Monday, August 23, 2010

This is not a dog.

We never learn to generalize by learning things in general. And generalization is one of the great goals of all learning. I mean, what’s better than a truism that applies to “all” cases? Indian logic values this kind of knowledge as much as western tradition: it’s a human thing to want truth to be “pervasive” (vyapti is the Sanskrit term), and so attain universality beyond mere instances or personal idiosyncrasies. But how do we reach such levels of applicability? Do we have to begin with the idea that there are such truths? Ones that are true in all cases at all times?

Between what we learn from the proofs of quantum and the concept of lila we may have to live in a world in which truth is more like a paradox than a problem to be solved. To whit, we pursue universals, truths that are true, because these will endeavor to make us more human even as we admit that anything can happen at anytime for no discernable reason. We’ll return to this issue soon enough in another piece but for now let’s think about generalization in more practical terms, say, as it applies to our understandings of “yoga” and “Tantra.” More than ever folks identify themselves or what they are doing as “yoga” and, especially in the past ten years, more identify their yoga as “Tantra.” What’s that mean?

The more we learn about the traditions of yoga and Tantra the less clear we become about matters in general. The reason for this is simple enough: as the diversity and complexity of the sources become more apparent, it is increasingly difficult to reach consensus. To define yoga we might take a narrow view and reduce the meaning to, say, Patanjali’s famous yogascittavrtti nirodhah but what makes this normative --- the “ought” “should” definition other than familiarity, predisposition, or bias? The Bhagavadgita uses the word “yoga” in more than one hundred fifty variants on the verbal root and when we reach the historically later works of the Tantra even more definitions abound. What exactly is yoga? Who gets to decide and why do we give more authority to one source than to another? For practical purposes nothing serves us better than the clarity we get from a definition since that’s the first step to generalization. But if we start, for example, with Patanjali’s view we’d have to exclude a great deal of Tantra and, frankly, that makes no sense. In a comparable way, the more we find out about Tantra the more difficult it is to generalize in ways that withstand much scrutiny and it’s not like we talking about angels, dancing, and pins here, we dive into exceptions-to-the-rule so vast and cavernous that it’s impossible to ignore them. There is simply too much diversity and plurality in Tantra to produce generalizations that apply to people practicing their yoga even in the narrow confines of their own historical recollections. It’s not that we lack historical examples to provide definitions; it’s that we have so many that they become incommensurate for all of their genuine diversity. There’re no objectified criteria; no way to reach a standard, no buoy(s) in the ocean of comparison that can guide our understanding to homeport. We might say a yogin is anyone who practices yoga (and what does that mean?) but we can no longer say that yogins are persons who refer to the traditions or sources of yoga---- not with the inventions that apply to “yoga” as it is practiced today in the West (and as it is migrating back to India).

What is generally called “yoga” today in North America not only bears little resemblance to the histories and sources of Asian traditions, it is this emphasis on asana practice, the veritable stretching-in-Sanskrit, that is re-defining yoga even in India. (You can see signs for yoga studios all over India these days and it’s the contemporary practice of asana that is being sold.) There’s nothing “wrong” with such innovation and creativity, and certainly nothing wrong with asana practice being “yoga”; I’m not remonstrating contemporary “hatha yoga” but rather only pointing out that historical usage, practical observation, and the process of creating meaning and identity are far more complex than meets the eye. And I can assure you that the majority of what is said about yoga in historical sources from India has still yet to be brought into public conversation. What we don’t know or haven’t considered from the historical sources outweighs what we have already before us ten-million-fold. But this may not matter as much as the simple fact that “yoga” and “Tantra” are terms whose meanings are being re-created by their current usages. I’m not arguing for or about who is “real” or what is “authentic,” only that we are in an age when ideas and behaviors with complex historical meanings are becoming both more and less clear. Popular culture ---and not just in the West--- is increasingly identifying yoga with asana practice, with or without any other associated discourse, while the more we learn about yoga (much less Tantra!) the more we gather that it’s about more than we reckoned. There’s always more.

A long time ago I took up some of these issues in a formal academic way, talking about the application of a family resemblance theory that doesn’t rely on any single characteristic. In this way we can look for sets of features and use resemblance, a judgment call about close enough, much like the way we might look at someone to notice family resemblance but without, say, the precision of analyzing their DNA (which can be quantified). When’s one thing enough like another to say that’s one too? When is one lineage or school of Tantra close enough in notable features to say, “that’s Tantra” or “that’s Tantra too?”

One the important issues that comes up when we generalize about yoga or Tantra is that in order to reach resemblance much less universality we have to generalize without enough attention to the people who are yogins or Tantrikas. We stand to lose the real anthropology of the traditions, that is, the peeps who identify themselves as such and are instead left with abstractions, like “yoga is equanimity” (Bhagavadgita, 2.48) or “yoga is stanching the movements of the psycho-physical consciousness” (Yogasutra, 1.2). People are compelled to conform to the concept when the matter at hand is to create an understanding that is common to (true for, applies to all) those who call themselves “yogins” or “Tantrikas.” And if we turn exclusively to what people say about themselves we don’t necessarily reach any better understanding. For example, someone might well say, “I am not a Tantric yogin” because they don’t fancy the associations made with the words as they understand them or for the nuances of social or historical identity. But if this same person is quoting Tantric sources as important or even definitive to their practical identity then what do we make of their disclaimer? What people say about themselves is always true but not necessarily for the reasons that they give. That’s worth thinking about.

What we must do of course is create a construct, invent a model that empowers us to see what neither “objectification” nor the limits of anthropology can surmise. We can neither point to nature for a standard (the way we can when we look at the elements and think about creating a periodic table) nor the claims of authoritative persons (because they will invariably conflict). I’m not suggesting here a solution though the method proposed some twenty years back involving polythetic classification still seems a wise place to start for achieving a bit more clarity (see The Secret of the Three Cities: An Introduction to Sakta Tantrism, UChicgoPress, 1990). Instead what I suggest by revisiting the idea of generalization that has plagued my consciousness since I began thinking about “yoga,” “Tantra,” “Hinduism,” etc., is that we not abandon the responsibility to engage the issue or reduce it by the demeaning notion it is a “mere” construct, as if constructs were false, unhelpful, or more than heuristic.

Everything we humans know, we know because we construct it. You can say all you like about “direct” experience or some other (quasi-) mystical state but in order to convey and to share experience we must construct a bridge, a way to communicate it, to offer it beyond the irrefragable confines of our own private cognitions. In short, we each have our own direct experiences but we can only share them by constructing modalities of communication, constructs that empower us to relay and recognize what we share in an experience that extends to more than one time or one place. Unique experiences are the least valuable ones we have if we mean to share our possibilities. After all, you may have some fantastic, wonderful experience but if it’s all and only yours, so what? What about that really helps me? Somewhere in Abhinavagupta’s Tantraloka he argues that it’s better to have a teacher who can teach you than it is to try to learn from a great siddha who has no such interest in communicating her or his state beyond personal example. We aren’t merely examples to each other, we are teachers, and we must become more adept communicators; and as for reducing experience to the narrowest sense of yours is true because it’s yours, perhaps we might remember that expanding into greater circles of understanding is the goal of inclusion. Check out the dog.