I picked up a copy of David Gordon White’s The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography on Friday for the bus ride home. As I have read through his introduction to the sutra’s context, I have been surprised how familiar it is. White’s contention is that the sutra is much less significant in appreciating yoga’s history even though it has become a vitally important text in its present. In making that claim, he notes that most of the talk about the eight-fold path in yogic literature favors the account of it in the Mahabharata, not Patanjali’s.
What catches my attention is the that discussion of it in the Mahabharata centers around the image of the chariot, a chariot that carries the soul back up to the heavens. The discussion around it starts to sound like an alternative version of the account given by Plato in the Phaedrus (Plato precedes both Patanjali and the Mahabharata by a few centuries).
It is useful to think about the philosophy of Plato and the yogic philosophy of India as occupying similar spiritual horizon. Both have ties to a common prehistory and are embedded in a common world through which trade in both material and ideas took place. It helps keep yoga and philosophy out of the nationalist efforts to reduce both to ethnic identities, be they ‘Western’ or ‘Indic’ or ‘Hindu’ or ‘European.’
I find myself disliking the term ‘culture’ more and more of late. As a shorthand for commonalities rooted in language, habit, and environs, it has some use, but too often the term is understood as hermetically sealing off one people from another in mutually unintelligible worlds. And yet, here are Plato and the Mahabharata in clear, if indirect, discourse with each other.
I recall, too, J. N. Mohanty relaying a delightful anecdote about spending some time with Hans-Georg Gadamer comparing their translations of Sanskrit (Mohanty) and Ancient Greek (Gadamer) material on consciousness and realizing how similar they were. For Mohanty, I think, it seemed to suggest that Indian thought had as much to contribute to contemporary phenomenology as Ancient Greek sources.
There is something else going on, too, in that image of the chariot. Remember the vultures of a previous notebook post? Well, they sit on a symbolic continuum with the ka, and the faravahar. The chariot as described by Plato and the Mahabharata occupy a similar place, as something that is separable from the material body and released into another form of spiritual existence. And in Plato’s account he explicitly associated the recovery of the chariot with the growth of wings.
It makes, too, the image of the headless mother with vulturous nipples especially haunting. The force of the earth, the force to devour, but without the wings of liberation that the vulture dancers above headless bodies suggest.
What I see staged in the Çatalhöyük material is a confrontation between rebirth and release, but by the time we get to the works of Plato, Patanjali, and the Mahabharata, the tension has flagged, fallen into a contrast between entrapment and freedom. I’m wondering a lot about that.
And, yes, I can see the weird parallels with Murray-Gimbutas (pseudo) prehistory about an ancient matriarchy and its disruption by a patriarchy. Doubly so because I can see the parallels playing out in my spiritual work. It makes me wonder if what was going on there wasn’t a conflation of a spiritual message with a historiographical account. I’m not sure we need the outright opposition of release and rebirth, either, like there is a choice that has to be made toward one or the other.