A Comparative Study of Yoga and Advaita

Shankara Teacher of Advaita Vedanta

by Jayaram V

Summary: Find out the main differences and similarities between Yoga and Advaita schools of Hinduism

Contrary to the popular belief, the Yoga System of the Darshana Schools of Hinduism does not aim to facilitate the union of the Self with the Supreme Self. It rather aims to separate the Self (Purusha) from not-self or the mind and body (Prakriti) through several techniques so that the Self returns to its pure and transcendental state. In the standard approach this separation is facilitated by restraining the mind and senses and making the Self (Purusha) become aware of its true identity and abstain from its involvement with them and the world.

In yoga, the individual Self represents pure consciousness, which is devoid of ego, desires, modifications and afflictions. The mind represents impure consciousness which contains all these and thereby subjects the bound Self to the five afflictions and five modifications. The five afflictions are ignorance, egoism, attachments, aversion, and longing for life; and the five modifications are disturbances caused by perceptions (pratyaksha), perverted thinking (viparyaya), imagination (vikalpa), sleep and dreams (nidra), and memories (smriti). In Yoga practice we try to overcome the afflictions and modifications to silence the mind and separate the Self from its reflection in it and its identification with it so that it rests in itself in a state of self-absorption (samadhi) and becomes free from Prakriti.

In this discussion, yoga means the system or philosophy which is identified as one of the six philosophical schools (Darshanas) of Hinduism. In recent times many yogas and yoga systems have come into existence. In today’s world yoga is one of the most freely used words, disregarding its original intent and purpose. Some of them with which it is associated do not even qualify as yoga in the traditional sense. We are going to discuss here only the ancient Yoga which was traditionally associated with the Samkhya philosophy and derived its essential doctrines from it. Traditional yoga had no doctrinal foundation of its own. It was purely a practical philosophy which prescribed methods to silence the mind and body and separate the Self from them. The philosophical basis or the justification for its methodology was provided by the traditional Samkhya philosophy. Subsequently, however, it became associated with several schools and sects that originated in India and elsewhere.

The unique aspect of Yoga which is responsible for its popularity and appeal is that it is an applied science whose techniques and practices can be associated with any liberation theology with suitable modifications. Hence, you will find numerous types of yogas or yoga systems in all the religions, sects, ascetic movements and teacher traditions that originated in India. Traditionally, Yoga was associated with Samkhya, but subsequently became associated with all the major schools of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism with suitable modifications. The extent to which it was integrated into Hinduism can be found in the Upanishads, Bhagavadgita and many spiritual texts.

The Bhagavadgita comprehensively deals with the subject and the practice of yoga, offering an integrated approach for liberation, drawing the best from different yogas. Every chapter in it is named after a particular kind of yoga, which may refer to a state or a set of specific practices. It also speaks about the great antiquity of yoga and the Supreme Being as its source (4.1). However, unlike the traditional Yoga system, it defines yoga as the state of sameness or equanimity (2.48) which is attained by skillfulness (intelligence) in action (2.50).

The skill refers to the skill in distinguishing the true Self from the false self and knowing the difference between action (karma) in inaction (akarma) and inaction in action. When a person performs actions with selfish desires, he becomes bound by karma; but when does that as an offering or service or sacrifice to God, he remains free. When a person becomes skillful in putting that knowledge to practice, he attains perfection in equanimity or sameness and realizes the Self in due time (4.38).

Our knowledge of the Yoga System is derived mainly from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It is an authoritative text on the subject although it cannot be considered a foundational text since Patanjali presented or collated the salient features of the system which were prevalent during his time rather than inventing them. Our knowledge of Samkhya, with which Yoga was originally associated, is principally derived from the Kapila Sutras of Kapila, who is credited with founding the system.

Traditional yoga is a theistic system in a limited sense. It acknowledges numerous, eternal individual selves (Purushas) rather than the unitary Supreme Self or creator God. Although some writers and commentators stretch the meaning of Isvara paridhana (devotion to the Self) as devotion to God, the truth is that the Isvara of the Yoga system is an individual Purusha who is one among many, not the universal Purusha who is without a second. The individual purushas are eternal, indestructible, infinite, pure, independent and omniscient in their pure state. They become bound to the cycle of births and deaths when they are embodied by the components (tattvas) of Nature and subjected to its control.

