BOOK REVIEW: Be As You Are ed. by David Godman

Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana MaharshiBe As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi by Ramana Maharshi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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In the early days of yoga, before there was Power Yoga or Yin Yoga — or even Hatha Yoga or Raja Yoga, there were three approaches to yoga. Bhakti yoga was devotional yoga, the yoga of the believers who pursued the path through worship. Karma yoga was the yoga of action: practiced by doing selfless deeds. Jnana yoga, often said to the hardest, was the path of knowledge, and it involved intense study and – in particular – introspective study of the jnani’s own mind. Sri Ramana Maharshi was one of the most well-known Jnana yogis of modern times (he lived from 1879 to 1950.)

This book presents Sri Ramana’s teachings in a question and answer format. The editor, David Godman, begins each chapter with an overview of Ramana’s views on the subject at hand, and he then launches into the Q&A exchange that makes up most of each chapter. The preludes are beneficial not only because they set up the topic, but also because they help separate Ramana’s core beliefs from the way he occasionally explained matters to non-jnani’s or those who weren’t ready to grasp what he believed was the fundamental teaching. (There’s a fair amount of, “Until you realize the self, X is true, but after you achieve self-realization Y will be true.)

Sri Ramana’s central teaching is that the jnani must actively inquire about the nature of the true self (a practice called atma-vichara, or self-inquiry.) As such, the book is organized as a guide to building a practice of self-inquiry.

The book’s 21 chapters are divided among six parts. The first part investigates the self as Sri Ramana refers to it. This isn’t the individual self that one is normally referring to in common speech. Part II is entitled “Inquiry and Surrender” and three out of the four chapters, herein, discuss the process of self-inquiry. Three chapters may sound like a lot, but this practice really is the core of jnana yoga. These chapters not only explain how self-inquiry is done and what it’s supposed to achieve, they also contrast the practice with others that bear a resemblance to atma-vichara, such as reciting “Who am I?” as a mantra, as well as, neti-neti — an exercise in negation in which one considers all the things that aren’t the self (e.g. “I am not my body.” “I am not this thought,” etc.)

Part III is about Gurus and transmission of teachings. It takes on such questions as: is a Guru necessary, and what constitutes a Guru (i.e. must it be a living human? Can it be a book?) The second chapter in this part is about sat-sang, which may be literally translated as “sitting with the guru,” but refers to a kind of transference that flows from being together.

Part IV is on meditation and yoga. Sri Ramana differentiates self-inquiry from meditation, though superficially they seem to be similar activities. He discusses dharana (concentration) and mantras in these chapters as well. One inclusion that may seem unrelated to the general theme is chapter 12, which is about the four-stage model of life called the asramas (student, householder, hermit, ascetic.) The chapter on yoga is about the eight limbs of yoga described by Patanjali, and their relevance to the practice of Jnana yogi. It should be noted that Ramana downplays the importance of these practices to the jnana yogi (a.k.a. Jnani) with the exception of pranayama (breathing exercises.)

Part V discusses samadhi, siddhi (supernormal psychic powers that some yogis believe can be achieved), and other challenges and phenomena that may be experienced during one’s practice of self-inquiry. While superpowers sound cool, Sri Ramana (as well as Patanjali) warned against he pursuit of these abilities as they become distractions from obtaining self-realization.

That last five chapters are grouped under the title of “Theory.” These chapters deal in the big “meaning of life” kind of philosophical questions. Much of these chapters consist of Ramana telling the interviewer to stop over-intellectualizing about obscure philosophical matters and start asking oneself who is asking the question (in other words, get back to self-inquiry and forget about abstract navel-gazing.) At any rate, the questions include: was the universe created, and – if so – how? is reincarnation real? what is the nature of god? is karma real? is free will real? etc. They are fascinating questions, and Ramana offers a few intriguing ideas, but mostly discounts the value of philosophizing.

There are no graphics in this book, but there is a glossary, notes, and a bibliography.

I found this book to be thought-provoking. At times it can be a bit repetitive. The key point that Ramana sought to get across is (in theory, not practice) straightforward. At times it seems like the questioner is badgering the witness because he doesn’t like the answer, such as when Godman wants Sri Ramana to elaborate on the nature of suffering and the need for compassionate acts. Ramana keeps telling Godman to just go back to self-inquiry and all will take care of itself. That said, Sri Ramana offers some fascinating thoughts, and generates beautiful food-for-thought.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who wants to know more about jnana yoga or to get a different take on the philosophy of yoga in general.

