Yama & Niyama: Moral Restraints and Observances
Continued from Part VI
In the earlier part, while narrating the basic ingrained philosophies of the Sanatana Dharma, the author had referred to certain universal moral Principles in the form of Yama i.e. moral discipline or restraints and Niyama i.e. moral observance or practices by the followers. Patanjali, a learned saga in ancient time, had in his Yoga Sutra inter alia laid down a great emphasis on the regular observance of Asana (body posture) and Pranayama (breath control) in exercising these restraints and practices. A regular following of these restraints and practices is of great significance in refining the soul and taking the practitioner steps closer to Brahman in the pursuit of the Moksha (liberation).
Yoga Sutra had been compiled by Sage Patanjali most probably around the fourth century of the first millennium picking up yogic practices from the Vedic traditions as scholars vary in their estimates about his vintage from second to fourth century. It is among the most translated and circulated Hindu texts in various languages that made a real comeback in modern India among Hindus largely due to efforts of Swami Vivekananda, the Theosophical Society and some others. Yoga Sutra is considered as the crux of the modern classical Yoga philosophy of Hinduism while many similar formulations and details are also reported from the texts like Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Vasistha, Hatha Yoga, Tantric Yoga, Pashupata Yoga etc.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra refers to eight components or limbs namely Yama (restraints), Niyama (practices), Asana (posture), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (fetching or bringing near), Dharana (concentration or introspective focus), Dhyana (contemplation or meditation) and Samadhi (harmonious whole or trance). It may be relevant to mention once again that like other English terms for many previously mentioned Vedic terminologies, the terms put in the bracket above too only approximately meanings of the corresponding yoga components. The first two components namely Yama and Niyama are aimed at a disciplined life to ensure an effective social order. Apart from, Yoga Sutra, they also find a mention in Sandilya Upanishad and a more recent work Hatha Pradipika by Swatmarama, a 16th century scholar and sage.
Yama constitute the first limb of yoga, the first five Yama make the foundation of spiritual life and find a mention in the Yoga Sutra in the same order as a sort of precursor to Samadhi. Inculcating moral discipline in the form of restraints, they are means to development of positive attributes which ultimately transform the human nature into a divine nature supressing the cravings and negative traits. Hindu texts hold if Yama are followed with true spirit, the heart is filled with cosmic love, goodness and enlightenment.
There is a deliberate order in the first five Yama as prescribed by the sage Patanjali. Ahimsa (non-violence) precedes all Yama because one needs to renounce violence in all forms to develop love and compassion. This follows Satya (truthfulness) as in Hinduism Maya (illusion) is defined as unreal and Brahman (the Supreme Soul) as the ultimate truth. The Asteya (non-stealing) is an essential moral discipline so as to make distinction between the righteousness and unrighteousness. Brahmacharya and Aparigraha are other two disciplines essential to maintain a good moral character free from worldly cravings and desires.
Ahimsa: It literally translates to ‘nonviolence’ which by implication means abstention from causing injury to any living being. Spiritually it gains prominence as in the path of attainment (of moksha), the very first requisite is getting rid of the beastly nature that flourishes on cruelty towards other beings. The term is not simply restricted to merely non-killing or non-harming, instead it has the positive connotations of love and compassion too that the practitioner is even expected to refrain from the unkindly looks, gestures, imaginations or harsh words that could inflict pain to any being. In modern India, Mahatma Gandhi was one who truly understood, practiced and spread the message of Ahimsa in its purest form, while leading the people of the country towards the goal of independence from the foreign rule. Hence a true practitioner of Ahimsa would refrain from causing any kind of injury, pain or trepidation to any living being by deeds, words or thoughts.
Satya: The nearest English term for Satya is ‘truthfulness’ next in the order of Yama. Being truthful is the essence of the Self that can be achieved by speaking truth and practicing truth in spirit, word and deed. Hindu texts define thirteen forms of Satya namely truthfulness, equal vision, self-control, absence of envious emulation, forgiveness, modesty, endurance, non-jealousy, charity, thoughtfulness, disinterested philanthropy, self-possession and compassionate harmlessness. Truthfulness is like ‘walk your talk’ in practice; thought must be in consonance with the word and so be the word with the action. Acting otherwise or telling lies only pollute one’s conscience and subconscious mind. It is often said if a person is truthful, all other virtues naturally follow him. One could practically remain truthful by remaining honest in admitting own faults, failures or lapses, staying away from slander, gossips and harmful deeds to others, and remaining kind, fair and accurate with people.
