Yoga for Personal & Social Development in Greece

Talk SHANTOM CENTRE,  Athens, June 6, 2015

Lida Shantala, director  of Shantom, introduced Prof Bharat Gupt as a friend of the Centre, a  classicist, lover of Greece, expert in ancient Greek and Indian  theater, and a scholar of Indian philosophy and religion. As Prof.  Gupt spoke in English, translation was provided by Ms. Irene Maradei.  Lida also thanked the Indian Embassy for its participation.

Beginning his talk, Prof  Gupt said that he was extremely delighted at having this chance to  speak at a Centre established in the memory of Smaro Stefanidou, a  famous Greek film and theatre actress and Lida Shantala’s mother.  He said, that speaking on Yoga at an artistic Centre, rather than a  religious venue, was more valuable, as art is usually more creative  and all-embracing, whereas religio-centricity sometimes declines into  conservatism. This Centre celebrates the lifelong dedication to art  by Smaro Stefanidou and Lida Shantala, and is thus, a place of  special significance. Yoga, he said, is also an art. In ancient  times, in both Greece and India, there was no dividing line between  humanities and sciences, and both were categorised as episteme or vidyaa.

He started with  recitation in Sanskrit of an invocation by the ancient Indian poet  Bhartrihari,

Svaanubhuutimekamaanaaya namah shaantaaya tejse.

“I  bow to Shiva, to ultimate peace and dynamism, boundless, not limited  by time or space; to the Image of pure Consciousness, experienced and  known by oneself alone.”

Prof. Gupt expounded that  in the Indian traditional systems (and this was true of Socrates in  Greece as well), knowledge is validated by self-experience only; not  through a scripture, a teacher or a prophet's words or any material  inference. Actually, knowing Truth through physical, mental and  higher conscious-ness, is YOGA. The asanas and pranaayama are the physical level, the channelling of the mind is the psychic  level, and the knowing the Ultimate through consciousness is the  final level as mentioned in the verse just recited.

If one is to look for a  definition of Yoga, the best is to be found in Patanjali,
Yogah chittavrittih  nirodhah.”

This is not to be  translated as “Yoga is control of mind”, as is often done. Yoga  is an unfolding or experience of the true nature of Consciousness. It  is through Consciousness that one becomes aware of the body and the  mind. True Yoga, therefore, is channelling of the physical, of the  mental and of consciousness, to its final destination. Yoga is  certainly not asanas or postures only. The purpose of Yoga  is not to have merely an attractive and healthy body. If that were  so, Yoga would be no different from swimming or eurhythmics. We have  to see the totality of Yoga at all the levels.

Yoga is also not to be  seen as a method of control which means doing certain things and  stopping with it. It does not mean doing this and not doing something  else. Yoga is actually channelling of your total self towards a  journey. It is a journey to good physical and mental health,  stability and to opening up of the consciousness to the total Cosmos.  Yoga, therefore, is just about everything.

Hence in the famous text  the Bhagavadgita, it is said, that Yoga is doing all  our activities with the highest skill. “Yogah karmasu  kaushalam.” Yoga is doing the best in every human sphere of  action.

A Yoga follower is not an  ascetic, nor a recluse, nor is she or he, exclusively devoted to  spiritual concerns. One is most thorough in doing all things with  highest efficiency. It is living life in all its completeness, with  all its travails, troubles and challenges. That is the reason why  Yoga is not merely a theology. There are many controversies at  present regarding Yoga. It is often asked if Yoga is merely a Hindu  pursuit. Can  Christians or Muslims practice it?

Would they cease to be  Muslims or Christians if they do so? There are theological wars going  on around this question. But if you experience Yoga as I explained it  to be, there cannot be any controversy. Every human being has a body,  a mind and a consciousness which he transcends if he wishes to go  beyond the conventional and wants to experience the Cosmos. Yoga is  an exploration and an experience and not a set of doctrines.

This brings me to central  question of this lecture. Can Yoga be used for combating the hard  times that Greece is going through now? If you see the vastness of  Yoga, you will realise that it becomes an instrument for facing all  the problems and trepidations that we face in our lives. Yoga then is  for those who are in difficulties and for nations in difficult  periods.

How should then pursue  Yoga? Should it done with a limited aim? It cannot be done with a  single aim. Yoga offers to solve all the problems of life. It does  provide you a healthy body, a mind which can face the challenges of  daily living, and above all Yoga makes you aware that there is a  reality beyond body and mind.

Some theologies are  disturbed by Yoga for a simple reason. Every theology that does not  accept the totality of existence but insists that “my God alone is  true,” or that “my prophet alone is the messenger of  God”, or  that by following a particular Saviour alone one shall not walk in  darkness any more, feels threatened by the exploratory nature of  Yoga.  It is not for theological differences that Yoga is threatening  to such doctrines.

