Pantajali’s Eightfold Path of Yoga is one of the key ancient Indian yogic texts that we study today, contained within 196 Sutras (or ‘threads’) which was written over 2500 years ago. This path, described as Ashtanga (‘ash’ meaning eight and ‘anga’ meaning limb) outlines the eight-fold path to the ultimate goal of yoga: union or Samadhi.
The diagram below outlines the eight limbs. Beginning with the Yamas, the limbs go from the outer and most material, to the subtlest and most internal level.
Believe it or not, only one of the limbs refers to the postures we mostly practice as “yoga” in the West today: the third limb, Asana, which loosely translates as “comfortable seat.” Pranayama through breathing excercises is another popular limb in the West today. However, in Pantajali’s Eightfold path, these physical-focused practices make up just two out of the eight components of "Yoga."
Like a flower, the petals must open one by one before we can fully smell its sweet fragrance. So, what is the ultimate, sweet smelling goal of yoga they call Samadhi?
Yoga translates as 'union' or to 'yolk.' Samadhi, the eighth and final limb of Pantanjali’s Eightfold Path of Yoga, is this union. It is oneness with God, or ultimate truth,what we might also refer to as "enlightenment."
What exactly is enlightenment? How does this compare to the Western Enlightenment we saw in Europe from the 17th century?
Well I am glad you asked, because learning about The Enlightenment (and its failures) can shed light on the yogic path to enlightenment (and perhaps explain why it is so popular today!).
In the West, the word “enlightenment” was first recorded coming in to use from the 1800s.
The Enlightenment refers to an intellectual movement which began in the late 17th Century in Europe. It is defined as a period of rigorous scientific, political and philosophical discourse characterising the great ‘Age of Reason’ which sought to shed light on the truth of the world.
The word enlightenment comes from the Latin prefix en meaning “in, into” and the noun lux meaning “light.”
To be enlightened can therefore be understood as coming "into the light.”
In a similar way that one may “shed light” on an object so it becomes clear, an enlightened person gains clarity of knowledge.
So, it would seem the goals of Samadhi and the Western Enlightenment of the 17th Century were fairly similar. Both seek to attain enlightenment and shed light on ultimate truth.
However, as we will see, they hold very different ideals of truth.
This difference is found in their opposing cosmologies: their differing ways of understanding the universe and themselves within it.
So, what was the Western Enlightenment of the late 17th to early 19th century, and how did the Enlightenment thinkers view the Universe?
The Enlightenment began in Europe in around the late 17th century and built the foundations of objective science, individualism, modern politics and secularisation. It was the great “Age of Reason” and has had an unequivocal role in shaping modern society to this day.
Through reason and rationality, Enlightenment thinkers sought to grasp a tangible understanding of the universe and how it operated. Through mathematics, empirical science, logic and rigorous philosophy, humans could measure, manipulate and control the world for the benefit of (human)beings.
The Enlightenment built on a resurgence of Ancient Greco-Roman values. Classical antiquity not only provided inspiration through the great literature of philosophers such as Aristotle, Socrates and Plato, but a standard of greatness for the Polis (City State) which predated Christianity itself. This gave legitimacy to new knowledge and ideals of human progress which were not based on the hegemony of religion.
For the Enlightenment thinkers, reason and rationality were lifting humanity out of the medieval “dark ages” ruled by state, Church and Monarchy into an age of humanist freedom.
There were developments in the realms of politics, promoting individual freedom and separation of the State from the Church. In fact, one could even go as far as to say that the realm of politics was created as an independent entity at this time. The conception of the 'social contract' between state and citizien gave the state a new role where it operated in a realm of pure rights without religion regarding property, protection and power.
There were also developments in the natural sciences; instrumentation and experimentation shed new light on nature and challenged superstitious, mystical views of the world.
These Enlightenment developments paved the way to secularisation and the privatisation of religion; after all, how could the dogma of faith compete with the empiricism of science?
Humans came to perceive the universe as increasingly under their control and views on the role of religion and God began to change.
Pantheism, the belief that reality is identical with divinity, gained traction. Suddenly, the divine could be accessed tangibly through logic; the natural and physical laws of the universe.
Through these changing ways of seeing the world, hierarchical, concrete distinctions became firmly established between culture and nature; the human and natural worlds.
As opposed to being part of nature, humans had control over nature.