Asteya: Nearest recognised term for Asteya is non-stealing’ but it cannot be restricted to stealing money or valuables alone of the owner with or without his (or her) knowledge or consent. In fact, in extended form of self-restraint, Asteya is applicable to the material as well as abstract thoughts and things. The root cause behind the stealing is unquenched trishna, the desire and thirst that one cannot fulfil through the legitimate means or ethical ways. Therefore, Asteya is considered in Yoga as one of the most crucial and effective restraints to be exercised by the practitioner. At material level, even taking away small things meant for the public or workplace to house is an act of stealing while in yogic sense, even having wishful thoughts, uncontrolled cravings, eating or drinking and accumulating money disproportionate to basic needs also fall in the category of stealing. Hence it is necessary that the practitioners restraint their desires to live within means, avoid reneging on agreed terms, refrain from using or falsifying somebody else’s name, rights or resources without proper consent or authorization and entering into the act of defrauding others or gambling.
Brahmacharya: It has several connotations like the practice of continence, chastity, marital fidelity and sexual restraint. Literally, continence appears to be the most nearly term that implies to self-control. The word continence arises from the Latin continentia which means "a holding back” and here it implies to holding back bodily functions. In Hinduism, Vedic sages believed that under the controlled conditions of Brahmacharya, the human energy which is part of and expressed in the sexual union gets transmuted into a spiritual energy known as Ojas Shakti and remains stored in the brain. Many all-time great spiritual leaders in India and world were celibate which is why they were able to enrich and educate people through the power of Ojas.
Some yogis with abundant Ojas are even known to have miraculous powers used for the welfare of the mankind. Yoga prescribes restraint and not suppression or abstinence from the sexual deed. The philosophy of Brahmacharya could be well understood and exercised by the common man by learning the Ashram System in correct perspective which prescribed restraint and remaining celibate before marriage, remain faithful to spouse in marriage and practice celibacy and divine conduct to achieve purity, strength, knowledge and peace during and/or after Grihastha.
Aparigraha: The nearest English term to Aparigraha is non-covetousness or non-avarice, the opposite being covetousness or avarice. While covetousness breeds the sense of insecurity and anxiety to hold tight, preserve, fear to lose, jealousy, hatred, anger, falsehood etc., Aparigraha is a moral discipline whereby all such sensual cravings come to a nought bringing contentment and peace to the practitioner. An Aparigrahi person gets freedom from the negative traits like anxiety, fear, attachment, disappointment, jealousy, anger, lust and depression. It acts truly in concordance with the preceding Yama like Ahimsa, Satya and Asteya. When a person is free from avarice, he will voluntarily keep himself away from harming any other living being by stealing or resorting to falsehood. To that extent, Aparigraha serves as a foundation of other moral disciplines.
Kshma: Broadly, Kshma relates to the virtue of the forgiveness. It is yet another divine virtue that, if imbibed, brings in moral discipline to be patient in all circumstances as also tolerant towards other living beings. The most crucial thing is that the practitioner should not be disturbed with the nature and behaviour of the other people. The person exercising this restraint would easily avoid arguments or interrupting others during the conversation, however controversial or debatable it may be. He would also not try to dominate conversation or impose his thought or will on the others. The practice of forgiveness renders a person with a graceful poise and amicable charm at all times, good and bad.
Dhriti: Steadfastness or fortitude are nearly accurate terms to define Dhriti as the practitioner is expected to be resolute and steadfast in his spirit and deed. People blessed with this discipline tend to work achieving their objects with a mission, plan, purpose and persistence. It helps them to quickly adapt to changes as normal occurrences as well as sudden setbacks because of their ability and perseverance to decision taking. Their sustained will power, courage and hard work go a long way to overcome problems and obstacles besides avoiding lethargy and procrastination.
