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Read "What Is Yoga?" by M.R. Smith

Read "Yoga in America...What Went Wrong?" by M.R. Smith
 

Essays by Mr. Smith. Reprinted with permission of the North East Holistic Resource

Part 1    Part 2    Part 3    Part 4    Part 5    Part 6    Part 7

Getting Acquainted With Yoga (Part 1)
Mention the word "yoga" and you may receive a variety of curious looks and responses by people who think it is weird. People typically think of meditation in the lotus (cross-legged) posture. Others have heard it is good for relaxation. At the extreme, some think it is a dangerous heretical religious cult. In places like Boston, New York and Los Angeles, classes are packed with enthusiasts.

The purpose of this column will be to shed light on the realities of yoga for the benefit of the reader. In fact, many people are discovering that yoga--Hatha-yoga, to be more specific--is a valuable form of training which builds character and confidence in conjunction with physical fitness. Moreover, what they find is that classes are taught by typical people who are friendly, supportive, and definitely not strange or fanatical.

Yoga is an ancient field of study from India and, to a certain extent, Tibet. There are several schools of yoga, each advocating a set of practices designed to lift the individual to a better condition of mental and physical health. The culmination of yoga comes about when the practitioner transcends material greed, attaining a state of harmony with nature and others. The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit, "yuj," which means to bind. Yoga is the science of binding the body to the spirit, and a way to spiritual salvation. It is not, however, a religion.

We in America have our own traditions of individual freedom and democracy, and a political, economic, religious and cultural history very different from India's. For yoga to be successful, it is imperative that the essence of yoga thought be expressed through a language people can understand. Yoga has indeed gained a good deal of acceptance and visibility in the last twenty years. Open any health magazine and you will find references to yoga. And in Central New York where I reside there are a surprising number of part time yoga teachers. But there is much work ahead for those wishing to establish the fledgling yoga profession on a permanent basis. The kind of profession I envision will be anchored in tradition, characterized by good science and technical excellence, and dedicated to serving the health and happiness of society.

As a practitioner and teacher, I believe in yoga's potential to bring about positive social change. The methods may be ancient, but they are powerful and relevant today as ever. As we gradually adopt yoga into the mainstream we run the risk of diluting the message. Personal transformation is difficult and requires self examination. Progress in yoga requires self examination and self discipline. In many cases yoga practice has been watered down to the level of another commercial palliative. I hope that through my teaching and through writings such as this column people will come to appreciate the inherent value of authentic yoga practice.

Returning to the question of why certain people scoff at the idea of yoga, I believe that they are reacting to the artificiality of the commercial variety and not to traditional yoga. I don't like to think we are a bigoted nation regarding other cultures and modes of thought. Given correct information about authentic yoga, typical Americans will come to respect this great practice if they don't happen to take the plunge themselves.

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Yoga's Ancient Historical Roots (Part 2)


Unraveling the mystery of Yoga will certainly require a lifetime of practice under the guidance of master teachers. But equal attention must be paid to the study of the history and philosophy associated with Yoga. The practice of Yoga is designed to strip our consciousness down to a more primitive level that is unencumbered by ego identity. But delving into ourselves in an effort to uncover something of our original nature is by definition delving into our personal and collective history. Yoga theory suggests that our personal history, historicity, must be deconstructed in order to grasp the universal. Those of us who pursue Yoga are indebted to the historians, archaeologists and anthropologists who keep history alive for us to explore. In fact, our story begins with an archeological find of great import regarding the question of Yoga's historical roots.

In the early 1920's, a survey led by Sir John Marshal revealed the great Indus-Sarasvati civilization to an archeological community who thought it had found the last of the ancient empires. This civilization dating back at least to 3000 BCE* spanned a thousand miles along the Indus and Sarasvati rivers in what is now modern day Pakistan. In 1900 BCE the Sarasvati river dried up and the civilization migrated eastward to the Ganges river. A key to the uniqueness of the civilization also known as Harappa were hundreds of soapstone seals used by merchants depicting plants, animals and mythological figures. Of particular interest is the seal which depicts a divinity enthroned on a low seat in a cross legged posture. It is believed that the image--many have been found--is that of none other than Shiva, "Lord of the beasts" (pashu-pati) and arch Yogin. The reason this is important is because Yoga in particular and Hinduism in general, whose pantheon certainly includes Shiva, had long been thought to have evolved exclusively from another culture whose language was Sanskrit; the Harappan language was an archaic form of Dravidian.