It is so, because Yoga  expands the heart and the mind and is all inclusive. It reveals  through self experience and personal testimony and not through stated  dogmas regarding the truth of religious experience. It makes you  decide yourself about the diversities and differences in the Universe  and how to deal with them by self experience and not by doctrinal  submission to the 'revealed' words of others.

Yoga is the best  practical way of living through hard times. However, the ground needs  to be prepared before starting the practice of Yoga.  In the  classical systems of Indian thought this preparation was called   as  submitting to Yama and Niyama. That is, to create and sustain certain  attitudes and practices. Briefly speaking, it is pursuing a life of  hard work, not desiring the wealth of others, maintaining a life of  discipline though not of asceticism.

For a serious and  determined person on the path of Yoga, being an ascetic is not a  requirement. Countless sages and yogis in India have set the example  of being  stationed in their worldly lives and duties while being at  a high level of yogic knowledge.

Yoga, therefore requires,  some kind of a restraint and refraining from aggression. It should  not be very difficult for this audience to understand these are the  same as the preconditions for artistic activity. If an artist is  hateful or destructive, or angry and unforgiving, he or she cannot  create great art. The same is true for Yoga.

So where do we begin?  There are many prescriptions, but more than them, it is your own  search which is going to tell you where and how to start. The needed  frame of mind for Yoga is non aggression, tremendous patience and  then a regimen of the asanas and various exercises. These have  to be done under proper guidance. The next stage is control of breath  or pranaayama. After a habit of doing these with ease has been  developed and fresh energies are seen as manifesting in the body, one  starts going inward. Inwardness is an essential activity for any  creative person. Again the artists are the best paradigm for a  budding yogi.

Yoga is the beginning of  a new art, the art of going within. This is the start of serious  Yoga. Very few of us are capable of doing this, just as very few of  us are capable of becoming good artists. But even coming close to  this condition, helps you attain a good vision of the world, a  harmonious way of living with other persons. That is not a small  thing. And so, even the mundane results of yoga are spectacular.

I shall describe what is  said to be inward life. It is said that it is essentially a union of  the individual self with the whole Cosmos. It is thus that a true  knowledge of the permanent reality comes to you.

The very word yoga means  uniting. But we think of Yoga as a cult of exercises. I hope I have  succeeded in bringing to your attention the totality of the Yoga  pursuit.
Efcharisto para poli.

And now the questions.

Q: (by a Greek poet.).  I am very moved and happy to be here. I ask your advice rather than a  question. Yoga has a country, it sprang from a certain tradition.  I  am aware of the fact that it is not limited to it. But please tell  me, for someone who wants to delve more seriously, more in depth into  yoga and serve it better, is it advisable or necessary to delve into  Eastern philosophy and Hindu religion?

BG: Studying Hinduism  will bring its own reward. But even after studying it, there is  little chance that one understands Yoga. Nothing shall mean much  unless one does some practical Yoga. I can say from my own  experience, as I have done music as Yoga (called naadopaasanaa in India). It was only after doing something practical like music  that I could understand the meaning of the deep philosophical texts  of Hinduism. As any musician knows, music makes you aware of your  body as you employ it to create art, and so your mind, and an entire  differently way of understanding develops by constant practice. Same  is true of Yoga.

Question: What you  explained about Yoga seems to be very similar to Zen or Buddhist  thought. What do you think?

BG: Well, in my humble  opinion there is extremely little difference between what have been  academically called as separate doctrines going by the name of  Hinduism and Buddhism. There have been political reasons for  projecting a big divide between the two but to discuss them is beyond  the subject of this talk today.

Question: What is Yoga  for Indians, I mean the common persons? For those who do not study or  discuss the way we have been talking here? What place does Yoga have  in a regular Indian’s everyday life?

BG: Yoga is a very wide  term used terms for many kinds of practices. Asanas and pranayama is one part of it though they stand for Yoga in the  common mind now. But if Yoga is to be seen as way or journey to  knowing the Cosmic Self-experience, then there have to many ways of  approaching the Cosmic Truth. So there are dozens of Yogas: Selfless  service, social responsibility, lifelong devotion to the pursuit of  an art or a science, or even a political responsibility

Question: What did you  say? Politics?

BG: It is surprising to  hear this. However, if you take political responsibility in the  spirit of total selflessness and with no personal interest  whatsoever, it is a legitimate Yoga. Arjun was preached to do that by  Krishna, to establish a just kingdom for common Good. Politics can  thus be beautiful.
{Laughter and  disbelief}.

Question: Do you know  of any such politicians?

BG: Yes, many! I have  lived in Delhi all my life where all kinds of politicians live, from  black to white. If I recall correctly, Plato has said that of all  arts, statecraft is the highest art. You make a state for others, not  just for yourself to be a tyrant.

