The Yoga Darshana: A Soteriological Epistemology - Souhardya De

Way back in time when man had not yet cultivated the senses of religion as they are today, and philosophy was but barred to the study of the Vedic hymns and other such venerated but secondary (to the Vedas) scriptures (the Upavedas, the Puranas, the Upanishads, Brahmans, Aranyakas and Samhitas), Indian seers had derived distinct sayings on  life (from what they had primarily been shown in the Vedas)  and how living was to be formulated. It is from this difference in interpretation of the Vedic hymns and a parallel analysis of the pseudoscientific karmic manifestation in a human, that the Shad Darshana schools of ancient Indian philosophy gradually stemmed out.

It is important to note however, that Hinduism, as we see it today, is but an evolutionary theosophical conglomeration of almost every interpretation or saying, propounded by these enlightened seers, and not simply based upon a definite code of conduct penned down in one single doctrinal text, as in the case of Islam and Christianity, two of the other most widely followed religions on earth. What is meant by the aforesaid statement is that, Hinduism is flexible in the way dharma is to be led and karma is to be undertaken. Its sages have, for time immemorial, had different perspectives with respect to divinity but at the same time, two underlying features bind the varied threads of the Hindu preachings together: belief in the supremacy of the Vedas and placing full faith in the existence of God, the reason why these six schools of philosophy have collectively been called the Shad Darshana or as is better made clear, the orthodox schools of life.

The earliest among the six was the Samkhya (propounded in his work ‘Samkhya Sutra’ by Kapila Muni), following which originated the Yoga (Patanjali), Nyaya (Rishi Gautama), the Vaisheshika (Rishi Kannad), Purva Mimansa (Rishi Jamini) and Vedanta or Uttar Mimansa (first propounded by Badrayana and later popularised by Shankaracharya, Ramanuja and their trains). The ultimate aim of life however, as agreed upon by each of these six schools, is the attainment of mukti (moksha or salvation, in whatever terms one would like to generalise it as). Mukti refers to the liberation of a soul from the continual cycle of deaths and rebirths and thus, embodies the ending of all desires and suffering, a goal that many a Hindu seer has espoused in the past. The only major difference among these schools hence, is the path to be led, in order to attain salvation. While, for illustration, Samkhya philosophers propagate that it’s all about acquiring real knowledge (through Pratyaksha (perception), Anumana (inference) and Shabda (hearing from a trusted source)), the Yoga school believes in self restraints and Yamas to lead one to the attainment of salvation (though it also includes acquiring real knowledge through the Samkhya epistemology detailed above, a salient similarity that led Adi Shankara and various modern scholars, in the likes of Lloyd Pflueger and Mike Burley, to mock the Yoga school as a “Shamkhya school with God”).

Although the earliest usage of the word ‘Yoga’ (in the context of “yogically controlling… minds and…intelligence” as a reverence to the solar deity Savitri) first appears in the Rig Vedic hymn 5.81.1, it is dubitable as to whether the term ‘yoga’ was originally extant in the earliest revelations (shruti) of the Rig Veda or if it had been interpolated later, in the likes of the Purushasukta (a contradictory opinion to which however was presented by Indian scholar B. V. Kamesvara Aiyar).

The earliest consentient (to which scholars almost unanimously agree) definition of Yoga, as has been found in the Katha Upanishad (hymns 2.6.10-11), which when translated by Orientalist WD Whitney of the American Philological Association with modifications or certain changes based on the definition given by scholar Paul Deussen, reads somewhat like, “Only when Manas (mind) with thoughts and the five senses stand still,and when Buddhi (intellect, power to reason) does not waver, that they call the highest path.That is what one calls Yoga, the stillness of the senses, concentration of the mind,It is not thoughtless heedless sluggishness, Yoga is creation and dissolution.”

As has been further observed by yogic Indologist Gerald James Larson in his work entitled, ‘Classical Sāṃkhya: An Interpretation of Its History and Meaning’, “the fundamental notions of Samkhya, namely prakrti, purusa, buddhi, ahamkara, manas and the three gunas (sattva (goodness), rajas (passion), and tamas (ignorance)), provided the conceptual framework in which much of Indian philosophizing occurred, and the classical formulations of Yoga and Vedanta together with many traditions of Buddhist philosophy and meditation developed vis-a-vis the intellectual perspective of the Samkhya.”

It would be incorrect to state however, that the entire Samkhya philosophy owed its existence to the pillared fundamentals, Prakriti and Purusha. In reality, Purusha was non existent in the early Samkhya view and only appeared to represent the ‘spiritual elements’ (that came together with Prakriti or the ‘creative agencies of nature’ to create the universe) in the later Samkhya philosophy, propagated by theorists in around  4th century AD.

In the Yogic school, the final phase of the asanas, where this Purusha liberated itself from the Prakriti, is termed as the ‘samadhi’. It’ll be interesting to note that ‘samadhi’ is not an independent stage all by itself but is reached through a six fold axiology that encompasses yama (self restraint and further include, as stated by Patanjali in the Yogasutra 2.30, the later Jain principles of Ahimsa, Asateya, Satya, Aparigraha and Brahmacharya), niyama (regulations that bring under the umbrella, sauca, santosha, tapasa, svadhaya and ishwarapranidhana), pratyahara (first mentioned in the hymn 8.5 of the Chandogya upanishad), dharna (focussing the mind over the chosen object in pratyahara) and dhyana (that consists of pranayama, first mentioned in hymn 1.5.23 of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, asanas (that popularly include but are not limited to Konasana, Hastapadasana, Ardha Chakrasana, Trikonasana, Virabhadrasana, Garudasana, Ardha Matsyendrasana and Padmasana) and meditation).

The Vaisheshika Sutra by Rishi Kannad, in the verse 5.2.17 states that, “Pleasure and pain results from contact of soul, sense, mind and object. Non-origination of that follows when the mind becomes steady in the soul. After it, there is non-existence of pain in the embodied soul. This is that Yoga.”

After attaining the ultimate irreversible knowledge, having followed all the six procedures, the Yoga soteriology distinguishes between the first three phases and the ultimate three, grouping the latter together as the ‘sanyama’. They believe that the sanyama is reached when a person has perfected himself in controlling his mind, body and pancha-indriyas (the consequent term for which in Jainism would be jitendriya), he attains a state where God acts as his spiritual mentor and guide, leading him away from his worldly thoughts, desires, pleasures and pain to the otherworldly realm, hence bestowing him with salvation and eventually freeing the yogi’s soul from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

In the twenty first century today, as the entire world stretches itself in perfection with the postures of the ‘yoga’, it is crucial that they realise yoga is not only about asanas and the fitness regime, especially when aligning this fallacious thought to the land to which it belongs. Yoga, being an entire theosophical way of life in itself, bears a much greater legacy than that. It is climacteric that we realise the underlying expressiveness of the loose translation from the verse 6.20 of the Bhagvad Gita, that states, “Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.”


Souhardya De is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, an author, columnist and podcaster. He is the recipient of the 2021 Rashtriya Bal Shakti Puraskar, the nation’s highest honour for civilians under 18, for his contributions to art and culture.De can be reached at



Leave a Reply