The desire to renounce things is the obstacle. The Self is simple renunciation. The Self has renounced all.~ Sri Ramana Maharshi, Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi compiled by Sri Munagala Venkataramiah, Talk 268
The past several days, as of this writing, have been filled with excruciating pain. I had never before experienced literally blinding pain, but an exposed nerve in a broken tooth will do that, apparently. In one particularly bad instance, it was only through mental japa — the concentrated repetition of a mantra — that I managed to hold it together enough to make an appointment with the dentist and walk home from work to take care of myself. While I’m sure I would have survived without it, the Yoga discipline of japa notably improved my performance under the circumstances.
The timing is funny, as a friend of mine had just asked me the following a few nights before the tooth became a problem: “What do yogis do? With witches, I can look at something or even just make something up and say, ‘That seems like something witches would do,’ but I can’t do that with yogis.” I’ve been thinking about it ever since, as I’d never really stopped to consider how I’d describe what yogis do before. The intense pain of a nerve ending exposed to the elements gave me a stark context for my contemplation. You’d think I could just say, “Yogis do Yoga,” and let that be that, but as I said in my last post Yoga is difficult to pin down. Patanjali clearly defines Yoga as both the set of practices which achieves and the achievement of the stilling of modifications of the mental substance. That’s a helpful definition as far as it goes, but it does require a lot of unpacking.
I won’t insult or bore my readers with another lengthy explanation of the fact that what gets sold as “yoga” in the marketplace bears just about zero resemblance to the real thing; let’s take that as a given and move on. Things like meditation, contemplation, ritual worship, and so on are obvious enough examples of “stuff yogis do”, but they don’t always look as expected. There’s not one form for any of these things which you can count on in any given individual or group, and even some of the common terms will mean different things depending on context. All of these practices, their myriad of shapes and names, and the variety of reasons for engaging in them are all very important for the yogi; read about those, try them out for yourself, and you’ll know a good bit about “what yogis do”.
But, significantly, you won’t know the most important part: Yogis renounce.
Yogis renounce every obstacle to Awakening. We renounce our own sense of action and desserts, all of our karma. We renounce our conditioned thoughts and emotions. We renounce our love of life and our fear of death. We renounce our disgust, our grasping. We renounce those things and ideas with which we identify, those building blocks of selfhood and separation. We renounce our lack of awareness and our misapprehensions.
This may sound extreme, but stick with me. This is not the cultish “breaking down to build up in our image” thing; the lineage does not force this renunciation in the individual, nor does the Guru insist upon it. We practice our meditation, our chanting, our ritual, making every thought, word, and deed throughout the day somehow a thread in the tapestry of our Yoga. We continue to engage with the world as needed, but do so with increasing spontaneity and decreasing artificiality. Whatever is real within us, we discover it by peeling away everything else.
We do not thereby destroy our personalities, efface our likes and dislikes, or enervate our affections. So long as we are human beings, we will have these characteristics. But we do learn to wear them more lightly. We come to see them for what they are: fancy dress, the shape and color of which reveal something of what is underneath but which cannot be it. We therefore take them less seriously, seeing them as opportunities for practice and simultaneously as ornaments or toys to be enjoyed for as long as they last.
We renounce the world and thereby ourselves — as everything we think we know of ourselves is conditioned by the things of the world — but ultimately we renounce renunciation. Many Hindu and Jain Yogis become attached to asceticism, Christian mystics to mortification, Buddhists to non-self; these are all a form of egotism, fear of death, of grasping after renunciation itself. Even renunciation and holiness become sources of pain if we fail to see them for what they are after they have served their principal purpose. Patanjali tells us that the purpose of Nature (prakrti) is for the enjoyment and liberation of the Self (purusha); once it has performed both of these tasks, it becomes as if non-existent. Of course, the world doesn’t really vanish when one attains Awakening, but such a person is able not only to see the world as it is, but to see through the world, to see beyond the appearance to That which upholds it. At that point, what is there left to renounce but the thought of renunciation itself? When everything is let go, everything can simply rest in its own nature.
Ultimately, then, we can cut through it all to this: what yogis do is whatever it takes to get to that place wherein everything is just as it is. It is a paradox of spiritual practice that we must apply a great deal of effort over a long time just to realize — genuinely realize, and not just theoretically accept — that there’s nothing to realize and no effort is necessary. Yogis live this paradox. All of the schools, lineages, metaphysics, theologies, cosmologies, meditations, mantras, yantras, and rituals are just for this. However grandiose, lowly, or merely absurd that may strike any given ear, that’s it, that’s all we do.
Yoga is notoriously difficult to pin down. There are numerous schools and sects of Yogis crossing multiple religious bounds, and though there are major points of agreement between them there are also significant disparities in doctrine. I have a lot of trouble, therefore, when people ask me for book recommendations on the topic. Ultimately, however, Yoga is Yoga — the techniques matter more than other details, and the Goal is the Goal however we formulate it. No amount of books can ever encompass the depth and breadth of Yoga. Only practice can do that. But hopefully the annotated reading list below can give those interested a practical beginning. I note in advance that I have tried to hold myself to including books which are more or less easy to come by in the US book market. I know that a few of these books are in and out of print, so sometimes will go for a high price but seem always to return to print in an affordable form within a couple of years.
Making a Beginning, Revisiting Basics
“Where to start?” is perhaps the hardest question to answer. Yoga is not the sort of topic which can be broken down into chunks digestible by anyone and everyone; really all you can do is point out a particular trail of breadcrumbs and leave it up to the individual to follow them or not. Or, perhaps, you can dump out a pile of jigsaw pieces in front of them, letting them know in advance that this is only one corner of the puzzle and that some of the pieces in the pile won’t even be useful until they dig more pieces out of the box later but which they’ll be glad they have on-hand when they get there. I hope that these similes get the point across and give some perspective on why I chose the books I did.
- Be Here Now by Ram Dass (many editions). The more hard-nosed may object to this book’s inclusion given its popularity in the New Age crowd, but it’s a really valuable exploration of the wherefores of Yoga practice. I would not call it a book of practice, per se, though it does include some useful tips.
- The Dhammapada (many editions, though I like the translation of Ananda Maitreya published by Parallax Press). While I do not identify as a Buddhist, the Buddha was obviously quite the accomplished Yogi! In a sense, this book is also not a manual of meditation techniques but it does include valuable insights into how we may live in order to maximize our meditation. As the Buddha himself advised, each individual will need to figure out for themselves what helps and what doesn’t, but having someone who’s been there ahead of you sending back field notes can’t hurt.
- The Chan Handbook by Venerable Master Hua (2004, Buddhist Text Translation Society). I re-read this little book every so often; it’s a quick read, but also good to just open up now and again and read through a topic or two at random. I stumbled upon my copy at a used book store and bought it on a whim. I was not sorry at all, and find it to be an eminently useful companion in meditation. Every Yogi should have a copy.
- In Days of Great Peace by Mouni Sadhu (various editions). This is the most important book which has ever entered my life. Everyone has theirs, the book which propelled them on their course. This is a simple memoir of another man’s spiritual journey, though there are instructions on meditation within.
