International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Changing Minds: Mind, Consciousness and Identity in Patanjali's Yoga-sutra and Cognitive Neuroscience

by Michele Marie Desmarais

Introductory Essay by V. V. Raman

The Yoga-Sûtra of Patañjali is a classic work and a part of humanity’s heritage. It is the time-honored treatise that expounds the conceptual and spiritual basis of yoga which is one of the major contributions of India to world knowledge and culture. Over the ages, the theory and practice of yoga have undergone changes, often instigated by enlightened practitioners. In today’s world it has spread far and wide beyond the shores of India, enriched and distorted in a variety of ways.

The Yoga-Sûtra has been translated into several languages, and in English there are several renderings and commentaries. The theoretical framework of the complex system of yoga involves many technical terms, such as purusha, prakriti, vritti, and pramana. This book presents remarkably clear expositions of such terms in a systematic manner. It elaborates on the philological aspects of the words, elucidating their multiplicity of meanings, especially in translations; sometimes it critiques the inadequacy of certain translations. Thus citta, manas, and buddhi may all refer to mind, intellect or ideation (p. 43). The book explores the philosophical significance of the concepts as well: after all, the yoga is one of the six canonical schools of classical Hindu darshanas (philosophical systems). Thus, for example, the notions of samskâras and vâsanâs, and karmâshya are discussed in detail (pp. 66 et seq.) Throughout,, the appropriate passages from the text are quoted.

But the yoga system is more than philosophy: it is a system of psychology that analyzes the nature and properties of the human mind and consciousness. Desmarais analyzes the psychological dimensions of the Yoga Sutra, with attention to cognition, perception, memory, and sleep from the yoga perspective.

What makes this study particularly interesting is that it puts all of this in the context of modern cognitive neuroscience. Thus discussions on various parts of the brain (neuroanatomy) is introduced in a section that talks of the mind as emergent from the brain (p. 84). The book explains how, in the yoga system, mind is studied in terms of matter.

But the most important aspect of yoga is practice. Its components are discussed. They include restraints (yamas), observances (niyamas), postures (asanas), breath control (pranayama) pratyâdhâra (withdrawal of the senses), dhârana (concentration), dhyâna (meditation), and samâdhi which the author chooses not to translate even as the ultimate state of union (pp. 158-176). The concluding chapters dealing with an analysis of yoga practice and the extraordinary results of yoga are informative and inspiring.

The author has formatted her book in an ingeniously meaningful way. Taking a cue from samkhya which regards the human experience as witnessing a show on the stage, she presents her topics under theatrical epithets: Entering the Theater, Taking the Stage, All the World’s a Stage, Following the Plot, The Plot Thickens, and Lights Up. In this manner the reader is gradually taken through the various stages of yoga theory and practice, philosophy, psychology, and the climactic fulfillment. This original method of presenting the Yoga-Sutra builds an awareness that is difficult to get from a mere reading of a translation.

This book should be of special value to anyone is interested in getting an overview of the yoga system and its relevance and relationship to the modern world.