Tagged: book reviews

The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Critical Biography

buddha serpentWas Patanjali a real person or a half-human, half-snake god? Was the Yoga Sutra a “classical” text? Where have the translations come from?

These and many other questions are explored in The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography by David Gordon White professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of several books, including The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions In Medieval India (read my post on it), Kiss of the Yogini, Yoga in Practice, and Sinister Yogis (read my post on it).

Modern Yoga is an amalgam of Occult, New Age, and Christian-Hindu Metaphysics packaged for consumers who may seldom, if ever, examine critically the actual origins of the philosophy and practices of Yoga. (Read my critical posts of Yoga). The Yoga Sutra, like most ancient sacred texts, has little in common with the original version.

yoga sutra of patanjali white-minBelow is my review and commentary on:
The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books)
by David Gordon White, Princeton University Press, 2014. Print.

“Big Yoga–the corporate yoga subculture–has elevated the Yoga Sutra to a status it never knew, even during its seventh- to twelfth-century heyday” writes White in his Preface.

Patanjali (first century BCE or fourth century CE) is the name of the mysterious author-compiler of the Yoga Sutra, acclaimed in modern yoga circles. In twelfth century Tamil traditions, Patancali (spelled with a “c”) is the name of a half-man half-snake incarnation of the great serpent-god, Ananta. Later scholars, identified this mythic Tamil Patancali with the Sanskrit Patanjali of the Yoga Sutra. Was the author of the Sutra a human, Patanjali?

What actually is the Yoga Sutra?

Literally, they are 196 obscure stanzas written in Sanskrit. What we read are not the original.

What we actually get in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali are interpretations of commentaries.

“When we speak of the philosophy of Patanjali we really mean (or should mean) is the understanding of Patanjali according to Vyasa [mythic ‘editor’ of the Vedas (1200 BCE) and Mahabharata (400 CE)]: It is Vyasa who determined what Patanjali’s abstruse sutras meant, and all the subsequent commentators elaborated on Vyasa…” says Rutgers University professor Edwin Bryant, a scholar of Hinduism.


The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography is a chronicle of the Yoga Sutra’s principle commentators to-date: including Vyasa, eighteenth century German romantic philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Theosophical Society founder Helena Blavatsky (read my post), first Indian Guru to come to the West Swami Vivekananda (read my post), famous twentieth century yoga teacher Krishnamacharya and others.

White weaves together a narrative of biographies about the chief commentators that crafted what we call the Yoga Sutra.

White concludes his book with Yoga Sutra 2.0, that is, his final chapter on what may be next, along with some “alternative theories” about how the Sutras may have been “hijacked” or co opted by translators or commentators to promote their agendas. He also shares a provocative theory of scholars that the Sutra was originally a Buddhist work that was reinterpreted into a Hindu text.

Critical scholars, like David Gordon White, could grind the Yoga Sutra down into analytical powder for ever, and not be able to provide definitive answers (kind of like biblical scholarship).

Yoga students may find White’s critical biography contradicts Modern Yoga teachers who claim lineage with the original Sutras of Patanjali.

The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography is for ardent students and critical researchers of yoga. Yet, this book is easy to read for the non-technical, non-academic reader with keen interest in yoga. Readers of White’s book may never see The Yoga Sutra as “sacred” or “original” again.

Connection Between Intensive Meditation & Mental Instability

Photo by Moyan Brenn, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Photo by Moyan Brenn, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Is there a connection between intensive meditation and mental instability? How much should people risk to pierce the veil of divinity itself?

In A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment, investigative journalist and anthropologist Scott Carney unravels riveting accounts of Westerners obsessed with Eastern spiritual teachings. In gripping narrative, Carney delves into the characters of people obsessed with “enlightenment” to the brink that pushes them into insanity.

This post is my review of an absorbing book:

A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment, Scott Carney, Gotham/Penguin Books: NY:NY, Hardcover, 2015

a death on diamond mountain skeptic meditations

“Ian Thorson was well known only briefly in Buddhist circles, and more so for the unusual circumstances around his death than for any of the actions in his life. Looked at from one perspective, his plunge toward enlightenment is an obvious case of madness. Yet lurking in the shadows of the cave where he died are clues about the idiosyncratic reasons Americans have adapted Eastern mysticism to their own ends. More important, Thorson’s own self-sacrifice begs the question, How much is too much to risk for a chance to pierce the veil of divinity itself?” p 13

Path to Enlightenment Fraught with Danger?

