America's Sadhana

Barbara Yates

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman were authors I never looked into again after schoolassigned reading and I guess that has been the case with many other Americans. Something I read in the newspaper led me back to look the bookshelf to take another look at them , and I was surprised to think that I had forgotten how 30 years before I ever came to read the Yoga Sutras or the Bhagavad Gita, I had been exposed to yoga through these authors, albeit they did not call it that. Emerson started a movement in American thought called Transcendentalism that preached rugged individualism dedicated to a unifying principle that animates the universe. I first heard their heady hybrid of Hindu scripture and America's political purpose in elementary school and it took root, just as the literature of any nation seeds its creed into the minds of its youth. Last year when I reread them, a thought arose that the country had a sadhana, and it made me laugh, but a steady stream of chroniclers came to mind to bolster a premise for America's sadhana.

Emerson, a descendant of Puritan clergymen, was the son of the pastor of the First Unitarian Church of Boston, but his philosophy for himself and for America came out of ancient North Indian teaching, which he blazoned into every paper and poem he wrote. He connected Indian spirituality to Western culture in a way that upstages the Beatles in the 1960s for impact. Emerson copied long passages of the Vishnu Purana into his writings and did state his sources, but succeeded in rendering it Americana. Self Reliance is a title that fits right into the American playbook, but what he meant by it was the recognition of the god, the Self, within us. By the Over-Soul, he meant what Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras calls supreme soul or universal Self, paramatman, the Infinite. Emerson and those he influenced advocated for individuals to strive to unite their thoughts and deeds with universal truths. It was his conviction that this constituted what it meant to be an American.

Emerson said of his most famous protégé, "Whitman is a remarkable mixture of the Bhagvat Ghita and the New York Herald." Whitman did start out as a journalist. When he happened upon a New Orleans slave auction and saw humans whipped as if flesh were separate from soul and sold as if spirit were commodity, it horrified him. He reacted, compelled to write to correct, write to clarify to the country this error, or avidya, although he did not call it that, the rupture with America's sadhana, although he never used that term for the path he exhorts the reader to rejoin in his "Song of the Open Road," as he does call it. His voluminous Leaves of Grass opens with the Emersonian meld of spirituality and politics.

ONE'S-SELF I sing–a simple, separate person;

Yet utter the word Democratic, the word en-masse.

Of Physiology from top to toe I


Not physiognomy alone, nor brain alone, is worthy for the muse–I say the


complete is worthier far

His ideas are familiar to a student of yoga:

Re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in a book,

and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and

your very flesh shall be

a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not

only in words, but in

the silent lines of its lips and face and between

the lashes of your

eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.

Echoes of the Rg. Veda as well as the Bhagavad Gita come through, along with New Jersey and the other American places he names, so that these days Walt Whitman is asiconic shorthand for America as apple pie or George Washington.

Was somebody asking to see the Soul?

See! Your own shape and countenance–persons, substances, beasts, the trees, the

running rivers, the rocks and sands.

All hold spiritual joys, and afterwards loosen them:

How can the real body ever die, and be buried?

When I moved to Canada and looked back at my birth country from across a geographical and cultural divide, I wondered why I believed certain things about America and held certain personal convictions. Then, moment and mood led me to remember my fourth-grade teacher reading to us from Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience. While the boys built an ant farm and the girls cultured cottage cheese on the sunny classroom windowsill playing at Thoreau practicalitis, that Yankee propagandist, Mrs. Pupo, read out, "Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.

We must respect effects and teach the soul

Matter of conscience and religion,

And not desire of rule or benefit."

On our own we had read the child-pleasing bits from Thoreau's Walden, or Life in the Woods: "the boy (learns more) … who had made his own jackknife … [than] the boy who attended lectures on metallurgy." From Walden comes the famous phrase, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. … I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor … If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded.

Direct your eye right inward, and you'll find

A thousand regions in your mind

Yet undiscovered. Travel them, and be

Expert in home-cosmography."

Thoreau had gone to prison rather than pay his taxes to a government that permitted slavery (only for a night as they were paid for him). Slavery was the irreconcilable obstacle in the nation's path to realizing the raison d'etre, "Liberty for all." Last year, the election of Barack Obama seemed to reboot America's sadhana in a way that would exult any Transcendentalist's immortal soul. Yet America struggles with racism, forgetting or denying that spirit is equally in all.