Advaita or the school of monism or nondualism

Advaita means absence of duality or nonduality. It refers to the unified state of consciousness which refers to natural state of the individual Self (Atman) or the Supreme Reality of Brahman, the universal Self, who is extolled in the Upanishads as the Self of all. The Advaita school is one of the sub schools of the Vedanta Darshana, which is also known as Uttara Mimansa. Just as Yoga, it is one of the six philosophical schools of Hinduism. However, unlike the rest, the Vedanta school is a theistic philosophy which regards Brahman as the supreme Lord, controller and source of all. Just as other philosophies of Vedanta, it derives its doctrine principally from the Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita and the Brahma Sutras.

The Advaita philosophy has its roots in the wisdom of the Upanishads and may be as old as the most ancient of the Upanishads which acknowledge Brahman as the supreme lord and the ultimate truth and reality. However, it became popular as a school of thought during the medieval times mainly due to the works of Sri Shankaracharya who probably lived in the eighth or ninth century AD, and the effort of his followers and students and the institution of Shankaracharyas he established. He himself was probably influenced by the teachings of Gaudapada (sixth or seventh century AD) and the Buddhist philosophies of his time such as the Mahayana and Sunyavada schools.

Advaita acknowledges the duality between Brahman and Creation but considers it an illusion or delusion (Maya) which arises due to the influence of the gunas and ignorance of the embodied beings. According to Advaita, objects become known to the perceiver or the seer only when they are illuminated by the light of the Self. The objects by themselves are not self-luminous, and so is the objective reality (the not-self). They cannot be known by themselves but only when they are illuminated by the Self. They are also incapable of illuminating our consciousness by themselves. Hence, they need a perceiver or the Self to be known. In contrast, the eternal reality of Brahman or the Self is always self-luminous. It exists by itself and does not depend upon an external entity to be known. The objective reality cannot be known except through an external agency. It is also temporary since it is subject to impermanence. Hence, it does not qualify as real. The supreme reality of Brahman is neither temporary nor unstable nor dependent. It is self-luminous, indestructible, eternal, unchanging and supreme. Hence, it qualifies as real, and everything else which arises from Brahman during creation should be regarded as his projection and an illusion.

Although Brahman is absolute, supreme, transcendental and without qualities and attributes (Nirguna), for the sake of creation he appears as the Supreme Being with qualities, names and forms. He is Saguna Brahman (Brahman with gunas) who is  more popularly known as Isvara or the Lord of the universe. The latter is not real but a reflection of Brahman in the purity (sattva) of Nature (Prakriti). The reflection of Brahman also appears in the modes and aspects of Nature. They are considered the manifestations of Brahman only. However, they are a part of the objective reality and are not real or the same as Brahman.

Devotees may worship the divine manifestations of Brahman to stabilize their minds and cultivate devotion, but in the end they should seek only the Supreme Brahman, who represents the supreme reality of boundless oneness and pure consciousness. Advaita has a close affinity with the bhakti movement or devotional theism which gained popularity during the medieval period. Each of the main sects of Hinduism namely Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism have their own version of Advaita, just as they practice their own versions of Yoga. Within Advaita itself there are different sub-schools such as Shuddha Advaita, Vishishtadvaita, Dvaita-Advaita, Acintya-bhedabheda, and so on

Differences and similarities between Yoga and Advaita

Although Yoga and Advaita are Darshana philosophies and derive their fundamental beliefs from the Vedas, the two present contrasting approaches to our understanding of the existential reality. At the same time, they also share many common beliefs. The following are a few important differences and similarities between the two.

1. Yoga is an independent Darshana which is closely associated with Samkhya Darshana. Advaita, which is a sub school of Vedanta, is a unique philosophy with little or no correlation with other Darshanas. However, the methods of Yoga are also practiced by the followers of Advaita to overcome duality and experience self-absorption (samadhi) or enter the nondual state of pure consciousness which is also the pure state of Brahman. Although Yoga is primarily a dualistic philosophy, it acknowledges that the pure state of the Self is indistinguishable oneness only. The duality ceases to exist for the self-realized yogi, but not for others.

2. According to Advaita, ignorance means not knowing the reality of Brahman and mistaking the objective reality as true. According to Yoga, ignorance means not knowing the true Self and developing attraction and aversion towards objective reality and engaging in desire-ridden actions which leads to bondage and suffering.

3. Both philosophies acknowledge delusion (moha) as an impure state caused by the triple gunas which results in bondage and suffering. However, in Advaita delusion means mistaking the world or the objective reality as real, ignoring the true Self or Brahman. In Yoga, delusion means mistaking the reflection of the Self (ego) in the mind as real and identifying oneself with it.