As the Harappan civilization began to decline, Sanskrit speaking Indo-European invaders from the Kirgitz Steppe who called themselves Aryans swept into Bihar (Northwestern India) through the Khyber pass in the Hindukush mountains. The Vedic culture brought by these Russian conquerors was well established by 1500 BCE if not earlier. The first literary sign post of the Vedic culture is the Rig Veda which was the first of the great hymnodies which were the bible of the Vedic religion. These hymnodies were full of prayers, invocations and metaphysical speculations. Veda means "revealed knowledge" and the composers of the these works were called Rishis or "seers," they were the high priests of the Vedic religion. The Aryan invaders were a people confident of their superiority over the Harappan natives and clearly laid the foundation for the great religious and philosophical culture of Hinduism in the Vedas. However, as is usually the case, elements of the indigenous Harappan culture--and very likely yoga practices--filtered into the Vedic culture and are, no doubt, still around in some form today. Who were the Harappans and where did they acquire their purification rituals and other practices which could be called proto-yoga? We don't know but their influence must be appreciated.

A contemporary example of the triumph of indigenous cultural values which become adopted by a conquering society is closer to home than you might think. Matilda Joslyn Gage, the great feminist and contemporary of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, argued for women's suffrage in part on the observation that Iroquois women were heads of their households and had voting privileges. In 1754 Colonial Commissioner Benjamin Franklin invited the great Iroquois diplomat Canassatego to Albany to discuss formation of a treaty to unite the colonies and Iroquois League. The Albany Plan was offered up to the New York Legislature for defeat. However, the plan, based on an original proposal of Canassatego himself, later became the basis of the Articles of Confederation. Today, many people have turned to the naturalistic appeal of Native American spirituality in an effort to restore ecology to lives beset with modern stresses.

In our next segment we will return to the early historical rites and practices which eventually evolved into the classical system of thought and practice known as Yoga.

* Common Era, CE and Before Common Era, BCE are theologically neutral substitutes for AD and BC.

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From Shamanism to Yoga (Part 3)


Before looking at early yoga's relationship to the Vedic religion of the ancient Rishis, we must take an important detour through the crucial, if perhaps unexpected, topic of shamanism and its relationship to yoga. The word shaman (SHAH-maan) comes from the Tungus people of Siberia and has been adopted as the general term for tribal medicine persons who have been known by such terms as witch, sorcerer, wizard and witch doctor. The shaman plays a tremendous role in human history for s/he has been society's traditional healer for thousands of years. Shamanism is hardly done justice by trite images depicted in a bad Hollywood movie. It is a tradition held by persons of great self-mastery and is still very much with us today as evidenced by the shamanic services offered through this publication.

The traditional shaman has, no doubt, worked with herbs and natural substances to effectuate healing. But the shaman's special prowess lies in his or her ability to access realms of consciousness through trance states normally denied to the layperson. The shaman enters a state of mind which Mircea Eliade has called ecstasy and journeys to psychic realms sometimes called the underworld in order to receive power and information which can be applied to heal a member of society. Soul retrieval is a process wherein the shaman specifically calls back an aspect of the patients personality which has been split off due to some trauma either physical or psychic.

In April, 1994 I personally availed myself of the services of a shaman named Christina Stock in Woodstock, New York. She performed a soul retrieval on my behalf. I pursued the experience as part of my ongoing process of healing and self-discovery. Upon returning from her journey, which lasted only a couple minutes, she reported encountering two aspects of myself which were ages ten and twenty-three. Without going into the particulars of the psychology involved, it was clear that the aspects with whom Christina communicated were me. I take it as a given that the experience did reintegrate those aspects of my personality.

Bearing in mind that the Rishis of the Vedic religion--which forms the historical basis of yoga and Hinduism--came from Russia, and that shaman comes from Siberia, there would be no reason to doubt that the Vedic people brought a shamanic tradition with them into India. It is noteworthy that Eliade has written an important work on Yoga subtitled Immortality and Freedom in addition to his work on shamanism. Georg Feuerstein adopted Eliade's term ecstasy for the title of his ground breaking work, Yoga: Technology of Ecstasy. Clearly these scholars see an important connection between yoga and shamanism. The principal difference between the yogi and the shaman is that the shaman utilizes psychic power to bring about a specific beneficial result where the yogi utilizes control of the mind in an effort to become liberated from spiritual ignorance.