Intermediate reading is a little more straightforward because you can assume a bit of experience at this point. I think that initial experience needs to come before what academics might think of as “background knowledge” because this is a field in which you can fill your mind with any number of different, even contradictory, ideas which are only made useful by the context of practical application. I therefore save not only more details of practice but also things like historical connections and metaphysics for here.
- Am I A Hindu? by Ed Vishvanathan (2012, Rupa Publications India) & The Essentials of Hinduism by Swami Bhaskarananda (2002, Viveka Press). I put both of these together because they are useful in the same way and they’re both equally worth reading. I place them here not because the prospective Yogi needs to actively convert to or identify as a Hindu, but because exploring and to some degree participating in the broader cultural context which preserved and developed Yoga over millennia is essential to understanding those ideas and practices which have come to us in the modern West. While the techniques are very adaptable, they arose from a place and time among people. We have to respect that; lack of awareness of it not only causes confusion and offense, it also causes severe misinterpretations of the source texts and subsequent misapplications of the methods! (Along these lines, I also suggest visiting Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain temples, shrines, or ashrams in your area, if possible.) Developing Yoga knowledge must be far deeper than exoticism and tourism.
- Kapila’s Samkhya Patanjali’s Yoga by Brahmrishi Vishvatma Bawra (Revised Edition 2012, CreateSpace). Combining translations of and commentaries on Kapila’s Samkhya teachings as well as Patanjali’s famous Yoga Sutras, this volume provides a point of entry to these linked traditions which is accessible without being shallow. Samkhya is taken for granted in a lot of Yoga and Tantra literature, even if metaphysical interpretations may differ among them, so having some grounding in it as well as how it ties in with Patanjali is very valuable.
- The Yoga Vidya of Immortality and The Pathless Path to Immortality by Shri Gurudev Mahendranath (available online from the International Nath Order). While specific to a particular Natha tradition, many of the writings of Shri Gurudev Mahendranath are composed of the sorts of breadcrumb trails I mentioned before. While avoiding many overt metaphysical statements, Mahendranath focuses instead on the barest concepts necessary to bring meditation and ritual practices to life while emphasizing that every Yogi needs to deconstruct and reconstruct their own intellectual edifice out of the their own experiences rather than relying on the architecture given them prefabricated.
- Yoga Vidya Samhita by Vidyanath (available as a free PDF directly from Vidyanath). More breadcrumbs! Yet Vidyanath presents with good humor a trail of his own crazy gnosis. The most fascinating thing about this work is how much is transmitted in the art.
- Maha Yoga by K. Laskhmana Sarma (2002, Sri Ramanasramam). In contradistinction to the Samkhya Yoga of Kapila and Patanjali, that of Sri Ramana Maharshi is based in a radical non-dual interpretation incorporating South Indian Saivism and Vedanta by way of the personal experience of a modern sage. K. Lakshmana Sarma, under the pen name ‘WHO?’, efficiently expresses the teachings of the Maharshi in both theoretical and practical terms. It’s a book worthy of reading, re-reading, and much contemplation.
- Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg (1995, Shambhala Publications, Inc.). There are numerous forms of meditation in the many Yoga traditions extant. Mettā is one which receives relatively little attention outside of Theravada Buddhist circles, but which has a great deal of value. Each practitioner must find the correct balance of practices for themselves, a dynamic balance which will change greatly over time; the practices needful will depend upon the individual’s personal makeup and the challenges which arise from it. For many of us, perhaps especially today, major challenges growing out of the interaction between individuals and the world include fear and anxiety and the anger and hatred which are their natural and inevitable fruits. Mettā is a meditation practice which leverages our innate capacity for compassion to quell our anxieties and cradle our fears by honestly opening ourselves to a greater experience of our basic similarities with others. The value in such a practice in living more effectively in the world for the practitioner of Yoga cannot be underestimated; as Yogis tend to become increasingly sensitive as our practice intensifies, all such aids should be kept close at hand.
There can’t really be any such thing as “advanced reading” in Yoga, as advancement in Yoga by nature takes one well beyond anything which can be written about. As we deepen our cultivation, however, it can be very helpful to look further afield to different models and methods from a variety of schools and traditions. As, ultimately, Yoga is Yoga, we can learn from everywhere and incorporate any number of useful ideas and techniques. The following is a sampling only, a list to get started; it is not intended to be exhausted, only representative.
- The Yoga of Siddha Tirumular: Essays on the Tirumandiram by T. N. Ganapathy and KR Arumugam (2004, Kirya Yoga Publications). Tirumandiram is a classic of Tamil Saivism with an especial focus on Yoga, covering theology, metaphysics, and practice. There are English translations and commentaries available, but this volume of essays unpacking its major themes makes for an excellent introduction to the Saiva Siddhanta school of South India.
- Shiva’s Trident: The Consciousness of Freedom and the Means to Liberation by Swami Khecaranatha (2013, CreateSpace). An accessible and practical point of entry into Trika (Kashmiri) Saivism. Swami Khecaranatha gives a helpful overview of Trika metaphysics — similar in broad strokes to Saiva Siddhanta, but quite different in interpretive lens — while encouraging real engagement with its methods. Trika can seem pointlessly complex from the outside, so having someone peel back the layers and reveal the spotless simplicity at its center is extremely valuable.
- Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali by Samkhya-yogacharya Swami Hariharananda Aranya (1983, State University of New York Press). Among the deepest, most technical, and most genuinely useful commentaries on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, this should be in the library of nearly every Yogi. This is a very dense book which rewards slow study and repeated visitation; it isn’t a book you’ll fly through in a week and expect to take anything useful away from it. Grounded in the aforementioned dualistic Samkhya metaphysics, Hariharananda’s approach is detailed and rigorous, including an incredible number of esoteric exercises tucked into its many corners.
- Avadhoota Gita translated by Shree Purohit Swami (1988, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers). This is one of the few books on this list that you may need to hunt down, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to find an affordable copy and it will be well worth it. This is the best English translation of Avadhoota Gita of which I am familiar (and I have a few), including a wonderful editorial introduction which contextualizes the book. This particular Gita is central to the Natha school of Yoga and bridges the gap between Hindu and Buddhist yogas. It is a short book, but worthy of meditation.
- The Original Yoga translated and edited by Shyam Gosh (1999, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers). Secondary sources often make teachings usable for the modern reader, but primary sources often have far more packed into a much smaller space and in purer form. This volume contains translations of and commentaries on the Yoga Sutras, Siva Samhita, and Gheranda Samhita. It’s always nice to have different versions of Yoga Sutras around, but the real gems here are complete (which is to say, not puritanically censored) translations of two important Hatha Yoga classics. Siva Samhita and Gheranda Samhita are perhaps two of the most important primary sources on Hatha Yoga practice, including both physical and meditative instructions.
- Philosophy of Gorakhnath by Akshaya Kumar Banerjea (1999, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers). An extended unpacking of another book of historical importance to Nathas, namely Siddhasiddhantapadhatih. While SSP is constituted in part by an extended exploration of certain Hatha Yoga mainstays such as the subtle energy system, cakras, and so forth (all of which interesting in its similarities to and differences from what many people are used to), it is ultimately founded in the Natha realization that all of these things, however useful they may be to any given individual or community, are ultimately sidelines to the main course of Yoga: the realization of the nature of the Self and of absolute freedom.Though this volume does not contain a complete translation of or commentary on SSP, the depth with which it explores the key themes of that work make it an excellent Yoga text in its own right, as well as a valuable extended introduction to SSP for those who wish to hunt down such a translation at a later date.
