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  • Samādhi: The Numinous and Cessative in Indo-Tibetan Yoga
  • Andrew J. Nicholson
Samādhi: The Numinous and Cessative in Indo-Tibetan Yoga. By Stuart Ray Sarbacker. SUNY Series in Religious Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005. Pp. xi + 189.

Stuart Sarbacker's Samādhi: The Numinous and Cessative in Indo-Tibetan Yoga attempts to reframe current methods for the study of yoga and meditation in South Asian religious traditions. Sarbacker presents an analysis of yoga that comes out of the history-of-religions approach, both heavily indebted to Mircea Eliade's influential work on yoga and critical of some of Eliade's methodological and interpretive oversights. Perhaps most importantly, Sarbacker corrects the prevalent understanding of Patañjali's Yoga Sūtra as advocating a narrow path solely concerned with the cessation of all worldly activity, leading to an end goal of complete isolation (kaivalya) from the material world and from all other individual selves. In doing so, Sarbacker joins the increasingly prominent group of scholars (including Ian Whicher, Christopher Chapple, and David Gordon White) who argue that such an all-or-nothing approach to yogic engagement with the world ignores increasing textual and historical evidence suggesting a numinous, ecstatic dimension of yoga in the epic through tantric materials.

At the center of Sarbacker's book is a reexamination of the enstasis-ecstasis distinction posited by Eliade in his works on yoga and shamanism. For Eliade, the yogi and the shaman represent two poles of religious experience. The defining element of the shaman is ecstasis (literally "standing without"), the shaman's ability to abandon his gross body and embark upon journeys of the spirit. By contrast, the yogi concerns himself with enstasis ("standing within"), self-absorption or autonomy, culminating in aloneness (kaivalya), complete separation of self from world. Eliade's seminal book on yoga was first written over seventy years ago, but he still casts an enormous shadow over the field of yoga studies. Such is the influence of his interpretations that translators of the Yoga Sūtra still commonly translate samādhi as "enstasis." Sarbacker accepts the basic typology of enstasis-ecstasis offered by Eliade, and correlates each of these terms with the concepts of "cessative" and "numinous," respectively. But Sarbacker argues that there are numinous and cessative dimensions in both Hindu yoga and Buddhist meditation, and that Eliade's understanding of both as fundamentally enstatic is based on a one-sided reading of the two traditions. Instead, Sarbacker argues that the dimensions of the numinous and the cessative "are related dynamically, demonstrating the tension between cosmological-mythic considerations and soteriological and ethical concerns" (p. 59). Specifically, Sarbacker sees the nirodha-samāpatti distinction within yogic traditions and the vipaśyanāśamatha [End Page 157] distinction in Buddhist meditation as exemplifying this dynamic tension between the cessative and the numinous.

Adopting this new frame has a liberating effect on readings of Patañjali's Yoga Sūtra. For instance, the third section of the Yoga Sūtra, which contains lengthy explanations of the yogi's superhuman powers (vibhūtis), is perplexing under the Eliadean interpretation of yoga's essence, not to mention deeply embarrassing to modern yogis intent on giving Patañjali a rationalist or even a scientific gloss. Hence, most recent translators of Patañjali have emphasized that superhuman powers are a distraction to the yogi's ultimate goal, and that the yogi should just say no, for instance, to the acquisition of great strength by concentrating on an elephant (YS 3.25) or to the acquisition of the ability to fly by concentrating on a piece of cotton (YS 3.43). However, positing such practices as central instead of peripheral to the yogic path helps to emphasize the Yoga Sūtra's continuities with numinous aspects of yogic traditions that came before and after. For instance, James Fitzgerald's recent work has revealed the importance of lordly powers (aiśvaryas) in the Mokṣadharma Parvan of the Mahābhārata, where the acquisition and application of such powers is portrayed as the central difference between Yoga and Sāṃkhya. Fitzgerald translates the notorious passage at Mbh 12.289.3 as: "the consummate...


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