James L. Kelley, “Yoga and Eastern Orthodoxy: A Meeting of the Twain?”

James L. Kelley
“Yoga and Eastern Orthodoxy: A Meeting of the Twain?”

Patanjali, in his Yoga Sūtras, presents a distinctive mode of ascetical practice called Yoga. Though Patanjali’s system influenced later dualistic traditions in Indian religion, he did not detect any contradiction when positing both (1) a single Self (Purusa) as well as (2) a personal deity (Īśvara) that somehow exists alongside the Self, the latter being made up of the plurality of all other individuals or selves. Not bothered by this seeming tangle, Patanjali focused on a kind of self-realization technique that bears some uncanny resemblances to both Jewish and Eastern Christian ascetical techniques. Scholar Georg Feuerstein affords us a telling glance at Patanjali’s system. For Patanjali

As long as the “correlation” (samyoga) between Self and world obtains, there is also suffering (duhkha). Since the root of this correlation…between Self and non-self is nescience (avidyā), it is this which must be terminated. The prescribed expedient for the removal of the correlation condition is viveka-khyāti, the “vision of discernment,” a high-level enstasy which eliminates all one’s false identities not by way of mere intellectual acrobatics but in a process of clarification and purification of consciousness. First the mind is withdrawn from the external stimuli, then all presented-ideas are obliterated and ultimately the subliminal traces (vāsanā) themselves are rooted out, which amounts to the total dispersion of the consciousness-of (citta) [1].

Though differences between this Yogic vision of ascesis and that of more familiar Judeo-Christian versions are far from absent, let us dwell for a moment on the amazing similarities [2]. First of all, the Yogic notion of “vision of discernment” as the pivot point upon which spiritual transformation turns finds its counterpart in the Eastern Orthodox principle of “discernment of thoughts” or “discrimination of spirits” (Gr. diakrisis logismōn). For the Orthodox, the ascetic’s path is one of a gradual purification of the nous, or inner spiritual mind/spirit, by the healing of its weakened and diffused energy (Gr. noera energeia). This noetic repair is brought about through an ascetic purification of the nous from “all thoughts, both good and bad,” and “their restriction to the intellect,” centered in the brain [3]. Thoughts (Gr. logismoi) are the natural production of our rational, brain-centered minds; if one’s nous is not healed, these thoughts present to our inner life distorted images and concepts about the world outside. This Orthodox notion of the corrupt nature of passion-tinged logismoi is akin to Patanjali’s teaching that internally generated ideas are “obliterated” by Yoga. Not only this, but Yoga’s further goal of rooting out the “subliminal traces” or “vāsanā” synchs up nicely with the Orthodox notion of the “prayer of the heart.” Once the ascetic’s nous is cleansed of thoughts, the prayer of the heart functions therein unceasingly, whether the practitioner is awake or asleep, or engaged in verbal prayer or mundane tasks [4]. Having brought up the “heart” (Gr. kardia), we must also point out the uncanny correspondence between the Yogic pratyāhāra, or “drawing of one’s senses into the heart” and the Orthodox “prayer of the heart,” the latter being a prominent technique for combating the “natural” diffusion of noetic energy by setting spoken or thought words to the heart’s beat [5]. This “mystical realism” of Orthodoxy and Yoga, with its cardial thought-quelling, is echoed in the Taoist text that counsels the ascetic to “Darken the heart so that it does not think” [6].

We may note in passing that scholar Alex Wayman has shown that certain strains of Tantric Buddhism associate the heart with a “water disk” that acts as a kind of mirror that must be cleansed of “all unvirtuous thoughts.” The cardial water mirror is especially linked with the person’s sense of sound, and the ascetic is said to achieve “water mentality” (chu’ i sems) when he flows between the banks of nihilism and “externalism,” remaining connected to both but not succumbing to the illusions of either [7]. Thus the heart of Tantric Buddhism, like that of its Vedic precursor, is defined as the place where psychosomatic perceptions (vijnāna) are purified, the process consisting in a purification of vocalized and unvocalized sound or prayer.