In addition to shamanism, concepts of asceticism and naturalistic religion must be included in a discussion of the historical roots of yoga. Since the beginning of human history, going back fifty-thousand years, people have sung and danced the praises of the deities presumed to be behind the fearsome forces of nature upon which we depend for survival. People are instinctively drawn to the performance of ritual observances designed to win favor with deities who hold our fate in their hands. Sacrifice, prayer and devotional practices are presumed to bring divine grace while asceticism has long been thought to be a road to direct acquisition of the natural powers themselves. Thus, for example, the shaman may fast in preparation for his or her paranormal journey. The ascetic might bake in the hot sun to incorporate solar power unto his or her self. Any of these ancient practices could properly be called yogas accepting the broad definition of yoga as any technique or technology designed to increase personal power or knowledge.

The formalized practice of yoga, or Yoga, evolved through the interaction of these myriad esoteric practices with the Vedic religious orthodoxy which was in turn colored by the native Harappan culture we discussed in part 2. Part 4 will continue the story of yoga in ancient times, ca 2500 BCE.


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The Radical and the Orthodox, Yoga's Two Historical Worlds Part 4

There is a discussion within scholarly circles whether Yoga should be capitalized or spelled with a small 'y'. Readers of earlier installments in the Holistic Resource may have noticed that I have not been entirely consistent in my use of capitalization, an egregious scholarly error The inconsistency results from the fact that Yoga historically has straddled two worlds, one radical, individualistic and mystical--small 'y'-- and the other, orthodox, hierarchical, liturgical--capital 'Y.'

This dialogue between the two Ys is a metaphor for the tendency in religious history for periods of tighter control by a priestly hierarchy to be followed by periods of individualism and back again. The Renaissance in Europe uncorked a flood of artistic expression whose pagan and humanistic tendencies made their way into the liturgical music of the church. The Protestant Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther in 1517, split the church in the interest of wresting salvation from the hands of priests who bought and sold the rites of passage to heaven. By 1545, a council was formed by the church at Trent in northern Italy with the urgent purpose of establishing a Counter Reformation. A small part of the council's business was to purge the secular spirit from liturgical music so that the "House of God could rightly be called a house of prayer."

During the Vedic period of Yoga history, the rishi or priest represented orthodoxy while the muni or silent sage straddled a world between the Vedic religion and the primitive world of the shaman and nativistic culture. An interesting counterpart to the muni can be found in the desert fathers c. 300 CE who left the early church and civilization to "better hear the voice of God" in the silent wilderness. The meditative prayer they practiced is strikingly similar to the yogic practice of mantra meditation.

The tremendous religious impulse characterized by the whole of Indian history was well established by the rishis whose sacrificial rites were infused with contemplative techniques and prayerful meditations. The rishis employed mantra or exploration of sound, visualization of a deity--Rudra, Vayu, Agni, Sarasvati and Indra are a few representatives of the Vedic Pantheon--and absorption into psychic and cosmic mysteries in their highest stage of meditation. The hymnodies, which were the product of the Vedic bards are deeply spiritual works full of metaphysical and cosmological speculations. Bearing in mind that we are still in the age of magic and mythology, the hymns are poetic and symbolic and can not be understood in terms of the kind of rigorous philosophy which evolved in later centuries. However, the Vedas, revealed knowledge, are rightly revered for their expression of great spiritual truth which later generations would build upon.

For the rishi, the written word, song, prescribed ritual--fire and sacrifice are continually mentioned in connection with Vedic religion--, observance of austerities and intensive meditative practice ( proto-yoga) were all part of the same experience. Thus was laid the foundation of the great Indian religious and philosophical tradition with Yoga eventually taking a dominant position as the universal means to spiritual knowledge. Westerners seeking to enrich themselves through the incorporation of elements of Eastern thought into their world view need to grasp the import of a ritual practice as the cornerstone of philosophical knowledge. Western science has greatly benefited by the rigorous application of skepticism and empiricism. Since empirical science tells us we are sense bound, we are skeptical about the possibility of transcendent knowledge. This world view accounts for the cultural divide between religion and science. The Indian philosophical tradition has not suffered this divide. Moreover, the ancient yogis soon discovered the limits of empirical knowledge when it comes to solving the great mysteries of our cosmic origins. Meditation, which is more or less interchangeable with Yoga, is necessary if you wish to know the unknowable, see the unseeable, grasp the ungraspable. For the Indian philosopher, science and intellectual knowledge are valid to the extent that they support the possibility of transcendental liberation, a goal forgotten in the West to our detriment.

