India is predominantly a spiritual country with its own distinctive culture. It has given birth to hundreds of sages, saints, and philosophers who have worked to restore and renew her rich spiritual heritage periodically. This has ensured the continuity of spiritual tradition from Vedic times a tradition that is vibrant even today despite external onslaughts and internal upheavals. Patanjali and Sri Aurobindo represent two ends of this unbroken and unceasing spiritual tradition.
Considered an incarnation of the mythical serpent king Ananta, who supports the earth, Patanjali is believed to have lived two thousand years ago. He was born to put the house of yoga in order and to systematize it for ease of comprehension and access. Hence if Shiva is the first yogi, Patanjali is next to him among yogis of the highest order. The system propounded by him is known as ashtanga yoga, the eight-limbed yoga comprising of yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, prayahara, dharma, dhyana, and Samadhi.
Sri Aurobindo belongs to modern times. He was a poet, philosopher, freedom fighter, nationalist and above all a rishi and yogi in the Vedic tradition. Born on 15 August 1872 he had fourteen years of vigorous English education at St. Paul’s school in London and Kings College, Cambridge. His life after return to India in 1892 underwent several twists and turns. After working in various administrative and professional posts in Baroda and Calcutta, including that of a teacher at Maharaja’s College he plunged into revolutionary nationalist politics, advocating extremist methods to free India from British rule. In 1908 while in the Alipore bomb case he had several mystical experiences which drastically transformed him into a yogi. Several years earlier he had started practicing yoga under the instruction of Vishnu Bhaskar Lele but it was only in Alipore that he realized his true destiny and finally abandoned hid political and revolutionary literary activity. In 1910 soon after his acquittal, he secretly sailed for Pondicherry, his final home for practicing intense yogic sadhana. It was there that he became a silent but spiritually dynamic personality, fully focused on his new path which resulted in a new vision, a new philosophy, a new religious outlook, and a new experience. This transformation led him to proclaim that the advent of the Supramental on earth was inevitable. Bringing the supramental consciousness and power down to earth was Sri Aurobindo’s central work. He explained this process as well as his yogic experiences in his writings, which run into several thousand pages. These include The Life Divine, The Synthesis of Yoga, Essays on the Gita, The Ideal of Human Unity, The Human cycle, and The Record of Yoga.
Integral Yoga and the Physical Being
Although both Patanjali and Sri Aurobindo expound on yoga, they seem to differ on several counts. If Patanjali’s is ashtanga yoga, Sri Aurobindo’s system could be termed panchanga yoga, the five-limbed yoga, which includes the physical, the vital, the mental, the psychic, and the spiritual aspects of the human being. Sri Aurobindo called it purna yoga or integral yoga. To understand his philosophy properly one needs to view the human being in its five-fold nature and see how each aspects leads to the other, characterized by greater perfection and finally to the Supreme. For one to be whole one must walk these five principal steps relating to the five spheres of life. Usually these aspects of beings are also phased of one’s spiritual life, succeeding each other in chronological order and marking the growth and perfection of the individual. Each of these aspects has its own laws of growth, perfection and fulfillment. Sri Aurobindo says:
When we reach this degree of perfection which is our goal, we shall perceive that the truth we seek is made up of four major aspects: Love, Knowledge, Power and Beauty. These four attributes of the Truth will express themselves spontaneously in our being. The psychic will be the vehicle of true and pure love the mind will be the vehicle of infallible knowledge, the vital will manifest an invincible power and strength and the body will be the expression of a perfect beauty and a perfect harmony. 1
The physical is as important as the mental. Sri Aurobindo’s yoga begins with the physical, whereas Patanjali’s begins with character-building for which he prescribes the five yamas, major moral precepts, and five niyamas, spiritual disciplines. For Sri Aurobindo all creation begins with matter, and life is a latter development. Therefore, he gives precedence to the physical. He says: ‘Perfection is the true aim of all culture If our seeking is for a total perfection of the being, the physical part of it cannot be left aside; for the body is the material basis, the body is the instrument which we have to use. Shariram khalu dharmasadhanam, says the old Sanskrit adage, the body is the means of fulfillment of dharma, and dharma means every ideal which we can propose to ourselves and the law of its working out.2
Some schools of philosophy, sects, and spiritual seekers with extreme ideologies treat the body with contempt, as something gross, inert, and unconscious---a virtually insuperable impediment to spiritual realization. But both Patanjali and Sri Aurobindo do not endorse this view. For them the body is endowed with vitality and acts as an agent of transformation. Neglecting the body or inflicting injuries upon it is antithetical to spirituality and amounts to a serious violation of natural laws. Instead, the body needs to perfected, to be made a fit vehicle for spiritual transformation. For Sri Aurobindo the descent of divine consciousness into the body is vital. Ultimately, it is the only medium for holding and expressing divine consciousness. So it should be trained and transformed. To facilitate this process Patanjali prescribes pranayama, which purifies the body by eliminating toxic substances. Though Patanjali does not prescribe elaborate asanas in his Yoga Sutra, such later yoga texts as Hathayoga Pradipika, Shiva Samhita, and Gheranda Samhita fulfill this purpose. Sri Aurobindo does acknowledge that the limitations of the body are great and real, but in his opinion these are not due to its essentially unredeemable nature. When we set perfection as the goal of life, the body cannot be ignored and has to be made an integral part of the process of transformation:
A total perfection is the ultimate end which we set before us, for our ideal is the Diviner Life which we wish to create here, the life of the Spirit fulfilled on earth, life accomplishing its own spiritual transformation even here on earth in the conditions of the material universe. That cannot be unless the body too undergoes a transformation….The body itself must reach a perfection in all that it is and does which now we can hardly conceive. It may even in the end be suffused with a light and beauty and bliss from the beyond and the life divine assume a body divine (8-ii)
In Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy the body is taken to be the starting point of sadhana; diligent effort ought to be made to train it appropriately and make it a fit instrument for a perfect life. The body should be kept healthy by cultivating good habits of food, sleep, hygiene, and physical exercise. The objective is not only to develop physical stamina but also to command life energy at any required time by regulating the various functions of the body. Sri Aurobindo emphasizes the need not only for strength but also for grace, beauty, and harmony. Beauty is the very spirit of the physical world. The ancient Greeks upheld this idea. A mastery of bodily reflexes-----wonderful and quick----is desirable. Self-mastery and discipline, courage and confidence, impartiality and fairness in dealing with others are all products of proper physical training. This physical culture has positive impact on the vital and mental being too.
Sri Aurobindo says: ‘We are bound by a poor and limited physical nature; we are bound consequently by a poor and limited life-power. 3The hatha yoga practice of asanas has two profound ideas: control by physical immobility and power through immobility. Sri Aurobindo observes: “The power of physical immobility is as important in Hathayoga as the power of mental immobility in the Yoga of knowledge’. (509) Hatha yoga aims at bringing about a greater poise in bearing and action and the channeling of life energy from disorder to self-mastery. So the first object of the immobility of asanas is to rid the body of its restlessness and force it to channel the life-energy prana, instead of dissipating and squandering it. The body thus purified of its disorders and irregularities by the combined practice of asana and pranayama becomes a perfected instrument. The hatha-yogin acquires great physical power and good health and is able to maintain vigor, health, and youth unimpaired even at an advanced age. Sri Aurobindo endorses hatha yoga as he considers the body a vital element in human evolution.