YOGA TRADITION, Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice
Georg Feuerstein


The Impulse Toward Transcendence


The desire to transcend the human condition, to go beyond our ordinary consciousness and personality, is a deeply rooted impulse that is as old as self-aware humanity. We can see it at work in the magically charged cave paintings of Southern Europe and, earlier still, in the Stone Age burials of the Middle East. In both cases, the desire to connect with a larger reality is expressed. We also encounter that desire in the animistic beliefs and rites of archaic Shamanism, and we see its flowering in the religious traditions of the neolithic age—in the Indus-Sarasvatî civilization, Sumer, Egypt, and China.

But nowhere on Earth has the impulse toward transcendence found more consistent and creative expression than on the Indian peninsula. The civilization of India has spawned an almost overwhelming variety of spiritual beliefs, practices, and approaches. These are all targeted at a dimension of reality that far eclipses our individual human lives and the orderly cosmos of our human perception and imagination. That dimension has variously been called God, the Supreme Being, the Absolute, the (transcendental) Self, the Spirit, the Unconditional, and the Eternal.

Diverse thinkers, mystics, and sages—not only of India but from around the world—have given us a plethora of images or explanations of the ultimate Reality and its relation to the manifest universe. All, however, are in agreement that God, or the Self, transcends both language and the mind. With few exceptions, they are also unanimous in making three related claims, namely that the Ultimate:

1. is single—that is, an undivided Whole complete in itself, outside which nothing else exists;

2. is of a higher degree of reality than the world of multiplicity reflected to us through our senses; and

3. is our highest good (nihshreyasa; Latin: summum bonum), that is, the most desirable of all possible values.

Additionally, many mystics claim that the ultimate Reality is utterly blissful. This bliss is not merely the absence of pain or discomfort, nor is it a brain-dependent state. It is beyond pain and pleasure, which are states of the nervous system. This goes hand in hand with the insistence of mystics that their realization of the transcendental Identity is not an experience, as ordinarily understood. Such adepts simply are that Reality. Therefore, in connection with this highest accomplishment on the spiritual path I prefer to speak of God- or Self-realization as opposed to mystical experience. Other terms used are “enlightenment” and “liberation.”

India’s spirituality, which goes by the name of Yoga, is undoubtedly the most versatile in the world. In fact, it is hard to think of any metaphysical problem or solution that has not already been thought of by the sages and pundits of ancient or medieval India. The “sacred technicians” of India have experienced and analyzed the entire spectrum of psychospiritual possibilities—from paranormal states to the unitive consciousness of temporary God-realization to permanent enlightenment (known as sahaja-samâdhi, or “spontaneous ecstasy”).

The methods and lifestyles developed by the Indian philosophical and spiritual geniuses over a period of at least five millennia all have one and the same purpose: to help us break through the habit patterns of our ordinary consciousness and to realize our identity (or at least union) with the perennial Reality. India’s great traditions of psychospiritual growth understand themselves as paths of liberation. Their goal is to liberate us from our conventional conditioning and hence also free us from suffering, because suffering is a product of our unconscious conditioning. In other words, they are avenues to God‑realization, or Self‑realization, which is an utterly blissful condition.

God, in this sense, is not the Creator God of deistic religions like Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Rather, God is the transcendental totality of existence, which in the nondualist schools of Hinduism is referred to as brahman, or “Absolute.” That Absolute is regarded as the essential nature, the transcendental Self, underlying the human personality. Hence, when the unconscious conditioning by which we experience ourselves as independent, isolated egos is removed, we realize that at the core of our being we are all that same One. And this singular Reality is considered the ultimate destination of human evolution. As the modern yogin-philosopher Sri Aurobindo put it:

We speak of the evolution of Life in Matter, the evolution of Mind in Matter; but evolution is a word which merely states the phenomenon without explaining it. For there seems to be no reason why Life should evolve out of material elements or Mind out of living form, unless we accept the Vedantic*1 solution that Life is already involved in Matter and Mind in Life because in essence Matter is a form of veiled Life, Life a form of veiled Consciousness. And then there seems to be little objection to a farther step in the series and the admission that mental consciousness may itself be only a form and a veil of higher states which are beyond Mind. In that case, the unconquerable impulse of man towards God, Light, Bliss, Freedom, Immortality presents itself in its right place in the chain as simply the imperative impulse by which Nature is seeking to evolve beyond Mind, and appears to be as natural, true and just as the impulse towards Life which she has planted in certain forms of Matter or the impulse towards Mind which she has planted in certain forms of Life . . . Man himself may well be a thinking and living laboratory in whom and with whose conscious co-operation she wills to work out the superman, the god. Or shall we not say, rather, to manifest God?*2

