Dhanurdhara Swami July 11th, 2016
About 15 years ago I got my first copy of the Yoga Sūtras when I was staying at Professor Edwin Bryant’s house in Princeton. He has been an old friend since the time we stayed in the same āśrama in Vṛndāvana in the early 80s. At the time of this visit, he hadn’t yet published his lauded translation and commentary of the Yoga Sūtras, but I chanced upon a rough copy of his unpublished manuscript in the living room. I started to thumb through it and Professor Bryant gifted me a copy. I was enthralled reading it.
The Yoga Sūtras is a compilation, as the name indicates, of short aphorisms summing up the school of yoga, the school of mental discipline or psychology, one of the six schools of philosophy gleaned from the ancient Vedas. I learned many things from the Sūtras on the philosophy and practice of mental discipline that I applied to my own meditation that were completely consistent with the teachings of my own path, the path of bhakti, which also falls into one of the six schools of Vedic philosophy, Vedanta. There was one point, however, which I just couldn’t make sense of.
The Yoga Sūtras clearly professes, or at least that’s the way I read it, that thoughts rest solely in the material mind and thus the pure spirit soul is devoid of all thoughts, although possessing consciousness.
Here’s what I don’t understand: If all thoughts are only in the mind then what is the use of śāstra (teachings) whose purpose is to give us good ideas that inspire proper thoughts and impel us to liberation? Some of those thoughts are determination, thoughtfulness, inspiration, good likings, avoidance of bad habits, and so on. Now here’s the point; it’s a bit subtle so please listen.
If all these positive changes happen in the mind, and the soul, being devoid of thought, is just a third party to them, then our liberation and bondage is just a matter between God, who is moving the world, and our unconscious mind. In other words, if the soul lacks agency*, the ability to institute change upon something, then our liberation and bondage has nothing to do with us. We remain just a hapless third party witness who can never appropriately say “yes” I like this or “no” I don’t, which are the choices (or thoughts) that are the precursor to liberation. What then is the use of śāstra if the change in our mind is at another’s whim and not ours, and when even the decision to read śāstra has nothing to do with us?
And how can thoughts just be in the mind? The mind is inert. Inert matter doesn’t think. If one says, however, that the mind is just like the reel of a movie, and the soul illuminates and experiences it, then still how can you say that thoughts are not also in the soul? How can there be experience without thought?
And what about karma? And if we are truly thoughtless, why should we suffer the reactions of our good and bad deeds. All action is preceded by thought, so how can we be truly responsible for our actions, if we have no thoughts?
And suffering is also a thought. Don’t tell me it is all in the mind and I am not suffering. Of course, the cause of suffering is in the mind and I can ultimately transcend that, but how can one say that I am not feeling it now, that that feeling is someplace else, a place that is inert, the mind? Dead things don’t feel. In other words, I may or may not be in illusion about the cause of suffering, but it still hurts when I falsely identity with it. For example, I may dream of being eaten by a tiger and feel relieved when I awaken; but still was it not I, the person awakened, who had the nightmare and was gripped with fear (a thought) due to illusion?
There is an argument against thought being in the soul, that the soul is eternal and things eternal must be changeless. Why? God has energies that create so many things, but by his inconceivable potency He is still changeless and eternal. And similarly the soul can also have potency and be changeless, being a part of God. That seems to be the case.
I am not saying Patañjali is wrong, but there must be something more to this. In this debate I fall with Descartes:
“I think, therefore I am!”
*It is hard to make sense of our notion of personal agency without thought. How can we institute any change upon something unless we have a goal to achieve, an understanding of how to achieve it, and the will to execute it?