Thoughts on International Yoga Day

June 21, the summer solstice (in the Northern Hemisphere), was chosen to be this year’s International Yoga Day. In Sanskrit the word yoga literally means the “act of joining”, and since on that day the sun is at its most prominent position for the year, the summer solstice is a particularly appropriate choice of day for yoga, which aims to unite the individual self with the Supreme Self (which the sun symbolizes).

Given the emphasis on physicality that pervades the modern yoga world, the day’s festivities are likely to focus on asana; and while I myself daily perform asanas, I feel it important to state clearly that yoga is not and cannot be limited to asana, any more than it can be limited to Patanjali, whose Yoga Sutras do no doubt offer a clear and credible path to that goal of union with the Ultimate.

Instead, I would like today to showcase a work that, though little known outside India, is one of the world’s finest treatises on yoga: the Bhavarthadipika, or (as it is almost universally known), the Jnaneshvari. The Jnaneshvari, which is the best known of the few works of Jnaneshvar Maharaj, and is widely acknowledged as the supreme literary achievement of the Marathi language, was completed in AD 1290, 725 years ago this year. I made its acquaintance through Dr. Vasant Lad in 1974, and visited Alandi, where Jnaneshvar Maharaj’s shrine is located, first sometime during that year; but it was Vimalananda who really introduced me to Jnaneshvar when I traveled with him to Alandi the following year, 40 years ago.

Though the Jnaneshvari is usually described as a tika or commentary on the seven hundred verses of the Bhagavadgita, it might be better to term it a dharmakirtana, a “sermon-song” whose roughly nine thousand verses in the beautiful ovi meter are still regularly sung throughout Maharashtra. The Gita itself is a treatise on yoga; in it Krsna provides Arjuna with several definitions of yoga, including my favorite, from Chapter Two: yogah karmasu kaushalam – “yoga is adeptness in action.” The Jnaneshvari adeptly translates Krsna’s words (from Sanskrit into Marathi), and unpacks their meanings so that even the most unlettered of listeners can understand the purport of the text.

Open the Jnaneshvari to any page and you will find priceless gems of wisdom; here is but one example, illustrating yet another of Krsna’s definitions of yoga, taken from Chapter Six of the Gita. Verse 23 says:

Let that be known by the name of yoga, this separation of union with pain. This yoga should be practiced with determination, with heart undismayed.

Verses 373 through 373 of a translation of the Jnaneshvari by V. G. Pradhan comment:

Because of the sweetness of this joy [of union with the Supreme Self], the mind which is held in the grip of worldly life gives up all desire. This beauty of yoga, this kingdom of contentment for which wisdom is essential, must be clearly seen by the mind through the practice of yoga, and seeing it the seer becomes transformed into it.

Whatever be your yoga practice, it is only yoga if it leads you toward contentment, in all life’s directions; as Vimalananda put it, “the purpose of yoga is to make every home a happy home.” May we all, on this International Day of Yoga, steadfastly commit to letting go of all desires that lead to pain, in ourselves and others, that we may gain the true benefit that yoga has to offer. Tathastu!