The idea that the impulse toward transcendence is a primary and omnipresent, if mostly hidden, force in our lives has been vocalized by a number of eminent transpersonal psychologists, notably Ken Wilber. He speaks of this force as the “Atman project”:

Development is evolution; evolution is transcendence; . . . and transcendence has as its final goal Atman, or ultimate Unity Consciousness in only God. All drives are a subset of that Drive, all wants a subset of that Want, all pushes a subset of that Pull—and that whole movement is what we call the Atman project: the drive of God towards God, Buddha towards Buddha, Brahman towards Brahman, but carried out initially through the intermediary of the human psyche, with results that range from ecstatic to catastrophic.*3

The impulse toward transcendence is thus intrinsic to human life. It manifests itself not only in humanity’s religio-spiritual search but also in the aspirations of science, technology, philosophy, theology, and art. This may not always be obvious, especially in those areas that, like contemporary science, are anxious to deny any associations with metaphysical thought, and instead pay homage to the twin idols of skepticism and objectivity. Nevertheless, as perceptive critics of the scientific enterprise have pointed out, in its passionate quest for knowledge and meaning, science is merely usurping the supreme place that was once accorded to religion and theology.

Today, the metaphysical roots of science are rendered visible especially by quantum physics, which undermines the materialistic ideology that has been the creed of many, if not most, scientists for the past two hundred years. In fact, avant‑garde physicists like David Bohm and Fred Alan Wolf have formulated broad quantum-physical interpretations of reality that converge in many respects with traditional Eastern ideas about the structure of the world: The universe is a single and ultimately unimaginable sea of energy (“quantum foam”) in which differentiated forms—things—appear and disappear, possibly for all eternity. Gary Zukav writes:

Quantum mechanics, for example, shows us that we are not as separate from the rest of the world as we once thought. Particle physics shows us that the “rest of the world” does not sit idly “out there.” It is a sparkling realm of continual creation, transformation, and annihilation. The ideas of the new physics, when wholly grasped, can produce extraordinary experiences. The study of relativity theory, for example, can produce the remarkable experience that space and time are only mental constructions!*4

It is clear from the work of such creative scientists as those mentioned above that science, like every other human endeavor, harbors within itself the impulse toward transcendence. Rightly, John Lilly called science a “simulation of God.”*5 What Lilly meant by this phrase is this: We humans try to describe and understand ourselves and the world that apparently surrounds us. In doing so, we create models of reality and programs by which we can maneuver in our conceptualized, simulated worlds. All the while, however, we are pushed—or pulled—to reach beyond our models and programming, beyond our mind.

If we look upon science and technology as forms of the same impulse toward transcendence that has motivated India’s sages to explore the inner universe of consciousness, we can see many things in a radically new perspective. We need not necessarily regard science and technology as perversions of the spiritual impulse, but rather as unconscious expressions of it. No moral judgment is implied here, and we can simply set about introducing a more comprehensive and self-critical awareness into the scientific and technological enterprise. In this way, we can hope to transform what has become a runaway obsession of the left brain into an authentic and legitimate pursuit in service of the whole human being and the whole of humankind.

In Rabindranath Tagore’s delightful work Gitanjali, there is a line that sums up our modern attitude, which is one of dilemma: “Freedom is all I want, but to hope for it I feel ashamed.”*6 We feel ashamed and awkward because we feel that the pursuit of spiritual freedom, or ecstasy, belongs to a bygone age, a lost world‑view. But this is only a half‑truth. While certain conceptions and approaches to spiritual freedom are clearly antiquated, freedom itself and its pursuit is as important and relevant today as it has ever been. The desire to be free is a timeless urge and concern. We want freedom, or abiding happiness, but we seldom acknowledge this deep-seated wish. It remains on the level of an unconscious program, secretly motivating us in all our undertakings—from scientific and technological ingenuity to artistic creativity, to religious fervor, to sports, to sexuality, to socializing, and, alas, also to drug and alcohol addiction. We seek to be fulfilled, made whole or happy by all these pursuits. Of course, we find that whatever happiness or freedom we gain is frustratingly ephemeral, and we take this as an incentive to continue our ritual quest for self‑fulfillment by seeking further stimulation.

Today, however, we can take encouragement from the new vision embodied in quantum physics and transpersonal psychology, and boldly raise this urge to the level of a conscious need. In that event, the unrivaled wisdom of the liberation teachings of India and the Far East will assume a new significance for us, and the present-day encounter between East and West can fulfill itself.


