Sanga or Association in Adhyatma Teachings

In its second chapter, near the beginning of the classic, the Gita gives a definition of yoga in terms of samadhi, the peak of yoga-in-meditation:

When your higher mind (buddhi), Turning away from the jungle of words. Will stand motionless in samadhi, Then you will have attained yoga (11.53)

The Jungle of Words

Those who are beginning to have a sense of restriction in the body-mind complex, usually begin their search for expansion by reading and listening. The books or talks stimulate an impulse to transcendence, and a feeling that it is possible. The scent of freedom can seem a sort of freedom itself, and some remain satisfied for a time. They read avidly the writings of mystics and seers, and ponder all the significant things they said. But it begins to wear thin. There are differences: so many things are declared to be ‘the one thing that matters’. Some people become embittered at having been misled, as they illogically feel. They often talk against spiritual ideals, in order to cover up their secret disappointment with themselves. Others, unwilling to give up comfortable routines for actual practice, rule it all out as sadly unattainable in this life. But those with higher voltage, so to speak, realize that theory without practice is bound to be sterile, turn away from the endless discussion to take up definite experiments on one line. The previous reading and listening was not useless; it made him feel there was something there. But the time has now come to do something. In the same way, someone might read about the wonders of Italian art, go to lectures, collect pictures, and generally long to see them. But the time comes when he makes a resolution, begins to save, gets a guidebook, plans a trip, and finally buys a ticket. He leaves behind all his books and pictures and departs. When he comes back he will look at the pictures and read the books with new enjoyment; he has seen what they are talking about. In yoga at the time of meditation, the jungle of words has to be ignored and finally altogether forgotten. A Yogin follows one narrow straight path cutting through the tangle of words to what is beyond words. When he comes back, he reads the words of the sages in a new light: he now knows what their words are pointing to. By continued practice of meditation, the roots of the mind are gradually changed. A first step in meditation would be to press the forefinger lightly on the spot between two eyebrows, or use the fingernail or even a light punch to produce a sharper feeling. Then with the help of the after-sensation one can hold one’s attention to the point for at least one minute. In this practice, there is at first sporadic interruption by other thoughts and sensations. These arise from impulses and reactions rooted deep in the seed-bed underlying the mind. They are words and ideas: they are not real things. In time, the seed-bed becomes thinned, and interference dwindles. Later the mind can be made steady and kept steady almost at will. If the practice is prolonged, and attention held firm at the point, the practitioner will become aware of a calm unflickering awareness. Normally it would take at least six weeks, practising fifteen minutes each day to glimpse that awareness. It is also necessary to live a life of restraint during the period.

Standing on Yoga

Yoga is practised in activity also, as the Gita points out.

Standing on yoga, do the actions giving up associations, Being the same in success and no-success, Evenness is called yoga (11.43)

The Sanskrit original is yoga-sthah, or yoga-stance. The steadiness attained in meditation is at first blown away by the first gust of the wind of worldly associations and reactions. In the same way, a beginner on skates loses his precarious balance at the slightest push. He falls. But in time, he comes to feel how to grip the ice with his skates when necessary. Then he can adjust his balance in a storm or even a polo game. Finally, instant recovery becomes automatic. Similarly, a yoga student loses balance sometimes, but is less and less disturbed by trivial things. Facing real difficulties, he may still become upset at times, but with practice, he finds himself recovering more and more quickly. One well-attested sign is this: when yogins know that they are going to have to face some experience which has always frightened them, they find welling up in themselves a sort of calm, a realization that this is not so terrible after all. The pictured arena of the crisis, which used to fill the whole inner awareness, widens out. It is seen to be a small thing under a wide blue sky. Such an experience does not happen every time. But when it has come once, it is a great incentive to practice. The yogin feels that he can hope for it, and then that he can rely on it. Now he can be said to ‘stand on yoga’.

