Monday, January 24, 2011

This is No Time for Dull Instruments. Yogis and Philosophy with Shyam Ranganathan, PhD.

"The sign of a true yogi is thus not how flexible their bodies are, but rather how willing they are to be philosophical about personhood, and critical of their own prejudices, while being serious about living in the Natural world." (Shyam Ranganathan, author of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra)

D oes a Yogi need to be a philosopher? Is being able to debate philosophically important to your personal practice? According to York University professor and author of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra (Penguin Classics 2009), Dr. Shyam Ranganathan, yogis must, at the very least, be able to engage in a philosophical argument. Maybe you're thinking, "Wait a second, that sounds a bit intense. Can we not practice yoga a-la-carte, grabbing what we like as we shop"?
Well, not according to Shyam Ranganathan. And, he'll be the first to tell you that according to his reading of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, a yoga practice without philosophical agility is not yoga. It's something Ranganathan calls "pseudo-yoga".


As contemporary yogis who practice an assorted grab-bag of practices, we likely have little daily interaction with philosophical debate vis a vis yoga. We know this makes the practice easier to integrate into a mainstream lifestyle; making it a practice that anyone, anywhere, can dip into without getting ponderous. But what if it's the philosophical questions that do the heavy lifting when it comes to finding out what you're made of??

So how are we to develop skills at argument? Well, I took a stab at it by asking Shyam a few questions; and his answers illustrate just how much careful consideration the process of philosophical inquiry requires. Time and attention knot together in these answers; and untangling each question takes the same delicate patience and eye for detail that you would reserve for untying a knot.

Shyam Ranganathan has an MA in philosophy, an MA in South Asian Studies from the University of Toronto, and a PhD in philosophy from York University. He is author of Ethics and the History of Indian Philosophy (Motilal Banarsidass 2008) as well as translator and commentator of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra (Penguin Classics 2009). He is the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s area editor for Indian Philosophy. He has written articles on Yoga, and taught yoga philosophy both in an academic environment and to students of yoga in the community. In addition to Indian Philosophy, his research focuses on ethics and the philosophy of language, with a special focus on the role of translation across cultures and languages. He teaches philosophy at York University.

Priya Thomas Interview with Shyam Ranganathan Phd, October 2010. 
"If we chuck the clutter, we start to shine. What is normally called “education” has a lot to do with conforming to fluctuating, discipline relative expectations. Yoga is, in theory, forever." (Shyam Ranganathan)


On yogis as philosophers:

Priya Thomas: You seem to imply that by the very nature of the document (Patanjali's Yoga Sutras), that the yogic path is necessarily one that includes philosophical inquiry.
And, that a yogi must be able to engage in argument. Do you want to elaborate on your position?

Shyam Ranganathan: In general it is useful to distinguish philosophical explanations from other forms of explanations. Many avenues of inquiry are interested in providing explanations, but the nature of the explanations they are able to give differ.

In philosophy we are interested in providing rational explanations (explanations that have the property of not leading from truth to falsity) of a specific type: these are explanations that provide philosophical reasons for a belief. A philosophical reason is a reason that is universal (abstracts from particulars) and general (applies to a wide number of cases) that anyone can accept, independently of the facts of who they are. Philosophical explanations are thus very different from introspective-psychological explanations.

Consider the following. If I was to ask you whether you thought that murder was wrong, and why, you might answer: yes, it is wrong, and the reason I believe it is wrong is that it makes me feel badly to hear of people being killed for no reason. This is an introspective psychological explanation. It does not provide reasons that everyone can accept independently of who they are because the reasons are really about you as an individual. A philosophical explanation of the wrongness of murder would instead rely upon more general and universal considerations for defining murder as a specific type of incorrect killing, distinguished say from death in war, or accidental killing for instance.

The school of thought that Patanjali puts forward in the Yoga Sutra is philosophical, which is to say that the reasons that Patanjali provides for taking Yoga seriously are, from his perspective at least, reasons that anyone who is rational (i.e., a person who reasons in a manner that does not allow them to go from a true belief to a false belief) should take seriously independently of facts about who they are as individuals.

If the reason for taking Yoga seriously is that it is founded upon philosophical reasoning and justification, then anyone serious about yoga really ought to be able to understand and defend their commitment to yoga on philosophical grounds. Otherwise they have missed the point it seems to me. To be committed to yoga and be uninterested in philosophy is a bit like claiming to be committed to being a musician but being uninterested in performing music that is in tune. Yogis who are unphilosophical are like musicians who are tone-deaf. Tone-deaf people lack the self critical ability to correct their own musical performances. Non philosophical yogis likewise lack the ability to prevent themselves from doing yoga badly. Unfortunately, tone-deaf people tend to sing the loudest---and unphilosophical yoga gets disproportionate attention.