I reiterate once again that the suggestions above are hardly exhaustive, nor could such a list ever be. I very much hope that it proves helpful for those who are looking for some new avenues of exploration. Ultimately, even the largest library on the topic of Yoga cannot bring one Awakening. Beyond that, the Yogi must eventually coat themselves in the ashes of every book they’ve ever read, every idea they’ve ever had clogging up their mind; in the meantime, take every notion and method as a provisional tool and don’t get hung up on any one of them.
Actually there isn’t a thing / much less any dust to wipe away / who can master this / doesn’t need to sit there stiff (Big Stick poem 4, translated by Red Pine)
The first thing a prospective mystic must do is to consciously reject promissory materialism. Like any sort of faith, this will take some time as the roots of ideologies with which we are raised run deep and wrap themselves tightly around all of our other beliefs and assumptions such that we will run into internal obstacles (cognitive dissonance, etc.) which will have us wanting to fly to the extremes of either tossing out the whole garden to be rid of the weeds or else being so daunted by the process of disentangling the invasive vines from everything else that we throw our hands up and leave the whole garden to strangle.
Many today would not consider materialism to be a faith, but they forget that faith and belief are fundamental to the human mind. No matter how much we may rail against any particular idea or ideology, we are never without faith in something. Promissory materialism is the default religion of the academy, certainly, and of much of broader global civilization as a result. It is belief in the narrative of scientific progress — not of genuine science, science-as-method, but of science-as-dogma. Its priesthood is the physicist, the cell biologist, the popularizer. The promise is of a different, wholly material heaven in which Reason roots out all superstition — and, by implication, all religion, all culture, anything which cannot be upheld by numbers. This is not a problem with science as such, and the hard physical sciences do not actually support materialism any better than they support most other specific metaphysical positions. (There are many philosophers and scientists who think that it does quite the opposite, in fact being a better support for various forms of Idealism, nondualism, and so forth, but that’s a different topic.) The ultimate promise is that eventually there will be no more “consciousness” to worry about; it’s all matter, so the mind doesn’t matter. But if subjectivity itself doesn’t exist, who is saying so? All of that to say: faith is essential even to those who denigrate faith.
The very function of mysticism, whether it be Yoga or something else, is to demonstrate that faith need not be blind. It may at first be blinkered, but perspective can be widened by the very subjective experience which materialists tell us isn’t real (but from which their whole edifice depends). Yoga is itself a form of promissory faith, but one whose promises can be realized at least to some extent in this very lifetime by any interested individual and not in some far distant future either in the next world or the next generation (or the generation after that, or the one after that, or the one after that… as materialism’s promises keep being pushed back by each new discovery of the ultimate weirdness of the cosmos). But faith in what, exactly? Many are attracted to Yoga because it does not contain a catechism of dogma which must be accepted for salvation. It does, however, contain teachings (dogma in its original sense). These teachings have proven true for generation after generation.
Yoga and Tantra recommend faith in God, but they also recognize that many people coming in the door will not be able to muster it and that’s all right. You have to start from where you’re at, not some hypothetical ideal starting position. If you do not have faith in God, the Gods, the Good, and so forth, have faith in your teacher; if you do not have a teacher, have faith in the teaching. That doesn’t mean that you have to believe everything your teacher says, nor everything you read in the Yoga Sutras, Siddhasiddhantapadhattih, Vijnanabhairava Tantra, Dhammapada, or anywhere else. Instead, put enough trust in the methods described therein and in your own capacity to give it an honest try. Know, of course, that it will take time and work to begin seeing any of the promised results, but such is the case with anything according to the scale of the goal sought.
It is therefore sometimes good for the mystic to take the approach of the magician, seeking after tangible and (at least somewhat) repeatable results which though not the Goal at least point to its possibility and make it seem nearer. For this (though not only this) reason, Tantra does not shy away from operative sorcery which sometimes resembles witchcraft. Not all Tantrikas are sorcerers, but it is there for those who need it. Not only can it provide material aid to those in real need of it — like any “spirituality of the people” — it can allow the practitioner to more or less directly encounter some of the specific claims of Yoga in their own lives. This sort of experience permits faith not only to deepen, but also to broaden, to become more inclusive of other ideas and experiences.
There is no union, no disjunction between you and me or any other thing. ~ Avadhoota Gita, I.15
Let’s talk theology and metaphysics. Before I really get started, I want to say that this stuff is genuinely fun for me. I actively enjoy theology and metaphysics, but I do not ascribe to it overmuch importance. That’s not to say that it’s entirely unimportant, but my own view of these matters is utilitarian. Philosophy of any sort is important only insofar as it aids us in our actual practice. Just as ethics is only useful insofar as it encourages us to live to the good, theology is useful just as far as it increases our devotion — and in these and other cases, philosophy becomes an obstacle when it becomes an end in itself. Some may accuse me of anti-intellectualism for this, but let’s make the point very clear: some people may require more of philosophy than others, so it is their right and responsibility to expand the field as necessary. I am therefore explicitly not discouraging philosophical inquiry, but placing emphasis on enacting what we learn by it. If we reach a point at which there’s nothing new to learn or no further clarity to be gained on the way we actually live, any further time devoted to the pursuit is better spent living.
Mystical traditions the world over have wrestled with the problems of dualist and nondualist ontology. That is to say, is the individual ultimately “one” with the Whole, or does the individual remain eternally distinct? Trans- and non-theistic traditions, such as Chan/Zen Buddhism, generally have an easy time with absolute nondualism because there are no theological considerations getting in the way; when there is no personal supreme being in the calculus, there is no ideological reason to draw lines between the individual and Divinity for there is no personal God who must remain transcendent. Most explicitly theistic traditions, however, erect a metaphysical barrier between consciousnesses: God on one side | individual souls on the other.
This, of course, is but one form of ontological dualism. The other is between consciousness and matter. Again, theistic systems have a greater tendency toward this form of dualism. In whatever form of dualism you care to examine, there seems to be a greater concern with maintaining the sanctity of (a) the soul and/or (b) God such that they are placed on different levels of Being. In the case of Christianity, for example, the belief is that somehow God created something wholly different from Himself, filled with beings of a totally distinct order yet still resembling Him in some important but hard to define way. Though many Western seekers are most familiar with one school or another of Advaita-Vedānta — and therefore often think that this particular metaphysical school typifies Yoga or Hindu philosophical thought broadly — the vast majority of Hindu metaphysics (including majority schools of Vedānta) are dualistic and realistic in the sense that they consider God, the world, and individual souls to be real and distinct entities. They may differ on whether God created the universe and/or souls or if these entities are eternal in their own right, and what happens to them upon enlightenment, etc., but they very often ally themselves against nondualist Vedānta, Sakta-Tantra, and other theistic schools which have nondualist ontologies.
This is neither the place nor time to go into the variety of these interpretations. I want, instead, to highlight my own Nātha (henceforth “Nath”, for simplicity) perspective. I am not here trying to speak for all Naths, nor even the entirety of my own lineage — as if such a thing were possible. I am speaking for my own interpretation of the teachings in light of my own experiences and the experiences of those with whom I have personally spoken. I presently believe that most or all of the Nath Siddhas whose teachings have come down to us are basically in agreement on this theo-metaphysical model.