The Yoga tradition is powerful and valuable beyond estimation for modern day practitioners who wish to improve themselves and society as a whole. Yoga is part of an orthodox philosophy which fairly eclipses the Western tradition in its scope, and yet has retained its association with radical experimentation on the part of the individual. It is ironic that the same Hindu culture which produced the caste system, produced a means to physical and spiritual perfection that is so democratic. We the modern beneficiaries of democracy and economic wealth should not overlook the opportunity and expediency of incorporating Yoga into our culture for the sake of our health as a society.


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Yoga And The Birth Of Philosophy Part #5


The fire sacrifices performed by the Vedic priests were very elaborate and highly ritualized. Several active fires would be arranged in spacial relationships that reflected the order of the cosmos on a microcosmic level. This arrangement as a template of the universe can be seen as an early form of mandala which would in subsequent generations become an important object of meditation, especially in Tibet. Adherents of the Vedic religion saw creation as a perpetual act of sacrifice, and their rituals were thought to harmonize humanity with creation and especially with the gods. Pouring ghee into the fire or sacrificing a particular animal at a particular time would serve to maintain the seasons and all classes of animals and other existants. Intense Sanskrit chanting of hymns accompanied all rituals. The place of speech Vac in the maintenance of the universe was not lost on the Vedic priests. Speech, or language after all, is the very mechanism by which we identify anything as having an independent existence. The prologue to the Gospel According To St. John opens with a powerful expression of the metaphysical view that language and the substratum of reality itself are closely related.

In the beginning was the Word:
the Word was with God
and the Word was God.

In the later Vedic writings we see that the cozy relationship between humanity and the gods so nicely maintained by the sacrifice was coming into question. As the speculative power of the Vedic thinkers evolved, they came to see that the gods themselves were creations which then begs the question of how they came into being.

Who truly knows? Who shall proclaim it--whence they were produced, whence this creation?
(The Hindu Religious Tradition, Thomas J. Hopkins, p 21.)

Thirty-five hundred miles to the west in the area surrounding the Agean Sea known as Ionia, a remarkable parallel development was occurring. Hesiod, who lived at the time of Homer, 800 BCE, was writing the poetry which would become the earliest known example of ancient Greek philosophy. The Theogony was Hesiod's explanation of the formation of the world order. His formidable story begins:

First of all was Chaos born;
Then, after him, wide-bosomed Earth,
a sure eternal dwelling-place
for all the deathless gods who rule
Olympus snowy peaks.
(An Introduction to Early Greek Philosophy, John Mansley Robinson, p 4.)

Like the bards of the late Vedic period on the northern Indian sub-continent, Hesiod was asking the right ontological* question. Given the assumption that there must have been a time before the present world order existed, how do we account for it? The problem with the accounts of Hesiod and his Indian contemporaries was that they didn't go far enough, resting as they did on a kind of primal mix of phenomenal realities (Chaos) given shape by the gods as the basis of reality. It would be left to the next generation of thinkers to postulate a ground of existence prior to existence itself. According to Aristotle, it was Anaximander, born ca 612 BCE, who concerned himself "not with the gods but with an investigation of nature itself."

Anaximander asserted that the source and element of existing things is the "infinite." He was the first to introduce this name for the source. He says that it is neither watery nor any of the other so called "elements," but of another nature which is infinite, from which all the heavens and the world orders in them arise. (An Introduction to Early Greek Philosophy, John Mansley Robinson, p 24.)

The Upanishadic thinkers would go beyond the Vedic bards the same way Anaximander surpassed Hesiod. Brahman --equivalent to Anaximander's infinite-- was the name given to the unconditioned absolute reality which is prior to existence and yet is from which existence is derived. Aristotle goes on to offer a perfect explanation of Brahman.

Everything either is a beginning or has a beginning. But there is no beginning of the infinite; for if there were one, it would limit it. Moreover, since it is a beginning, it is begotten and indestructible. For there must be a point at which what has come into being reaches completion, and a point at which all perishing ceases. Hence, as we say, there is no source of this but this appears to be the source of all the rest, and "encompasses all things" and "steers all things..."
(An Introduction to Early Greek Philosophy, John Mansley Robinson, p 24.)