I was quite surprised to find that, as in the Orthodox tradition, the Indian view of the human heart maintains an equal emphasis on the kardia’s status as physical center of the human body and also its hegemonic position as man’s spiritual center, as in the Prasna Upanisad: “It (heart) has a hundred and one arteries (nadi). Each of these has a hundred smaller arteries. Again, each of these smaller arteries is divided into seventy two thousand subsidiary branches. Vyana (diffused-breath) moves within them” (3.6) [8]. Note that the numbers of arteries—100; 101; 72,000—are holy numbers used in the Vedic altar building, the altar being Purusa’s body of 101 layers. Though it is probably a later elaboration, we cannot fail to mention that the “pur” in Purusa was sometimes etymologized as “heart” [9]. What’s more, the Orthodox theology of divine glory or light (explored in a previous book of mine), which centers on the body of the Incarnate Christ as the unique source of divine salvific light, finds a counterpart in the Brhadāranyakopanisad’s proclamation that “puriśaya iti Purusah,” or “Purusa inhabits the citadel of the heart”[10]. Thus, we see both pratyāhāra and the prayer of the heart aiming at something similar—the turning of the senses, especially the inner faculty that produces thoughts, toward the center of man’s psycho-somatic being, his heart or nous (with the further possibility, which cannot be pursued here, that the Taoist milieu contains a strong parallel with the Orthodox and Yoga traditions). In fact, the view of the “symbol” that comes out of the Upanisads’ cardiology is more akin to the Orthodox view of heart symbolism than the later sometimes revolting distortions of Western Christianity (Henry of Susa’s pectoral self-mutilation springs frighteningly to mind [11]). The Vāstusūtra Upanisad presents the heart as the physico-noetic space wherein nirguna brahman is contemplated, the notion being that concepts cannot circumscribe the energy within the cardial chamber, and thus that being united to this divine light is tantamount to transcending the limits of the material world. As one scholar expresses it: “When this realization dawns, there arises a form in the same space of the heart, which is not a describable form, but which can only be expressed symbolically. Hence the concise phrase from the Sūtra: pratītāt pratīkah (IV 1), ‘from the realization comes the symbol’” [12].

The Mundaka Upanisad offers us a convenient and illuminating tie-in of many purusal themes that exemplify what we have termed “mystical realism”:

Whoever is all-knowing, all-wise, / whose is this greatness on the earth, / in the divine city of God / and established in heaven is the soul.
Using the mind, leading the life-breaths and the body, / established in matter one finds peace in the heart.
By this knowledge the wise perceive / the light of blissful immortality. /
The knot of the heart is loosened, all doubts vanish, / and one’s works cease when it is seen, the lower and higher.
In the highest golden sheath is God,
/ without stain or parts. / Radiant is it, the light of lights, / that which the knowers of the soul know [13].

Here we have the notion of the seeker becoming deified or engodded in this life, this theosis being centered on the heart. It is important for us not to forget that the Vedic and later texts speak of man as a psychosomatic whole. “With his whole person (sarvatanu) the sacrificer comes into existence in yonder world” (Śatapatha-Brāmana [14].

Also, the heart-centered arena of struggle is conceived as a city, bringing to mind the Nirukta’s etymology of Purusa as a literal civic body (2.3; “Pūrayatyantarityāntarapurusamabhipretya.” Cf. Nargis Verma, The Etymologies in the Śatapatha Brāhmana (Delhi: Nag, 1991), 254-255.). Interestingly, the divine is said to be not only “light of lights” and “without…parts,” but also to be encased in the most exalted golden “sheath,” or kośa, the idea indicating divine accessibility through sacrifice and ascesis. Let it be noted that our linkage of the five kośa system to Purusa, far from being fanciful, is rather confirmed in the śruti. In the Taittirīya Upanisad, for instance, the five kośas are called “the five purusas” (3.1-5) [15]. The aforementioned “golden man,” a small statue of Purusa buried under the first layer of bricks in the agnicayana ritual, is brought to mind by this notion of a divine kośa of gold [16]. Lastly, in the text’s description of the divine (and by extension, the divine light that suffuses the cosmos) as being “without…parts,” we see a kinship with the Orthodox notion of the divine energies as bearing a kind of knowledge radically removed from the dianoia’s capacity for discursive reasoning. Noetic knowledge is direct, intuitive, and vivifying. Moreover, it is quite amazing that the Mundaka Upanisad’s idea of the heart being a physical and spiritual “knot” that can only be loosened through the calming of thoughts and the leading of the mind into the heart is one of the most fundamental teachings of Eastern Orthodox spiritual practice, as seen in the Church Fathers St. Macarius the Great and St. Gregory Palamas, as well as in contemporary Orthodox theologians such as Fr. John Romanides and his student Met. Hierotheos Vlacchos.

