Monday Morning Greetings 2021 #10 – What I Don’t Understand About Yoga Philosophy: Part Two

March 8th, 2021

I was sent an article written by a renown Vrindavan Vaishnava scholar and friend of many years. I was being asked for a clarification as the article didn’t seem to conform to what we have been taught about the nature of the soul. I greatly respect the scholarship of the person who wrote the article, but I could not understand in relationship to bhakti-yoga the view he seemed to advocate on Vedantic and Yogic grounds: the soul has no thoughts or will of its own. I concluded his view must certainly be more nuanced than what was expressed in a simple question and answer, or I simply misunderstood what he was saying. I responded to the person who sent their inquiry by sending her an article that I wrote many years ago contesting what seems to have been expressed in the article about the ātma. I have included my article below, but first an excerpt from the article in contention:


Question: From where does viveka or the faculty to choose between wrong and right come? Does it come from the buddhi or ātma? 

Answer: It comes from buddhi.


Question: Does the soul have intrinsic mind, intelligence, and ego? 

Answer: No, it doesn’t.


Question: Does the soul act only as a source of consciousness (e.g. battery power for a car), while always needing the external mind, intelligence and ego? Is this true even in the spiritual world? 

Answer: Yes.


What I Don’t Understand About Yoga Philosophy


July 11, 2016

About fifteen years ago I got my first copy of the Yoga Sutras when I was staying at Professor Edwin Bryant’s house in Princeton. He has been a friend since the time we stayed in the same ashram in Vrindavan in the early ’80s. At the time of this visit, he hadn’t yet published his lauded translation and commentary of the Yoga Sutras, but when I chanced upon a rough copy of his unpublished manuscript in the living room and started to thumb through it, Professor Bryant gifted me a copy. Reading it, I was enthralled.


The Yoga Sutras is a compilation 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 and applied to my meditation many things from the Sutras about the philosophy and practice of mental discipline that were 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, that I just couldn’t make sense of.


The Yoga Sutras clearly professes—at least the way I read it—that thoughts rest solely in the material mind and that, though possessing consciousness, the pure spirit soul is thus devoid of all thoughts.


Here’s what I don’t understand: If all thoughts are only in the mind, then what is the use of shastra, 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, and avoidance of bad habits.


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 (and it is hard to make sense of our notion of personal agency without thought, since 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?), 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 shastra if the change in our mind is at another’s whim and not ours, when even the decision to read shastra has nothing to do with us?


And how can thoughts be only in the mind? The mind is inert. Inert matter doesn’t think. If one says, however, that the mind is 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? 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 that Patanjali is wrong, but there must be something more to this. In this debate, I fall with Descartes:


“I think, therefore I am!”




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