 The guru is irrelevant in the Yoga Sutras:

Priya Thomas: You talk about the cult of the "yogi". Do you think Patanjali was critical of the guru-sisya relationship? Are there  instructions in the sutras that help mediate this teacher/student relationship?

Shyam Ranganathan: Nowhere in the Yoga Sutra is there any mention of a teacher save for Isvara. The reason that Isvara is recommended as our teacher is that Isvara is a person who has never had any trouble. Philosophically, Isvara is the archetypal autonomous, self governing person. In meditating on Isvara we start to image a person whose actuality mirrors our potential. The more our mind is filled with Isvara, or thoughts of the self governing, untroubled person, the more we start to live authentically as people who abide in our own essence. Isvara meditation is thus not in any way replicative of the traditional guru-sishya relationship where the student is forever beholden to the teacher. Rather, to meditate on Isvara is to actualize our own autonomy.

 Priya Thomas: You talk about how choosing to live a deliberate life is choosing to be careful and decisive; rather than "going with the flow". If yogic life necessarily goes against the grain of mainstream culture, then would you suggest that yoga practice must be anti-establishment? What are the defining characteristics of this kind of practice?

Shyam Ranganathan: The point of yoga is to maximize our own self governance not as a theoretical idea but as a reality in Nature, all the while constraining our practice according to the highest ethical ideals. It is also to eschew a type of reactivity that rides on the coat tails of prejudice, ignorance, and self indulgence. If a culture or establishment runs counter to the goals of the yogi, there is no reason for the yogi to support them.
 "What most people think of as yoga barely moves past tapas. Demons can perform austerities as well: that does not mean they have a good life." (Shyam Ranganathan)

Priya Thomas: So do you think contemporary yoga has lost its authority as a counter-culture practice? Is the yoga of "easy-living and wellness" culture, divested of vitality? Can it still provide a model to "good living"; albeit in a diluted form?

Shyam Ranganathan: Well, what you describe is not yoga. Being healthy is something that can only be accomplished, on Patanjali’s account, by perfecting our character through auto-psychotherapy (sva-dhyaya), meditation on the autonomous self governing person (Isvara pranidana), and the practice of austerities (tapas). What most people think of as yoga barely moves past tapas. Demons can perform austerities as well: that does not mean they have a good life. The difference between the demon and the yogi is that the demon will not take time to be self critical of their own psychology (sva-dhyaya) nor will they take the time to think about other people as autonomous (Isvara pranidhana). The sign of a true yogi is thus not how flexible their bodies are, but rather how willing they are to be philosophical about personhood, and critical of their own prejudices, while being serious about living in the Natural world (tapas).

Rules of Engagement: Political Action in the World According to the Sutras

Priya Thomas: Do you think Patanjali intended for yogis to be politically active citizens?  Is yogic meditation meant to imply a kind of isolated, hermetic existence?

Shyam Ranganathan:  A hermetic existence is not clearly recommended in the Yoga Sutra and it seems counterproductive. The point of yoga is not to be secluded, but Isolated (kaivalya): in Isolation, we have altered our mind and body and environment so that we live in a manner that reflects our personhood. But other people in our lives have a part to play in this too: to the extent that we know and respect them as persons, they become reflective of our own autonomy and essence as a person, and thus constitute part of our Isolation. This is why the mahavratas, such as ahimsa, and satya, are of paramount importance for Patanjali. Running away to a cave actually does very little to maximize this kind of isolation.

Political activism is not something that Patanjali recommends but it isn’t something that we are supposed to run away from if it is consistent with our commitment to yoga. To this extent, Patanjali does give direction on how to effect change. He advises against arguing with non-yogic people who advocate violence because they are irrational beings reacting to their own suffering. Accordingly we have to bring about a change in them, according to Patanjali, by redoubling our commitment to a yogic life: the more benign we are, the less threatening we are to those who disagree with us, and the more inclined others will be to listen to us. Militant veganism, for instance, is a losing strategy on Patanjali’s account: it alienates the people we ought to convert.

 Ahimsa as a Goal of Action; A Philosopher is Comfortable with Disagreement
Priya Thomas: What is your interpretation of ahimsa according to the Sutras?

