Hinduism/Yoga and (Neo)Platonism

Introduction

Today, I want to engage in some more comparative philosophy. In particular, I want to see some of the more interesting similarities between Hinduism/Yoga and Platonism/Neo-platonism.

Before going into detail on this, let’s first get a brief overview the philosophies/religions under discussion.

Hinduism is a broad religion and philosophical system, the details of which are beyond the scope of this article. However, in broad overview, it does hold that the world of multiplicity is ultimately a unity (Brahman) and that people can realize their identity with this unity to achieve bliss.

For Yoga, I’m taking The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as the canonical source. These are a collection of short expressions – aphorisms – about yoga. Now this isn’t the yoga you may be familiar with – the exercises involving stretching, balancing and holding postures. The Yoga Sutras is a full-fledged spiritual practice whose ultimate aim is a realization of one’s true “self”. There is some debate about what the nature of this “true self” is, but for those who hold that it he is talking about the realization of Brahman, this is part of Hindu Philosophy.

Platonism/Neoplatonism, on the other hand, is a philosophy that came to us from Plato and his followers. This philosophy asserts the existence of abstract objects, objects that don’t reside in our mind or in the world of sense, but that regardless have an independent existence. In Platonism, these objects are considered “higher” or “greater” than the objects we see in the world, which are often taken as imperfect or corrupt imitations of these objects.

Sense Withdrawal” in Hinduism and Yoga

Patanjali uses a word called Pratyahara. This word has been translated differently, but if basically means sense withdrawal. Once one has managed this sense withdrawal, one is then in a position to engage in the practices of concentration, meditation and mystical union, the latter being the goal of yoga.

But how does one manage this sense withdrawal? Well, there are a variety of ways, some of them rather esoteric. There are practices (that are quite similar to meditation) that one can use to try to withdraw the senses – practices involving concentrating on places on the body or even control of the breath.

There are also more “mundane” practices, such as simply finding a quiet place, getting out of the habit of getting into sensory overload and even simplifying one’s life. These latter practices would likely be considered more like steps along the way to sense withdrawal, rather than full-blown sense withdrawal.

Also, “sense withdrawal” may not be the best term. The real point here isn’t withdrawing the senses, but rather reducing the mind’s tendency to get involved with the objects of senses.

Sense Withdrawal” in Platonism

I’ve written previously on the potential to read Plato’s philosophy through a sotoriological lens. If it’s true that his philosophy was sotoriological (and this may be pushing it), then this gives it an even greater affinity with the Yoga Sutras, and Eastern philosophy in general.

In particular, I had quoted this:

[…] Additionally, since the bodily senses are inaccurate and deceptive, the philosopher’s search for knowledge is most successful when the soul is “most by itself.”

The latter point holds especially for the objects of philosophical knowledge that Plato later on in the dialogue (103e) refers to as “Forms.”  […] “in a word, the reality of all other things, that which each of them essentially is” (65d).  They are best approached not by sense perception but by pure thought alone.  […]

All told, then, the body is a constant impediment to philosophers in their search for truth: “It fills us with wants, desires, fears, all sorts of illusions and much nonsense, […] To have pure knowledge, therefore, philosophers must escape from the influence of the body as much as is possible in this life. Philosophy itself is, in fact, a kind of “training for dying” (67e), a purification of the philosopher’s soul from its bodily attachment.

There’s quite a bit going on here. First, the role of sense withdrawal; it too is considered a prerequisite to the search for knowledge. And what kind of knowledge is that? Knowledge of the forms, a greater reality beyond this one and the one upon which this one depends. Notice also how he implicates desires, fear and illusion as impediments to this search, an implication that would sound familiar to anyone who knows about Hinduism/Yoga.

But what of the forms? Again, something I quoted in my previous article:

The primary concept is the Theory of Forms. The only true being is founded upon the forms, the eternal, unchangeable, perfect types, of which particular objects of sense are imperfect copies. The multitude of objects of sense, being involved in perpetual change, are thereby deprived of all genuine existence. The number of the forms is defined by the number of universal concepts which can be derived from the particular objects of sense.

