Buddhist Books Blog

Readings and writings on Buddhism, yoga, and contemplative science

The Yoga Tradition by Georg Feuerstein

The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice by Georg Feuerstein.  Hohm Press 2008 (third edition), 510 pages.

Georg Feuerstein’s magnum opus is easily the richest outpouring of yogic knowledge and insight I have ever encountered between two covers.  It is an intimidating work.  Intimidating because of its length, its size (like a textbook), and the sheer mass of terminology, topics and texts it covers (and even translates–a few for the first time!).  At times I felt like I was swallowing a pill that just wouldn’t fit down my gullet–though I knew the pill was good for me, so I kept gulping until I got it down.

There is no easy way to review this book, so I’m going to simply flip open the contents and talk here and there about pieces that particularly intrigued, puzzled, offended or delighted me.  (Actually, very little offended me–I’m just being theatrical….)  The first chapter, “Building Blocks,” is perhaps not so aptly named.  It reads like something written for those who already have a bit of the yogic worldview under their belt and subscribe to its way of thinking.  For this reason I would recommend newcomers read Feuerstein’s other, more introductory books before this one.  I have already reviewed two–The Deeper Dimension of Yoga and The Path of Yoga.  I think the other thing that comes to light from reading these opening pages (this includes the introduction proper) is that Feuerstein is definitely a “believer,” and to an extent that is probably not kosher in scholarly circles, writes as one too.  There is of course nothing wrong with this, except people who want more “objective” texts may be put off by it. 

Feuerstein is without doubt one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet as regards the yoga tradition, but still I have to wonder about some of the ideas he ascribes to.  For example, his timeline of India in chapters 3 and 4 is certainly not orthodox as regards most contemporary reckonings of Indian history.  He grants an age to the Vedic civilization (4500-2500 BC) considerably in excess of ancient Egypt (3500-500 BC) and this based on pretty slim facts I think.  (It seems to me his enthusiasm sometimes get the better of him.)  That said, it should be admitted that early Indian history is a messy and muddled subject, with few (if any) points of certainty.  To give you an idea, the most important Indian of them all, the Buddha, was for a long time considered to have lived from 563-483 BC, but recently has been “relocated” to something more like 490-410.  Imagine scholars suddenly announcing that Pericles really lived a hundred years later and you get my drift.  So if Feuerstein is speculating, or even wrong in his speculations (and how will we ever know for sure?), he can at least be forgiven.

From chapter four on the text follows a pretty historically linear timeline.  The Vedas are discussed and then the Upanishads, with translations of several texts sprinkled throughout.  In every case the relation of the texts to yoga, its ideas and practices, is elaborated upon.  What is clear is that yoga has definitely progressed through stages of development, beginning with earlier “shamanic” practices focusing on tapas (austerities), magic and visions, and this eventually gave way to the more self-transcending orientation of the Upanishads and later texts.  Chapters six and seven generously treat of yoga’s place in the heterodox traditions of Jainism and Buddhism, though readers particularly interested in these fields should consult the extensive bibliography at the back of the book if they wish to follow further these lines of inquiry.  I, for one, was sad to learn that there is very little surviving of Jainism’s early textual corpus.  Though Mahavira, the religion’s founder, gets a bad rap in the early Buddhist texts, my suspicion has always been that he was certainly an extraordinary man, in some ways perhaps the equal of the Buddha.  I just wish we knew more about what he really taught.  (This is not to say I think he was the equal of the Buddha.  It’s pretty clear to me that while his attainment must indeed have been great, he was in no way comparable to Siddhartha as an intellectual or communicator.  Greatness of insight is not always accompanied by equal development of all other parts of the personality.  The Buddha was a rarity–perhaps unsurpassed–on account of his high development in so many aspects.  IMHO, of course…)

Chapter eight plunges back into Hindu yoga, specifically the Epics and, of course, the Bhagavad Gita.  (I have just finished up Feuerstein’s translation of this seminal text, and let me tell you, it is a doozy!)  Again, there are generous passages from important texts included here; you can certainly get a sense for what this kind of literature is like.  Chapters nine and ten exhaustively treat classical yoga (i.e. Patanjali’s), and even include a complete translation of the Yoga Sutras!  The historical and intellectual place of this little book within the edifice of yoga is made clear–it has proven more an inspiration to practice than to philosophy. 

The philosophy of yoga, or what began in the Upanishads, finds its consummation in the nondualist schools, which Feuerstein treats in the next four chapters.  Nondualism is, of course, the philosophical heart of Hinduism, though it is clearly overlaid with an exuberant wealth of gods and goddesses, rituals and esoterica.  These Feuerstein treats extensively, even delving into obscure little groups like the Aghoris (who still exist, btw!).  By chapter fifteen we’re getting into my favorite stuff–the yoga upanishads, wherein the subject of kundalini comes up.  Sikh yoga is briefly touched on, and then it’s full steam into tantra and hatha yoga.  The book ends in the late medieval/early modern period, looking at the extensive literature of hatha yoga.

I would certainly not recommend this as a first book on the subject.  That said, if someone has gotten their feet wet and finds they want to get the Big Picture, this then is the book I would recommend.  The immense service it provides is to give the reader a morsel, a taste, of so many of the exquisite delights of the yogic tradition that he (or she) may then meaningfully pursue further any of them as he pleases.  It is a book meant to lead on, to invite, to incite curiosity.  I hope it does this and more for you, and thereby leads you to greener, broader pastures of knowledge and awakening…

My Amazon rating: 5 stars


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