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But how is such a path possible? In terms of ancient Indian religious culture, the spiritual seeker is the yogi and the method is yoga. Disillusioned with the trivial pleasures of his father’s pleasure palaces, signifying both paradise and the innocence of childhood, Prince Siddhartha escaped the palace at night and fled into the countryside. He renounced the worldly life, giving away all his worldly possessions and as a mendicant or homeless wanderer, he set off on his spiritual quest. This was known as “the Great Renunciation”. In general, in myth and folklore, in order to become a hero, the young man must first leave home, the world of his parents. Prince Siddhartha wandered homeless for six years in the forest wilderness of Northern India, seeking teachers of the wisdom that lies beyond the surface of meaning of things.
THE SHRAMANA MOVEMENT
In the 6th century before Christ in Northern India, at the time when Prince Siddhartha began his spiritual quest, there existed various philosophers known as Shramanas, as well as their mendicant followers, some of whom were organized into distinct orders or sects. There were a large number of these competing groups of ascetics and yoga practitioners. In fact, the name Shramana means ascetic, one who is engaged in austerities and ascetic practices that deny all sensual pleasure to the individual. This ascetic discipline may be individual or communal in nature. In general, these Shramana teachers shared a common world-view entailing a radical dualism and a common method of renouncing the worldly life in order to practice meditation, yoga, and asceticism in the forests and the mountains of India. Among these ascetic orders of mendicants, besides the Buddhists, only the Jains survive until this present day.
Kapila was the first recorded master in this Shramana tradition of Central and Eastern India. He lived on an island in the Ganges river several hundred years before the time of Prince Siddhartha. His philosophy became known as Samkhya and this provided the earliest recorded philosophical basis for yoga practice. Like other Shramana philosophers, his view represented a radical dualism, dividing reality into two distinct substances or orders of being, namely, Spirit and Nature, or in the Sanskrit language, Purusha and Prakriti. “Nature” encompasses everything that is active and dynamic, including matter and energy, but also what is usually called mind. However, this Nature is blind and unconscious, even though all things, both mental and physical, evolve in time out of primordial matter (mulaprakriti). It is Spirit alone, as a separate substance or order of being, that is conscious and aware, although in itself it is passive and inactive. Spirit is simply a witness to the manifold activities of Nature that are unconscious. Moreover, there exists a plurality of these conscious spirits. They are like a group of men in an audience watching the sensuous and erotic dance of a young beautiful girl. They become caught up in the beauty and the sensuality of her dance, so that they forget their own true nature (as pure spirit) and find themselves trapped and imprisoned in nature, matter, and rebirth. The name of this dancer is Maya or illusion. Charmed, distracted, and enchanted by her dance, thereafter these spirits come to experience the suffering of rebirth again and again in Samsara.. The only way for them to escape and attain liberation from this condition of imprisonment is to renounce altogether Nature and the worldly life connected with it and practice exclusively the ascetic path of self-denial. Liberating the spirit from the clutches of body, emotion, and mind, it will then rise up into the air, ascending into the heavens, and will return eventually to its original home beyond the stars, to what represents a purely spiritual dimension of existence. This ultimate goal is variously known as liberation (moksha) or as isolation (kaivalya) or as Nirvana (extinction). This means the end of our material existence.
These two orders of being or substances may be characterized as follows: Spirit represents everything that is mind, consciousness, above, reason, good, light, and masculine; whereas Nature represents everything that is matter, unconsciousness, below, emotion, evil, darkness, and feminine. This dualistic model of spirituality also had great influence in the West. This same paradigm was found, for example, in Pythagoras and Orphism and especially later in Gnosticism and Christianity. We are all familiar with this model of spirituality from our own Christian tradition. Indeed, it represents our conventional model of spirituality. The key motif here is world-alienation and rejection of everything that the feminine represents symbolically, that is to say, the earth, nature, matter, domestic life, family, and the worldly life in general. The young spiritual hero escapes from the village and from agriculture, the domain of women, in order to live in the forest with other spiritual young men, freed from all domestic responsibilities, liberated from the rule of the Mothers. The young man may then follow a life of celibate renunciation; the path laid out before him is that of austerities and the renunciation of all sensual pleasures in order to free his spirit from the clutches of the body, so that the spirit, sprouting its wings, can escape into a pure spiritual dimension of bodiless and emotionless male intellectual consciousness. The aim here in ascetic discipline is to radically separate spirit from the world, from the physical body, from the irrational emotions, and most of all from the feminine. This liberation or salvation from the world is effected by way of gnosis (jnana), that is to say, by way of the knowledge of the true nature of spirit and its condition of alienation and subjugation in the realm of Nature down here below on earth. In a theistic system like Christianity, this salvation is effected by the grace of God. It is the same in the Hindu theistic systems. But in the Shramana traditions, it is not God who bestows this knowledge of liberation, but it is won through the individual’s efforts in terms of meditation, yoga, and discriminating wisdom (prajna). It is interesting to observe that this Gnostic dualism, this radically dualistic model of spirituality, appeared nearly simultaneously before Christ in both Ancient Greece and Ancient India.