DAILY PHOTO: Ramakrishna Math, Bangalore

Taken on January 26, 2020 in Bangalore.

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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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DAILY PHOTO: Swami Vivekananda in CMH Park

Taken on October 25, 2014 in CMH Park, Indiranagar, Bangalore.

Taken on October 25, 2014 in CMH Park, Indiranagar, Bangalore

Swami Vivekananda is one of India’s most famous yogis, though he lived only to the age of 39 and died about 112 years ago. Considering his short life, he was quite prolific and wrote a number of important texts on yoga. He was also instrumental in introducing yoga to the Western world. He was the chief disciple of Ramakrishna, and founded the Ramakrishna Maths and Missions. His name and image are ubiquitous throughout India.

BOOK REVIEW: Yoga Sutras by Patanjali [Trans. Charles Johnston]

Yoga Sutras of PatanjaliYoga Sutras of Patanjali by Charles Johnston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

There are about a billion editions of Patanjali’s The Yoga Sutras. The one I got was a free or very cheap on Kindle, and is, therefore, probably not the best edition. I don’t know that the Kindle version I got still exists because it included a supplemental essay by Swami Vivekananda that the version I linked to on Amazon doesn’t. However, the translation is the same, and is by Charles Johnston.

For many old works, the edition might not matter too much, but for Patanjali’s Sutras it matters a great deal. First, there’s the issue of the quality of the translation. Beyond that, however, is the question of the analysis. The Yoga Sutras are extremely brief, consisting of only 196 aphorisms. Owing to the terse brevity of the Sanskrit language, many of these aphorisms are only a few words long. That means that there isn’t a high degree of precision in the language of the Sutras, and, consequently, there’s a great deal of room for misunderstanding and misinterpretation. It’s for good reason, therefore, that most editions are 90% or greater commentary on Patanjali’s words.

The Sutras are typically divided into 4 chapters (this convention apparently came well after Patanjali wrote them.) The first section lays out the objective of yoga. The central notion is the need for Chitta Vrtta Nirodha, which basically means to transcend the fluctuations of the mind. Patanjali’s point is that the problem faced by mankind is that people’s minds are run amok. There is a need for some system to facilitate correction of all this monkey-mindedness. That’s where Chapter 2 comes in.

The second chapter lays down an outline of Ashtanga Yoga, which is the eight-fold path of Raja Yoga (i.e. Royal Yoga). While modern-day people tend to think of yoga only as pretzel-like physical postures, that’s just one of the eight limbs of yoga. The eight limbs are: commandments (yama), rules (niyama), postures (asana), control of breath (pranayama), withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), concentration (dhanara), meditation (dhyana), and liberation (samadhi.)

It’s interesting to note that the limb that many think of as yoga, i.e. the postures, is one of the most briefly covered. Most famously, Patanjali says in Ch.2, Sutra #46, “Sukham Sthiram Asanam” (i.e. postures should be stable and effortless.) The massive body of asana that developed in Hatha Yoga were initially just a means to give one the ability to sit still for a long periods of time comfortably enough to get one’s mind in order.

The third chapter talks a little bit about the last three of the eight limbs (i.e. concentration, meditation, and liberation.) However, the bulk of this chapter is devoted to the supposed magic powers that yogis claimed to have had as a result of their work on improving their minds. For skeptics and scientifically-minded individuals (e.g. yours truly), this is where the Sutras take a silly turn. The translation in question came out in 1912, and it’s clear that rationalism was already gaining hold and magic was getting to be a harder sell. I suspect that was the reason for the inclusion of Swami Vivekananda’s essay entitled “The Powers of the Mind”—to capitalize on the gravitas of the renowned yogi to convince people that chapter 3 isn’t bunk.

The fourth chapter wraps up the book neatly–discussing karma and the liberation of the karmic cycle achieved through the state of higher consciousness called samadhi.

If one has more than a superficial interest in yoga, it’s pretty much obligatory to read some edition of Patanjali’s The Yoga Sutras. I didn’t find this edition to be devastatingly poor, but there seems to be a consensus among reviewers that it’s not among the best translations / commentaries.

I would recommend that one read some version of these sutras, be it BKS Iyengar’s Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Swami Vivekananda’s edition, or Swami Satchidananda’s version. I don’t have any experience with these other editions, though I have read works by BKS Iyengar and Swami Vivekananda, and found works by both to be well-written and clear. Notwithstanding the parts about magical superpowers, the book does provide a lot of food for thought, and in nice bite-sized pieces.

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DAILY PHOTO: Swami Vivekananda

Taken February 25, 2014 in Bangalore

Taken February 25, 2014 in Bangalore

This little park devoted to Swami Vivekananda is located on Bull Temple Road in Bangalore. Swami Vivekananda was a 19th century yogi and Hindu holy man. He was the chief disciple of Swami Ramakrishna, and is often credited with introducing yoga to the West.  This statue is located across the street from the Ramakrishna Math near Gandhi Bazaar (there is another Ramakrishna Math closer to Ulsoor Lake.)

The park has a series of quotes from the Swami in English and Kannada. The one above says, “Education is the manifestation of the perfection already in man.”