Daya: It literally means compassion and the practitioner is expected to renounce all forms of cruelty to living things by remaining dayawan (compassionate). Such a person is equally kind and compassionate to people, animals, birds and everything that exists in the nature. He (or she) not simply sympathises but actually takes care of the needs and suffering of the others more particularly of those who are weak, old, impoverished and pained. Even the wicked is forgiven by them for his true remorse and apology.
Arjava: The virtues like honesty, sincerity and non-hypocrisy are the nearest terms defining Arjava. Such a person would maintain absolute integrity, fairness and transparency through his thoughts and deeds. He shall refrain from every deception and wrongdoing. Even in hard and difficult times, he would conduct self decently without any deceit, cheating or wrongdoing or circumventing the path or procedure to achieve the intended results or goal. In a more down to earthly way, he is a law-abiding person who will respect the laws of the land, sincerely pay taxes, will not give or take bribe or succumb to inducement. Such a person has a plenty of courage and moral strength to accept and face the consequences of own faults, if any, without blaming it onto others or circumstances.
Mitahara: It could be ascribed to a measured or moderate diet. A true practitioner is never fanciful or greedy about his appetite and diet choices. He eats the minimum necessary for the maintenance of a good health and life. The food of the practitioner of Mitahara comprises of the simple, fresh and wholesome vegetarian diet taken at the defined and regular intervals. Besides, his eating habit includes a moderate pace, a neat and clean environment and a peaceful mind. A true practitioner refrain from eating meat, fowl, fish and eggs besides avoiding any junk or spicy food.
Niyama are the second limb of yoga philosophy that essentially relates to the mandatory observance or positive duties of the practitioners. They are said to be inner observances that offer a positive impact on the body, mind and soul of the person. The regular and sustained observance of these Niyama inculcate requisite inner strength and discipline in his pursuit and progression of the spiritual journey with a healthy living, enlightenment and liberated state of existence. Such duties and observances prescribed in Vedic age are equally relevant in today’s society.
In fact, different ancient and medieval era Hindu texts mention a long list of Niyama, the most common being five core Niyama compiled in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and another five or six common Niyama added from the texts like the Shandilya and Varuha Upanishads as also the more recent Hatha Yoga Pradipika as the positive duties, desirable behaviours and discipline. The order, name and nature of Niyama and their relative emphasis vary between different texts. Here the author cites ten essential and more popular Niyama, the first five find a place in the Yoga Sutra in the same order.
Shaucha: It is the first of Patanjali’s five Niyama with the nearest English term being ‘purification’. Shaucha is defined as a central theme of many yogic techniques. The underlining principle is that the impurities in our inner body as also the external environment have an adverse effect on our mind, and serve as a dampener for the enlightenment and spiritual freedom. Saucha is also linked with other limbs of yoga as the regular practices of asana, pranayama and meditation also help to cleanse and purify the human body and mind.
A reference to the pure external environment means our friends and acquaintances, recreational activities, food, drink, house furnishing and such other miscellaneous things should be such that they do not cause impurities in our body and mind. All this could be achieved by sustaining a clean and healthy body, a decent and polite behaviour, an orderly home and workplace, a good company avoiding people of dubious nature and past. Regular worship and meditation are of tremendous help in keeping peace and tranquillity of mind.
Samtosha: This literally means ‘contentment’ that come through a regular practice of avoiding the cravings for what we do not possess as also by remaining non-covetous of the possessions of others. It has been the tradition of Hinduism since Vedic age with our sages and rishis advising to live perfectly content with all that we receive in life. Also every person must make peace with his achievements and try to experience true joy and happiness in his belongings. It is a misconception that only the worldly possession of money and goods brings happiness and prosperity and many people are easily misguided under this illusion. But the reality is that the happiness gained through the worldly possessions in life is only transient and ephemeral while Samtosha brings real and lasting contentment, bliss and peace.