Many Western Yoga practitioners are not aware that Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are founded in a dualistic, theistic metaphysics called Samkhya. (Much academic discussion on Samkhya assumes it to be actively atheistic, but that’s a discussion for another day; for those familiar with such literature, suffice it to say that Samkhya does not feel the need to discuss God because God is not relevant to the pure metaphysics in question, while for Yoga practice God becomes important and enters the conversation.) Samkhya is a phenomenological metaphysical structure which grew directly out of the experiences of earlier Yogis. It posits two completely distinct and co-eternal ontological principles, namely purusha (soul, consciousness, literally “man”) and prakrti (matter, literally “nature”). Purusha is plural; there are infinite purushas, eternally individual. Prakrti is singular, but has multifarious evolutes. To make it even more clear, purusha is pure, unalloyed awareness, while the intellect, memory, ego, and so forth are imperfection reflections of purusha in matter; the mind, then, is not actually conscious but reflects objects of experience to purusha. To the Yogi, then, what we term “spiritual practice” is largely a psychological event within the world of matter. Purusha is already “free” in the sense of never having been trapped in the first place; it is the mind (citta) which is tricked and needs to be turned inward to more perfectly reflect purusha back at itself.
While many take this dualism both between matter and consciousness — and within consciousness itself given the plurality of purushas — as absolute, Patanjali’s recognition of Isvara (God, literally “the Lord”) provides the way out of dualism. Patanjali describes the Lord as “a particular purusha unaffected by affliction, deed, result of action, or the latent impressions thereof. In Him the seed of omniscience has reached its utmost development which cannot be exceeded. [He is] the teacher of former teachers, because with Him there is no limitation by time.” (Yoga Sutras I.24 – 26) Isvara is then the personal God Who, out of compassion, pervades prakrti and establishes an ordered universe to act as a machine for the liberation of other purushas. Through His worship, the Yogi experiences God’s grace and attains samadhi. Patanjali was of course writing from within an existing tradition, so while he used some terms in ways that they have not been used since a lot of Sanskrit technical philosophical terms have been more tightly defined and codified, he still used those technical terms in ways that would have been familiar to his audience. That means that though Patanjali never uses the upanishadic term Brahman (referring to the Absolute which contains both purusha and prakrti) he certainly was aware of it. Further, his use of the Vedic terms purusha and prakrti, and his invocation of Isvara — a word used in a theological context specifically to refer to the personal aspect of the Brahman. In short, Patanjali was certainly pointing to Isvara as the transcendent principle in Whom both purusha and prakrti rest and from Whom they take their being.
Ontologically, I tend toward realist nondualism. In this model, the world of matter and everyday experience exist in truth; as for Patanjali, they are not illusions layered over the divine substrate. But the manifest universe also is not separate from God or a lesser aspect of Reality. Yes, matter is denser than what we call spirit, but both are freely chosen self-revelations of the Divine. For reasons entirely Its own, the Absolute chooses to manifest in a myriad of ways at varying degrees of subtlety, but none of these aspects are ever “less godly” than any others. This, of course, implies that consciousness does not merely pervade all things, all things are consciousness. Contrary to, say, the idealist school within Buddhism or Hindu Advaita-Vedānta, however, this does not make matter immaterial or plurality less pluralistic. This is therefore an even more radical form of nondualism than that found in either Buddhism or Vedanta.
Patanjali’s dualism — the dualism of Samkhya — is therefore provisional; it is a conceptual tool which aids the Yogi in drawing a distinction between even their own mind and pure, all-pervading awareness. For Patanjali, the goal of Yoga is kaivalya, literally “aloneness” or “isolation” in which the mind realizes its own nature and allows purusha to witness itself in the mind as if in a mirror at which point the purusha realizes its own eternal freedom. It is notable, however, that Patanjali states that the liberated purusha can revive its now-perfected citta-mind in prakrti, take on bodies, and resume activity in the world for the benefit of suffering beings a la the Buddhist bodhisattva — a term which itself has yogic connotations, as bodhi is awakeness conceptually related to the intellectual aspect of citta while sattva is the quality of purity inherent in the citta. This is cognate with the Nath and Vajrayana Buddhist pantheon of Siddhas, accomplished Yogis who have transcended the need for a particularized body and mind and who make use of their supernatural abilities (siddhis) to sport in the world and aid prospective Yogis. Notably, many teachers and literary sources within the Yoga tradition, including the supposedly dualistic Samkhya-Yoga tradition of Patanjali, say of enlightened Yogis that they have attained the knowledge of Brahman, which is to say that they have had the unitive experience with the Supreme, or else that the purusha experiences itself as within Isvara. This puts the lie to the notion that Patanjala-Yoga is absolutely dualistic. As a Nath, I prefer the reading of Patanjali as more concerned with practical psychology than with abstract metaphysics and of Samkhya as phenomenological rather than ontological. Samkhya and Patanjali are not therefore making absolutist metaphysical claims so much as using metaphysics and psychology (respectively) as means (upāya) for exploring the nature of our experiences. Kaivalya is used in the literature as a synonym for moksha (liberation), just as nirvāna (extinguishing) is. Nirvana does not imply a nihilistic dissolution of the individual into oblivion, but the extinguishing of those internal obstacles to the experience of our pre-existing freedom; similarly, kaivalya is not “isolation” in the sense of the individual purusha floating eternally alone in an empty void but of isolation of pure awareness from the false belief that it is anything other than pure awareness. The Yogi, whether Buddhist or Hindu, is certainly not more constricted by the process of liberation!
Purusha and prakrti are, from the Siddha-Nath perspective, separate and co-eternal Self-manifestations of Brahman (whom we usually call Siva, Bhairava, etc.) — quite real insofar as they are Brahman — but they are resolved perfectly in and by Brahman. In other words, both dualism and nondualism are true at their own levels, and neither level has absolute priority. Reality contains differences, yet is ultimately unsegmented. Even Kaivalya, then, is itself merely the doorway to full awakening. “Some search for the one, some search for the many; both fail to find the impartial reality that transcends both the one and the many.” (Avadhoota Gita I.35)
Humans prefer linearity. It’s just part of how our minds work so long as they are tied to brains and bodies: first A happens, then B follows, and so on in progression all the way to Z. Rationally, we know that things are rarely that simple, but even so we fall into the trap of interpreting everything by the logic of the line. At this point, even the physical sciences are picking up more and more on the fact that not even time itself acts as a simple straight line. Certainly we can look back upon our lives and build a narrative out of events, just as historians do with the broader strokes and larger scale of societies, but as-lived events can seem disorderly or at least hard to follow.
Knowing this is as important in sadhana as anywhere else. At least, it can save a lot of frustration and heartache to remain aware of it. For this reason, Yoga is often described as taking a helical path: it can feel linear while on it because you can only see so far ahead and behind; it can feel circular because you keep seeing the same scenery repeatedly from a very similar angle; but, in truth, every move is taking up upward or downward even if it is too subtle to notice until you’ve gone a few layers in a single direction.
In terms of lived experience, this means simply that we will not always act at the level of our potential. I may achieve a deep samadhi today during meditation today, but the next three days may seem quiet flat. Or, I may be quite easygoing, patient, kind, and compassionate for weeks only to have a bad day of getting into a pointless argument. In either case, I may feel that I have backslid. And, in fact, I often do feel that way.