4. Advaita’s foundational texts are Upanishads, Bhagavadgita and Brahma Sutras. Although initially Yoga derived its theoretical base from the Samkhya, in its current form it also derives its knowledge from the same texts. There are also many Yoga Upanishads, commentaries and Yoga treatises which extensively deal with the theory and practice of Yoga. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is considered a standard text on the subject. However, it mainly deals with classical yoga or Ashtanga Yoga, which is one of the numerous yogas which have been traditionally practiced in India for centuries.

5. Advaita considers Brahman the supreme and only reality, and the world as his projection or an illusion. Yoga rejects the mayavada of Advaita and holds the objective reality as real, dual and plural. For a Samkhya yogi, the world always exists whether we exist or not and becomes known when it is illuminated and recreated by the sattva in the mind (citta) as a reflection. Since there are numerous purushas (souls), the world may appear differently in each of their consciusness, but ceases to exist when they attain self-realization or self-absorption. Upon liberation the world may cease to exist for the liberated purushas, but it exists for those who are still bound.

6. Both philosophies believe in the possibility of jivanmukta, or the liberation of beings in their embodied state when they are still alive. Although it is rare, human can achieve liberation by overcoming the impurities and experience the purest state of self-absorption or oneness with the Self when they are still alive. When they depart from here, they are forever liberated from the hold of Prakriti and never return to take another birth. According to Yoga, they continue exist after liberation also as free souls (muktas). However, according to Advaita, the individual souls cease to exist upon liberation since their individuality or separaqtion is an illusion. They become dissolved in Brahman without any trace.

7. For liberation, Advaita prescribes the practice of self-study (svadhyaya) and reinforcing what has been learned thus through the three-step methodology of sravanam (hearing), mananam (remembrance) and nidhidhyasanam. The last two practices may be considered adaptations of dharana and dhyana of the Yoga system. Yoga also prescribes self-study and contentment as a part of the five observances. In both systems, there is a considerable emphasis upon persistent and continuous practice (abhyasa) until the goal is attained.

8. Both systems place considerable emphasis upon cultivating detachment, purity (sattva), knowledge (jnana) and discerning wisdom (buddhi) to overcome ignorance (ajnanam), egoism, desires, delusion (moha) and other impurities. Both systems believe in the doctrine of karma, bondage, rebirth and liberation. However, unlike Advaita, Yoga has no pantheon of gods or divinities. It acknowledges the duality of Purusha and Prakriti only.

9. In Advaita, initiation by a teacher or Guru who is an adept in the knowledge of the school is imperative. To achieve progress on the path, a student has to seek actively the guidance of the guru and serve him with devotion, treating him as a manifestation of Brahman. Although students of yoga may seek the guidance of a teacher to master the techniques, Yoga as a pure system of liberation is rarely practiced or followed. Instead, it is practiced in conjuction with other systems and teacher traditions where Gurus may play an imporatnt role in the preservation and propagation of their teachings and methods of practice and specific yoga techniques.

10. To stabilize the mind and cultivate equanimity both systems emphasize the importance of the persistent practice (abhyasa) of detachment and dispassion (vairagyam), and renunciation of desires and attachments.

11. Both systems place considerable emphasis upon self-purification and believe that liberation is not possible without overcoming the triple gunas and the impurities which arise from them.

12. For the purification of the mind and body Advaita recommends the sixfold practice of sama (equality or sameness), dama (self-control), uparati (detachment and dispassion), titiksha (tolerance), sraddha (faith and inclination) and samadhana (content) as a part of one's self-purification and transformation. Yoga recommends the practice fivefold restraints (yamas) and fivefold observances (niyamas). The five yamas are nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy and non-possession. The five niyamas are purity, contentment, austerity, self-study and devotion to the Self.

13. Both emphasize the importance of experiencing (anubhava) Samadhi to overcome the duality of the Self and the not-Self and experience the pure consciousness of the Self. However, they follow different methods to attain that final stage.

14. Advaita acknowledges the supreme reality of Brahman only and considers the individual Self (Atman) as an illusion. Yoga system acknowledges the supreme reality of the Self only and does not recognize Brahman. It believes in the plurality of the individual souls, all equally supreme and infinite, but does not acknowledge the existence of Brahman or the Supreme Self. In Yoga one may regard each individual-Self as Brahman, without ignoring the plurality of independent and distinct purushas.

15. Yoga and Advaita are ancient philosophies and played a significant role in the development of Indian spirituality. While Yoga can be aligned with any philosophy or religion, with minor modifications, Advaita is a Vedic philosophy which is traditionally associated with Hinduism and its sectarian traditions only. It is also difficult to align Advaita with other philosophical systems of Hinduism. However, it has its parallels in the Sunyavada school of Buddhism. It can also be associated with applied aspects of Yoga.

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