Time is precious. Don't waste it.
Om. Atha. According to the Puranas (ancient Hindu/Jain/Buddhist narratives of the history of the universe), these were the first sounds in the universe, issued from the Creator’s throat. And, with these two words, Paul Sherbow opened each of the 2012 philosophy sessions at Yoga in the Granite State, an annual retreat taught by Patricia Walden and guest presenter(s). A gifted linguist, Sherbow studies the texts and commentaries in their original languages – in addition to Sanskrit, Paul is fluent in several other Indic tongues, including Bengali and Hindi. At YIGS, he employed an etymological approach to “unpack” the rich meanings behind the carefully chosen words in each of the aphorisms we reviewed. Many of the concepts he presented were familiar to us as students of Iyengar Yoga, but by pulling the individual words apart and examining them in detail, Paul’s teaching invited deeper introspection.
Beginning with Sutra I.1 (atha yoganusanam), Paul explained that, in ancient Vedic texts the term atha typically assumes eligibility prerequisites for entering into a state of learning. The Yoga Sutras are an exception, however, in that the student is invited to begin learning now, in the present moment, without needing to have acquired prior knowledge. Anuashtanam refers to “instruction after a certain point” and, according to Sherbow, implies that Patanjali is the compiler of the sutras rather than the original author. More to the point, Patanjali is presenting what he’s been taught by others before him, with no additions or subtractions. This method of passing knowledge from teacher to student without breaks, knots, or leaks is known as parampara (the 2004 IYNAUS Convention in Minnesota was called, “Parampara: In the tradition of Patanjali”), or “one after another”.
The Mundaka Upanishad addresses the question, “What is that by knowing which all is known?” It describes the study of the Vedas, linguistics, rituals, astronomy and the arts are lower forms of knowledge. Higher knowledge is that which leads to self-realization, which is attained by “those who are pure in heart, practice meditation and conquer the senses and passions. [They] shall attain the immortal Self, source of all light and source of all life (Eknath Eswaran’s 20111 translation of The Upanishads.
The Mundaka describes the point at which a student is ready to seek out a teacher to pursue higher knowledge. After scrutinizing the world, the student arrives at non-attachment or, as Paul called it, a “stopping point, or a dead end in terms of material ambition”. At this point, the student must approach a teacher “whose heart is full of love, who has conquered their senses and passions” (Eswaran, 2011), and who will reveal The Imperishable One.
Verse III.1.1 of the Mundaka describes the ego and the Self as “two golden birds perched on the selfsame tree”. One bird eats the fruit of tree of life and falls into sorrow, while the other bird “looks on in detachment, is freed from sorrow and transcends the duality of life”. We studied the connection between this verse and those in the Katha Upanishad that discuss sreyas (the good, the beneficial, the long-term) and preyas (what we desire, what pleases, short-term). Paul equated sreyas and preyas to vidya (knowledge) and avidya (ignorance), respectively, and discussed the other klesas (obstacles) as outgrowths of avidya. Both sreyas and preyas “bind a man” as described in verse II.15 of the Bhagavad Gita, “only the man who is unmoved by any sensations, the wise man indifferent to pleasure, to pain, is fit for becoming deathless.
To become unbound from sreyas/preyas and the sway of the klesas, one must cultivate viveka khyateh (discriminating awareness) or, as Paul called it, “the ultimate sattvic possibility”. And the means to establish viveka khyateh are outlined in the sutras on practice. Paul cited a definition of tapas as the “voluntary acceptance of discomfort for spiritual purposes or practices”. He noted that anga means part or portion and it is therefore important not to mistake the eight limbs of yoga as stages; rather, they are parts of an organic whole. Vyasa’s commentary on sutra I.12 (abhyasa and vairagyabhyam tannirodhah) states that the mind is a “river that flows in two directions”– toward the good in current of viveka (vahati kalyana) or toward evil (avivekah). One brings us toward light, the other toward darkness. Practice and desirelessness are the means to get the river to flow in one direction. Eventually, “the flowing river is lost in the sea. The illumined sage is lost in the self. The flowing river becomes the sea. The illumined sage has become the Self”.
This process is illustrated by the “chariot” verse I.3.3 of the Katha Upanishad in which the buddhi (intelligence) is woken up. It grabs the reins of the chariot and begins to control the sense. At this point the buddhi turns toward the atman (soul) and the atman determines the direction toward kaivalya (liberation). This is viveka khyatheh.
This leads us to the Isa, one of the most famous and shortest of all the Upanishads, and Ghandi’s favorite. It challenges us to “renounce and enjoy!” “Do not covet what belongs to others (aparigraha). The Supreme Being pervades all existence. Everything we find in the world is a suitable residence for Isvara. Sherbow’s parting words to us, paraphrased from the Isa, were, “Conserve energy. Time is precious. Do not waste it.