If you have read any of my other pieces on here or elsewhere, you might rightly reach the conclusion that I am utterly in the thrall of the philosophy which is known as existentialism.
Indeed on this blog alone, there’s one essay entitled Existentialism In The Age of Social Media and frequent references to this intellectual love-child of Jean-Paul Sartre in many of the others. I have written existentialist articles for my other blog but I can provide no proof due to my insistence on doing a Banksy and keeping the Montag identity a bit of a mystery.
It would be easy to think then, that existentialism is the philosophical substratum to my waking life and that it underpins my thoughts and deeds in the way that a good, practical philosophy should. The truth is that this is not completely the case. It is true that I am a great admirer of existentialist thought, but this is mainly because it gives contemporary expression to aspects of a much older philosophy which has informed my behaviour through the majority of my adult life.
Here’s the story.
When I was 17 I discovered yoga.
I had not stumbled upon the taxing body positions beloved of gym classes and fitness enthusiasts. The ancient shool of thought that I had lifted the lid upon was the philosophy of yoga: The Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads and ideas such as vedanta, dharma and moksha.
At that point in my life I had just cheerfully rejected the conventional pathways of school and college – the hoops of exams and achievement that I should have been jumping through at that time. Instead I found myself enjoying my own particular delinquent brand of existential authenticity. Nevertheless, I remained intellectually curious and was taking my first bewildered steps into that great pool of western intellectuialsm. I had borrowed books about Nietzsche, Freud and Jung (others too, but memory fails me) from my local lending library, and was suitably enlightened and challenged in various measure. However key to the discovery of yoga was a re-reading of a childhood favourite during some idle time. The plot of The Story of Henry Sugar by Roald Dahl revolved around the seemingly magical powers of a character described as a yogi. Dahl’s peerless storytelling piqued my curiosity on the question of whether or not yoga could enable the wondrous events described in the novel.
So, it was back to the local library again and this time I left with a copy of a book entitled Common Sense About Yoga by a woman I had not heard of named Sonya Richmond. This episode could itself have been the opening of a Dahl novel; I settled down to read and at once engaged completely with Richmond’s easy writing style. By the end of the book I realised that there was no magic to yoga, but it had suffused my young mind with many great philosophical ideas which were to stand me in good stead for the next few decades.
After putting myself through what the American poet Sam Greenlee referred to as “catch-up” education, I had acquired a rather more formal knowledge of psychology, western philosophy, history and literature. The allure of psychology, first glimpsed via Freud’s radical creativity, had (for me) been dimmed by the incessant focus of researchers on reductive materialism. However, my education in this discipline contained silver linings: it was this which led me to philosophy – from Kuhn’s philosophy of science to Kant’s epistemology to Kierkegaard’s proto-existentialism. These in their turn brought me to the 20th century existentialists, and I realised that the ideas of Sartre and co. were remarkably similar to many of the concepts that I had first encountered in Sonya Richmond’s book. I entertained a hunch that she had been influenced by existentialism and this had given her descriptions of yoga a particular flavour.
The chapter in Richmond’s book which echoed existentialist notions was entitled Karma Yoga. It described a branch of the Indian philosophy which is primarily concerned with action. As Richmond explained, most people think that the word karma means fate. It doesn’t, it means action. Karma yoga’s central premise is that all action defines a person. Deeds are transformative, and create the individual that one will become tomorrow. Therefore, because the actions of a person are under their control (to a greater extent: I can choose to be nice or to be horrible, to scowl or to smile), karma is a powerful method through which we are said to be able to shape our future character.
After considerable study of Richmond’s book, I graduated to seeking out English translations of the Bhagavad Gita, the primary source of the philosophy of yoga. The first copy I read was given to me by a kind Hare Krishna who noticed that I had an interest in the subject. However, that particular translation was written from the Bhakti yoga perspective and although educational, lacked the action-focus of Karma Yoga that I was seeking.
I sought out and read a variety of other translations (the Radakrishnan version that I permanently borrowed from the University of Sussex library stood out). Finally, I came across Juan Mascaro’s wonderful 1960 edition. I read this and knew that I had found what I had been looking for. It also became clear to me that the Mascaro version had also been a key influence on Sonya Richmond as there are a number of barely paraphrased excerpts from his introduction in her book.
