusiastic definitions of the yogi's model. The Yogatattva Upaniṣad dates from around 150 AD., and is part of the so-called Upaniṣad on yoga (Anonimous, 1938). It presents a theistic perspective in which the God Viṣṇu himself plays the most important role and acts as a model. In conclusion, in verses 129–130 of 144, the author says: “After that will be attained Raja-yoga and not surely without that. When all actions are completed along with the Raja-yoga, then will surely be generated in the Yogin detachment out of discrimination. The great Yogin, the great devotee and the great Sage of the name of Vishnu, the most exalted Purusha stands manifest as a beacon-light in the path of Truth.”

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.[13]


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