But the fact is that, for whatever reasons, we will often find the balance of our minds shifting considerably from one day to the next. Whether we trace it to astrological considerations, or purely internal causes, the mind roils and seethes. Until a Yogi has reached the goal, the mind is still in flux, not yet fully resting in its own nature.
In technical jargon, Nature is herself characterized by three irreducible, intertwined qualities named sattva, rajas, and tamas — clarity, activity, and darkness. As such, everything in Nature, which includes the mind, is composed of these qualities and manifests them to varying degrees. The mind, being the subtlest manifestation of Nature, shows forth these qualities quite purely and is easily overwhelmed by one or another of them. The practice of Yoga is sometimes defined as the process of increasing sattva’s hold on the mind so that it predominates and suppresses rajas and tamas. Rajas and tamas cannot be gotten rid of, however, as they are as fundamental as sattva, but the nature of the mind is primarily sattva, the nature of life is rajas, and that of matter is tamas — so, as the mind is cleaned up of impurities and allowed to rest more and more in its own inherent nature, sattva naturally comes to the fore and calm clarity reigns.
Day to day life, however, has a tendency to draw the other qualities to the surface. When, for instance, activity is demanded of us, rajas naturally arises. And when survival instincts such as fight-or-flight responses are called up, as with trauma, depression, and anxiety, tamas takes over. These patterns, of whatever qualitative nature, collectively make up the subconscious of the individual. Patanjali makes clear in his Yoga Sutras — and Vyasa even moreso in his commentary — that it is the job of the Yogi to root out and replace rajasic and tamasic patterns with sattvic ones, and that this is itself a full-time occupation which does not arrive at completion overnight. The advice of Sri Ramana Maharshi and other teachers, then, is not to feel overwhelmed by guilt and regret over those times when our lower responses come out to play, but to make the most of those times when we are at our best. Over time, this demonstrably will reduce our more harmful patterns and those times of sattvic lucidity will become more common and will last longer.
As ever, guilt, shame, regret, and anger have their healthy prupose, but that purpose is momentary. They show us that something has gone wrong, that our situation is a bad one. Holding on to those responses after they’ve delivered their message does nobody any good. We are so accustomed, however, to not just giving them a loud voice in our lives but to actually identifying ourselves with them. This can only change through increased awareness and allowing ourselves to truly rest in that awareness.
Before getting to the practicals, an explanation — and a disclaimer: There are any number of people in the occult, magical, spiritual, New Age, and New Thought economy of today claiming instant or at least easy relief from anxiety, depression, and other characteristic mental, emotional, and neurological maladies of our age. This is not that. I have my own hypotheses about what these things are and how they interact — how the mental, emotional, and neurological arise from, descend into, and mutually support one another. This is not the place to discuss that in any depth, but it bears mentioning that while I am far from being a materialist, I am also not an idealist: mental and physical states are both real on their own terms, and not only can but perpetually do cause and change one another. To put that into usable terms for present purposes, the mind can change the brain at least as well as the brain can change the mind.
The claim I make for the magical material which follows is this: it worked for me. Like, a lot. It isn’t the only thing I did, but I did it during a very deep depression and it brought me out of it with some significant insights into the nature of my own depressive experiences. For relevant history, I have been diagnosed with depression but have never been medicated for it and have preferred to find ways to avoid medication. I hold no judgment for or against those who are or have been so medicated, and the following is not intended to be a direct alternative to any sort of treatment as much as it is another tool to have in the utility belt. Depression, after all, is rarely one thing or even one kind of thing; it is a host of events in and out of the brain which roil together to form a set of subjective experiences which we categorize with the word “depression”. The usual legal boilerplate of “talk to your doctor, counselor, etc., etc.” applies here.
While a large discussion, it is also worth mentioning here that sadness and even depression are natural; there is nothing inherently “wrong” with either of them. From the perspective of Yoga, they are just more vrttis, mere perturbations in the substance of the mind, and are not essential to our being. The purpose of the below practices is not to flatten out experience, but to expand it. Depression is itself a flattening-out of experience; it is well, then, if we learn to consider happiness not as an unchanging state to which we aspire nor as a delusional or unrealistic view of life’s ups and downs, but as a broadening, deepening, and all-round expanding of experience and of healthy activity in the mind in the midst of those very ups and downs. It is for this reason that we invoke Jupiter in the work below; astrologically, Jupiter rules all sweet things as well as expansion and lightening.
I call these simple spells a “layered” approach because while each one may be of help separately (and they may be used separately as “maintenance”), they have a cumulative impact when used one after the other, either all at once or spread out over a week or so. I will place them below in the order in which I suggest using them as a total protocol; they build best this way, moving from “first aid” to long-term impact.
Again, this is how I have used these spells and made notes on their short- and long-term effects. If you choose to experiment with them, I welcome field notes.
Daily Habits: If you do not already have a regular program of moderate physical exercise, time spent out of doors in natural environs, and both mental and physical relaxation, I suggest incorporating such habits as soon as possible. The key, though, is to ensure that these do not become further sources of stress; don’t try to add them all at once, but incorporate one or another of them as you can, establishing it as your new “normal” before concerning yourself with the rest.
Jupiter Oil: There are a variety of possible recipes for many purposes related to the planet Jupiter. If you prefer, purchase Jupiter or Prosperity Oil from a trusted producer of magical wares. If you wish to make your own for present purposes, a simple recipe is benzoin and allspice steeped in sesame oil, adding all ingredients together in a canning jar in the day and hour of Jupiter or during a good Jupiter election, then “birthed” on such a time at least 1 week later (ideally at least 40 days later).
Purification Baths: Whether as a soaking bath or a standing bath, use some sort of purifying bath at least three days in a row. A simple mixture of salt, Epsom salt, and baking soda makes a good choice. Any simple prayer or mantra of purification, healing, and alignment is good for activating the bath; sincerity is more important than fancy words. My prayer for this and everything following was something like, “I am drained of sadness and despair, filled with happiness and purpose, with the wisdom to see missteps before they arise, and with prosperity within and without.”
Ganapati Candle: Draw the yantra pictured below on a fireproof surface, etch it onto copper plate, or draw it on paper to be placed below a fireproof surface. Dress a white 7-day candle with Jupiter Oil, frankincense, marjoram, cinnamon, and allspice. Place the candle over the yantra (on a fireproof surface as appropriate to your set-up). Activate the dressed candle with the mantra Om Gam Ganapataye Namah, then light it and pray for relief and lightening in your body and mind. Allow the candle to burn down (safely!).
Lightening Bath: Make a very strong tea of bay leaf, marjoram, and frankincense. Once steeped, add a drop or two of Florida Water (or a favorite cologne or perfume with good associations for you). Allow this to cool to a safe temperature. Stand in your shower or bathtub and massage your body, from the crown of your head down with especial attention paid to the back of the neck, the middle of the chest, the solar plexus, and the lower back, with wildflower or orange flower honey. Take a warm shower to rinse the honey from your hair and skin. Turn the water off and pour the now-cool tea over your head, neck, and shoulders, allowing it to flow over as much of your body as possible. As you conduct all of the above, from brewing the tea to pouring it over yourself, pray to be lightened in body and mind and relieved of your depression. Allow yourself to air dry before getting dressed. Do not towel off! If you must, you may wear a bathrobe or the like, but try to allow the tea to dry on your skin as much as you can. This is best done in the evening so that you can sleep with the dried tea on you, showering if necessary the following morning.