Material technology has changed human life and the face of our home planet more than any other cultural force, but its gifts to humanity have not always proven to be benign. Since the 1970s the public attitude toward technology, and indirectly toward science, has become increasingly ambivalent. In the words of Colin Norman, an editor of Science magazine, technology is “the God that limps.”*7 It is a God that thrives on reason but suffers from a dearth of wisdom. The consequences of a technology that is destitute of balanced judgment need no spelling out; they are everywhere apparent in our planet’s ecology.

A different attitude prevails in the “counter”‑technology of India, which is essentially a matter of wisdom and personal growth. It has evolved over millennia on the rich humus of hard-won inner experience, psychospiritual maturation, and nonordinary states of consciousness, and the supreme condition of Self-realization itself. The discoveries and accomplishments of the Indian spiritual virtuosos are at least as remarkable as electric motors, computers, space flight, organ transplants, or gene splicing. Their practical teachings can indeed be considered a type of technology that seeks to achieve control over the inner universe, the environment of consciousness.

Psychospiritual technology is applied knowledge and wisdom that is geared toward serving the larger evolutionary destiny of humankind by fostering the psychospiritual maturation of the individual. It avoids the danger of runaway technology by placing at its center a deep concern not merely for what is possible but for what is necessary. It is thus an ethical technology that views the human individual as a multidimensional and, above all, self-transcending being. It is, by definition, a technology that revolves around human wholeness. In the last analysis, psychospiritual technology is not even anthropocentric but theocentric, having Reality itself as its final reference point. If technology is, in the words of physicist Freeman J. Dyson, “a gift of God,”*8 then psychotechnology is a way to God. The former technology can, if used rightly, liberate us from economic want and social distress. The latter can, if applied wisely, free us from the psychic proclivity of living as self-encapsulated beings at odds with ourselves and the world.

Psychospiritual technology is more than applied knowledge and wisdom. It is also an instrument of knowledge, insofar as its use opens up new vistas of self‑understanding, including the higher dimensions of the world that form the reaches of inner space.

The Indian liberation teachings—the great Yogas of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism—clearly represent an invaluable resource for contemporary humankind. We have barely scratched the surface of what they have to offer us. It is obvious, however, that in order to find our way out of the tunnel of materialistic scientism, we require more than knowledge, information, statistics, mathematical formulas, sociopolitical programs, or technological solutions. We are in need of wisdom. And what better way is there to rejuvenate our hearts and restore the wholeness of our being than on the wisdom of the East, especially the great lucid insights and realizations of the Indian seers, sages, mystics, and holy folk?


It is important to remember that India’s spiritual technology is also based on models of reality only. The ultimate realization, known as enlightenment or God-realization, is in the last analysis ineffable: It transcends thought and speech. Hence, the moment the God‑ or Self-realized adept opens his or her mouth to speak about the nature of that realization, he or she must resort to metaphors, images, and models—and models are intrinsically limited in their capacity to communicate that indivisible condition.

In some respects, the models proposed in the consciousness disciplines of the East have greater fidelity to reality. The reason for this is that the yogic models have been forged by a more comprehensive sensitivity. The yogins use means of cognition whose existence is barely acknowledged by Western scientists, such as clairvoyance and higher states of identification with the object of contemplation, which are called samâdhi. In other words, Yoga operates with a more sophisticated theory of knowledge (epistemology) and theory of being (ontology), recognizing levels or dimensions of existence that most scientists do not even suspect exist. At the same time, however, those traditional spiritual models are not as rigorously formulated as their modern Western counterparts. They are more intuitive‑hortatory than analytical‑descriptive. Manifestly, each approach has its distinct field of application and usefulness, and both can learn from each other.

The reigning paradigm of Western science is Newtonian materialistic dualism, which affirms that there are real subjects (observers) confronting real objects “out there.” This view has of late been challenged by quantum physics, which suggests that there is no reality that is entirely divorced from the observer. India’s psychospiritual technology has likewise been subject to a ruling paradigm, which can be described as verticalism: Reality is thought to be realizable by inverting attention and then manipulating the inwardly focused consciousness to ascend into ever-higher states in the inner hierarchy of experience until everything is transcended. Thus, the typical motto of Indian Yoga is “in, up, and out.”

This vertical model of spirituality is founded in archaic mythical imagery, which pictures Reality in polar opposition to conditional existence: Heaven above, Earth below. As the contemporary adept Da Free John (Da Avabhasa) has shown, this model is a conceptual representation of the human nervous system. As he put it succinctly:

The key to mystical language and religious metaphor is not theology or cosmology but anatomy. All the religious and cosmological language of mysticism is metaphorical. And the metaphors are symbols for anatomical features of the higher functional structures of the human individual.

