Sunday, March 27, 2011

Avidya, Power, Corruption

I decided to follow my own advice at the end of my previous post ("A little meditation on power"); I'm now at my local Barnes & Noble, reading the latest issue of Yoga Journal (interesting cover too, I must add :-)).

I've noticed that my Yoga Journal reading pattern has changed considerably since I became a full-time Ashtangi. These days, I don't pay much attention to the asana columns (except occasionally, when I need a few alignment tips). Rather, I tend to zero in on the "Wisdom" column, to see what nuggets of yogic wisdom I can glean. This column is written by Sally Kempton. I don't know much about her, but she writes very well; and (who would have known) she actually has some insightful things to say about my present thoughts about power and corruption.

In her article ("Who do you think you are?"), she discusses the yogic concept of avidya. "vidya" means "seeing" or "wisdom" or "knowledge" in Sanskrit; the English word "video" is a cognate of "vidya". The prefix "a" indicates a lack or absence. "Avidya", then, means lack of wisdom/knowledge, or the inability  to see. Kempton elaborates:

"Avidya is a fundamental blindness about reality. The core ignorance we call avidya isn't a lack of information, but the inability to experience your deep connection to others, to the source of being, and to your true Self."

At Yoga Sutra II.5, Patanjali tells us four ways in which avidya might arise in us:

"Mistaking the transient for the permanent, the impure for the pure, pain for pleasure, and that which is not the self for the self: all this is called lack of spiritual knowledge, avidya." (Translated by B.K.S. Iyengar)

We can gain some understanding into the nature of power and corruption by pondering this passage. Think about the last of the four manifestations of avidya mentioned by Patanjali: Mistaking that which is not the self for the self. Suppose I'm talking with somebody at a party, and I say something that really impresses that person ("Wow, that's a brilliant observation! I never thought of this matter in this way."). So something came up in my mind, which I then put into words, which that person found astute or clever. But then I go on to identify myself with the thought, and conclude that it is I who is actually brilliant. I have gone from "That's a brilliant observation" to "I'm truly brilliant"; in the process, I have mistaken an impermanent thought in my mind for my true self.

Perhaps a similar process occurs in one who becomes corrupted by power. He does a couple of good things for people around him, they hail him as a savior/hero ("That was a great thing you did for us!"), and he comes to believe that it is he who is truly great. He goes from "That was great thing to do!" to "I'm great, and therefore infallible." Again, we have a case of mistaking an impermanent thought for the true self.  

But herein also lies a danger in the yoga practice, especially asana practice. It is all too easy to confuse whatever achievements we have made in asana with our true self, mistaking an impermanent state of affairs (our present level of flexibility or strength) for our true self.

So how does one get out of this loop? I think that simply recognizing that this loop exists and cultivating awareness of it is the first step to being free of it. Once I realize that I am not my brilliant thoughts or my asana achievements (or whatever), I can then begin to see that perhaps losing those things or not getting credit for them does not really matter.

Hmm... but if none of these things (brilliant ideas, material achievements, asana achievements) matter, what does? Any thoughts on this?  


  1. Great post! I guess whatever the original intention one has in doing anything, ego finds its way to sneak in and try to dominate.

    As a leader, one has to make difficult major decisions in order to make changes happen. Leaders who constantly perform ego checks are often highly cautious and are unremarkable in history (even though they have done the least harm to people). Those who are charismatic and ambitious are more likely to achieve great things but with all the worship and praises they are more likely to forget to do their ego checks.

    As to what matters it kind of depends on the person doesn't it? I think yoga and meditation are tools to help us ask ourselves this question instead of letting others dictate what ought to be important to us.

  2. "Those who are charismatic and ambitious are more likely to achieve great things..."

    Hmm... I suppose this depends on what one thinks of as "great things". I suspect that all too often, what are seen as great things (military conquests, economic expansion and growth) are accomplished at the cost of much undocumented human suffering. As they always say, history is written by the victors, and the victors obviously have an interest in keeping the dark side of their accomplishments from posterity. Whereas, perhaps those who are unremarkable in history (at least in the standard history) are unremarkable because they haven't accomplished what many would consider such "great" things. But perhaps they have done more good (or at least less harm) to the common people? Just wondering.

    Welcome back to the Land of Blogs! :-)