On the morning of April 22, 2012 a thirty-eight year old Stanford student, Ian Thorson, died of dysentery and dehydration on a remote Arizona mountain top during his intensive quest for enlightenment. After Thorson’s demise, Carney was struck by how Thorson’s tragic death was similar to the suicide of a young woman he traveled to India with for a silent meditation retreat.

The unorthodox Buddhist teachings of Western Lama Geshe Michael Roach, and his ex-wife Lama Christie McNally, took on a grim reality that culminated during an intensive meditation retreat when Ian Thorson died in McNally’s arms while hiding in a cave to achieve enlightenment1.

Lama Geshe Michael Roach explained that “…Doing yoga for four hours a day or five hours a day; it’s not fun. And it’s not a joke. It’s a life-or-death attempt to become a being who can serve all living creatures before you die”. p 132

Using Thorson’s tragic spiritual journey as a springboard, Carney investigates how the promise of “enlightenment” pushes some people to forsake the world around them and risk their lives and sanity.

Striking parallels with the meditation cult I followed

Reading A Death on Diamond Mountain reminded me of my own decades-long spiritual quest with an Eastern meditation guru. I had forsaken the world, family, all–to obtain the guru promised spiritual liberation. In my obsession to pursue enlightenment, I escaped to the cloistered monastic community on top of Mount Washington that overlooked the jagged skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles2.

Eyal Richter, untitled, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Eyal Richter, untitled, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

There are striking parallels between the cult of yoga meditation that I followed and the tragic obsessions with enlightenment recounted in A Death on Diamond Mountain.    

In upcoming posts I will examine these parallels with dangerous spiritual obsessions, such as Thorson’s in his unorthodox Buddhist cult, with certain spiritual diseases, and with the psychic costs and madness I witnessed while I was a monk for fourteen years in the Self-Realization Fellowship yoga meditation cult.

Students of yoga meditation and Eastern spirituality, or any person concerned about the risks on the path to enlightenment, owe it to themselves to read this absorbing book, A Death on Diamond Mountain.  

The final sentence of the book is, “Only the curious will learn what happened here”. Unfortunately, many serious devotees lack interest in learning about the risks of intensive meditation. Worse, they deny risks. Many people obsessed with the quest for spiritual awakening are in danger of abuse and mental instability.

A Death on Diamond Mountain is an engrossing investigative story that reveals how an obsessive quest for enlightenment is riddled with danger.


1 Here’s an ABC News video on the tragic events that led to the death of Ian Thorson and the reactions from his stunned, angered family: Buddhist Yoga Retreat Death Raises Questions on Ariz. Monk’s ‘Enlightenment’ Preaching

2 Read my Monasticism index of posts for many of the experiences and examinations I had within the Monastic Order of Self-Realization Fellowship.

Ramakrishna Paramahamsa: Smoking, Cussing Godman?

Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Bengal India, 1881

A critical analysis of a popular Hindu guru-messiah who smoked, cussed, and enjoyed company of young boys

Modern yoga is a curious and fascinating phenomena. Millions of Westerners are awed and have flocked to Eastern mystical teachers and to exotic spiritual teachings from Asia.

In awe of Eastern mystical teachers and teachings, I dedicated 14 years of my life as an ordained monk within an East-meets-West ashram-monastery on a hill that overlooked Dodger Stadium, the graffitied barrios below in Highland Park, and on the horizon the skyscrapered silhouette of downtown Los Angeles. This was a modern yoga-meditation retreat that blended “ancient” Eastern mysticism with a Western metropolis.

Paramahansa Yogananda (1893–1952), author of Autobiography of a Yogi, founder of Self-Realization Fellowship and the Monastic Order on the hill in which I was cloistered, was heavily influenced by Hindu-Bengali godmen Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836–1886), Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), and the Ramakrisha’s devotees.

Below is my review and excerpts of a book that is critical of a smoking, cussing godman in Ramakrishna Revisited: A New Biography.

Ramakrishna Revisited: A New Biography
by Narasingha P. Sil
University Press of America. 1998. Hardcover

In Ramakrishna Revisited: A New Biography critical scholar, Narasingha P. Sil argues that most biographies of Ramakrishna are lopsided idealizations, even distortions, of the actual character and actions of the revered saint. Using primary Bengali sources, and himself a Bengali, Sil analyzes and pathologizes the intimate details of Ramakrishna’s speeches, actions, and relations with family and disciples.