As well as intellectual shifts, physical shifts were taking place too. Increased urbanisation, the agricultural revolution and later the industrial revolution saw humans become disconnected from the land they worked. We can see the effects of this today in the way we use and yield the land: from industrial-scale agriculture to factory farming.
The enlightenment way of thinking also built the foundations for other disciplines we engage with today, from social and statistical sciences, to the natural sciences and data analytics. These disciplines rely on a compartmentalised view of the world which splits it up in to separate self-contained and measurable objects of study. Contrasting this in the Medieval ages the only subjects taught at University were Theological. This is because the world was an intrinsically religious place. No knowledge existed outside of the realm of God; people viewed the world through a religious and mystical cosmology.
The Enlightenment promised us clarity, freedom, progress and happiness. It promised to take us out of dogmatic mysticism and in to the light. But the promises of Enlightenment have failed us....
Que postmodern nihilism.
Postmodernity saw a rejection of the ideals of human progress held by Modernity and The Enlightenment for a new truth to be found in relativism and subjectivity.
Communism had fallen and capitalism saw inequalities proliferate. The idea that there was a “best” or “right” way to live our lives and organise society- that we only needed to uncover and implement it- no longer held true.
Today the influence of the (European) Enlightenment is exceptional, but the same cannot be said of its goals. A period of history which birthed modern science and politics as we know it has paved the way to the technology-saturated, globalised world we live in today. And while much of our world relies on the scientific and mathematical models to function which developed from the Enlightenment, (hello economic forecasting and data industries) the belief that ultimate truth or meaning can be found through these means has disintegrated under our feet.
It is undeniable that Western science has given us many amazing things, from cures for seemingly incurable diseases, to new technology allowing us to study matter on the smallest and largest scales.
But the Enlightenment promised to pave the way to human progress and triumph through reason. Today increasing inequalities, high levels of depression and anxiety, natural disasters, global pandemics (Covid-19) and a looming economic crisis suggest otherwise: that humans are not in control of the universe we inhabit.
Where religion once provided a metanarrative of meaning in life (and death), the failure of the Enlightenment has left a moral and ethical void.
Why then has there been a resurgence of Eastern spiritual visions of the world in the West?
The fact that Yoga and Eastern-inspired spirituality is increasingly popular today can be understood through its own vision of enlightenment or Samadhi that we talked about at the beginning.
In the Eastern tradition, the Universe is understood as compromised of duality. Shakti and Shiva; Yin and Yang; Dark and Light.
Whatever you want to call it, the components of these dualities signifies on one side passive potential and the other active manifestation.
Unlike the view of duality which proliferated through the Enlightenment where humans were could grasp and overcome the forces of nature and the universe, the Eastern view percieves neither aspect being better than the other. In fact, each contains an element of the other within itself.
A quick introduction to Tantra: Shiva and Shakti
In the Ancient Yogic lineages of Tantra, Shakti is the feminine energies and all of the manifested world. Shiva is the masculine: the pure consciousness and potential within all.
Shakti is the manifestation of Shiva in the material world, but Shakti is also maya (illusion) because she is unstable and always changing (like life!).
Shiva is the unmanifested, latent potential: the pure and unchanging conciousness contained within all of us and everywhere in the universe.
Thus, from this perspective, true enlightenment is the coming together and transcendence of the dualities of Shiva and Shakti. It is bliss and oneness which cannot be fully contained or explained in words.
Through looking at the world through this dance of duality and the relationships of opposites, we can understand enlightenment as the equilibrium found when these principles “yolk” or unify.
And very simply, this is yoga.
The Yogic path towards Samadhi is about embracing the dualities of our existence and finding balance through the cycles of life and death, even if we don't become fully 'enlightened' for many lifetimes.
* Thanks for reading!
Anti-dualism is a vast yet fascinating topic, philosophy and way of life. It must be noted that I have only touched upon the subject in this post through comparing The Enlightenment to Samadhi as enlightenment. Within Eastern Spiritual Traditions themselves, there are many diverging schools of thought which have different ways of viewing duality. For example, dualist (Dvaita) and anti-dualistic (Advaita) approaches. I myself am more drawn to anti-dualism, having studied Traditional Tantra in India, however it must be noted that Patanjali himself was a proponent of dualism. Investigate yourself and tell me what you think!
If you are interested in further reading, here are a few suggestions which have inspired me recently:
John Millbank: Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (2008) The author is notoriously hard to read. However his approach to understanding secularisation, modern politics and even the social