The period wherein this transformation in human thought occurred, 600-500 BCE, has been called the "Axial Age" and could be said to be the time of the birth of philosophy as distinct from mythology. From Aristotle on, Western philosophy became allied with empirical science and gave up the search for universal truth as perhaps naive or unattainable. But Hindu philosophy has always been emphatically oriented toward the solution--theoretically attainable--of the problem of our paradoxical relation to the infinite. The word which best summarizes the divergence between Eastern and Western philosophy is Yoga, a method for cutting through the limits of discursive thought to realize the true nature of ourselves in relation to the infinite. The acceptance of Yoga as a distinct area of thought during the Upanishadic age of Hindu history is synonymous with the birth of philosophy. By the time of the age of Buddha and the great philosophers, Confucius, Plato, Yoga had been long information. If, as Alfred Whitehead suggests, "all of Western philosophy constitutes a series of footnotes to Plato," then Yoga could be considered the mother of all Eastern philosophies of spiritual cultivation.


* Ontology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of existence itself apart from the nature of a given object.

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Yoga and Karma part 6


According to Mircea Elliade, four interdependent concepts or "kinetic ideas" bring us directly to the core of Indian spirituality. They are: karma, maya, nirvana and yoga. He states that a complete history of Indian thought could be written using any one of these concepts as the point of departure and that all would inevitably be included. To summarize these concepts in the order written: karma is the accumulation of past actions which determine the individual's state of existence; maya is the cosmic illusion which blinds us to the true nature of ourselves in relation to existence overall, encouraging us to fall continually into the trap of karma; nirvana is the end of existence attendant to the cessation of karmic activity; and yoga is the means to effectuate the cessation which leads to nirvana.

Although karma (literally "action") has become part of our common parlance, "man, he's got some heavy karma," the casual usage of the term is pretty close to the simple but awesome truth of the law of karma. When someone feels betrayed you might hear him or her exclaim, "what goes around comes around," in an effort to satisfy his or herself that justice will eventually be forthcoming and that the perpetrator will get his or her comeuppance. Indeed, our actions have consequences beyond imagining not only for others but for ourselves. Suppose you get lazy, leave a bag of wet trash in your basement, close the door and forget about it. Two weeks have gone by and you and your housemates develop respiratory symptoms. Of course you, your housemates and your doctor are scratching your collective heads to determine the cause of the cough and headache. One day a sickly smell becomes palpable and with horror you remember the bag of wet trash, now the home of a festering toxic slime whose fumes have permeated the house. Your moment of sloth set the stage for serious consequences for your housemates including time off work, late bill payments, failure to attend an important exam review meaning a six month delay in entering law school, and having to relocate during the cleaning process. If you are lucky, they will forgive you.

The anxieties, anger, rejection, hurt and what is generally thought of as "bad blood" that arise between people out of a concrete situation such as the one described has psychic consequences that may last long after the problem has been remedied on the physical plane. Some people sadly hold lifelong grudges until someone dies, precluding healing. We are primarily spiritual beings who occupy the human body on a temporary basis. We therefore take our accumulated karma right out of this life and into the next. So the bad news is that if you hurt any human being, physically or psychologically (it doesn't matter if no-one is looking or ever finds out), you will incur a karmic debt which will come back to haunt you in this life or in the next. The good news is that you may be given an opportunity to heal your relationship with the other person in another life.

It was the great Upanishadic philosopher Yajnavalkya who theorized the law of karma in 850 BCE. By this time the concept of Brahman or the Infinite (see part 5) had been well established. But the ritual practices designed to link earthly realities with Brahman were merely descriptive of a well ordered world wherein the sun comes up on schedule. To understand who we truly are in relation to Brahman, an empirical investigation of our psychophysiological processes was necessary. Bear in mind that we are trying to solve a cosmic paradox: How is it that the permanent unconditioned reality that is Brahman consented to be reflected through the impermanent world of form? By extension, how do we as phenomenal beings realize Brahman which is not knowable in terms of phenomenal attribution? What is it that binds us to the path of ignorance when our true nature, that is Brahman, is right under our collective nose? According to Yajnavalkya, it is desire for material objects which leads us to the perpetual cycle of life, death and rebirth. A person, he says, consists simply of desire. "As he desires, so he resolves; as he resolves, so is the deed he does; as is the deed he does, so is that to which he attains." (The Hindu Religious Tradition, Hopkins, p42) Maya, the illusion that we are independent beings, is what blinds us to the consequences of actions which inevitably touch everyone and everything. Thich Nhat Hanh argues for introduction of a new term for the English language, "interbeing," to describe our collective reality.

