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Compassion in the Practice of Yoga: Experiences and Observations

  February 19th 2021

Photo illustration by Conscious Design on

On December 9, 2020, the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) and the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS) held the online Wednesday Forum with the topic ‘Compassion in the Practice of Yoga: Experiences and Observations’. The speaker was Dr. Namrata Chaturvedi. She is an Associate Professor in the Department of English, SRM University, Sikkim, India. Dr. Namrata Chaturvedi has research interests related to classical Indian philosophy and literature and spiritual autobiographies. Her recent publication is an edited volume of essays on Kalidasa's Sanskrit drama published by Anthem Press this year.

In this presentation, Namrata interestingly framed the discussion about the practice of yoga within the issue of inculcating Karuna (compassion) which is often projected as the veritable and noble goal of spiritual practices around the world and a moral touchstone in religious doctrines in general. Unfortunately, in personal life, it becomes an ethical imperative that compels an individual to "act compassionately" which then may have an unintended damaging effect.. Namrata argues that this is because an external moral doctrine may turn an individual into a compulsively compassionate person while overlooking the basis of transformation that such forces require. Therefore, Namrata aims to highlight the internal aspects of this transformation through the sadhana (practice) of raja-yoga as a method that consistently clears the mind of false doubts and naturally brings out compassion that is inherent in all human beings. An awareness of this fundamental human quality can go a long way in influencing the behavior and judgment of individualists as personal and consequently at public levels.

Aligned with that, Namrata explains that there is some misunderstanding about yoga itself, such as yoga is seen as a religion while according to Namrata it is not a religion rather a method. Yoga is not a metonym for Hinduism and it is not cult-based or doctrine based, thus yoga also does not have the concept of sacred books, sacred places, or a concept of monotheism or polytheism. Furthermore, Namrata explained that yoga's literal meaning carries the connotations of combining, joining, or balancing the "outer self" with the "inner self", the "gross body" with the causal body, or manifest energy with eternal energy. Yoga makes us aware of our bodies and our existence. Therefore, yoga is not a theology but a practice aimed at the transformation of human consciousness. Yoga is specific to practitioners and the method and practices are subject to evolution and adaptation with the changes in the phenomenal world. No practice is complete, all yoga practice has its tendencies. There are different kinds of practice with different compatibility to each person. For instance, there is Hatha Yoga, haṭha meaning "strength" and thus alludes to physical systems. Bhakti Yoga refers to the sincere practice of worshiping God and his personality. Karma Yoga, also called Karma Marga, refers to "yoga of action" in which a right action is a form of prayer. Jnana Yoga, jnana means "knowledge". Raja Yoga was both the goal of yoga and a method of attaining it. The term also became a modern name for the practice of yoga. However, Namrata also emphasizes that in this presentation she will present the ideas about yoga based on her knowledge and experiences, meaning that she did not intend to theorize yoga.

Regarding the transformation of consciousness, Namrata argues that it can be achieved with the practice of the eightfold stages: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadi, in a balanced manner. Under the guidance of a guru, human consciousness limits itself to experience, expansion, and eventually merging with the infinite. However, here guru is not an individuated self or a person, guru is a principle, a stage of the evolution of consciousness. Guidance of a guru does not mean adherence to a rigid cult or obeisance to a physical body or personhood, but it is a consistent and auto-referential process where the inner self reminds, corrects, and balances the behavior and actions of the outer self.  Namrata also explains that within the transformation, the 'self' begins to locate itself in a dimension that is beyond the body. The 'self also begins to become unattached with external coordinates of time, place, and forms. Moreover, there is a natural tendency to 'witness' the outer self as it takes over: the 'witness consciousness' is established. The experience of reality begins to recognize the limitations of the human body and mind and supra-human and supra mental agencies and actors acquire meaning. There will be also an obsession with the 'rationality of the human mind' that is an acquired trait that begins to fade away and an understanding of time begins to develop that recognizes the cyclical nature of time and consequently of phenomena as developing from a cosmic rhythm.

Related to human emotion, Namrata argues that through yoga practices the 'witness-consciousness' does not attach itself any longer to emotions and the cycle of action-reaction but watches the emotions appearing as waves in the sea of consciousness. The selves of others are seen as results of pravrittis (traits) that are accumulated through karmas. Karmas themselves are impressions and memories acquired over lifetimes and life forms. Maybe the practitioner of yoga has unprocessed emotions, unfulfilled desires, unconcluded narratives of experiences, but yoga aims to enable the processing of these impressions through a gradual and consistent process of recognizing, facing, and experiencing them. Hence in the experiencing of karmas, an awakened self can free itself of attached qualities of grief, happiness, pain, anger, jealously, and others.

In line with that, yoga will also influence the practice of compassion of its practitioner. Actually, compassion is not a human emotion but the natural state of the human consciousness, thus when awareness sets in, the self naturally begins to act out of its natural state, expansive and infinite. With yogic practice, one can take the self to its own natural state and then watch itself act out of it. However, if compassion is preached or imposed as a moral compulsion, it becomes an imperative and an emotion that will root itself in an external coordinate religion, cult, reward, effect. Thus, as an awakened state, compassion will be a natural phenomenon that will not root itself in any external coordinate and hence lead to actual transformation. The self will not act out of ego but out of the principle of surrender. Furthermore, Namrata explains that the manifestation of compassion will enable one to see other human beings as fellow limited selves possessing an inherent capability for realizing they are limitless beings; one is aware of human pravrittis (tendencies) arising out of the effects of karma (cumulative impressions); one gains freedom of the logical fallacy of judgment of others actions, behavior, and choices; and one learns to participate in the human drama in multiple ways as a witness, listener, reliever, and catalyst, then they are free of the compulsion to act. If the compassion develops at the individual level then transformation of consciousness begins. It will lead to the social level, in which awareness of this freedom begins to spread to other people. Compassion then generates a chain reaction where the participating selves experience freedom and begin to seek it for themselves. Issues of injustice, power dynamics, environmental degradation, mental health, and others can be seen in a holistic perspective that recognizes the interconnectedness of life forms and impressions and understands a problem in that framework. Lastly, the interfaith relationship can become inter-spiritual ones, where theological differences and customary and ritualistic specificities can be seen as semiotic systems informed by the same universal language.

Finally, Namrata argues that in the contemporary era compassion faces some challenges. In the context of the global culture of materialism that has developed, it sees an individual as a sum total of external coordinates: body, mind, and materiality. This culture creates complete dependence on the external phenomenon and makes an individual anxious about change leading to psychological imbalance. Furthermore, the present crisis has manifested more as a material crisis than its medical aspects because it has disrupted the chain of material transmissions that were defining human selves. As a result, individuals have found themselves in personal crisis as their selves are shaped by external factors. Here, yoga enables the self to stay located in a higher dimension where the changing phenomena possess an obviousness rather than abruptness. Therefore, Namrata also suggests that yoga is brought into academic discourses and pedagogy. It is pivotal because, there is a blanket rejection of spiritual (not religious) methods and practices that disable  any meaningful engagement with transformation in the classroom, library, or board rooms. Academic approaches are expected to lay emphasis on the mind and create information overload for the learners thus humanities and social sciences can involve experience-based approaches and invite spiritual practitioners to enrich the understanding of human sciences. The goals of education need to be assessed: is the education of social sciences, humanities, literature, religious studies, and liberal arts meant to lead to an individual transformation that can gradually but steadily build larger transformations in homes, workplaces, and public discourses.