Many of India’s ancient spiritual texts are concerned with human attachment to, and entanglement with, the material world (the condition known as saṃsāra). Examining the relationship between the spiritual and material aspects of life, these texts beautifully illustrate how our mistaken identification with saṃsāra prevents us from connecting to our spiritual self, the ātman (or soul), which results in the experience of suffering.
Many texts offer yoga as the remedy that will allow us to experience our spiritual nature while living in the material world. In several examples, including the Bhagavad Gītā, the Upanishads, and the Śrīmad Bhagavatam, the metaphor of a tree is used to describe the world and our relationship to it. Perhaps the most well known example is that of the Aśvattha tree found in chapter 15 of the Gītā.
The Aśvattha tree is very unique. Growing from a small seed, the Aśvattha begins with a single trunk. Its branches grow laterally from this trunk, sending aerial roots downwards, which attach to the ground. These roots develop and resemble the trunk. A single tree can continue to spread over a wider area with many aerial roots and lateral branches so that it looks like a small forest. One such tree, located in Sri Lanka, covers more than an acre and dates back to 300 BC. It is believed to be grown from a cutting taken from Buddha’s original Bodhi tree. Like this one, a well established Aśvattha tree has a complex network of branches and aerial roots, so much so, that it becomes very difficult to immediately locate the original trunk or source of the tree.
In the Bhagavad Gītā, saṃsāra is described as an Aśvattha tree, implying the complexity of which appears to us as “everlasting and indestructible with neither beginning nor end.” The seeming permanence of the world comes about as a result of our experience of the never-ending flow of samsāsra. As we get more entangled in it, we perform more and more actions and desire more and more of the fruits from its branches. Our actions, according to Hindu god Krishna, nourish its leaves, encouraging it to grow and become even more vast and complicated, alluding to our fascination and attachment to the external world.
One meaning of the word Aśvattha is “that which has no tomorrow.” This infers that we have become enamored with a reality that is only transitory. It is, however, possible to destroy its hold on us. In the Gītā, Krishna directs us to “cut down this tree of worldly attachment with the axe of dispassion,” turning the mind inward toward its true source to interrupt the seemingly endless flow of saṃsāra. In fact, it is only by turning away from saṃsāra that it’s hold on us can be brought to an end.
There is a deeper understanding of this metaphor. What we see in the external world and our entanglement with it has manifested from the creative potentiality of a single small seed: the eternal ātman present in each one of us. By identifying with and making the ātman the source of our actions, we begin to operate from a place of clarity and integrity and then act in harmony with the world.
The Muṇaka Upaniṣad also offers an example of a tree representing the material world. Once again the tree is saṃsāra, but this time two birds, everlasting friends, sit perched on the same branch. The first bird is completely enamored by what it sees, voraciously consuming the tree’s fruits, while the second sits unaffected, simply observing and enjoying the bliss of its own existence. For most of us, our experience is that of the first bird, caught up in the pleasures of the world. But the Muṇḍaka tells us that upon catching a glimpse of the second bird, the ātman, we can understand our true nature and find peace. Like the Gītā, this analogy is telling us to turn the mind inward as our supreme objective. This does not imply we should turn away from the world, but rather experience it through the purity of the ātman. To do this, however, requires the ability to control the mind, a skill that can be attained when yoga is practiced with correct intention.
Pattabhi Jois (Guruji) taught that it was only by following the first four limbs of yoga (yama, niyama, āsana and prāṇāyāma) that we could develop sufficient stability and control over the mind to experience these higher realizations. When asked, “What is yoga,” Guruji would often quote the second sūtra of The Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali, which states that “yoga is (the action of) controlling the mind.” Despite the seemingly physical nature of the Aṣṭāṅga yoga method, it is this statement that should inform yoga practice.
Patañjali’s sūtras mention several different functions of the mind, including correct and incorrect perception, imagination and creativity, and memory, or more accurately, the impressions that are left in our system as a result of our experiences. He also lists deep sleep as a function of the mind and that we can overcome many obstacles to yoga through the realizations that come as a result of deep sleep and dreaming.
The mind is very complex and an incredibly powerful organ with seemingly unlimited capacity. It can be likened to a computer, holding many thousands of documents and programs, many that we have forgotten about, but which continue to affect us throughout our lives. Expressed as patterns, these influences bring about either positive or negative results and may cause us to perform inappropriate actions leading to the experience of sorrow.
While studying The Yoga Sūtras many years ago, my teacher and I were discussing ahimsa (non-violence), one of the moral disciplines of yoga (yamas) that are practiced with respect to the external world. He used this example: “Wars are born in the minds of people; they do not start on the battlefield. To avoid violent actions, we should abstain even from thinking violent thoughts.” His point was that with all activities of man, the impetus for actions begins in the mind. When there is incorrect perception, confusion, or influences that are not fully understood, the resulting outcome of our actions can be catastrophic and can bring great suffering not only to ourselves, but to others as well, as in the example of war.
Patañjali describes the kleśas, which categorize the ways in which the mind causes suffering, as avidyā (spiritual ignorance,) asmitā (egotism), rāga (desire), dveṣā (aversion) and abhiniveṣa (an unreasonable fear of death). All are forms of the first kleśa, ignorance, which refers to a misunderstanding of our true nature.
Like the first bird in the Muṇḍaka, spiritual ignorance leads us to see permanence in saṃsāra, the materiality of the world, even though it is constantly changing and, hence, impermanent. The example of the second bird is of one who has overcome ignorance and experienced the ātman (soul) as the ultimate truth and source of unlimited joy, and, therefore, no longer clings to the material aspects of life.
The purpose of Aṣṭāṅga yoga is to gradually reduce the effect of the kleṣas. As our fascination with saṃsāra wanes, we are able to turn our attention toward the seed of the Aśvattha, the light of spiritual knowledge from within.