Sil’s, Ramakrishna Revisited is not an adoring disciple’s recollection of a guru-godman, but is a critical psychological analysis of the complex man. The buck-toothed Parmahamsa is often portrayed as vulgar, profane, and psycho-sexually creepy.

Here are excerpts from Ramakrishna Revisited:

Ramakrishna’s reputation as a delirious child of Kali the Divine Mother not only endeared this mad mystic of Dakshineshwar to many of his near contemporaries but even [to] modern scholars of the Western world and [to] millions of Indians who respectfully regard him as God–bhagavan. p2

“The lesson of Ramakrishna is that man must approach the divine without guile–openly, in wonder, with the simple faith of a child…and finally…that God is like a child who needs to be amused ‘in superfluous sport and aimless dalliance’”. p4

He [Ramakrishna] enjoyed smoking tobacco (hookah) and above all, the company of young men. p7

Charles White has warned against apologetic writings “available in the occult market” in respect to Indian saints, living or dead….This work [Ramakrishna Revisited] seeks to respond to White’s suggestions for an understanding of saints “in language other than that of the adoring devotee or the hostile skeptic”. p10

“Ejaculation is extremely harmful for ascetics…[and therefore] it is not good even to look at a woman…[as] there will be ejaculation in dream, if not in the waking state” Ramakrishna said, as recorded in the diary of Mahendranath Gupta or “M”, disciple and author of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. [1, 2] p70

Hindus generally believe that “a man who possesses a store of good semen becomes a super-man”. p71 [See my post Preserving Sex Fluids for Yogic Transformation & Immortality]

[The paramahamsa] told his devotees: “The moment I utter the word ‘cunt’ I behold the cosmic vagina, which is Ma Brahmamayi, and I sink into it.” p73

Narendra [Swami Vivekananda] was under intense mental strain, highly vulnerable and suggestible when he met the paramahamsa at the young age of twenty-one and Ramakrishna, the “mighty mentor”, stepped into the void of his would be disciple’s life rendered chaotic after his father’s death.” p91 [See my post Swami Vivekananda: Master Marketer of Yoga]

[Ramakrishna] confessed: “I used to say ‘Ma, I shall take [myself] seriously only when the zemindars of this country appreciate me.” In an incisive study of gurus from all cultures, Anthony Storr reports that “some historians have proposed that all messianic characters have secret doubts about their missions, and that is why they strive to gain disciples.” p153

[Ramakrishna] exclaimed on one occasion: “Mere knowledge of Advaita! Hyak thoo–I spit on it.” He also spat on the floor denouncing rationality. “A mere scholar without discrimination and renunciation has his attention fixed on woman and gold.” Even bhakti or devotion is not efficacious if it is “tinged with knowledge”. p163

When a visitor named Shyam Basu asked Ramakrishna: “How can you say that sin is punishable when you say that He is doing everything?”. The later was cheesed off and quipped: “What calculating cunning [sonar bener buddhi]! You asshole [Ore podo], just eat the mango. What will you gain by counting the trees, branches, and leaves in the grove?” p163

When the inquirer insisted on direct evidence for instruction before accepting it, Ramakrishna exploded: “I don’t know! I can’t cure my own disease and you want to know what happens after death! You talk like a nitwit. Try to find ways of putting faith in God. You’re born as a human only to learn devotion”. Indeed, any kind of reasoning made the Master very uneasy and upset. p163

Ramakrishna preached: Too much knowledge is called ajnana, ignorance. To know only one thing is jnana, knowledge–that is, God alone is real and exists in all beings. To converse with Him is vijnana. To love Him in different ways after realizing Him is vijnana. p164

Our East-West idols and myths are fascinating, even captivating. We thirst for and seek after heros, heroines, gods, godmen and godwomen. Some Westerners may abandon traditional temples and flee to exotic, mystic East-West hybrid shrines. There is poetry and beauty in human folklore and mythology: whether of gods, men, cultures, or societies. But intellectual freedom is realizing that ignorance is not bliss, that wishful-thinking does not make reality, and that truth is stranger and more wonderful than fiction.

Read my review of Ramakrishna Revisited on Amazon.


1 Total surrender to guru or gods is encouraged for devotees of the bhakti (devotional) tradition of yoga. Intellectual development or reasoning is de-emphasized and often belittled.