Shyam Ranganathan: My current view is that the Mahavratas ("great vows") on the whole are goals of action, not rules of action. Thus, in taking on ahimsa, our goal is to act so as to maximize nonharmfulness through our actions (which is not the same as always acting nonharmfully). This is consistent with using harm, say, to defend the innocent, so long as the net harm is reduced. It is not however consistent with striving for ahimsa to harm others simply for pleasure, for this increases the net harm, as opposed to reducing it.  In securing nonharmfulness as a goal of action, we do something for people on the whole: the more people benefit from our actions, the more we have acted in a nonviolent manner. But Patanjali is rather clear: a person cannot be defined by their natural attributes. Persons are distinct from Nature, and hence it constitutes a fallacy to define people in terms of certain natural constitutions. What we can say about all persons, on Patanjali’s account, is that Nature furnishes them with a mind, and a mind allows them to believe, desire, deliberate, act, and react. Any animal has this type of awareness and thus all animals on Patanjali’s account are persons. So in exercising ahimsa, and striving to reduce harm for persons, it is contrary to the philosophy of Patanjali to be kind to humans but indifferent to non human animals. The discrimination on the basis of species, or specieism, is no better than sexism or racism according to Patanjali’s philosophy.

So, on a practical front, I take it that a commitment to ahimsa at the very least entails a commitment to a vegetarian or vegan life. From the perspective of our health, there is more to be said for the liability of a diet filled with meat than one without. Thus, we often reduce harm to ourselves by not eating meat. From a harm reduction perspective,  in choosing not to eat meat we choose not to harm other persons as well. It is a win-win proposition to be a vegetarian or vegan from the perspective of ahimsa.

Priya Thomas: You say that every yogi must be willing to disagree with philosophical viewpoints that differ from his/her understanding of the sutras. Why do you think it's so valuable to be interested in disagreement and give voice to disagreement?

Shyam Ranganathan: I think that a philosopher is comfortable with disagreement. Learning how to be philosophical is part of maximizing ahimsa. If I have a philosophical disagreement with you, I still regard you as a person worthy of ethical consideration. A yogi should in general look to defuse conflict and strife with ahimsa (Patanjali recommends as much in Book II). The converse of this, I think, is that yogis who eschew philosophy are really harboring a type of himsa, or harmfulness. Hence, I think of them as pseudo yogis.

Another reason to refine one’s philosophical abilities is that philosophy has a way to exorcise demons. It’s easier to be delusional and paranoid if you do not hold yourself up to philosophical criticism: you will thus never expect that you yourself believe in accordance with considerations that all rational people should accept---independently of facts about who they are. Mental illness has a way to build up an edifice on the basis of idiosyncratic aspects of our life. Mental illness is a disturbance of consciousness that the yogi is always aiming to overcome.  To Patanjali’s credit, he recognized that being philosophical---i.e., loving wisdom---is an essential component of becoming healthy.

Priya Thomas: Is violent ideological disagreement tolerable? At what point is ideological/philosophical disagreement unproductive in the yogic life?

Shyam Ranganathan: Violent disagreement might make sense in the context of ideology: it has no place in philosophical disagreement. I don’t, for instance, allow my students to hurt each other in philosophy class if they have a difference of opinion nor is the proper response from me, as their philosophy teacher, to hit them if I disagree. The proper response is to provide a criticism of their argument.

Priya Thomas: You talk about the "degenerate yogi" as one that chooses positions and viewpoints based simply on those things that correspond with one's current state of being/state of mind. I also understand that in your view, in order to enable transformation, one must necessarily make choices that activate those  parts of ourselves previously untapped. Therefore, the important choices are the ones that turn us away from what we currently know, and pivot us into the unknown. Therefore, they are serious and deliberate choices to be "radical". But, we are always making choices, our points of view are always being challenged by several alternative viewpoints. What is the correct process of coming to a personal decision?

Shyam Ranganathan: According to Patanjali, the goal of life is Isolation, but this is a state where our minds reflect who we are as persons. One of the essential features of a person is the ability to know, and Patanjali claims that in states where the mind has been intellectually clarified so as to increase rational belief, the mind starts to reflect the essence of the person as someone who can know. The more we thus drift to Isolation, the more our mind will reflect ourselves as a person. But our essence as a person is not idiosyncratic: it is something we share with all persons. Thus, perhaps ironically, the more Isolated we are via yoga, the more our states of mind will converge in essence. Hence, Patanjali’s system rules out a divergence of rational perspectives: on his account, the more rational, the more we are alike.