Giving up Associations

The Sanskrit word is sanga, which often has an intensified meaning of ‘sticking association’. But basically it is just taking things together. Our teacher used to illustrate its force in yoga practice by an incident at the court of the intelligent Emperor Akbar of Moghul India. Akbar took a crayon and drew a horizontal line on a wall in the courtroom. Then he challenged anyone to make that line shorter, without touching it. Finally a minister, Birbal, picked up the crayon and drew another, longer line below the first one. The Emperor accepted that he had succeeded: Birbal had made the first line a shorter line, by associating it with a longer one. And when he rubbed out the longer line, the original line would lengthen. We know that such changes are unreal. Still, they happen: the first line does come to look shorter. One of the commentaries on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali remarks that the business of the whole world goes forward resting on ‘the prestige of unreal things’. How is this? Suppose I am offered a job at a rather good wage: I take it happily. While I am working, occasionally the thought crops up: ‘This is a good rate for the job; I’ve been lucky.’ Later on, I hear that someone in another part of the town is getting rather more than I am, for a very similar job. At once I feel dissatisfied, even somehow exploited. It isn’t a good rate after all, and I haven’t been lucky. I find myself working sulkily. I just manage to stop myself complaining to the boss. Still later, I am glad I did not. It turns out that the other man’s working conditions are so bad that he often feels ill. The extra money was to get anyone to work there at all. I feel better again. I have a good job, and I am lucky. Perhaps I begin to think: ‘After all, what does money matter?’ This is the sort of ‘association’ that a yogin has to practise giving up. The job was a good one – Akbar’s line… then by association, it became not so good – association with Birbel’s line. Then, the better pay was illusory-Birbal’s line rubbed out. The yogin tries to see a thing as it is, neither made better nor made worse by imagined associations. He does not himself project lines to make things seem larger or smaller. Dictators often surround themselves with mediocrities, because it makes them feel more talented themselves, and more strong. If the mediocrities begin to acquire some political skills, the dictator may kill and replace them, as Stalin did. The yogin is not being asked to give up anything real. He has to give up imaginary associations. But he will not be able to do it without practising meditation. Without meditation, he may control outward behaviour, but the inner conflicts are not resolved. They show themselves in indirect ways. If at times a yogin loses control of the mind, and finds himself slipping into envy for example, he can use the method of thinking the opposite. If he is lame from an accident, and resents the free stride of his fellows, let him remember those millions who cannot walk at all. If he feels his house is small, let him remember the innumerable refugees who have no home at all. People depressed at being unappreciated and ignored should consider how the successful and famous are targets for jealousy and spite. Such thinking can give relief by creating balancing associations. It can make people realize their good fortune, and energize them to practise yoga to help to change the level of consciousness in the world. But it is only a piece of first-aid in a crisis. The true yoga practice is to throw off all associations, bad and even good and see clearly beyond associations. Does the experienced yogin, then, no longer see Akbar’s line as shortened by the nearness of Birbal’s line? He does see it as apparently shortened, but he knows that it is not so. And further, by concentrating attention he can isolate it, and see it as independent of all other lines. To do this last requires real skill in yoga practice.

Narrowing into Personality Cults

St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians warns against degeneration into a human personality cult. Paul hardly ever quotes the words of the human incarnation: he taught the cosmic Christ:

The whole universe has been created through him and for him. He exists before everything and all things are held together in him. Through him God chose to reconcile the whole universe to himself… (Colossians 1.16)