Jupiter Offerings: Make offerings to Lord Brhaspati (Jupiter). Sweet foods may be offered to food banks, or money donated to them, in the name of Brhaspati. Frankincense and/or sandalwood and candles dressed in Jupiter Oil may be burned as offerings in the home. The Jupiter mantra Om Brm Brhaspataye Namah may be chanted when making these offerings, ideally on a Thursday in the hour of Jupiter though this is not essential. Consider making such offerings a weekly or monthly habit.
Tea: Periodically enjoy a cup of marjoram and frankincense tea sweetened with wildflower or orange blossom tea. (If the flavors of marjoram and/or frankincense are too strong for you, consider using less of them in a mix with your favorite tea, especially a masala chai blend or chamomile.
Much of the preceding can be expanded upon and deepened in a variety of ways. Those with a deep knowledge of astrology, for instance, may take advantage of Jovian astrological elections, while an herbalist can produce yet more nuanced teas and baths. These methods are intended as suggestions and an overall guide to applying such nested magical technologies. As I said before, field notes are appreciated as they may be of aid to someone else.
The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. ~ G.K. Chesterton (Illustrated London News, 1924)
If you’ve been here a while, you know that I once had a degree of sympathy for Traditionalism. While never calling myself a Traditionalist, I read with interest many of the theologians, metaphysicians, artists, and poets who fell into or helped to guide this particular school of thought. While I can certainly say that I learned a lot from them, most of what I learned was more to do with my own mental tendencies as, quite frankly, most of what the Traditionalists have to “teach” is misleading.
For those of you who are not familiar with the writings of the Traditionalists — notable among them being Rene Guenon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, and Julius Evola — it may be worth pausing for a definition, or at least a description. As there is a lot of variation to their particular expressions, it isn’t easy to completely encapsulate what Traditionalism teaches, but it can be generalized to two points: Perennialism and perversion.
Perennialism is the notion that all of human religion, metaphysics, ethics, and spirituality sprang ultimately from a single Perennial Philosophy, the one true original universal religion which was itself a revelation of God. The idea of Perennialism has a long pedigree, arising more or less from a Western occult reinterpretation of the Indian notion of Sanatana Dharma. The major difference between Perennialism and Sanatana Dharma, however, is that Sanatana Dharma can never be fully encompassed by the intellect, as it is simply “the way things are” whether we agree or not, while the Perennial Philosophy is entirely intellectual and can be disagreed with or disregarded — albeit, to hear Traditionalists speak of it, to the detriment of all human values. This brings us to the second point.
Traditionalism posits that ever since some distant Golden Age, humanity has been descending further and further into its own ignorance, away from the purity of the Perennial Philosophy and toward absolute moral, spiritual, and intellectual degradation. This, of course, resembles H.P. Blavatsky’s misreading of the Indian cosmological and astrological idea of the Yugas, or ages of civilization during which human civilization descends from a more spiritualized Age of Truth through to an Age of Darkness.
On the surface, the doctrine of Yugas sounds identical to the Ages of Traditionalism. Traditionalism, however, dwells on the increasing perversion of the Dark Age (often even borrowing the phrase Kali Yuga in discussing it) to the exclusion of anything positive about it, taking a more or less eschatological lens to all human questions. In Hindu and Buddhist discussions of the Yugas, they are seen as a descending and ascending cycle, something like a sine wave moving along an overall helical direction, rather than as a straight line or unbreakable circle. Even where Traditionalism acknowledges the cyclical nature of the Ages, it prefers a doom-and-gloom righteousness approaching self-martyrdom. For the Hindu mind, Yugas point to broad trends which may or may not hold in particular places and times and which, in any case, come with both positive and negative developments. It is acknowledged at all times that the Age of Truth was not what a Western thinker would call Utopia — that there were bad actors and flawed people in positions of power even then, but that on balance leaders trended toward genuine justice and spiritual values in line with Dharma, the nature of what is. It is further stated even in the most legalistic of Hindu texts that the actions of humans can turn any time and place into a pocket of the Age of Truth even in the Age of Darkness, and vice versa.
Traditionalism may thus be understood by its dogmatism in approaching doctrines it borrows from elsewhere, especially when those sources are far less rigid about the same ideas. Dogmatism is perhaps inevitable in a school of religious thought which calls itself “Traditionalism”, but we do have a helpful counter-example in the form of Frithjof Schuon.
Though a one-time student of Guenon, and frequently referenced by Evola (in his later writings, as both Evola and Guenon were considerably older than Schuon), Schuon rejected the title of Traditionalist, preferring to refer to himself as a Perennialist. The distinction is subtle but significant of a major doctrinal break: Schuon was devoted to the Divine Feminine.
Where other Traditionalists were misogynists and racists — Guenon less so, but Evola overtly and, I add from personal distaste, vituperatively. Apologists to this day find clever ways around Evola’s language on race and sex, but if you simply read the man’s words, he tells the story himself in the same way that Crowley’s abusiveness and drug addiction are obvious to everyone but those who deify the man. Schuon’s interpretations of race and gender may not look especially progressive by the standards of an urban American in 2019, but Schuon was very clear on the point that none of the traits which can be ascribed to a gender, sexual orientation, culture, religion, or ethnicity is exclusive to them but is rather symbolized by them. One runs the risk, here, of accidentally dehumanizing people in using them as symbols, but Schuon was a step ahead here, as well: every individual, for Schuon, is simultaneously an individual and a showing-forth of certain particular divine functions. The spiritual responsibility of the individual is therefore to fully integrate their respective divine functions and from there to reach inward for all of the others, expanding rather than contracting their sense of identity. For these purposes, Schuon passionately threw himself into not only dry intellectual practices but also into the sweet ocean of devotional worship.
Comparing Schuon to the Traditionalists is like comparing an arid desert to a lush rain forest. Both have their dangers and their beauties, but the desert of Evola is not fit for our kind of life. Evola, it has been noted by certain practicing magicians, borrowed extensively from the magical practices of Aleister Crowley and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, both of which focus intensively upon the Solar Intelligence. The Sun can certainly bring illumination, but in Jyotish we point out that the Sun’s can be a harsh and drying heat; it desiccates and mummifies, preserving a shell. When combined with the sweet expansiveness of Jupiter, the beauty of Venus, and the cooling wet of the Moon, the Sun’s light and heat enliven.
Where Schuon took some core ideas from Traditionalism and jail broke them (an effort also engaged in by Aldous Huxley and Schuon’s own student Huston Smith), the partisans of Traditionalism-proper maintain the very sort of unreflective conservatism critiqued so pointedly by Chesterton.