This is an attempt to get in touch with ultimate reality. However, one may point out that there are several forms, whereas in Hinduism/Yoga, there seems to be one ultimate object of the union.

But maybe the differences are illusory? For instance, take The Form of the Good:

Plato describes the “Form of the Good“, or more literally “the idea of the good” (ἡ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ἰδέα), in his dialogue the Republic(508e2–3), speaking through the character of Socrates. Plato introduces several forms in his works, but identifies the Form of the Good as the superlative. This form is the one that allows a philosopher-in-training to advance to a philosopher-king. It cannot be clearly seen or explained, but once it is recognized, it is the form that allows one to realize all the other forms.

So even though there are a variety of forms, they are all subservient to the one ultimate form. So maybe there is just one unifying principle in both systems?

Plotinus and Vedanta

So far, so good, but there’s an additional piece of the puzzle that ties these systems together: Plotinus.

Plotinus was one of the Neo-Platonists. Neo-Platonists – as the name implies – adhered to Plato’s philosophy, although they may have added a few innovations of their own. One aspect of their philosophy stands out however; they believed that reality was monistic, which is quite similar to the Hindu/Yoga view.

But Plotinus went even further, for Plotinus practiced something that looked a lot like meditation and that resulted in something that sounded a lot like mystical absorption, with something he called “The One”:

Plotinus taught that there is a supreme, totally transcendent “One“, containing no division, multiplicity, or distinction; beyond all categories of being and non-being. His “One” “cannot be any existing thing”, nor is it merely the sum of all things […], but “is prior to all existents”. Plotinus identified his “One” with the concept of ‘Good’ and the principle of ‘Beauty’. (I.6.9)

Sound familiar? Let’s take some more:

The One is not just an intellectual concept but something that can be experienced, an experience where one goes beyond all multiplicity

This sounds a lot like the non-dualistic awareness and meditative states achieved in Hinduism/Yoga. But let’s push the point further:

As is specified in the writings of Plotinus […]  one can reach a state of tabula rasa, a blank state where the individual may grasp or merge with The One. This absolute simplicity means that the nous or the person is then dissolved, completely absorbed back into the Monad. 

The essentially devotional nature of Plotinus’ philosophy may be further illustrated by his concept of attaining ecstatic union with the One (henosis). Porphyry relates that Plotinus attained such a union four times during the years he knew him. This may be related to enlightenment, liberation, and other concepts of mystical union common to many Eastern and Western traditions.

Furthermore, Plotinus states that this ability is central to human happiness:

Overall, happiness for Plotinus is “…a flight from this world’s ways and things.” (Theaet. 176) and a focus on the highest, i.e. Forms and the One.

[…]

Authentic human happiness for Plotinus consists of the true human identifying with that which is the best in the universe. Because happiness is beyond anything physical, Plotinus stresses the point that worldly fortune does not control true human happiness, and thus “… there exists no single human being that does not either potentially or effectively possess this thing we hold to constitute happiness.” (Enneads I.4.4) The issue of happiness is one of Plotinus’ greatest imprints on Western thought, as he is one of the first to introduce the idea that eudaimonia (happiness) is attainable only within consciousness.

Conclusion

So there you have it. There’s quite a bit going on beneath the surface of two apparently disparate philosophies.

However, I should throw a little bit of cold water on all this.

First, it’s not very clear just how closely the Yoga Sutras align with Hinduism or even Vedanta. For instance, the goal of the Yoga Sutras is said to be the stilling the movement within the mind so that one can realize one’s true nature, but must this true nature be Brahman?

Secondly, while Plato’s forms and the means for accessing them shared much with some Eastern philosophies, there are some gaps. In fact, we had to go to the Neoplatonists to find more similarities, and we should ask what else influenced Neoplatonism.

Finally there’s the question of coherence. There are some very confusing, if not incoherent descriptions in all these philosophies, which makes it difficult to say if there really is a correspondence. Whether that’s due to the translations or the inability to communicate some ineffable experiences is up in the air, but it should give us pause. On the other hand, that widely disparate philosophies seem to be roughly “incoherent” in the same direction should make us think. Is there something deeper they’re trying to communicate and just can’t put into words?

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