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5 Books About the Mental Side of Yoga


5.) Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi: This book, which is presented in Q&A format, explores Sri Ramana’s approach to Jñāna yoga, and explains atma-vichara, the exercise of self-enquiry that Ramana proposed was the key to self-realization.

 

4.) Supernormal by Dean Radin: Okay, this is an unconventional choice for the list but bear with me. (I mostly included it because I like to have an under-the-radar entry in these lists, and this seems like one that could have been missed readers of works on yoga.) Radin is a paranormal researcher who, in this case, has investigated the topic of siddhi, which are the controversial powers that Patanjali discusses in the third section of The Yoga Sutras, but which many deny are real.

 

3.) Sure Ways to Self-Realization by Swami Satyananda Saraswati: This is the Bihar School of Yoga guide to meditation, and it covers both yogic meditation methods and those from other disciplines (e.g. Buddhism, Taoism, Western / scientific [e.g. biofeedback], etc.) By “meditation,” here I mean more than dhyana. This book uses the word in a broader and more colloquial sense that includes some practices that are normally considered pratyahara (withdrawal of senses) or dharana (concentration.)

 

2.) Yoga Nidra by Swami Satyananda Saraswati:  Yoga Nidra (yogic sleep) is a sustained hypnogogic state — i.e. the state of mind on the edge between wakefulness and falling into sleep. It is used both as an intense relaxation exercise as well as to access the subconscious to plant seeds therein.

 

1.) Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: (Sutras by Patanjali with commentary by B.K.S. Iyengar): This isn’t — strictly speaking — only about the mental side of yoga, but, in the Sutras, Patanjali makes clear that yoga is a tool to advance mental calm and clarity. There are many translations and commentaries available. Commentaries are useful because the 196 sutras are extremely sparse. Iyengar’s book is probably one of the most approachable translation / commentaries for a modern reader.

BOOK REVIEW: Jnana Yoga by Swami Vivekananda

Jnana-YogaJnana-Yoga by Swami Vivekananda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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For those for whom the term “Jnana Yoga” is unfamiliar, it’s one of the three original branches of yoga. Jnana yoga is the path of knowledge, which sounds more scholarly than apropos and so maybe the alternative translations of path of self-realization or of wisdom might be more informative. For the most part, Jnana yoga isn’t about reading books and collecting facts, although studying texts is traditionally a part of the approach, it’s more about turning inward and expanding understanding through practice and personal inquiry. The other two branches are bhakti yoga, which is the path of devotion followed by pious true believers, and karma yoga, which is the path of [unselfish] action or charitable work.

This is a hard book to rate. As a book about yoga and the philosophy thereof, I give it four stars and might even give it five in a gleeful moment. However, if I were to rate it as a book specifically on jnana yoga, I’d give it two. The book reads more like a bhakti yogi’s take on jnana yoga than a book on jnana yoga itself. In other words, Swami Vivekananda devotes a lot of space to telling the reader what they should take on faith and relatively little to discussing how one can glean one’s own insight through practice and introspection. I realize that if I were a bhakti yogi, my perspective would be different and I’d likely see the book as insufficient in its efforts to suggest that the reader should sing the praises of the almighty. But I’m not, and I obtained a book entitled “Jnana Yoga” thinking I would learn about the titular subject and so I was a bit disappointed at the approach of the book. There are some insights into jnana yoga here and there, but it’s not the focus. It’s telling that Chapter one is entitled “the necessity of religion” and that it begins by explaining why the existence of God must be taken as axiomatic.

There are sixteen chapters in the book. The general flow goes: a few chapters on “maya” (which is typically translated as illusion / delusion, but which Vivekananda argues is best thought of in a different light, which he goes on to explain in detail), some chapters on the cosmos and its nature, and the last few chapters are on atman (i.e. the self, sometimes translated as “soul.”) It should be said that these topics are consistent with a consideration of jnana yoga. Jnana yogis concern themselves with these big questions such as the nature of reality, the universe, and the self. However, the approach of saying that this is what the Vedas say (and thus it’s the reader’s truth) is inconsistent with the path of the jnana yogi. Swami Vivekananda is clearly highly knowledgeable and he does bring up some thought-provoking approaches. There are occasional errors on matters of science, but one must keep in mind that it was written before the turn of the twentieth century and so the state of knowledge has changed considerably in the intervening years, and so I don’t discount for them — especially, because one is often surprised by the author’s level of understanding of the science.