Abraham Lincoln's dilemma was Arjuna's dilemma in the Bhagavad Gita. Lincoln placed the divided country in the battlefield for a moral struggle, dharmaksetra. He explained to the nation why war was unavoidable: "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it." In the Bhagavad Gita II:33, the Lord Krishna says to the despondent Arjuna, who wavers at the start of his fabled war against members of his own family, "But to forgo this fight for righteousness is to forgo thy duty and honor: is to fall into transgression."

William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom, as in most of his canon, is a deep and dark visitation of fiery retribution on the slave owners, their descendants, and the very land itself. Patanjali cautions that until the very last seed of an illusory or delusional idea burns out, even should you think you can brush by it and not be burned, you probably will be–it recombusts and rewelds hot chains around your heart and mind that fast. Dispassion and detachment require great discipline. Robert Penn Warren followed affliction down infected generations to burn the seeds of greed and pride of position out of the twentieth-century descendants of slave owners. In All the King's Men, generations suffer toxic legacies of guilt and moral laxitude. They self-inflict suffering impotent to overcome their self indulgence and numbing indifference to the suffering of others. Slavery and racism eat at America's spiritual heart. But, it isn't the only impediment.

In the nineteenth century, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about right and wrong, dissected sin, and dramatized the nature of evil. They rummaged through the darkened souls of characters operating with partial truth, caught up in a toxic thread that weaves through the fabric of America, sanctimony. Melville's Captain Ahab took the moral high ground. He was out to defeat pure evil. Twentieth-century scholars conjecture that the white whale represents the unkillable forces of nature and the Infinite, whereas Ahab, blinded by obsessive righteousness and filled with hubris, represents America. Hawthorne's Puritans claimed spiritual superiority without self-reflection or compassion And inn the mid twentieth century, with The Crucible, Arthur Miller picked up that self righteous thread in American thinking to connect the Salem witch trials to the fear mongering demagoguery of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Saul Bellow wrote about what Prashant Iyengar calls adhyatma sadhana, the search for authentic voice and discovery of one's own true nature, not ideas or lives prescribed by or copied from others. Without that search, characters in Saul Bellow's novels are trapped in existential alienation, his term for it. Thoreau's was "quiet desperation." Bellow placed protagonists in the open-air prison of modern, wealthy America where "most people extend their hands to volunteer for the chains." Bellow wrote, "[A]ll this human nonsense" in the real world "keeps us from the large truth." A Bellow scholar, Dr. Gloria L. Cronin, wrote, "He [Bellow] believed in the universality of a unitary Self and in human transcendence." It is the gift that yoga bestows of meaningfulness and real joy, connection to spiritual truths that save his beleaguered, floundering protagonist and provide the title of this great novel Humboldt's Gift.

Before the global economy and global warming, T. S. Eliot was moved to write of global suffering. New Orleans had horrified Whitman, and the world from Lausanne, Switzerland, where Eliot wrote through the years of the First World War, horrified him. He wrote a ballad of a cruel world that had lost comprehension that life was spirit. In what some consider the greatest poem of the twentieth century, Eliot charted a surreal journey through streets and drawing rooms, pubs and arid desert, past scenes of human degradation and betrayal, war and devastation, futility and meaninglessness, The Waste Land: "What shall we do tomorrow? / What shall we ever do?"

The traveler has seen that the business of the world comes to nothing. He is repeatedly asked,

"What is that noise?

… nothing again nothing


You know nothing? Do you see

nothing? Do you remember

Nothing? …

"Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in

your head?"

Finally, he enters a desert landscape tortured by thirst.

He who was living is now dead

We who were living are now dying

With a little patience

Here is no water but only rock.

Up to that point, Eliot had referenced the literature of Western civilization to describe isolation, indifference to human suffering, delusion, and desolation. He is reported to have remarked, "To me it was only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life, it is just a piece of poetical grumbling."

At the end of his poem that others call a masterpiece, Eliot allows for a way by which his imperiled wayfarer might have the waters of life released to him, so that he might yet live and not perish from thirst. Eliot had invoked figures and myths of Western civilization from Shakespeare back to ancient Rome and beyond to more ancient Greece for ways to describe the journey through the world. But for some resolution and the only hope for life, Eliot reached much further back in time and much further East in the world to perhaps the earliest Upanishad, The Brihadaranyaka, ascribed roughly to have been written between the seventh and the eighth centuries BCE.