Tapas: The corresponding English term of this Sanskrit word is ‘asceticism’ which is a yogic practice of intense self-discipline and attainment of will power through a long and sustained practice. Tapas purifies and transforms the practitioner into a strong-willed person with the conscious awareness, supressing the unconscious impulses and poor behaviour. It also enhances the spiritual energy many fold and in some genuine cases even lead to the release of Kundalini and attainment of enlightenment. Tapas is both physical and mental, the latter being more important and powerful for spiritual gains.
A person doing physical Tapas may be able to endure extremes of cold and heat or other vagaries of climate but he may not be able to cope with the insult or unkind words that could easily upset him. On the other hand, the mental Tapas prepares the practitioner to remain serene and contented in all situations of life with ease including adversity, disappointment and danger. Among the Niyama, the practice of Tapas is perhaps harshest and linked with the austerity and penance too. Such is the power of Tapas that some practicing yogis were known to be shining like a ‘blazing fire’ in mythological tales and narratives.
Svadhyaya: The literal meaning of Svadhyaya is self-study and in some holy texts it is also addressed as Siddhanta Shravana or scriptural listening. The object of this practice is to perceive and develop the practitioner’s true divine nature through the study of scriptures like Vedas and Upanishads, listening of ancient scriptures from the knowledgeable person, introspection of self’s thoughts, utterances and actions, the contemplation of people’s life events and through the meditation on the truth revealed by seers and knowledgeable. Since ancient time, a lot of importance has been attached to Svadhyaya which is also treated like an indirect satsang (company of virtuous men). One may not have a good company all the time, and in such case Svadhyaya is of tremendous use to clear doubts and flickering faith. It helps to imbibe virtues, inspires and elevates mind and helps in concentration and meditation. Through Svadhyaya, the practitioner could easily learn about self, own weaknesses and strengths, conscious and unconscious motives, and thoughts and desires in a more lucid manner.
Ishvara Pranidhana: It is also known as Ishvara-pujana suggesting the worship or devotion of God. In Hinduism, moksha is the ultimate goal of life whereby the soul attains or merges into the Supreme Soul (Brahman) to escape the arduous cycle of birth and death. Here Ishvara in another synonym for Brahman. Therefore, one of the highest duties of the practitioner is considered to be his dedication, devotion and surrender to the Supreme Soul i.e. Ishvara or Brahman. Philosophically, this practice is a fusion of two yogic requirements namely the devotion to an entity (Ishvara) greater than the self and the selfless action of karma yoga.
Sage Patanjali held that for achieving the goal of yoga, we must dissolve our egocentric nature and let go of our constant identification with ourselves. For this to materialise, the practice of yoga and all the consequent benefits must come as an offering to something greater than self. This humble act of dedication is a constant reminder of the practitioner’s connection to the divine power (Ishvara), and the practice becomes sacrosanct filled with the grace, peace and sublime love. Through this act of devotion and self-surrender only one could feel the divine proximity and oneness with the God.
Astikya: The equivalent term is faith in common parlance. An Astik (faithful) person believes in Self, Brahman and the scriptures Vedas and Upanishads. This faith is the very basis of his existence and his Purushartha i.e. dharma, artha, kama and moksha, discussed in the earlier parts. Therefore in Hinduism, Astikya too has been accorded a higher duty asking the practitioners to faithfully observe this practice.
Dana: It relates to practicing of the generosity or charity in day-to-day life. The underlying principle of Dana is to inculcate the virtue of being unattached to material possessions and gains by generously offering it to other needy and impoverished people. A generous person would invariably have empathy and unselfish desire to help others. Offerings are not only in the form of material or money, it could be even giving time, sharing talent and caring to the needy person or groups. At times, some relief efforts are required in terms of time, money, goods and other resources to the needy people consequent to a natural or man-made disaster such as terrorist violence, all such endeavours fall in the category of Dana. Since ancient time, generosity also finds a place during the cultural and religious events.
Hri: A powerful Sanskrit mantra and word, Hri relates to human attributes like modesty, humility including remorse and acceptance of one's past. Practitioners must be modest in their conduct and dressing so as to ensure that they do not provoke or offend others. They must be humble and selfless before the deities (Gods/Goddesses) as well as common people. Similarly, they should not be hesitant in being remorseful and expressing regret in case they hurt any living being through any inappropriate act.