2 Srisriramakrsnakathamrta, IV, 89 (GR, p. 414), Diary of March 23, 1884.

The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?

the buddha pillCan practice of contemplative techniques bring lasting personal change? If so, are changes always for the better?

Two Oxford psychologists, Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm, examine the empirical evidence and tease out facts from fictions about meditation.

In The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? Farias and Wikholm examine 40 years of clinical studies about the effects of Transcendental Meditation, popularized by Beatles Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and investigate the astonishing claims made by mindfulness meditation advocates.

Meditation practice appears to have physiological benefits. Yet, “a crucial problem”, grapples Farias, “is how to pinpoint the active ingredient of mindfulness that helps with depression.” (p 111)

The authors also did their own empirical studies using inmates of U.K. prisons: stress-testing the effects of yoga meditation on murderers, rapists, and thugs.

Examining 40 years of research on effects of meditation, the authors concluded:

  1. Scientific evidence for lasting change from meditation practice is weak.
  2. Only modest changes for practitioners of meditation. Yet many who use or teach meditation techniques make astonishing claims about their powers.
  3. Meditation gives rise to different mental states, but there is nothing physiologically extraordinary going on.
  4. Studies are poorly conducted: have small sample sizes, lack proper control groups, and full of problematic biases. They explain why in detail.
  5. There is a dark side to meditation–psychosis, breakdowns, and violent behaviors–that seldom is spoken of by meditation advocates and practitioners.

Farias and Wikholm are sympathetic to meditation. Though the empirical evidence revealed that meditation is not a cure-all and is not a magic pill, while some practitioners experience nothing and others have adverse side-effects.

“I haven’t stopped believing in meditation’s ability to fuel change, but I am concerned that the science of meditation is promoting a skewed view: meditation wasn’t developed so we could lead less stressful lives or improve our wellbeing. It’s primary purpose was much more radical–to rupture your idea of who you are; to shake to the core your sense of self so that you realize there is ‘nothing there’.” (p 152)

The chapter The Dark Side of Meditation gives many examples of Buddhist violence and how a Buddha or bodhisattva may justify killing. Farias recounts how during his visit to an Indian yoga guru’s ashram, he was confronted by machine gun-carrying guards and was walled-in by pro-death penalty posters. “What if Hitler had meditated?” they ask: speculating what if the Fuhrer would have meditated and experienced lasting physiological change, conquered the world by compassion and peace instead of killing and violence.

“One of the crucial teachings of Buddhism is that of emptiness: the self is ultimately unreal, so the bodhisattva who kills with full knowledge of the emptiness of the self, kills no one; both the self of the killer and the self of the the killed are nothing more than an illusion (p 166).

“The most recent evidence, which analyzes dozens of studies conducted over more than forty years, suggests that if you are generally anxious or emotionally unstable, TM (Transcendental Meditation) will help you to a moderate extent, and will be more effective than simple relaxation. If you have have high blood pressure, the American Heart Association recommends TM (while mindfulness is not recommended), although physical exercise, such as swimming or running, would be better.” (p 14)

A ground-breaking book, The Buddha Pill, promotes critical thinking about meditation in an easy to follow and yoga-friendly tone. Farias and Wikholm guide the reader to question and think critically about the astonishing claims of meditation advocates.

Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion

Life After Death_coverAfterlife notions are mirrors of our cultural and social needs

Our notions of heaven and the afterlife reflect what is valued in our Western culture–today it’s eternal youth, reunion with loved ones, and spiritual prowess.

In an epic 866 page book, Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion, religion scholar Alan F. Segal thoroughly examines the development of afterlife beliefs in Western culture.

For 4,000 to 5,000 years, society’s afterlife beliefs have endlessly morphed and twisted to fit mortal desires and social needs.

Romping through ancient civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Canaan, Iran, Greece and Christianity, Segal unveils the spell-binding metamorphosis of Western notions of life after death. The fore-bearers of contemporary afterlife beliefs included Rabbinic Jews, the Book of Daniel, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the New Testament Gospels, and Church Fathers such as Augustine and Aquinas, the Qur’an, Shi’a mystics, Zoroastrians, fundamentalists, and end-times Apocalypticists.

Our journey through the catacombs of afterlife beliefs is broadly summarized in these excerpts from Segal’s Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion.

