Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Patanjali Yoga Sutras: Atha 1


Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras begin with the sutra ‘Atha yoganushasanam.”
The sutra means “Now the teaching of Yoga”

The word atha there, the first word of the Sutras, means “now.”

In the Indian culture, atha is symbolic of an auspicious beginning. Atha indicates the beginning just as iti indicates the end. Thus the Narada Bhakti Sutra begins with ‘Athato bhakti-jijnasa.’ The Brahmasutras begin with ‘Athato brahma-jijnasa.’ Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra, again, begins with the word atha. Innumerable other texts begin with atha.

But of course atha means much, much more than just an auspicious beginning.

Let us first look at some of these meanings from a contemporary standpoint, particularly as relevant to the modern urban executive, male or female. Later we shall look at how the ancients understood the word atha in the Yoga Sutras.

The job of an executive today is more challenging than it has ever been in the past. His pace of work is hectic and unrelenting, and the content of his work is varied and fragmented. Much of his work is reactive rather than proactive in nature, requiring him to react to decisions taken by others and actions initiated by others. The decision making processes are disorderly, characterised more by confusion and emotionality than by rationality and frequently involve hard negotiations, organizational politics and self-serving interests of individuals and groups complicating the process.

While his job involves dealing with his boss and higher executives on one side, it involves dealing with direct and indirect subordinates, peers, lateral superiors and lateral juniors on another side and officials in government agencies, clients, suppliers, colleagues in the same position and important people in the community on yet another. His responsibilities involve supervising, planning, organizing, decision making, monitoring, controlling, representing, coordinating, consulting and administering and he is called upon to play the leader role, the liaison role, the spokesperson role, the entrepreneur role, the resource allocator role, the disturbance handler role and the negotiator role, to mention just a few. And has to do all these under severe constraints of numerous kinds imposed upon him.

Atha for an executive today means now that such are the conditions and the demands on the executive, he needs Yoga and therefore the teaching of Yoga.

Patanjali’s yoga can be of immense value to the modern executive. It can help him retain mental serenity even when he is in the middle of his stormy executive life. While storms rage outside, he will still be able to function from that inner serenity. His decisions will arise from his inner calm and not from chaos. The inner calm will help him become more intuitive – and intuitiveness is invaluable when you have to take decisions with insufficient data. Yoga will help the modern executive by enabling him to work effectively even in the middle of hectic and unrelenting work conditions. It will enable him to find meaning behind the disorder of his workplace, meet the challenges of confusion and emotionality there, and deal better with the different levels and kinds of people he has constantly to deal with. It will help him multitask effectively – and his job requires that he supervises, plans, organizes, makes decisions, monitors, controls, coordinates and does numerous other things, many of these at the same time.

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Man is possessed by a strange madness today. A madness that has taken over the heart of the individual, organizations and society alike. And possessed by that madness, we are all chasing windmills mistaking them for giants, as Miguel Cervantes’ hero, or ante-hero, Don Quixote did in The Adventures of Don Quixote. We all feel compelled to run after things and we frequently have no clue what we are running after or why we are running after it. Of course, we do have our reasons – it is only that these reasons are the same as the reasons of Don Quixote.

Everyone today seemS to suffering a kind of insanity.

I remember reading a while back Robin Sharma’s international bestseller The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. Here are some excerpts from the first chapter of his book where he describes the life of the lawyer Julian Mantle.

He collapsed right in the middle of a packed courtroom. He was one of this country’s most distinguished trial lawyers. He was also a man who was as well known for the three-thousand-dollar Italian suits which draped his well-fed frame as for his remarkable string of legal victories. The great Julian Mantle had been reduced to a victim and was now squirming on the ground like a helpless infant, shaking and shivering and sweating.

I had known Julian for seventeen years. Back then, he had it all. He was a brilliant, handsome and fearless trial attorney with dreams of greatness. Julian was tough, hard-driving and willing to work eighteen-hour days for the success he believed was his destiny.

For the first few years he justified his long hours by saying that he was “doing it for the good of the firm”, and that he planned to take a month off and go to the Caymans “next winter for sure.” As time passed, however, Julian’s reputation for brilliance spread and his workload continued to increase. The cases just kept on getting bigger and better, and Julian, never one to back down from a good challenge, continued to push himself harder and harder. In his rare moments of quiet, he confided that he could no longer sleep for more than a couple of hours without waking up feeling guilty that he was not working on a file. It soon became clear to me that he was being consumed by the hunger for more: more prestige, more glory and more money.

As expected, Julian became enormously successful. He achieved everything most people could ever want: a stellar professional reputation with an income in seven figures, a spectacular mansion in a neighbourhood favoured by celebrities, a private jet, a summer home on a tropical island and his prized possession — a shiny red Ferrari parked in the center of his driveway.

However, none of these was enough for Julian. He wanted ever bigger cases to win. He wanted his preparations to be more thorough than ever before. He wanted his research into each case to be no less than perfect.

The more time I spent with Julian, the more I could see that he was driving himself deeper into the ground. It was as if he had some kind of a death wish. Nothing ever satisfied him. Eventually, his marriage failed, he no longer spoke with his father, and though he had every material possession anyone could want, he still had not found whatever it was that he was looking for.

It showed, emotionally, physically — and spiritually. At fifty-three years of age, Julian looked as if he was in his late seventies. His face was a mass of wrinkles, a less than glorious tribute to his “take no prisoners” approach to life in general and the tremendous stress of his out-of-balance lifestyle in particular. He had lost his sense of humour and never seemed to laugh anymore. Julian’s once enthusiastic nature had been replaced by a deathly sombreness. Personally, I think that his life had lost all sense of purpose.

Perhaps the saddest thing was that he had also lost his focus in the courtroom. Where he would once dazzle all those present with an eloquent and airtight closing argument, he now droned on for hours. Where once he would react gracefully to the objections of opposing counsel, he now displayed a biting sarcasm that severely tested the patience of judges.

And then it happened. This massive heart attack that brought the brilliant Julian Mantle back down to earth and reconnected him to his mortality. Right in the middle of courtroom number seven on a Monday morning, the same courtroom where we had won the Mother of All Murder Trials.


Many of us are Julian Mantles. Many of us are Don Quixotes. And what we do with our lives is exactly what Julian Mantle did, what Don Quixote did.

Atha means when we are driven by the madness of Julian Mantle. Atha means when we are driven by the madness of Don Quixote.

Atha means when we have awakened to the fact that we are driven by the madness of Julian Mantle and Don Quixote.

Sometimes, by some grace, we get a glimpse into the madness we are living. Atha means when that has happened.

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To be continued on Patanjali Yoga Sutras Atha 2

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