Some eastern teachers, and especially Zen teachers, believe that this Great Christ is the true message of Christianity. One Zen master, who knew these passages, used to say: ‘Why do they have a dead body hanging up outside their churches? Why do they not teach realization of the Great Christ?’ He himself, as a Buddhist priest, made reverent prostrations daily before the image of the Buddha; but like other Zen teachers (and like Paul), he warned against becoming stuck in symbols. One of them said in a famous radio sermon: ‘The wooden Buddha is burnt in the fire, the clay Buddha dissolved in the water, the metal Buddha melted in the furnace. Somehow we have to grasp the true Buddha.’ Already in Paul’s letters the earliest Christian records that remain there are warnings that some believers were slipping into a cult of human personalities, such as Paul himself or Apollos (Apollos was an Alexandrian, an eloquent Christian preacher). Paul writes: ‘Each of you is saying, “I am Paul’s man”, or “I am for Apollos”, or “I follow Peter”, or “I am Christ’s”.’ His phrasing shows that some no longer considered themselves as primarily Christ’s but as followers of a living human evangelist. ‘And so [he adds] you quarrel.’ Though Paul had direct realization‚Ķ ‘not I but Christ in me’… he warns against worship of Christ in the human form of Paul or any other. He saw that Christ might become more and more remote and the human personality cult more demanding. Then there would be narrowness, and in the end, quarrels. He repeats with great earnestness: ‘What is Paul? What is Apollos? We are servants, like gardeners. One may plant and one may water, but we are fellow-workers and no more.’ In the Gita, the Lord forestalls as personality cult of even his own human form as Krishna. There developed in India a great tradition of devotion to the avatara (divine descent) as Krishna. But the Gita is a text for the whole world, and it gives no preference; ‘Of warriors I am Rama, of the Vrishni clan, I am Vasudeva (Krishna).’ Incidents of those human lives, are not given, by the Gita, for meditation and devotion. As Sankara says, the Lord declares himself to be the essence of cosmic principles such as light and heat. He is indicated too as the peak of classes of things: ‘Of mountains, I am Himalaya… Among men, the… In holy scriptures, the sacred syllable OM.’ Finally (in chapter XI) he reveals himself as all and everything.

Narrowing to a Particular Case

In Dante’s Paradiso the Poet is transported to a heavenly realm resembling a vast eagle, in whose eye he sees standing Moses and other prophets. A doubt occurs to him, as it has occurred before in different forms.

A man is born on Indus banks, And none is there that speaks of Christ Nor reads of Him nor writes. And all his inclinations and his acts As far as human reason sees are good. And he offendeth not in word or deed. Where is the justice that condemns him? Where is his blame, if he believeth not?

Moses meets this with what may be called hand-waving arguments, brushing aside the objection as proceeding from narrowness of vision and of faith. However, the assumptions behind both question and answer, in fact the whole imagined situation, show narrowness of vision. There is a humorous but telling example of the same thing. A little girl of four tells her father that she is doing arithmetic at school. To encourage her, father picks up some apples. ‘Look!’ he says, ‘I’m holding three apples in this hand, and I’m holding two apples in that hand. So how many apples have I got?’ ‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘What! you’re doing arithmetic, aren’t you? Now, I’ve got three apples here, and two apples there. Now dear, how many apples is that?’ ‘I don’t know, Daddy. If it was oranges, it would be five.’ She knows the particular case, but does not yet grasp the principle. It may not be too far-fetched to compare this to the case imagined by Dante. That man is saintly in thought and deed. If he had been born in Italy he would have heard of Christ and would have been assured a place in Paradise. But because he was born in India, where he would have worshipped an Indian form of God, the equation does not add up. It works for those born near the Tiber (oranges so to say), but not for those born by the Indus (apples). There has been a narrowing to a particular case, and the principle is not grasped.