I’ve written before about Hatha-Yoga and its uses, so I won’t retread that ground here. But a commonly stated “goal of yoga” found in popular publications and classes on the topic has been coming more and more to the forefront, or at least more and more to my attention, of late: the goal of “uniting” mind and body or, occasionally, mind, body, and spirit. “Yoga” famously refers to a unitive experience and the practices which can get you there, but this is often left vague enough that people fill in the blanks of exactly what is being united with what, and stressed Americans have every reason to desire bringing their bodies, intellects, and emotions into some sort of parity, so naturally enough the confusion starts that this must be what we mean by “yoga”. Here, however, we have a limited and limiting redefinition of a term and a set of techniques with much broader and deeper application. It isn’t wrong so much as it is self-constraining.
Trendy money-makers like “hot yoga”, “acro-yoga”, “competitive yoga”, and what seems like the new cool kid, “embodied yoga”, all focus to some extent on drawing the mind and body together or recognizing them as an inextricable whole. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this view — for as long as we are in bodies, we do best to treat our whole apparatus as a unity so as to keep everything functioning as well as possible. But no traditional school of Yoga philosophy places much emphasis on this idea; it’s almost assumed at the outset that you already believe in such a unity. Consider that India, Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, and China did not (bless their good fortune!) have to deal with the likes of Plato, Aristotle, or Descarte. The dualistic philosophies of India and China were never dualistic in the way that Western philosophies were (and are).
Instead, the emphasis in much traditional Yoga — perhaps especially the “classical” Yoga of Sage Patanjali — is the deliberate separation of consciousness and body. The process of Patanjali’s Yoga is of gradually and carefully teasing apart the various layers of individual selfhood starting with the brute physicality of the elements and moving inward to the subtle ego at the heart of the individual’s experience of Nature Herself. A variety of practical methods are presented in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and detailed further in its more well-known commentaries (often published with it in its better editions and translations). All of this may seem to the modern eye as quite anti-body or even anti-cosmic.
Though Patanjala and Vedic purists might disagree, Yoga is inextricably Tantric: it is rooted in the experience of freedom inherent in the individual. Yet Tantra is not at all anti-body or anti-cosmic. Where, then, does Patanjali’s dualism come from?
I assert as a practitioner of many of Patanjali’s techniques that the dualism of Samkhya and of Patanjali’s Sutras is provisional rather than absolute; it is a phenomenological conceit rather than an ontological absolute and is presented as a conceptual tool for discursive meditation. In the religio-philosophical milieu of Sage Kapila — the first to codify classical Samkhya metaphysics, though certainly not its originator — and Sage Patanjali, mind-body unity would have been the baseline assumption and the common experience. It was necessary, therefore, to provide the prospective sadhaka with a set of mental tools allowing them to tease apart the layers of their own experience in order to find the seed-consciousness at their own core. This is still an extraordinarily powerful toolkit for the practitioner!
My own Natha tradition, however, includes methods which are much more apparently friendly toward physicality. Sri Gurudev Matsyendranath (known also as Maccendranath and, especially among Buddhists, as Minapa) is explicitly associated with Kaula Tantra, a ritual-heavy form of Vama Tantra which can include the consumption of “forbidden” substances (meat, liquor, etc.) and absorption in meditative and worshipful sex; Sri Gorakhnath (aka Gorakshanath), Matsyendra’s close disciple, presented a view of Hatha-Yoga emphasizing not the mere physicality of the body but the nondual spirituality of the whole of Creation — in which he did not include the body so much as he included the whole cosmos into the body of the individual itself! Future writings will explore this idea more in its practical implications and applications, but for now I let it stand in all its starkness.
On the surface, this seems like a contradiction in the Yogi Sampradaya — some of our forebears presenting an anti-cosmic approach and others a life-affirming one. But in the practice of Yoga we find the solution, quite literally as the distinctions dissolve in the open experience of what we may as well call Buddha Nature, the Power of Siva, or the Infinite Space of the Unconditioned Self. For so long as we are subject to Karma, for so long as we are within patterns left to play out, our minds will have different needs at different times. If I am caught within a pit of mind/body dualism, I may escape it by way of physically-oriented practices which demonstrate their energetic union; if I am instead trapped by a misunderstanding of my body as a mere shell or prison, I may make better progress by experiencing my consciousness as formless consciousness. I hasten to add that neither of these is absolute, neither captures Reality, yet experience shows that neither can be denied.
Remember, you alone in-dwell all things always. When you say you meditate, you meditate on something other than yourself; but then, you divide the indivisible. Can you? ~ Avadhuta Gita I:12
If you know me personally, are connected with me on Facebook, or have been following my writing for a while, you are probably aware that I have changed my name several times over the past 13 years. From my legal birth name, to the pen name under which my first book was published (Nicholas Graham, if you’re curious, and God do I need to get back to writing what ought to be my second book), to my Hindu name, to now my name as an initiated Nath Yogi, I tear through monickers like a comedian through Twitter controversies. Even my girlfriend doesn’t bother keeping up anymore; she just calls me Beard, after my most prominent physical feature. I really do think that Vijnananath will stick, though, as it is not emblematic of where I am at any given moment in time but, so to say, of my spiritual career in toto. As soon as it was given to me — repeated to me five times at my initiation — it was like being struck, not by lightning but by a simple fact, like when you wake up on a Fall morning and realize, “It’s cold in here,” or like the first bite of a dessert you’ve never tried before but which is immediately comforting. Nevertheless, I do not care which of these many names (and even more nicknames which have come and gone over the years) any given person chooses to call me. One friend who knew me as Nicholas up until it was Candra told me that, as with marriage here in the US, you get one free name change, so he’s going to call me Candra until one of us dies or until I pay him to change his mental records. Fair enough. I wear all these names, but I wear them lightly.
I’ve also, like many ardent seekers in the world today who grow up in non-religious or only nominally religious households, been through a number of religious practices. Wicca, Druidry, Hermeticism, magical agnosticism, mystical Christianity, Christian Gnosticism, orthodox Saiva Hinduism, and now what I shudder to call “Nathism” but I don’t have a better word — all of these, and more tangents besides, have been spiritual stopovers on my way to “here”. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with religion: I love the idea (ideal) of rooted traditions which can serve as home bases for deeper, more dangerous explorations, but authoritarianism and claims of both exclusivity and universality grate upon me like rubbing a cat’s fur against the grain. I’m not opposed to dogma in the classical sense of teachings passed down through time, but these teachings are only useful when they are treated as a frame for experience rather than as a completed structure.
In my practice of Yoga and Tantra, one of the biggest changes I’ve experienced has been a decreasing concern with self-identifiers. Sure, I still have my opinions (some altogether too strong for the triviality of the topic), but when I was younger I lived by the labels I applied to myself. I couldn’t just have an anti-authoritarian outlook; I was an Anarchist. I couldn’t admire the mystical and ethical teachings of Jesus; I was a Christian. And so on. I do not intend to tell anybody else what they should or should not jettison in this way, but there is a core message I think it is well worth keeping in mind — it all has to go one day, so it’s best to wear it like a scarf rather than a manacle.
Let’s be clear, of course, that this is an ongoing introspective process related, once again, to our old friends the Kleshas as well as the social conditioning which grows from and takes advantage of them. I may write more on this one day, but I am very much of the mind that social pressure, whether exerted by one person or by an entire culture, is something like the interaction of the balance of kleshas among all the people involved. The objective needn’t be — in fact, cannot be without a series of psychotic breaks — the dissolution of all self-identifiers, but the routine examination of them. When I tell myself that I am, say, an American, what does that mean? Does it close me off to certain things? Does it open me up to other things? How has any of that benefited me? Does it continue to benefit me, or is it getting in my way? Do I need to toss it entirely, or do I only need to soften the edges a bit? And so on.