The question of a “personal decision” thus has two dimensions to it. On the one hand, there is the common sense of personhood, that has to do with all of the contingencies of our life (age, sex, race, culture, species…) but then there is the metaphysically more essential conception of personhood that Patanjali is concerned with. This is common to all people. Thus, for Patanjali, the question of making personal decisions is a matter of attempting to live the authentic life where we act in accordance with our personhood, not contingencies like our age. The yama rules, such as ahimsa and satya, are thus guiding goals to help us act in accordance with our personhood and make personal decisions.

Yoga and Education:

Priya Thomas: How would you handle offering an education for people wishing to study the sutras?

Shyam Ranganathan: For Patanjali, becoming a yogi is not about learning, but rather being someone who knows. But knowing is not anything that is extrinsic to us: it is rather our potential as a person. Thus, in living an authentic life as someone who can know, we move into a state in which we start to know not necessarily through deliberate study but by clearing up our mind, body and life. If we chuck the clutter, we start to shine. What is normally called “education” has a lot to do with conforming to fluctuating, discipline relative expectations. Yoga is, in theory, forever.


A ccording to Ranganathan, real yogis are those who use yoga as a map for auto-psychotherapy and a philosophical understanding of the self. The question, "Who am I?", is the philosophical cornerstone of practice.

Ranganathan argues that without the ability to ask the deeper philosophical questions, yoga is stripped of some of its basic underpinnings; namely, the infrastructure provided by the idiom of the Sutras. And without the ability to survey philosophical arguments, yoga cannot hope to be a powerful or challenging practice to our most deeply embedded patterns. And, the ability to be profoundly challenging to oneself is precisely what enables a practice that can challenge the assumptions of the wider culture it inhabits.

And yet, Ranganathan notes the pitfalls of assuming militant positions that alienate the greater population as a result of ideology:

"...the more benign we are, the less threatening we are to those who disagree with us, the more inclined others will be to listen to us. Militant veganism, for instance, is a losing strategy on Patanjali’s account: it alienates the people we ought to convert." (Shyam Ranganathan)

The goal of yoga, then, is to understand the philosophical arguments, while softening one's relationships with the dominant culture. It is is the softened and engaged yogi that is able to effect change.

And, for Patanjali, education has little to do with becoming a yogi. Teacher training, degrees and certifications have little to do with it. Ranganathan reminds, that extrinsic additions don't add up to anything. Yoga is instead a subtractive operation; a procedure of opening up the body to a greater awareness of what a self is really made of...And, according to Patanjali, one of the sharpest subtractive instruments at our disposal is philosophy.

Shyam Ranganathan's translation of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras is available here
• For a complete list of publications and more information on Shyam Ranganathan consult his site.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this excellent article. Dr. Ranganathan is an eloquent proponent of critical thinking concerning the relevance of yoga philosophy as it is presented in the traditional literature. His positions are very well thought out and worthy of consideration by anyone who takes yoga seriously.

    There are two topics covered in this interview that I think are worthy of further discussion along the lines that Dr. Ranganathan advocates: his conception of Ishvara and the idea, paraphrased in a caption, that the guru is irrelevant in the Yoga Sutras. I agree that Patanjali does not offer any specifics about the guru-disciple relationship. But he doesn't indicate that Ishvara is our teacher, either. Rather, he indicates Ishvara as the teacher of the ancients and the object of meditation. The absence of any mention of the guru/disciple relationship does not refute the validity of such a relationship; Patanjali simply does not offer an opinion on the subject. The Bhagavad-gita, on the other hand, makes the importance of such a relationship irrefutably clear in the fourth chapter, particularly the opening verses concerning disciple succession, wherein Krishna makes it clear that he himself is the teacher of the ancients, and most specifically verse 4.34, wherein approaching a guru is directly recommended.

    As for Ishvara as an archetype, metaphor does not obviate being; Ishvara must be a person or it would be irrational for Patanjali to refer to him as having qualities that differentiate him from all others. And Patanjali never refers to Ishvara as being identical with our true selves. Rather, he refers to Ishvara as being categorically different from us. It would not make sense for Patanjali to be comparing Ishvara to our conditioned selves since he has already dismissed the conventional proposition of the self identified with the mind/body complex as illusory. I think he is comparing Ishvara to the self in it's own true nature and then differentiating Ishvara from the self in that context. This understanding is supported in the Upanishads: nityo nityanam cetanas cetananam; among all eternal beings there is one eternal being who is the shelter of all the others.

    The beauty of yoga scripture is that, philosophically speaking, one can derive value from both figurative and literal interpretations. Not all scriptures lend themselves so constructively to both hermeneutical approaches.