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Yoga: Immortality and Freedom by Mircea Eliade

Yoga: Immortality and Freedom by Mircea Eliade.  Princeton University Press 2009.  536 pages.

Long the standard work in the field, Eliade’s big book on yoga still displays its author’s dazzling erudition, while at the same time suffering from a dated style, poor organization, and like so many other scholarly tomes on the exotic field of “Eastern” spirituality, demonstrates the limits of a purely academic approach divorced from serious practice.

I’ve actually lost track of how many times I’ve read this book (or at least portions of it).  In college I was a huge Eliade fan—my advisor was a student of his, after all—and indeed, when it comes to the analysis of mythology across cultures, he is the giant in whose shadow everyone labors.  This is one of the strengths as well as weaknesses of the book.  For the armchair theologian or philosopher, constant allusions to yogic parallels in other cultures—for example, among Inuit shamans—can provide illumination, but it is likely to distract or tire someone who wants to learn something useful from yoga.  (Downward dog, anyone?)  Eliade is clearly most interested in yoga as an exemplary phenomenon of homo religiosus rather than as a practice he or anyone else might seriously take up in their spare time, and this fact has to be borne in mind when venturing into the text.

First the strong points.  Eliade’s seminal volume is one of the first from a Westerner to attempt a comprehensive overview of the gigantic subject that is yoga.  When one considers the paucity of Western materials he had to work with (this back in the thirties and forties), the accomplishment is all the more stunning.  A review of the bibliography, for example, shows how reliant he was on texts produced by Indians.  He went the extra mile too, traveling to India to study under Surendranath Dasgupta, one of the great scholars of Indian philosophy of the twentieth century.  Eliade mastered Sanskrit and so was able to read and interpret source materials first hand.  He also spent six months in an ashram (much of that time in tantric dalliance with a South African dakini), and this no doubt helped him with some insight into the yogic life.  Eliade was, however, not so much a yogin as a scholar of vast erudition, and that erudition is everywhere on display, especially in his marshalling of enormous quantities of facts and insights on yoga, Hinduism, mythology, and the meaning of spirituality.

This really is why someone today should read Eliade.  If you have the time and patience you will learn innumerable things you never expected to learn, about so many obscure texts and cults, about the mishmash of ideologies and practices that somehow became Hinduism.  As the preeminent scholar of comparative religion, he is able to relate all these seemingly disparate phenomena to others around the globe, thereby offering a broad picture of his subject as an example of human spirituality as opposed to simply some weird Indian cultural product.  In this way, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom stands firmly in the line of other great Eliade books such as Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, The Sacred and the Profane and The Myth of the Eternal Return.  It is simply rare than anyone can actually master such a significant body of material and present it coherently and with insight.  For understanding yoga in its larger, human context, this book is still one that should be read.

As noted, though, it has its drawbacks.  Eliade’s writing style is often ponderous and heavily formal—he even refers to himself in the royal “we”!  He also has an irritating propensity for obscure words and neologisms like homology, enstasis, hierophany, as well as an excessive fondness for Greco-Latin phrases.  Eliade himself acknowledged this shortcoming in his autobiography:

The writing went hard at first, requiring more effort than I had anticipated, and I wondered what was wrong with me.  Why was I making such slow progress, and why was I writing such strident prose, studded with unnecessary neologisms, with a pretentious, artificial, aggressive syntax? (Journey East, Journey West (vol. 1), pp. 254-5).

As I said: Patience!

Style aside, there are other problems.  The book, which stands as something of a general history of yoga in Hinduism, is arranged in a decidedly non-chronological fashion.  It starts with an overview of “The Doctrines of Yoga”—specifically the Samykha and classical yoga of Patanjali—then goes back in time to “Yoga and Brahmanism.”  Then it’s forward a millennium to the Gita and Epics, back a millennium to Buddhism and forward again fifteen hundred years to tantrism.  The book formally ends (if you don’t include the nearly one hundred pages of “Additional Notes”) with “Yoga and Aboriginal India”—i.e. pre-Aryan, Dravidian, and Harappan cultures.  Why?  Well, I don’t know why, unless the book can be more accurately characterized as a series of essays as opposed to a unified work.  Needless to say, I don’t think this arrangement will help anyone.

Finally, my chronic complaint about scholars rears its ugly head once again—the difference between textual insights and insights born of practice.  I’ll limit my critique of Eliade to his discussion of Buddhism, as that is what most people reading this blog are here for anyway.

The relevant chapter is “Yoga Techniques in Buddhism.”  The very first sentence caught me by surprise: “During his period of study and asceticism, Shakyamuni had come to know both the doctrines of Samkhya and the practices of Yoga” (p. 162).  I scrawled a question mark next to this, but here I’ll be more decisive: To the best of my knowledge, there is no indication of an acquaintance with Samkhya philosophy in the Buddha’s teachings.  Note I’m not saying he didn’t encounter it, or argue with proponents of like-minded philosophies, only that to specifically associate the Buddha with Samkhya seems to me to go too far.

However, the passage that sets the tone for Eliade’s discussion of Buddhism is undoubtedly found on page 163.  There he writes:

If [the Buddha] took over the pitiless analysis to which preclassic Samkyha and Yoga submitted the notion of “person” and of psychomental life, it was because the “Self” had nothing to do with that illusory entity, the human “soul.”  But the Buddha went even further than Samkhya and Yoga, for he declined to postulate the existence of a purusha or an atman.  Indeed, he denied the possibility of having an even approximate experience of the true Self, so long as man was not “awakened.”  The Buddha likewise rejected the conclusions of Upanishadic speculation—the postulate of a brahman, a pure, absolute, immortal, eternal spirit identical with the atman—but he did so because this dogma might satisfy the intellect and thus prevent man from awakening (p. 163).

Oh, how I could wax poetic on the misunderstandings embodied in this passage!

Let us say first that there is no indication the Buddha’s analysis of consciousness owed anything to yoga as Eliade would define it.  In fact, it was on account of his rejection of the yoga of his teachers that he ultimately struck out on his own and thereby became the most renowned—and revered—heterodox teacher in India’s long history.  More importantly, he “declined to postulate the existence of a purusha or atman” not because such dogmatic concepts might interfere with the process of awakening to the Self, but because when one sees with fully clarified and unobstructed vision (vipassana), such things are not to be found.  Sabbe dhamma anatta.

Perhaps we can blame Eliade’s suspicion that the Buddha never denied the Self on his teachers, or maybe we can blame it on the pernicious tendency of human beings to cling to notions of identity and permanence.  Either way, it is simply one more cautionary note to carry into this important and worthy book.  It is also a reminder of how difficult the Dhamma really is, how “against the stream.”

My Amazon rating: 4 stars


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