A classical western education consists of study of Greek and Latin texts – Plato, Homer, Herodiclitus, Sophocles. My particular course of ancient learning might be said to have been based upon these great Sanskrit works – the idea of which pleases me somewhat. The Indian texts pre-date the Greeks, and although Mascaro suggested that they (in parts) pre-date buddhism, this is a matter of debate. What I know of ancient Greek philosophy, I like. Especially Plato. I have sometimes wondered if fragments of the older Indian ideas had influenced the later Aegean thinkers – who knows exactly what was held in the lost library of Alexandria? Indeed, I recently listened to a discussion where contemporary academics hinted at an influence of ancient Indian thought on Greek philosophy.
Therefore if western philosophy contains a seed of influence from India, then this represents a pleasing circularity. Existentialism could then trace its heritage back to Karma yoga, and the links between the two that were implicitly made in Common Sense About Yoga, were real, albeit spanning around three thousand years!
That’s the theory. Now a brief examination of the way in which the two ideas fit together in practical terms.
First, a concrete example: consider an individual who wishes to lose weight and develop a slim physique. Such an individual will need to be continually mindful of what they are putting in their mouth. Every moment of every day will constitute a moment of existential choice – do I buy that snack? Do I eat it? Do I go for the low calorie option, or the tasty and calorific one?
This morning I was very tired while waiting for my commuter train at the station near my temporary north-east London abode. A fellow commuter in the waiting room looked similarly exhausted. Seemingly on auto-pilot, she had wandered in, picked up a copy of Metro and begun reading. Almost mechanically, she whipped out a sugary snack bar and began chewing on it absent-mindedly. If in future months this woman (who was certainly no waif) finds herself unhappy with her size and shape, one hopes that somehow the concept of existential choice will become known to her. That is, she will have to awake from her automaticity of behaviour and realise that in every moment of every day we have choice. This is existentialism. It is also Karma Yoga.
These philosophies both hold that we are not simply deterministic – the result of impulses, desires and forces. Our will, reason and intention can allow us to override these drivers if we choose, and thus create a new pathway for ourselves. This, indeed is the very meaning of existentialism: simply being aware of one’s own existence and all the possibilities that such awareness offers. Through exercising these moment-by-moment choices, we can change what we are to become. In the case of the waiting room woman, this could result in a transformation from a large physique into a slim one which would flatter a slinky dress. However, the philosophical concept of existential choice in both yoga and existentialism is concerned with more profound outcomes.
In the guise of karma yoga – indeed all yogas – this mechanism of choice is a tool to aid the achievement of a very specific goal. In the terminology found in the original Sanskrit sources, this goal is Moksha. Moksha means ‘liberation’ and is similar to the Buddhist concept of Nirvana. The yogis seek liberation from the cycle of birth and death which follows from the metaphysical idea of reincarnation which they subscribe to. The materialists among you may be prone to scoff at these ideas, but to be human is to believe. Even Plato (in Phaedo) urged each individual to find the ideas that made the most sense to them and “to let that be the raft upon which they sail across the sea of life”. In Indian philosophy, the raft is directed by yoga and the destination is Moksha.
The Bhagavad Gita prescribes behaviour patterns via which an individual can divest themselves of selfishness and ego. Human nature being what it is, this is a tough ask, and that is acknowledged in the ancient texts. Moreover, to live this way in the face of strident twenty-first century avarice, violence and temptation requires the most acute application of that everyday existential choice. In sum, like the dieter, both the existentialist and the yogi will face regular choices. Choices of whether to resist that which inhibits the attainment of the goal. Does the moksha-seeker lash out and make the sharp retort or think the unsympathetic thought? Or take the other, more noble alternative? Does the would-be existentialist weaken and join with the baying of the crowd? Or do they remain true to their authentic self, and to the tomorrow that will bestow?
The continual awareness of one’s existence, actions and the myriad possibilities thereof are powerful facets of philosophies like yoga and existentialism. They are hugely helpful to individuals seeking mastery in any particular field. And whether one is on the cosmic path of karma yoga towards liberation or a more earth-bound existentialism towards authenticity, one thing is sure, it will be a life that is lived fully.
Which is what I since my seventeen year old discovery of philosophy, have always attempted to do.