Question: You spoke of  regular Yoga practice. What does “regular” mean? How often and  for how long does Yoga need to be done?

BG The physical part of  it is always a regimen but the inner journey is known only to the  practitioner. Classical texts use a term called pranidhaana or  concentrative determination for progressing in a Yoga journey. Higher  and stronger the pranidhaana, better the result.

Question: Sometimes I  try very hard to go ahead in my Yoga pursuit but then sometimes I  catch myself getting angry or upset - I get very disappointed for not  being able to control myself more, following the yamas and niyamas.  What should I do?

BG: We are all like that.  That is why we need Yoga.

Question: (The poet)  Are Yoga and meditation part of life or are they separate or is there  a sacred union?

BG: In whatever form or  style, Yoga has to be part of daily life.

Question: (by Lida). I  like the way you have explained the channelling of energies in Yoga  or rather that which is called 'control' in terms of Yoga. It is good  that you explained that Yoga is not following a dogma or merely a set  of rules but that it requires unconventional thinking and the opening  of the mind.

BG: If you would read the  lives of great Yogis, you will find that nearly all of them were  unconventional and had their own innovative systems and even their  rather eccentric style of social behaviour. The very core of Yoga is  to think beyond the conventional and to know things afresh. That is  why all puritans feel threatened by Yoga, specially by Yoginis, as  they break rules.

Q Regarding your  expounding of Yoga as channelling of the forces and going within, I  would like to say that in the Greek tradition there is a term used  for inward exploration called 'endoscopia.'

BG For my info can you  tell me in which text is this mentioned?

The Poet: One hundred  maxims from the sayings of the Oracle of Delphi.

Q Was Gandhi a Yogi?

BG: I will like to take  that up in a separate lecture on Gandhi. I have a very critical view  of Gandhi. In my humble opinion, right or wrong, like most social and  political thinkers of modern India, Gandhi was cut off from the  essential thought of classical India. Gandhi's ideas were rooted in  the paradigma of the medieval Hindu devotional movement called Vaishnavism that dominated the medieval times. The difference  is the same as between a Byzantine painting of Christ in a monastery  and an ancient painting of Apollon on a ritual ceramic vase. I am  giving a comparison from Greece for your easy understanding. Gandhi  did not belong to ancient Indian thought. My view, many may disagree.

Prof. Vassiliades: I  want to say, although influenced by Islam and Christianity, Gandhi  revered and constantly read the Bhagavadgita, thus  he does have some connection with ancient Indian thought.

BG: That is why he made a  mess of the Bhagavadgita. That is why he told the Jews  to surrender to Hitler. We have to reassess Gandhi, Nehru and many of  the so called makers of modern India. I have been saying this for 40  years. Most of these modern Indian leaders have been unaware of  the real classical Indian thought. Look how Gandhi treated sex,  which had little to do even with medieval India. Gandhi, regarding  his attitude to sex and women reminds me of some Christian monk of  the early centuries AD, who castrated himself. Don't mind, mine is,  perhaps, a very politically incorrect view.

Prof.Vasillidaes:  Classical India is not just Tantrism. It is also Jain thought which  was a big influence on Gandhi.

BG. I agree with you,  that there is more to ancient Indian philosophy than just Tantra and  the influence of Jain thought on Gandhi was certainly present.  However, look at the real spirit of those ideas of brahmcharya (sexual control) and ahimsa (non-violence), which Gandhi  adopted from Jain thought. In ancient times, as shown in the texts, brahmacharya was supposed to be practiced as moderation by the  householder and total abstinence was for the mendicant ascetic. It  was different for different people, in ancient society. Brahmacharya was not abstinence for the householder in ancient thought which  rested on the four stages of life and social responsibility. But  Gandhi forced abstinence on himself and preached it as desirable for  all. Non violence or ahimsa was never pushed to such extreme  in classical times, as Gandhi pushed it. All the Jain and Buddhist  kings of India had strong and well equipped armies.

There is a lot of  confusion about ancient Indian texts as for the past six to seven  hundred years there have been no universities where these texts could  have been studied systematically. Now there is a fresh need to  understand them, prescribe them, study them at all levels of  education, and discuss them again widely.  Then alone we will be able  to judge our modern political leaders.

I thank you all, for  coming and listening to me and giving your time this evening. Thank  you very much indeed.

About Speaker - Is  retired Associate Professor, Delhi University. He is an Indian  classicist, theatre theorist, sitar and surbahar player,  musicologist, cultural analyst, and newspaper columnist. Visit site

Also read
1. Collections of  articles on Yoga
2. Gandhi, Ahimsa and  Christianity
3. Did Gandhi's Ahimsa get India freedom
4. Impact of Ahimsa on  independent India
5. Sri Aurobindo on  Gandhi
6. Chapter wise  commentary on the Holy Gita
7. Demystify Tantra

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