Yoga and an Indian Framework of Ethics
Dr Arpita Mitra

In September 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and the world by surprise when he proposed the adoption of an International Yoga Day (IYD) that will help create a change in lifestyle and consciousness, thereby also helping with climate change. Even the Indian diplomatic circles were officially not aware of any such proposal to be placed before the UNGA.i The first co-sponsor of the proposal was China. Eventually, the widespread support that the proposal garnered — cutting across developed, developing, OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) and other countries — went on to make history. And in the past four years, the popularity of IYD has only increased worldwide. So, what is it that made for such a ready acceptance in the first place? It is the recognition that ancient Indian wisdom does provide answers to some of the tough questions faced by the world today.

Yoga is commonly associated with asanas, which is actually Hatha Yoga, a special practice within Yoga to keep the body young and free from diseases. But Yoga is much more than an attempt to keep the body healthy or even the mind in control. Why should we keep the mind in control? Unless there is a higher purpose associated with it, it is futile. The word ‘yoga’ itself means joining, and the practice of Yoga is that which joins us to our true nature, which is blissful and eternal, completely independent of our pleasure/pain-ridden subjective existence on earth.

Yoga in India has had a chequered history. From reference to yogi-like ascetics in the Rig Veda to figurines with yogic postures found in the Indus Valley Civilisation, the history of Yoga in India goes back to several thousand years. Then, came those minor Upanisads that have been recognised as the ‘Yoga Upanisads’ii, and after that the Mahabharata, where the terms yoga and yogi appear about 900 times! iii More importantly, it contains the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna presents before Arjuna a veritable synthesis of Yoga — a synthesis that was effected once again in modern times by Swami Vivekananda (Four Yogas). Therefore, we see that the classic Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, composed probably around 200 BC, already had before it a long-standing tradition of Yoga in India. Nor did the evolution of Yoga stop at Patanjali. From the 9th century AD onwards, we had the Nath sampradaya who added Hatha Yoga to the Yoga tradition. Thus, Yoga in India has been not a static but a dynamic and thriving tradition.

But undoubtedly Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is the text that one would look up for a systematic exposition of the Yoga philosophy. According to Yoga darsana, as expounded by Patanjali, Yoga is “a methodical effort to attain perfection, through the control of the different elements of human nature, physical and psychical”iv. Everybody does not seek liberation (kaivalya in Patanjal Yoga), but everybody seeks happiness, and some also seek to lead a moral life. Yoga provides opportunity for leading a moral life along with a promise of abiding happiness.

The eight components (ashtanga) of Yoga are: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. Of these, the first two — Yama and Niyama — are purely ethical disciplines. One may be surprised to know that these are in fact believed to be the toughest steps in Yoga; once one achieves perfection in these ethical disciplines, the higher-order mental disciplines of Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi become easier. But if one is unable to attain perfection in these two, that becomes an obstacle in the path of Yoga. This only goes to highlight the importance of ethics.

As is well-known, Vivekananda had delivered several lectures on the four Yogas — Jnana, Karma, Bhakti and Raja Yogas. Of these, Raja Yoga is based on Patanjal Yoga. He even undertook a translation of the Yoga Sutra. v In one of his lectures, he thus explains the practice of Yama, which is sub-divided into five parts: “…non-injury [ahimsa], truthfulness [satya], non-covetousness [asteya], chastity [brahmacharya], not receiving anything from another [aparigraha] are called Yama”. This purifies the mind, the Chitta. Never producing pain by thought, word, and deed, in any living being, is what is called Ahimsa, non-injury. There is no virtue higher than non-injury. There is no happiness higher than what a man obtains by this attitude of non-offensiveness, to all creation. By truth we attain fruits of work. Through truth everything is attained. In truth everything is established. Relating facts as they are — this is truth. Not taking others' goods by stealth or by force, is called Asteya, non-covetousness. Chastity in thought, word, and deed, always, and in all conditions, is what is called Brahmacharya. Not receiving any present from anybody, even when one is suffering terribly, is what is called Aparigraha. The idea is, when a man receives a gift from another, his heart becomes impure, he becomes low, he loses his independence, he becomes bound and attached.”vi

Our ancient scriptures corroborate these explanations. For instance, it is stated in the Linga Purana: “Retelling precisely what has been seen, heard, inferred or experienced is called truthfulness (satya). It is devoid of injury or infliction of pain on others.” (8.13) Again: “Considering all living beings as one’s own self and working for the welfare of all living beings is called non-violence. It helps in achieving the knowledge of self.” (8.12) In one of his other lectures, Swamiji said of Vedanta: “Though all religions have taught ethical precepts, such as, ‘Do not kill, do not injure; love your neighbour as yourself’, etc., yet none of these has given the reason. Why should I not injure my neighbour? To this question there was no satisfactory or conclusive answer forthcoming, until it was evolved by the metaphysical speculations of the Hindus who could not rest satisfied with mere dogmas. So the Hindus say that this Atman is absolute and all-pervading, therefore infinite. There cannot be two infinites, for they would limit each other and would become finite. Also each individual soul is a part and parcel of that Universal Soul, which is infinite. Therefore in injuring his neighbour, the individual actually injures himself. This is the basic metaphysical truth underlying all ethical codes.” vii

Thus, we have here the material for an Indian framework of ethics. Vedanta and Yoga are two major streams within Hindu spirituality that differ on many counts, but also converge on many points. When approached from the viewpoint of sadhana, as opposed to a purely intellectual enterprise, these differences can be harmonized. Moreover, all through the history of Hinduism, there have been attempts by many to synthesize the two. But we can see that be it Vedanta, Yoga or Puranas, in spite of apparent differences, there is a seamless continuity in the fundamentals in various traditions within Hinduism. And they all say in unison: love is the highest virtue, and injury the greatest sin.

Yoga is a holistic system, where physical exercise is not merely for the sake of the body but for our mental, moral and spiritual development as well. To see it purely as an exercise is to nullify its great potential in the ethical sphere, which is what the Prime Minister had probably hinted at when he argued that Yoga can also help with climate change by changing our consciousness and lifestyle.

End Notes:

i. Asoke Mukherji, ‘Revealed: The Diplomatic Moves that Delivered Modi His Yoga Day’, The Wire, 21 June 2016.

ii. There are twenty such Upanisads, whose translation can be found in T. R. Srinivasa Ayyangar, trans., The Yoga Upanisads, Madras, Adyar Library, 1938. The translation can be accessed online:

iii. Edwin Bryant, ‘The Yogasutras of Patanjali’, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

iv. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy, vol. 2., New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 309.

v. Swami Vivekananda, ‘Patanjali’s Yoga Aphorisms’, in Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol. 1, Kolkata, Advaita Ashrama, 1989.

vi. Swami Vivekananda, ‘Raja Yoga in brief’, in ibid., p. 189.

vii. Swami Vivekananda, ‘Vedanta as a Factor in Civilisation’, in ibid., pp. 384-85.

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