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)