Egypt: From mummies arise eternal stars

The identity of the person was symbolized in the very image of the person, represented sometimes by the corpse itself, first perfected into an artful representation by mummification, then transformed into an eternal star to enjoy the breeze on a day of leisure in a perfected Nile valley. p 700

Mesopotamia: Only Utnapishtim survives death

In Mesopotamia the afterlife was less optimistic; it was a poor consolation compared to the Egyptian notion of immortality of the gods…We never become immortal. Everyone must die. The fate of the dead is hardly pleasant in this culture, condemned to shadowy existence in the underworld. Gilgamesh tried for immortality but lost it. Utnapishtim, the only mortal who had escaped death, explains that no one else will ever be given this divine reward. p 700

First Temple Israelite and Canaanite Religions

Israelite notions of the afterlife emphasize the same truth as the Mesopotamian and Canaanite ones: Like us, animals have earthly life, we have life and, if we act properly, we will gain wisdom; but only God has immortality. p 701

To summarize, so far: The person dies. No one escapes death. Only God or gods have immortality in Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and First Israelite/Canaanite cultures from 3500 to 500 BC.

Enter the Second Temple period circa 500 BC.

What’s new in Afterlife version 2.0? The Persians, Greeks, and Jews developed philosophies about conquering death and immortality of the soul. Though Christians wanted nothing to do with immortality of the soul: it was bodily resurrection, especially of Jesus, that set Christianity apart from the pagan religions.

Second Temple Judaism

By the time the Persians and the Greeks made contact with Jewish culture, both had developed significant myths that spoke of conquering death…Zoroastrianism was virtually the national religion of the elite Persian rulers and left us clear evidence of bodily resurrection and a beatific afterlife. These surely stimulated and encouraged similar notions in Jewish life, though we lack proof of how the transfer took place. p 701

Greeks: Immortality is for heros

The early Greeks could envision a hero’s choice of fame over immortality, the very choice which Odysseus makes at the beginning of the Odyssey; they could envision a ritual process of immortalization in the Eleusinian Mysteries, perhaps aided by drug-induced experience, make this mystery religion into a weekend “rave”. Or they could believe the proofs of the immortality of the soul offered by Plato’s Socrates.

All these [Greek] notions were adopted into Israelite culture, after being retailored for adoption into a monotheistic scheme. The most long-lasting Greek contribution to Jewish culture was from the aristocratic, Platonist intellectual elite of Greek society that said that the soul was immortal. In return for a life of moderation and intellectual development, the soul went upward to receive its astral rewards. p 702

Christianity: Wanted nothing to do with soul

Apostolic Christianity at first wanted nothing to do with immortality of the soul… Christianity’s beginnings were in the apocalyptic groups that believed in resurrection of the [physical] body [after death]. p 705

What demonstrated that Jesus’ death was uniquely meaningful for human history was not the fact that he survived death but that he was physically resurrected…p 706

The Synthesis of Immortality of the Soul with the Resurrection of the Body

As Christianity moved slowly around the Roman Empire and slowly up the social ladder, it met a much more formidable form of the argument against the uniqueness of Jesus’ post-mortem existence: the immortality of the soul…The soul was immortal by nature in Platonic thought, not needing the redemptive sacrifice of Christ…The doctrine of the immortal soul was eventually adopted because it allowed Christianity to talk about an interim time when the good could be rewarded and the evil punished without waiting for the delayed, end-of-time [apocalypse]. p 707

Standing Back to Look for Patterns

With such an enormous time span to look at, some interesting reassurances emerge. First, the basic questions of life four or five thousand years ago are still the questions of today but our answers are far more comforting to us: We see a refreshing trend to include more and more people within the rewards of the afterlife. p 709

…Afterlife notions are mirrors of our cultural and social needs, available to development and manipulation, and that they tend to mirror our social wants. p 710

The first victim is the reassuring notion that the afterlife is part of unchanging, revealed truth…The notion of heaven and the afterlife always reflects what is most valuable to the culture. p 710

Humans have been traveling to heaven to see what was there before heaven was a place where the beatified and sanctified dead went. But that is no guarantee that they are true. p 711


Afterlife beliefs reflect the cultural and social needs of the time: ever-changing reflections of our immortal aspirations.

In 866 majestic pages, Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in the Religions of the West, reads like a smart novel and examines 5,000 years of development of afterlife notions in Western culture.

Understanding how life after death beliefs evolved doesn’t take away from the poetry. Like beauty and love, says Segal, notions of life after death are no less important because they are unverifiable.

For more from Life After Death; see my post Religiously Interpreted States of Consciousness