Eliot's mother was an amateur poet with a fondness for Emerson, who would have been a contemporary of hers. Eliot, like Emerson, was born a Boston Brahmin, from a founding Protestant family, and also like Emerson was descended from leading Unitarian theologists. His grandfather was a protégé of William Ellery Channing, the Dean of American Unitarianism, who once said, "The great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds irresistibly upon the young, but to stir up their own . . . Not to form an outward regularity, but to touch inward springs."

It was at Harvard University, which had also been Emerson's base, where Eliot's intellectual and artistic life unfolded. He learned Sanskrit and Pali to read the Vedas. His doctoral thesis explored the psychology of consciousness. The Waste Land was written more than a decade later, after he was living in England and during the first World War. In it, the only positive words the wayfarer hears come when he is near dying, and he hears them through the sound that cracks the firmament, thunder. It is the voice of Prajapati, the Creator God that Eliot took from The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, considered the crown jewel of Vedic teaching on Brahman, the infinite Supreme Soul that unifies all consciousness.

In the Upanishad, his children, the devas, the humans, and the demon asuras ask Prajapati: "Speak to us, O Lord." The divine voice, the Thunder, utters, "DA!" Each hears it differently. The devas hear "Damyata," control your unruly nature. The humans hear "Datta," give alms despite your miserliness. The cruel asuras hear "Dayadhvam," show mercy and sympathize.

Here are fragments from the end of The Waste Land:

"Then spoke the thunder


Datta: what have we given?

… The awful

daring of a moment's surrender

… By this, and

this only, we have existed …



… each in his prison

thinking of the key, each

confirms a prison


Damyata: … your heart would have


Gaily, when invited, beating


To controlling hands …

The Upanishad concludes with the Voice of the Thunder repeating, "DA! DA! DA!" Eliot also has the thunder repeat the three great principles to end his poem: "Datta. Dayadhvan. Damyata. / Shantih shantih shantih."

These three principles are the opening explanation of Patatanjalis second chapter of the Yoga Sutras, Sadhana Pada:

Y.S II.I: tapah svadhyaya Isvarapranidhanani kriyayogah (Purificatory action, study and making God the motive of action IS the Yoga of action.

Patanjali and the poet Eliot take the Upanishad's Datta: Give! to its ultimate meaning; beyond charitable giving, it is yourself you are to give. This is Ishvara Pranidhana. Dayadhvam: be compassionate. This is Patanjali's Svadyaya. Study scripture and study your own thoughts and actions in quiet introspection to understand human frailty and mistakes and thus learn mercy for others. Damyata: discipline yourself. This is tapas, the dedicated practice to refine unruly nature, burn away impurities, the imperfections that cause suffering, and advance your path towards unalloyed bliss that is the gift of yoga . All of these have been violated in The Waste Land.

"Shantih" is spoken three times to end the poem just as it is done to end an Upanishad. In his footnote, Eliot wrote, "[O]ur feeble equivalent of 'shantih,' would be, the peace which passeth understanding."

Two decades later, in the midst of the next world war, Eliot revisited the journey. Gone is youthful grumbling at the world. with veda-like invocation, from the last of his Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Inscribed on the plaque on the church wall where his ashes are interred in East Coker, England, home of his forebears, Eliot chose his epitaph from Four Quartets: "In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning."

William Faulkner was interred with a reading of Walt Whitman:

I depart as air, …
I bequeath myself to the dirt, to grow from
the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under
your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what
I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless..

Emerson merged America's political path to a metaphysical path. Thomas Jefferson had already set the course when he declared independence for a nation that would acknowledge "self evident" truth that "their Creator" endows people with the "right to . . . the pursuit of happiness." That unprecedented political claim was a spiritual claim for sadhana From the start.

Barbara Yates lives in British Columbia just east of Vancouver with her husband where they raise and race thoroughbred horses. Barbara has taught yoga for 23 years, 17 from a house on the farm that serves as a yoga studio. Before that, she studied and taught at IYILA and had a studio in Venice, California. She earned a Junior Intermediate III certificate from IYNAUS and is a member of the Arts Circle.