The book is straight text. The edition that I read had some annotations, but the book neither has nor needs any ancillary material.

My recommendation would be contingent on what the reader is looking for in a book. If one is seeking a general understanding of yogic thought on the nature of reality, the universe, and the nature of self, then this is an insightful book. If, however, one is interested in the path of the jnana yogi and what it entails, I’d suggest you look elsewhere (e.g. Swami Saraswati’s “Sure Ways to Self-Realization.”)

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BOOK REVIEW: An Introduction to Yoga by Annie Besant

An Introduction to YogaAn Introduction to Yoga by Annie Besant

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Given what the word “yoga” brings to mind these days, I’ll first note that this isn’t the book for one who’s looking to improve a stiff downward dog, or even an errant kapalbhati breath. There’s no mention of such physical practices. This is a philosophy book–or theosophy if you want to get technical about it. Besant’s definition of yoga makes this clear, “Yoga is the rational application of the laws of the unfolding of consciousness, self-applied in an individual case.” The book is actually a series of lectures by Besant delivered in 1907 at the 32nd anniversary of the Theosophical Society. If it were being released today it might be called “An Introduction to Yogic Philosophy” or “An Introduction to Jnana Yoga” to avoid confusion. Jnana Yoga is the path of knowledge, as opposed to Karma Yoga (the yoga of action) or Bhakti Yoga (the yoga of devotion,) and it’s Jnana Yoga that’s the focus of this work.

I was ignorant of who Annie Besant was when I read this book. I’d heard of the Theosophical Society, but mainly in the context of being an organization that Jiddu Krishnamurti had been a prominent member of, but then had a falling out with. (Given my respect for—and alignment with– the ideas of Krishnamurti, I must admit that this biased me a bit against the Society–perhaps unfairly.) If you’re not familiar with Theosophy, the name probably gave you a big clue about what it’s all about. The “theos” (as in theology) refers to the divine or godly, and “sophia” (as in philosophy) means wisdom or knowledge. So theosophy is knowledge of the divine and it suggests that a mystical path to knowing god can be achieved. I mention all this so that the reader will be aware that this isn’t “what is yoga?” through the eyes of a Hindu or a yogi as much as it is “what is yoga?” framed by a Theosophist. (That’s not to imply any objectionable biases in the book, just in the interest of full disclosure.)

Having clarified what the book isn’t, it’s now time to turn to what the book is. It’s divided into four lectures. The first is entitled “The Nature of Yoga” and revolves around the questions of what is consciousness, what is divine, and how do they interrelate. The second lecture puts yoga into context as one of the six Indian schools of Philosophy, mostly comparing and contrasting yoga to Samkhya and Vedanta—the schools that yoga is most closely linked to. The third lecture considers yoga as an applied science. The final lecture discusses the practice of yoga. Again this is the practice of Jnana Yoga, and not yoga as it’s practiced today. Besides some discussion of diet and vague statements about how to purify the physical body, there’s no discussion of practices other than Dharana (concentration) and Dhyana (meditation.)

In more specific detail, the book addresses the following topics: the 4 states of consciousness, the 3 aspects of consciousness, the 5 stages of the mind, the 3 gunas, the 5 functions of pain, and the 7 obstacles to yogic progress.

I don’t mean to make it sound like the book is entirely a listopia, but the author is very organized—and, to be fair, a lot of these lists are passed on from ancient works. Given this book is the product is 19th century English, its readability is tolerable—especially considering the complex and abstract concepts under consideration. That said, there’s no attempt to put the abstractions in more concrete terms by way of narrative techniques or the like.

I’d recommend this book for those who are interested in Yoga as a philosophy. If you’re interested in the philosophy of the Theosophists, all the better. Again, it’s not of much value for an individual who wants to know about yoga as an approach to fitness, or even someone who wants a balanced view of the eight limbs of yoga. This book skips straight to the last three limbs, i.e. dharana, dhyana, and Samadhi (union with the divine, liberation from the karmic cycle, etc.) In that way it’s an advanced text, and the term “Introduction” in the title may be more deceptive than the word “Yoga.”

Also, it’s free on Kindle.

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