Yoga and Gnosis

The succeeding lines of Yoga Sutras (namely, all remaining lines of the section) are dedicated to cognition. So I shall lay down a few considerations to make the reader mentally prepared.
Most of Western people erroneously take yoga as a system of physical exercises. A kind of gymnastics. However, hatha-yoga is just a small element of this multifacetous tradition. Physical practices definitely played an important – yet auxiliary – role. They trained the body to keep it healthy and live long; the body that was used as a key to one’s inner world. But authentic yoga practice implies inner transformation that was based on merger with one’s genuine, innermost essence – svarupa – by means of taking under control factors that were separating one from it. This basic nature of yoga is emphasized in the etymology of the word yuj that denotes both “joining together” (samadhi) and “taking control of” (samyama) – see here for details.
The concept that a man is actually estranged from oneself may at first sight appear to be spacy, yet when learning more about modern neurophysiology findings we shall see this to be a healthy judgement. For instance, they have proved that human brain takes decision several minutes before one has consciously made it. And this refers to some simple issues … We spend years in the agony of “choosing”, but deep inside the decision has been made long time ago…
But what comes as the primary tool of yoga? The one uniting a man with their essence? The answer that was available yet in the earliest Upanishads was further continuously supported in Yoga Sutras and in later Medieval treatises. It is JNANA. The knowledge. Taken in a much broader sense than merely applicative cognition of the outer world that a man of today knows.
The ancient practitioners’ strong views of cognitive aspect can be seen from the line of Yoga Bija, a treatise dated back to the Middle Ages:
Ajñānād eva saṃsāro jñānād eva vimucyate।…॥(20)
Ignorance (avidia) is the reason of samsara; due to knowledge liberation is attained.
But it was yet fifteen hundred years before it that the fundamental text of Hindu intellectual practices – Nyaya Sutra – was attributing to knowledge the function of liberation.
Duḥkha-janma-pravṛtti-doṣa-mithyājñānānām-uttarottarāpāye tad anantar āpāyād apavargaḥ॥ (1.1.2)
By annihilation in the reverse order of suffering, birth, activity, faults and misapprehension, after immediate elimination of the latter (element) (there comes) liberation.
That is, according to Nyaya the ultimate element before liberation, and respectively the root of obstacle on the way to it, is misapprehension, the false knowledge. That is eliminated by the true one.
This idea has been symbolically represented in Hindu art in the famous image of Shiva Nataraja. The midget under Shiva’s feet personifies avidia – the ignorance.

Although Bhagavad Gita is taken as a purely Kshatriya work focused on zealous activity, it is full of praisings to jnana:
śreyāndravyamayādyajñājjñānayajñaḥ parantapa ।
sarvaṃ karmākhilaṃ pārtha jñāne parisamāpyate ॥ 4-33॥
Oh Parantapa (chastiser of the enemy), the sacrifice performed in knowledge is better than the mere sacrifice of material possessions. After all, O son of Pṛthā, all sacrifices of work culminate in transcendental knowledge.
Another quotation:
api cedasi pāpebhyaḥ sarvebhyaḥ pāpakṛttamaḥ ।
sarvaṃ jñānaplavenaiva vṛjinaṃ santariṣyasi ॥ 4-36॥
Even if you are considered to be the most sinful of all sinners, when you are situated in the boat of transcendental knowledge you will be able to cross over the ocean of miseries.
And another quotation, one of my favorites, that refers to the subject “karma burns down in the flame of awareness”:
yathaidhāṃsi samiddho’gnirbhasmasātkurute’rjuna ।
jñānāgniḥ sarvakarmāṇi bhasmasātkurute tathā ॥ 4-37॥
As a blazing fire turns firewood to ashes, O Arjuna, so does the fire of knowledge burn to ashes all reactions to material activities.
The logic of the last phrase is clear from the perspective of the theory representing karma as an aggregate of sanskaras (i.e. dynamic and emotional stereotypes). One’s following them (thus initiating new karma) or not depends upon whether one distinguishes them as sanskaras or not. This is what mindfulness (apramada that verbatim means non-intoxication) actually is. Thus once again coming down to comprehending one’s innermost nature that differs from any sanskaras.
The knowledge of sanskaras corresponds to the specific skill of considering real-life situations from meta-context. That is, in multidimensional model of description that in its framework synthesizes apparent opposites. And respectively eases emotional attachment of one’s position. Here we shall again turn to Bhagavad Gita and one of my favorite lines:
jñānavijñānatṛptātmā kūṭastho vijitendriyaḥ ।
yukta ityucyate yogī samaloṣṭāśmakāñcanaḥ ॥ 6-8॥
He who is satisfied by knowledge and recognition, who stands at the top having overcome feelings, a yogi who sees a lump of clay, stone and gold as the same is called concentrated (yukta).
The term kutastha – the one who stays at the top – is a perfect metaphor for the state of viewing the situation from meta-context.