Japa: This literally means reciting prayer though its connotations could be recitation and repetition of mantra and Vedic (religious) knowledge as well. In Vedic traditions, recitation of prayer and mantra are powerful means of realisation of sattvic (pure) virtues and God. Japa is an invocation through which a practitioner establishes active communication with his object of worship (deity). Japa is a powerful means of communication through the use of mantra, words, song or even silence. Some people do it seeking the blessings of the deity to fulfil some materialistic desire or need but that is not the intended goal of the observance of Japa because Vedic texts provide the practice of Japa as a means of self-realisation and proximity to the God.
Huta or Vrata: Huta implies to the observance of the vows, rituals and ceremonies prescribed in the holy texts for the realisation of self and God. Vrata is another Sanskrit word with a literal meaning of vow or resolve that implies to the pious observances such the fasting and pilgrimage. In common parlance, many Hindus particularly women are found resorting to fasting with prayers seeking carnal health and happiness of self and loved ones. Here again the Hindu texts particularly Upanishads conceptualised Vrata as an ethical and behavioural duty for self-purification through observing fast, respecting food, helping poor and needy and even welcoming the unseen and unknown.
Path is Pious though Difficult
The author has no hesitation to say that no other culture and religion in the world offers so much variety, wisdom and knowledge on a range of subjects including faith as Hinduism. The reason is simple that while the other prominent religions are based on one holy scripture with restrictions to debate, disagree or deviate from the laid down principles, Hinduism is a synthesis of different scriptures, texts and traditions since Vedic age over the hundreds of years continued living encompassing and enriching all aspects of life, even allowing debate and dissent with no malice or restrictions against other faiths or even atheism.
During the last millennium, despite systematic efforts to destroy it through physical, religious and cultural invasions, the Hinduism has survived the onslaught but with massive cultural changes and external influence. Perhaps this is the reason why many (English) educated Indians are fascinated with the Western culture with a tendency to deny own legacy of religious, cultural and scientific knowledge and temperament. On the other hand, many Western scholars and commoners are engaged to explore, unravel and even practice the gems of Hinduism.
A case in point could be the controversy in recent years about the Ramsetu in the sea waters between India and Sri Lanka, which finds a mention in the great Hindu epic 'Ramayana'. While the Indian government under the Congress regime and many Indian intellectuals were sceptical, having denied on oath in the Supreme Court, about its existence, the American scientists and geologists in a recent study have opined with reasonable evidence and explanation that the Adam’s Bridge (Ramsetu) in the Palk Straight between India and Sri Lanka indeed appears to be manmade. Even the vintage of the bridge suggested in the report broadly conforms to the Ramayana age.
Here the purpose of the author is not to analyse or prove who or what is right or wrong but just to make a point that many principles and practices enunciated by the ancient sages and rishis in the scriptures, texts and epics were based on facts, practices, learning and possibly true events which are often found vindicated by the science and modern research.
Many people may find the restraints and observances suggested in the Yoga Sutra and other Hindu texts as arduous and trying but it is seldom that one would question its piousness, relevancve and usefulness. For example, Brahmacharya prescribes self-control through celibacy but it doesn’t prohibit the practitioner from indulging in sex. What it simply asks is to exercise restraint before marriage, remain faithful to the spouse in marriage and practice self-restraint for spiritual growth and accomplishment during and after. Similarly, ordinarily Ahimsa is taken as refrain from physically hurting another person but it also applies to the verbal abuse or gossip and violence towards animals. Even many voracious meat-eaters agree that they do it to meet their carnal desires and cravings but killing or hurting animals is not good deed.
Thus Yama and Niyama exist as two pillars or backbones of moral discipline in Hinduism, which have its universal application irrespective of the caste, creed, colour and religion. In fact, these are universal attributes which many people across the globe practice with or without even knowing its link to Hinduism. Also Yama and Niyama are inter-dependent. For example, if a person is contented (Samtosha), he is not likely to steal (Asteya), hurt (Ahimsa) or tell lies (Satya) to others.
Continued to Part VIII