Michele Marie Desmarais, Changing Minds: Mind, consciousness, and identity in Patañjali’s Yoga-Sûtra and cognitive neuroscience, New Delhi: Motilal Benarsidass Publishers, 2008.

The Yoga-Sûtra of Patañjali is a classic work in 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.)  All through, the appropriate passages from the text are quoted. The  psychological dimensions of the Yoga-Sûtra are also analyzed. 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. Thus the book refers 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 the cue from samkhya which regards the human experience as witnessing a show on the stage, she presents the 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.

 November 22, 2013

Penrose, Roger. The road to reality: a complete guide to the laws of the universe, Knopf, 2005.

Science has two primary goals: to find explanations of myriad natural phenomena characterizing the world of experience and to unravel from these explanations the ultimate nature of reality. These goals are interlinked in that the mode of explanation will be the road by which reality will be unveiled. The scientific mode, finding spectacular expression in physics, is through mathematics. Thus, mathematics becomes the road to reality for scientists and especially for physicists. Physicist Penrose guides the reader through that complex and exciting road with profound erudition, deep insight, and great flair. He begins with a clear, succinct exposition of the interrelationships among mental, mathematical, and physical worlds. All through, there is blending of technical mathematics with keen observations and historical asides. Penrose reflects on his own views on current physics, confessing only partial trust in string theories to provide the ultimate key to unlocking the terminus. Though the book is for “the serious lay leader,” not many will fathom much beyond the first chapter. Those with graduate work in theoretical physics will be enormously enriched. More than anything else, this book will be a great resource for graduate seminars. A must for all libraries serving physics departments. Summing Up: Essential. Lower-division undergraduates through professionals.  

November 6, 2013

November 1 and All Saints Day

How quickly the sunny days of summer seem to have fled, leaving us to a period when, in the words of the poet Walter Scott (of the northern hemisphere):

      November’s sky is chill and clear,

      November’s leaf is red and sear.

Some of us may recall Thomas Wood’s unkind description of the month:

      No Park – no Ring – no afternoon gentility –

      No company – no nobility –

      No warmth – no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,

      No comfortable feel in any member –

      No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,

      No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds –


Yet, this is also the month when, (this year) Hindus celebrate their festival of light,  and Sikhs will be remembering two of their gurus. 

People remember the names and deeds of great ones on whom we have records: historical, anecdotal, or legendary. But beyond the known personages of eminence there have been, in all cultures, many individuals, modest perhaps in their recognized accomplishments, but deserving to be remembered no less for their thoughts and deeds.

One way of remembering them is by dedicating a day to all worthy people. This is one way of interpreting   All Saints Day which is observed on November 1 by the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. It  dates back to more than a thousand years: this remembrance of the countless martyrs and saints, known and unknown, who lived in the Christian world. In the tradition, one pays homage to God for those precious lives which exemplified some of the best elements in the human potential and expressed the capacity for self-sacrifice for a cause.

In an extended sense, all who toil lifelong for the common good with more pain than personal benefit may be looked upon as saints; all who show extraordinary compassion and kindness, humility and empathy for the suffering of others, and whose lives enrich and enhance the well-being of others, are saints too. So, whether Catholic or Anglican, Christian or otherwise, we can all pause for a moment in reverence for our fellow humans who have been martyrs and saints in this extended meaning of the word.

In the first decade of the seventh century, the Pantheon in Rome was consecrated to Sanctae Mariae et Martyres. In the next century, Pope Gregory III made a special chapel in St. Peter’s where the relics of all martyrs were kept, and “for all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world.” This is one of the few inclusive statements from the Catholic Church, for it does not explicitly exclude Non-Christians, reminding one of the Vedic prayer loká samastaa sukhino bhavantu: May the whole world be happy!

The word martyr is not etymologically related in any way to death. It originally meant “a witness who testifies to a fact of which he has knowledge from personal experience.” It is in this sense that the original Apostles of Christ were the first martyrs. In an extended sense again, all those who have had profound and genuine spiritual experience are martyrs, whether or not they belong to the Christian tradition. From this perspective we may regard All Saints Day as a day to remember the worthy souls from all over the world.