To practice Yoga according to its full meaning is to deliberately undergo a process of karmic purification through service to others and perfection of personal character. The yogi realizes all too well the consequences of our actions, even thoughts, and takes full responsibility for how he or she lives and acts in this world. Given the "eons" of accumulated karma we all possess, the yogi knows that dedication to purification is an imperative for now and all future lives. Nirvana, literally extinction, is attained with the complete cessation of karmic activity. At this point the self or purusha becomes completely identified with Brahman.

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Yoga and Buddhism part 7


The late Upanishadic period of Indian history, 600-500 BCE, saw the emergence of great thinkers who did not necessarily adhere to Vedic orthodoxy as the source of their insights and observations. But the traditions dating to this period are alive to this day and could be said to be the substantial historical fruit of the archaic and ritualistic Vedic religion. Kapila founded the Samkhya tradition while Mahavira founded a movement known as Jainism. The Samkhya, literally number, was an ontology concerned with the enumeration of the categories of existence. The term purusha we employed in the last paragraph of part six is one of Samkhya's two primary categories with prakriti being the other.

Consistent with what was said in earlier segments regarding the close historical relationship between Indian philosophy and mysticism, the early Samkhya was known as Samkhya-Yoga. Yoga and Samkhya eventually divided and each found a place within Hindu orthodoxy. Jainism, however, was to become a heretical system looking as it did to the wisdom imparted by enlightened master Mahavira and not to Vedic authority as the basis of spiritual practice. The reader may never have heard of Jainism but it is more prevalent than you might think. A member of my Zen center in Syracuse, NY is a Jain who has practiced with a master teacher. Beryl Bender Birch, author of Power Yoga and teacher from whom I learned the Astanga Yoga method, practiced with a Jain master as well. My Hatha-yoga repertoire includes a standing kapalabhati* series I learned from a Jain monk who happened to be passing through Binghamton, NY in 1979.

Shakyamuni Buddha--Buddha means awakened one--ca. 558-478 BCE, was actually the seventh historical Buddha but was the one who founded the great tradition which today is one of the dominant world religions along with Islam and Christianity. Like Jainism, Buddhism was from the outset a heretical tradition in relation to Hindu orthodoxy. More is known about the historical facts of Buddha's life than Jesus of Nazareth. He was born prince Siddhartha into the Gautama clan within country of the Shakyas which lay in the foothills of the Himalayas in present day southern Nepal. It was prophesied that Siddhartha would become either a great monarch of a great Buddha. His father, Shuddhodana, king of the Shakyas, desiring an heir made every attempt to dissuade his son form pursuing the latter. Siddhartha, however was not content with palace life and became determined to follow the mendicants path in order to solve the problem of human suffering, dukkha. Tradition says Gautama encountered two teachers who exposed him to the meditative practices of the day, Arada Kalama and Rudraka Ramaputra. Gautama would have found himself in the hermetic world of the munis, silent sages, described in part four. Retention of the breath, fasting and meditating under extremely harsh conditions would have been the yoga practices of the day. Gautama's self mortification for the sake of enlightenment nearly killed him. He decided to eat enough at least to survive and subsequently attained supreme enlightenment. He thus became Shakyamuni, sage of the Shakyas, greatest of all yogis.

Shakyamuni completely rejected Vedic and scriptural authority and the priesthood as the ground of true practice. He founded a monastic community in the forest whose adherents were given over to the strictest guidelines for living. They likely ate only once per day and their food consisted of garbage thrown out by householders. The followers, Arhats, were ordered to meditate in the presence of rotting human corpses in order to disabuse themselves from attachment to "the pleasures of the flesh." Although Buddhism has come to be called the "middle way" between asceticism and gluttony, the middle way in 500 BCE was probably more severe than we can imagine. Even today the tradition of self denial is alive in India where cave dwelling renunciates live a life of silence. There are still monasteries in Japan where life for the resident is shockingly severe by today's standard of physical and emotional comfort. In spite of the potentially off-putting aspects of the tradition, Buddhist spirituality is a sublime system for cultivation of human wisdom and happiness.

Of historical interest is the fact that Shakyamuni survived to die at a reasonably old age from food poisoning in spite of his radical rejection of his Indian culture. Jesus Christ, who lived at a different time under a militant regime would not be so lucky. Buddha's followers are known to have been vilified by members of the population. But an overall atmosphere of tolerance seems to have pervaded much of the religious history of India. Thus the radicals like the Buddha (yogis with the small 'y') have always been able to coexist with their earth bound compatriots. This is fortunate, because these traditions, both radical and orthodox, are all alive and well for us to investigate today.

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