Those who enter deeply into the mystical dimension of experience soon discover that the cosmic design they expected to find in their inward path of ascent to God is in fact simply the design of their own anatomical or psychophysical structures. Indeed, this is the secret divulged to initiates of mystical schools.*9

More recently, Joe Nigro Sansonese explored the somatic origins of myth in his important but not widely known work The Body of Myth. He defined myths succinctly as “culture-laden descriptions of samâdhi.”*10 As he explained, each meditation takes the yogin or yoginî deep into the body, putting him or her in touch with this or that organ. This somatic journey is then externalized in mythic utterances. There is much truth to Sansonese’s statement, but it is not the entire truth. Some states of consciousness go beyond proprioception, beyond the body, and it is precisely these states that the Yoga adepts seek to cultivate. Enlightenment or liberation itself is definitely a body-transcending condition. Here the entire universe becomes a “body” for the liberated being.

The most severe limitation of the verticalist paradigm is that it involves an understanding of spiritual life as a progressive inward journey from unenlightenment to enlightenment. This gives rise to the misconception that Reality is to be found within, away from the world, and that, consequently, to renounce the world means to abandon it.

It is to the credit of India’s adepts that this paradigm did not remain unchallenged. For instance, in Tantra, which straddles both Hinduism and Buddhism, a different understanding of spirituality is present. As will be elaborated in Chapter 17, Tantra is founded in the radical assumption that if Reality is anywhere, it must be everywhere and not merely inside the human psyche. The great dictum of Tantrism is that the transcendental Reality and the conditional world are coessential—nirvâna equals samsâra. In other words, transcendental ecstasy and sensory pleasure are not finally incompatible. Upon enlightenment, pleasure reveals itself to be ecstasy. In the unenlightened state, pleasure is simply a substitute for the ecstasy that is its abiding ground. This insight has led to a philosophy of integration between spiritual concerns and material existence, which is particularly relevant today.


In our struggle for self‑understanding and psychospiritual growth, we can benefit immensely from a liberal exposure to India’s spiritual legacy. We need not, of course, become converts to any path, or accept yogic ideas and practices without questioning. C. G. Jung’s warning that we should not attempt to transplant Eastern teachings into the West rings true at a certain level; mere imitation definitely does more harm than good.*11 The reason is that if we adopt ideas and lifestyles without truly assimilating them emotionally and intellectually, we run the risk of living inauthentic lives. In other words, our role playing gets the better of us. Yet, Jung was overly pessimistic about people’s ability to sift the wheat from the chaff, or to learn and grow whole even from their negative experiences.

Moreover, his insistence that Westerners differ radically in their psychic constitution from Easterners is plainly incorrect. There are indeed psychological differences between the Eastern and the Western branches of the human family—differences that are readily apparent to seasoned travelers and those who cross the cultural divide between “East” and “West” or “North” and “South” in order to do business. These differences are, admittedly, even considerable when we compare ancient Easterners and contemporary Westerners, but they are not radical or unbridgeable.

Here we must remember that with the possible exception of a few isolated tribal peoples, humanity has shared the same structures of consciousness ever since what the German philosopher-psychiatrist Karl Jaspers has called the “axial age,” the great transformative period around the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. During the axial age, the world of antiquity went beyond the mythopoeic form of thought characteristic of earlier ages. Pioneering spirits like Socrates, Gautama the Buddha, Mahâvîra, Lao Tzu, and Confucius embodied a new cognitive style, showing a clear preference for thinking in more strictly rational terms rather than in predominantly mythological metaphors.*12 Hence we can resonate with the ancient teachings of Yoga, even though they are the product of a personality type and culture that did not yet suffer from the excessive growth of left-brained thought, or abstract intellection, which is the hallmark of our own epoch.*13

The dialogue between East and West is one of the most significant events of our century. If, as Jung confidently asserted, the West should create its own Yoga in the centuries to come, it will not be on the foundations of Christianity alone, which was his contention, but rather on the new global foundations laid as a result of that dialogue between the two halves of planetary humankind. At any rate, it is important to understand that this dialogue is necessarily a personal matter, which occurs on the stage of each individual’s heart and mind. That means we—you and I—must initiate and nurture it. This undertaking is an enormous challenge and obligation, but also an unparalleled opportunity for assisting the “Atman project” as it moves us toward our own awakening in the larger Reality.

The Yoga Tradition is published by Hohm Press, Prescott, Arizona.

Copyright ©2007 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in any form requires prior permission from Traditional Yoga Studies.

For details about purchasing this book, please click here.

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