These Orthodox/Yogic similarities, though they fall far short of a 1:1 correspondence, serve to confound the common view that “Eastern” religion is patently “otherworldly,” a view that projects later, rationalizing tendencies (some of which may have originated in Neoplatonic philosophy!) back into the pre-Vedic mists. Instead of this anachronistic picture, our comparative sketch shows early Vedic ascetics to have been much more body-affirming and world-affirming than is often admitted.


1. Georg Feuerstein, The Philosophy of Classical Yoga (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980), 20-21.

2. One point of divergence between the Yogic and Orthodox orientations lies in their respective theologies of suffering. In Yoga, as well as in many other varieties of Hindu thought, the world is viewed as a place of suffering from which asceticism promises deliverance, though it is indeed one of my goals in this book to stress that the “reincarnation” or “deliverance from the cycle of birth and death” theme is introduced only in the later literature. Most interesting is the vision of the cosmos, common to the Vedas and to Yoga, which we see typified in the teachings concerning the Cosmic Man. Scholar Bruce Lincoln makes a strong case that the many purusal figures found in Irish, Slavic, Norse, and Persian, all evince a view of material reality as being an inseparable part of spiritual life, both before and after death. Lincoln stresses that the thought-pattern sees material substances as “alloforms” of the bodies of both the Cosmic Man and of all other humans (and sometimes, all animals as well). When a person dies, their hair is slowly changed into grass, their bones into stones, their blood into bodies of water, etc. Conversely, men are created out of these terrestrial elements. This whole process is based upon the Cosmic Man’s initial death, the world being made out of the various parts of his corpse. As can be plainly seen, this ancient idea of life and death as being intimately tied to the material world (with the cosmos viewed as so many allomorphs of divine flesh and bones!) gives us a more world-affirming vision than that of the later developments of Buddhism and Hinduism (See Bruce Lincoln, Myth, Cosmos, and Society: Indo-European Themes of Creation and Destruction [Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1986], 1-64).

The Orthodox view the material world as “very good” but nonetheless subject to corruption and death because of the Fall of man. Suffering is due to man’s alienation from the divine, and it’s meaning is focused on the Incarnation of Christ: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered of you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in His steps” (1 Peter 2.21 [NRSV]; cit. in Harry Boosalis, Orthodox Spiritual Life According to Saint Silouan the Athonite [South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2000], 89).

3. John S. Romanides, “The Sickness of Religion and Its Cure: A Medical Key to Church Reunion,” accessed 21 November, 2011,
http://www.romanity.org/htm/rom.20.en.the_sickness_of_religion_and_its_cure.01.htm. For the notion of purification from both good and bad thoughts in the Orthodox Fathers, see Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 4.22: “If, condemning ourselves for our former actions, we go forward, after these things taking thought, and divesting our mind both of the things which please us through the senses, and of our former transgressions” (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols., Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds. [New York: Charles Sribner’s Sons, 1926], 2.434); and St. Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Song of Songs: “…[T]he purified soul must have God alone and never look at anything except him. Thus it must cleanse itself of every material deed and thought and be transformed into that which is spiritual and immaterial, a splendid image of the archetype’s beauty” (Trans. Casimir McCambley [Brookline, MA: Hellenic College Press, 1987], 264).

4. On the prayer of the heart, see Lev Gillet, The Jesus Prayer (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997).

5. On pratyāhāra, see Patanjali, The Yoga-Sūtra of Patanjali: Sanskrit-English Translation and Glossary, trans. Chip Hartranft, accessed 21 November, 2011, http://www.arlingtoncenter.org/Sanskrit-English.pdf, “yama-niyamâsana-prâñâyâma-pratyâhâra-dhârañâ-dhyâna-samâdhayo ‘æøâv aògâni,” (2.29). Cf. Georg Feuerstein, with Brenda Feuerstein, The Bhagavad-Gītā: A New Translation (Boston and London: Shambhala, 2011), 8.12: “Controlling all the gates [of the body], confining the mind in the heart…” (185).

6. Henri Maspéro, “Les Procédés de ‘Nourrir le principe vital’ dans la religion taoïste ancienne,” Journal Asiatique 229 (April-June, 1937): 177-252, 353-430, at 221. Cit. in Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Pantheon Books, 1958), 60.