Decay Into Materialism

In Christianity and Islam, many early converts were the relatively disadvantaged women and slaves who gained much. In Buddhism on the other hand, the early converts were mostly Brahmins, who had everything to lose. The uneducated simply could not understand doctrines like no-self. When it went to other countries, Buddhism first converted the king or a minister. Thus in China some early monasteries were often well endowed, magnificent palaces where new priests had to he ceremonially ordained before the relics of the Indian founder. Gradually the temples became all-important. Only Zen, though it had temples, refused to give them sacred significance: they were just convenient places for teaching and training. When the anti-Buddhist persecutions came, the Emperors struck at the ordination centres. In no long time, the sects ceased to exist, because no new priests could be ordained after the burning of the temples. Only Zen survived: master and pupils could work side by side as labourers in a field, and the teaching and training go on. So when the persecution had passed, Zen was the only true Buddhist sect that was still alive in China. (The simple devotional sect also survived, but it had given up the aim of Nirvana in favour of birth in the Pure Land heaven of Amida Buddha.) Traces of the other sects remained, but merely as texts and concepts, like the burnt-out shells of their temples. The great Temple in Jerusalem is a parallel case. The High Priest had to be in the direct line of Zadok, but the last legitimate successor was Onias in 175 BC, and he had to flee to Egypt to save his life. There he was supported by the powerful Jewish community, and set up another Temple, a smaller one. It lasted 250 years until a Roman governor closed it. The High Priests of the Jerusalem Temple were now all political appointees. Herod contemptuously appointed, and later dismissed, a lad of seventeen as High Priest. But nearly all the pilgrims went there. Its magnificence, especially after the gorgeous restorations by the mass murderer King Herod, was overwhelming. Pilgrims described it as a sea of gold, whereas the temple at Leontopolis in Egypt, though admittedly the true one, was criticized as ‘small and mean’, and felt to be unworthy of the Lord. When in AD 68 a serious Jewish revolt broke out, the Roman army under General Titus massed to take Jerusalem. The scribe Johanan ben Zakkai, with a sack of books, stole out to the Roman lines. He was passed up to the General, from whom he requested leave to go through, and found a school. Titus was impressed by the holiness and learning of Johanan, and no doubt also pleased by the prediction (correct in the event) that he would become Emperor. He gave him a safe conduct. Jerusalem fell and the Temple was desecrated. In the next uprising it was utterly destroyed, and its treasures sold: the bottom dropped out of the gold market in that part of the Middle East. But the invisible tradition of the Holy Law had already gone, and was living in hearts and minds of outwardly undistinguished followers in many lands.

Evenness in Success and No-success

Success, in this and most other such passages in the Gita, means actualization of the aimed-at ultimate results of an action. It does not mean the action itself. The Gita says: ‘Do the action, but be even-minded in success or no-success.’ This never means to do the action carelessly. To be careless about it is not doing it; it is only half-doing it. A watcher who takes naps is not in fact a watcher. Associations of success and no-success from actions are singled out in this line of the Gita, because though passing, they are often intense. They can involve intensely personal emotions like greed, pride, and fear. Such associations anticipated or actually blur the clarity of action. Sankara extends the principle to hoped-for purification of mind from a virtuous action. This yoga is not an emotional state of ‘I have done well’ or ‘May the Lord be pleased’. Such states often have reactions: ‘Why did the Lord let my sincere efforts be so wantonly destroyed? I have been let down.’ The yoga of action is a spacious inner calm, however energetic the outward activities of body and mind.


Prolonged stillness in meditation brings about expansion of the mind. When the meditator comes out of it, his mind becomes aware of what he is to do now in the cosmic purpose. He sees with greater or less clarity according to the detachment from personal associations. Without expansion and inspiration, thought is likely to become derivative and repetitive. Merely rational plans, not being in accord with the inner lines of the situation, are ill adapted. And so, well intentioned though they may be, they often become sterile and even destructive. Action itself, without the evenness of yoga, becomes clogged with associations. Everything is done in treacle, as one teacher put it. Any movement is first automatically resisted. When forced through, it is accompanied by clinging strands of contradictory impulses. There is no freedom and no one-pointedness, so nothing is created. Consequently, as Sankara says, there is not the joy either of self-realization within or in the play of the Self as a cosmos imaginatively projected externally. Yogic realization leads to these two things: delight in the Self-in-itself, and sport in the Self-as-magic-show. The surviving body-mind complex lives out its span impelled directly by the universal Self. Sankara, and the Gita itself, refer in places to the line of the Mundaka Upanishad:

‘Sporting in the Self, delighting In the Self, he is active.

© 2000 Trevor Leggett