MASTERING THE SECRETS OF MATTER AND THE UNIVERSE
By Alain Danielou
Published by Inner Traditions
192 pages, paperback
This masterwork on yoga cannot be tackled without first considering the author and his achievements.
To call Alain Danielou one of the 20th century’s greatest Orientalists says a lot, yet it does not capture the breadth and depth of his knowledge and vision.
Born in Switzerland to French parents in 1907, he became a historian, musicologist, Indologist and a deeply fervent convert to Shaivite Hinduism.
He spent decades in India and became a professor at the Hindu University of Benares where he was the director of the College of Indian Music. His interest in the ancient Sanskrit texts of Hinduism led to many acclaimed publications, both on music and scripture. He died in 1994.
This book on yoga was first published in 1949 under the title Yoga: The Method of Reintegration. It is one of the first detailed texts that outlines the purpose and practice of all aspects of yoga for the Western student.
Far from being a simple system of physical fitness, it is a complete system of self-development. It encompasses the body, mind, spirit and beyond. It is exhaustive in its descriptions, owing this to meticulous research into the ancient texts such as the Upanishads.
The material is arranged into Introduction and three main sections with appendices that are excellent references. The reader needs to be quite clear that this work is based upon Shaivite Hinduism.
The Introduction leads the reader gently, but firmly into the historical, philosophical and practical underpinnings of yoga. This is not the yoga that Westerners tend to substitute for jogging or gym workouts, but the true and ancient knowledge that we may call the ‘perennial philosophy’ gleaned from the Vedas (Sanskrit religious texts).
The author outlines the cosmology of the ages or Yugas briefly. This leads to an explanation of the current age – the Kali Yuga, or the Age of Conflicts. The system of yoga that allows an individual to understand and gain mastery over his being and world is required in this age. The constant theme is that of integration of the self with all things.
Part One deals with the aims and objectives of Hatha Yoga. This is the yoga most familiar to Western students. There are eight steps. Its goal is mastering the physical body and includes the postures (asanas), muscular contractions (bandhas), and gestures (mudras). The all important techniques of breathing are described here as well as acts of purification. Advanced steps include withdrawal from the external, deep concentration, contemplation and identification.
This section also describes the other main methods of yoga including Raja Yoga, Mantra Yoga, Laya Yoga and Shiva Yoga. They have the same general introductory steps and practices, but in the later stages they differ.
Part Two outlines other forms of yoga that also lead to mastery and integration. Karma yoga is integration through action. This means right action without thought of merit as outlined in the Bhagavad Gita. Jnana yoga is integration through knowledge. Bhakti yoga is integration through love. This is very popular in the West with many centres devoted to devotional chants and meditation.
Kundalini yoga releases the energies at the base of the spine and raises them to the crown, using the basic eight steps of yoga and extra steps that express positive and strong virtues. Asparsha yoga is integration through non-touching. This eschews all contact with others which leads to suffering. A hermit-like path, to be sure.
All these different forms of yoga show that even in millennia past, the goal of self-development and mastery was unity. The many and varied forms of yoga provide a person of any given temperament a path that suits or challenges them.
The small but critical Part Three deals with Initiation. The author emphasises that in every stage of yoga the student needs to have a guru or guide. The nature of the student and teacher is addressed here. The rules of food and manner of living are also outlined. There is a section on obstacles encountered on the path.
It would be remiss to ignore the very detailed and useful appendices of which there are five. The first deals with the structure and function of the subtle body. This is the unseen, but critical part of our being that is never destroyed in the cycles of birth and death. It has a detailed anatomy – so to speak. This section is for the advanced student.
The second appendix deals with the Siddhis or attainments in great detail. The third describes the 84 postures and their effects. The fourth contains the references from all the main Sanskrit treatises on yoga. The fifth has the footnotes in Sanskrit, once again not for the beginning student, but for the scholar.
This work is detailed and meticulously researched. The deep knowledge and scholarship is a result of the decades the author spent studying with Indian pandits of the Hindu tradition.
It will appeal to the serious student of yoga in any tradition. It is not a fluffy yoga exercise manual. It contains the distilled knowledge of thousands of years, but is totally relevant to the present day.
For beginners, not everything will be understood at first reading. That is why there are particular steps to be followed. Followed with goodwill and honest endeavour, this book will help you on a genuine path of self-development for your body, mind and spirit.
Recommended for seekers.