7. Alex Wayman, “Analogical Thinking in the Buddhist Tantras,” 30-35 in The Buddhist Tantras: Light on Indo-Tibetan Esotericism (New York: S. Weiser, 1973; reprnt. London and New York: Kegan Paul International, 1995), 33-35.

8. Prasna Upanishad, trans. T.N. Sethumadhavan, accessed 6 December, 2011, http://esamskriti.com/Prasnopanishad-TNS-Complete.pdf, 27.

9. M.A. Mehendale, “Upanisadic Etymologies,” 35-39 in Madhu-Vidyā: Prof. Madhukar Anant Mehendale, Collected Papers (Ahmedabad: L.D. Institute of Indology, 2001), 38-39. Mehendale cites Katha Upanisad 6.17 and Śatapatha-Brāmana 2.1.17, 19.

10. 2.5.18. Ram Nath Sharma and Rajendra Kumar Sharma, History of Education in India (New Delhi: Atlantic, 2004), 14-15, translates the passage as “Purusa is Purisayah.” On the Orthodox theology of divine light, see my A Realism of Glory: Lectures on Christology in the Works of Protopresbyter John Romanides (Rollinsford, NH: Orthodox Research Institute, 2009). On the Upanisadic Purusa as a Being of cardial light, see Phani Mohanty, The Concept of Purusa and Purusottama in the Commentary of Śankara on the Pasthānatrayī (Delhi: Garg Publications, 1986), 3.

11. Susa’s Leben, possibly authored by Henry himself, tells the tale:

“…[Henry] pushed back his scapular, bared his bosom, took a sharp stylus, and called on God to help him saying: ‘Almighty God, give me strength this day to carry out my desire, for thou must be chiseled into the core of my heart.’ Then stabbing the stylus backwards and forwards, in and out of the flesh, he engraved the name of Jesus (HIS) over his heart. Blood gushed out of the jagged wounds and saturated his clothing. The bliss he experienced in having a visible pledge of oneness with his truelove made the very pain seem like a sweet delight” (Heinrich Sause, Leben 4, ed. Karl Bihlmeyer, in Heinrich Seuse: Deutsche Schriften [Stuttgart, 1907; repr. Nachdr. Frankfurt am Main, 1961), 16; English trans. M. Ann Edward, The Exemplar: Life and Writings of Blessed Henry Suso (Dubuque, IA: Priory Press, 1962), 1.13.

For a fully-fledged analysis of the Western version of heart piety, see my “A Sordid Boon”: An Exploration of the Frankish Origins of Heart Burial (forthcoming).

12. Bettina Bäumer, “Purusa and the Origin of Form,” 27-34 in Rupa Pratirupa: Alice Boner Commemoration Volume, Alice Boner and Bettina Bäumer, eds. (New Delhi: Biblia Impex, 1982), 28.

13. Mundaka Upanishad 2, trans. Sanderson Beck, accessed 14 December, 2011, http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/indian/upanishads/mundaka.html, emphases added.

14. Cit. in Sten Rodhe, Deliver Us From Evil: Studies on the Vedic Ideas of Salvation (Lund: Swedish Society for Missionary Research, 1946), 95.

15. Cit. in Bettina Bäumer, “Purusa,” 23-40 in Kalātattvakośa: A Lexicon of Fundamental Concepts of the Indian Arts, ed. Kapila Vatsyayan (New Delhi and Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre For the Arts and Motilal Banarsidass, 1988), 25.

16. Śatapatha-Brāmana and Cit. in Brian Black, The Character of the Self in Ancient India: Priests, Kings, and Women in the Early Upanisads (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2007), 46.

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One Response to James L. Kelley, “Yoga and Eastern Orthodoxy: A Meeting of the Twain?”

  1. Damian Russell says:

    These are very interesting points! I agree that the Orthodoxy isn’t rejected of the material world in the sense that the Yogic tradition is. I find it even more interesting that the Yogic system is monistic while the Orthodoxy, if I understand it correctly, is dualistic. That is to say, Yoga sees all reality as essentially immaterial in substance while the Orthodoxy sees reality is composed of multiple essences, some material and some material. It would make sense that the Yogic rejection of the material world is derivative of their monistic scheme while the Orthodoxy’s acceptance of the material world stems from it’s dualistic scheme.

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