Today we also say “see things from above” meaning not physical yet intellectual top.
On the other hand, yoga refers to knowledge as something of relative character (see here) that admits evolvement and even demands it. In Bhagavad Gita they declare that
śreyo hi jñānamabhyāsājjñānāddhyānaṃ viśiṣyate ।
dhyānātkarmaphalatyāgastyāgācchāntiranantaram ॥ 12-12॥
Knowledge is better than exercises, while cognition is better than knowledge. From cognition [there comes] detachment from the fruits of one’s activity. This detachment is followed by the peace of mind.
Abhyasa is the exercise from the point of yoga. But knowledge appears to be better than it. (This might come as a shock for hatha-yoga apologists of today). And the best of it is dhyana, that is, the process of cognition. In fact, this is natural for a person of sound mind. Knowledge is not the ultimate state yet something extending as a result of cognitive activity that comes as the basic point of life and evolvement. He who simply possesses knowledge, for instance, due to good education, but has not started creating and generating new knowledge cannot be considered a perfect yogi. But this also means casting off old knowledge.
Though today Hindu tradition is viewed as purely canonic, it implies critical attitude to the tradition proper. In this respect there comes another quotation from Bhagavad Gita:
yāvānartha udapāne sarvataḥ samplutodake ।
tāvānsarveṣu vedeṣu brāhmaṇasya vijānataḥ ॥ 2-46॥
All purposes served by a small well can at once be served by a great reservoir of water. Similarly, all the purposes of the Vedas can be served to the apprehending Brahman.
At those times knowledge and tradition were taken merely as an instrument. And this is brilliant. Because even now we can hear from people who call themselves yogis: “But this is canonic, how can we reject it?” Yes, this is canon; we can subject it to creative reconsideration, churn it with the node of knowledge, get the best of it and easily throw the rest away or leave it to others. This is the anti-traditionalism view that has been laid down in the most “traditional” texts. For those who are at this point not satisfied with Gita I shall cite Brahma Bindu Upanishad (aka Amrita Bindu Upanishad):
18. After studying the Vedas the intelligent one who is solely intent on acquiring knowledge and realization, should discard the Vedas altogether, as the man who seeks to obtain rice discards the husk.
The original reads as grantha jnatva – having learned all books. When you have studied all books you no longer need them. You become the source of your own knowledge instead of reciting somebody else’s. We use books to come to know, but this is only an intermediate stage on the way to independent search for knowledge.
It is notable that both in Gnosticism as well as classical Yoga the source of this knowledge was seen to be inside the one:
na hi jñānena sadṛśaṃ pavitramiha vidyate ।
tatsvayaṃ yogasaṃsiddhaḥ kālenātmani vindati ॥ 4-38॥
In this world, there is nothing so sublime and pure as transcendental knowledge. And one who has become accomplished in the practice yoga enjoys this knowledge within himself in due course of time.
An essential cue for understanding the category of jnana that is also described in Bhagavad Gita and often cited in other texts is the irreversibility of cognition. Gnosis, jnana is not the knowledge one can learn and then forget. Gnosis is the knowledge of transforming nature since it makes one discover one’s authentic self. If you have comprehended something you can’t take it out of your head. I shall draw a metaphor from Shankaracharya’s Aparoksha Anubhuti. This is a very popular metaphor in Hindu tradition that tells about maya – the illusion – of wrong perception: a rope that resembles a snake. In Europe this can be hardly understood, we almost don’t have snakes. But when you walk around Varanasi at night and see something down that looks like a snake, this may scare you. And here comes the citation of Shankaracharya:
96. The real nature of the rope being known, the appearance of the snake no longer persists.
In the European culture some similar views and doctrines were represented in Gnosticism which root category was gnosis – the innermost privy knowledge that serves to overcome stagnant manifested world. We here recall the Hindu concept of maya – global illusion that a practicing yogi gets out from by means of cognizing. One can easily see jnana and gnosis to be cognates (that is, stemming from the same Indo-European root). Moreover, like some schools of Yoga, Gnostics had the idea of a man transforming through learning new and more profound aspects of reality. Cognition is transformation, and transformation is cognition. When you have understood, you mind has changed automatically. This idea has from early Gnosticism penetrated into numerous esoteric systems. For instance, in Judaism and Kabbalah there is a notion of “khokma” – the divine wisdom that penetrates into everything. And when you open in to yourself the inner transformation occurs. Christian esoteric systems contain the concept of “Sophia”, wisdom. The correlation between esoteric Buddhism and Gnosticism was laid down in works of Edward Conze who was referring gnosis to Prajnya of Buddhism. So that both Aya Sophia of Istabnbul and St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev are the temples dedicated to Prajnya. Because Sophia that has come to the Christianity from Gnosticism means the same as the Prajnya of Buddhism – the Universal Wisdom.