The hard part is to realize that this applies to every story we tell about ourselves, no matter how justified we think it is at a glance. If I call myself traumatized, depressed, anxious, poor, weak, wrathful, a victim… These all carry a social cache, often negative but sometimes with a paradoxical “net gain”, depending on the circles in which you travel. Looking deeply into these implications and what we gain and lose by these interactions can be a multilayered lesson, but one which is extremely painful as we have to tear away and drop what does not actually serve us but which brings us some shallow sort of respectability or the sort of armor which in the short term protects us from criticism but in the long term insulates us against learning.
There is not and need not be any particular technique or procedure for navigating this labyrinth. Like any labyrinth, as opposed to maze, all you need to do is keep well in the mind the direction of movement and commit to it. In short, radical self-honesty is tool, process, and product. The technical language of Yoga does a great job of pointing out a lot of blind spots, but in some areas such as this we do better with naked simplicity.
This principle applies well beyond our own individual identities. Just as we reify our own little selves by taking too seriously our various linguistic games, we do the same with all of our experiences. Western philosophy has dead-ended itself time and again by obsessing over divisions of “object” and “subject”, of inner and outer, and so forth. It isn’t that these questions aren’t interesting, but in spite of the scientific method’s straining to the contrary there is at base no division between experiencer and experienced, only a provisional division we draw for utilitarian purposes. But here is why we emphasize the “inner” in Yoga: experience is always filtered through our own self-conception, conscious or not. In order, therefore, to obtain a clean experience, the mirror by which that experience is apprehended must also be clean. This is the real meaning of “purity” in Yoga and Tantra; it is not an abstract idea, nor merely to please a deity, but is instead a recognition of the nature of our own mind. From that place, experience is natural, spontaneous. We stop demanding a logical explanation — without being closed to one if it should prove to exist. Analysis ceases to be “cutting apart”, synthesis is no longer necessary, and pat answers reveal their emptiness. We are left with what is.
Ferocious: A Folk Tantric Manual on the Sapta Matrika Cult
by The Sepulcher Society
2019, Theion Publishing (Germany)
My mentor Sri Vijayanath once advised me when I was divesting of a lot of books with the criteria he uses for that purpose: 1) Will I ever want to repurchase this if I get rid of it? and; 2) Does it inspire my practice? I have also begun to use this as a metric when buying books. You can’t always know in advance, of course, but some books just cry out to be enshrined in a permanent place on my shelves. These days, I rarely spring for $50+ dollar “boutique” occult books, but I knew immediately that this one was for me.
Ferocious: A Folk Tantric Manual on the Sapta Matrika Cult, authored anonymously under the collective name the Sepulcher Society, is as it says on the tin: a practical, hands-on, manual for building a devotional-magical (which is to say, Tantric) relationship with one or all of these peculiar and powerful folk Goddesses. Let’s break that title down a bit.
Folk Tantra is the devotion and the magic of the people. Anyone with the devotion and the will to do it can approach these deities, regardless of religious background, initiations (or lack thereof), caste, class, or nationality. These practices can get as expensive and fancy as you can make them (and, of course, the greater your means, the more the deities will expect of you here), but remain fundamentally “earthy”. Instructions in this and other books of folk Tantra for creating one’s own statues of the deity do not demand a great deal of artistic skill, and remind me of the common practice of setting up any oblong stone to worship Shiva, or else to create a lingam from local clay. And this brings us to manual, for Ferocious is certainly a book meant to be lived rather than merely read. Sure, the academic or the merely curious would get plenty from giving it a read, learning a lot about the Sapta Matrikas and their worship, as well as Tantra broadly speaking, but for all the real scholarship behind it the book is not for scholars alone. It is a book of meat and bone. Even the artwork has blood coursing through it, the soul of having met the Goddesses in the dark woods and the feeling of their claws in one’s life.
The Sapta Matrikas are often worshiped as a group, though each of them has Her own devotees as well; some of them are more individually famous and their cults more widespread than others, but the Matrikas are all well attested in India and increasingly abroad. “Matrika” means something like “small mother”, which indicates both the nature of the Goddesses as well as how their devotees commonly relate to them. They are what scholars might call Shakta Goddesses, which is to say Goddesses commonly worshiped by Tantric devotees of Adi Shakti, the Great Divine Power Whom Shaktas consider to be the Supreme Being. They are therefore often considered to be projections of Her — though this should not be confused with the “soft polytheism” often discussed in Western Neopagan circles. Much as Hinduism does not fit neatly into Western academic ideas of dualist, nondualist, monotheist, or polytheist religion, neither do ideas of “soft” and “hard” polytheism entirely work. A worshiper of, say, Vaishnavi (one of the Matrikas) may simultaneously recognize Her as a member of the Matrikas, as a hypostasis of Adi Shakti, as a distinct individual Goddess with Her own personality, appearance, and agenda, and as the Supreme Being Herself. To a Christian or even a Western Pagan, this may sound like a bundle of contradictions; a theologian (mono- or poly-) insists: Pick one, dammit! But for many a Hindu, there is no contradiction at all. If I, too, am a projection of the Absolute Power yet know myself as an individual, what’s to stop a God or Goddess from having that same experience, albeit more deeply on both counts? This is, as it were, the Tantric approach to consciousness at every level of apparent complexity.
The descriptions of the Goddesses are very thorough. A sensitive reader will know immediately if any of the Matrikas are calling out to them — if not immediately from the art, then from the imagery, myths, and mantras. I was very pleasantly surprised to see the inclusion of astrological associations. As an astrologer myself, it’s good to know that information, but for the devotee or operative magician the Matrikas can be a key to productively working with the powers of the planets in their more difficult aspects. Moreover, this is a true grimoire in that it does not shy away from those methods which might be called “spell casting”: engaging with the Matrikas and their associated powers for bringing about changes both inner and outer, either directly or through the mediation of various physical processes and materials which a reader would very much be forgiven for calling witchcraft.
Several years ago, Sri Vijayanath had given me a mantra for Chamunda — one of the Matrikas — and I have been building a relationship with Her ever since. I therefore already had much of the content specifically for Her found in Ferocious, but it also helped me to place Her within the broader context of Her Sister Goddesses. The Matrikas, whether approached as unique individual deities, as the embodiments of the forces of the more “orthodox” deities to whom They correspond, or as the fierce projections of the Great Shakti, are not deities with a light touch. They do not work through subtlety and they do not leave those who petition them for aid untouched. Chamunda has spent the past couple of years reworking me from the inside out, and She has been clear and obvious about it every step of the way (not to say that I’ve always known what was going on until the dust settled). It was therefore refreshing to find a book which does not try to repaint the Matrikas as gentle mothers. If you choose to work with the Matrikas together or individually, heed the warnings given! They are not “evil” or malicious by default, but if you form a connection with one or more of them, you will experience their presence and power and they will not hold back.
I recommend this book for serious scholars of the occult and of esoteric religion who want to see how Tantra is practiced at street level; most especially, I recommend it for those who feel called to encounter Shakti through bloody Nature and everything that comes along for the ride. You can order your copy directly from the publisher.