Eight Limbs of Yoga (Patanjali)

The Eight Limbs of Yoga is widely known and used in various ways and by diverse schools, some traditional and some even anti-traditional or anti-spiritual. The eight precepts consisting of abstentions, observances and yoga practice are concerned with the practices and requirements for any person that aspires to the yoga of knowledge. The Eight Limbs of Yoga forms a small portion of the whole body of works that make up the Yoga Sutras. It is frequently made subject to erroneous interpretations and is used in ways that dilute and denature the intended meaning and use. We will therefore provide here a non-sectarian commentary based on the ancient texts and doctrine, without any ‘social’ or humanist distortions.

Vishvavajra or double vajra yoga powerThe yoga of Patanjali, based on the Shankhya cosmology, is by now the central hub of our methodology, a hub capable of analogous transposition with the true spiritual centre of the world even at a time when humanity is losing touch with the very essence to which it owes its existence. The Yoga Sutras attributed to Patanjali express a timeless wisdom. Patanjali is a family name and does not indicate an individual author. The science of yoga already existed for thousands of years before the Patanjali school wrote down the Aphorisms. At that time, thought to be around two thousand years ago, our world was passing through considerable changes. According to tradition, humanity then entered the final phase of the Kali Yuga or Age of Darkness. There was a pressing need to write down knowledge that was once passed on orally to preserve it for posterity. As in the present times we now reach the end of the final phase of Kali Yuga, the Great Work of initiation and spiritual realisation requires a restoration of the traditional means of knowledge so that the seeds of the entire Manvantara or Cosmic Cycle can be carried through to the next and initiation, for those souls that still carry the possibility latent within them, is still possible.

This article is from our book Thunder Perfect Gnosis.

Eight Limbs of Yoga

The yamas, though they are called ‘abstentions’, are practices in effect and when properly understood they are simply an expression of the truth of any individual being. The niyamas, called ‘observances’, are similarly what is ‘seen’, as an outward attitude to the beginner, while knowledge of these reveals them as the simplest, most natural state of the being.

1. Yamas: harmlessness; truthfulness; non-stealing; continence; non-covetousness
2. Niyamas: cleanliness; contentment; fiery aspiration; self-study; self-surrender (to the path, which is God)
3. Asana (seated posture)
4. Pranayama (control of breath)
5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses)
6. Dharana (concentration, fixation)
7. Dhyana (true meditation with sustained concentration)
8. Samadhi (union with God—the goal, which is yoga)

The first two yamas and niyamas are commonly referred to, even by so-called experts, as moral requirements, and sometimes even as social ethics. However, although that is certainly how they appear to the uninitiated, they are really nothing of the kind. These are practical requirements so that the goal of yoga is achievable and as such they have no relation with society or any morality; all morality is arbitrary by definition. The timeless wisdom does not change with the expedient requirements of any social order.

The ancient commentaries of sages on the Yoga Sutras are emphatic that ‘harmlessness’ is not to be interpreted as Jainists and others do. Jainists must walk very carefully lest they step on an ant and if they find a flea in their bed they might have to move to another bed. The sages insist that one must not harbour thoughts that involve harm to another being. Obviously that also includes deeds but extreme interpretations are heterodox and do not accord with the primordial and universal tradition.

Truthfulness can be taken as far as the level of understanding goes. With greater knowledge, greater exactitude is required. One must not speak falsehood merely because it will please someone.

Non-stealing includes not stealing the thoughts or words of other persons, and this is subtler than it appears because there can be thoughts of a ‘collectivity’, such as popular opinion, what one might read in a newspaper or some form of social media—if one would read such things, which would then contradict ‘truthfulness’. Stealing also includes thoughts of envy, resentment of others. One should not claim gifts or favours from others and even when they are freely offered one should not always accept something; for example if it is given by a person with an unclean or evil mind.

Continence is sometimes construed as sexual abstinence, which is sufficient for many persons. A more complete understanding involves the conservation of all energy for the Great Work. This includes speech, such as idle chatter, and thought.

Non-covetousness is self-explanatory once it is realised what misery and suffering is caused by attachment to objects of desire. To desire or yearn for objects that belong to someone else is also a subtle form of stealing.

Of the niyamas, cleanliness includes purity of mind, so that all thoughts that are harmful to the path are eliminated. Most especially, even if evil thoughts enter the mind, they must not be retained so they become afflictions.

Contentment is acceptance of the path, and the level of attainment. From discontentment is bred the untruth of imagining that one is much further along than one really is. That is an impediment to yoga. With contentment comes tranquility, which is necessary if the yoga practice is to advance beyond the veriest beginning.

The fiery aspiration brings forth virya, a special kind of faith, strength and endurance that is built up through continuance of right practice. Nothing can be achieved without fiery aspiration.

Self-study means constant vigilance and discrimination—which is an exact science. It also means developing a reflective attitude of mind. It must not be construed ‘psychologically’, which involves development of a mentality that is totally anti-yogic as it encourages tamas and tends towards the asuras or demonic nature.

Self-surrender to God (and so the path itself) cannot be done without faith (saradha) and as a consequence the virya that comes about through the practice of yoga and discrimination. The profane or uninitiated person does not comprehend this at all and imagines it to be a sort of passivity that he can only see as ‘negative’. Self-negation on the other hand does not require mortification, as that is in fact only an inverse form of conceit or flattery. The self, through the senses and mental impressions, is a superimposition upon the Real or True Self. Any sacrifice is only what appears from the point of view of ignorance. From the point of view of the Self, freedom is gained from the misery and suffering of countless afflictions.

The last six limbs of yoga are the practice itself, commencing with seated asana or posture, which does not involve, as some like to think, difficult or even impossible or unnatural contortions of the body.

Likewise with control of the breath, which when properly understood is the direction of prana or subtle vitality.

The withdrawal of the senses here refers to the physical senses of hearing, feeling, seeing, tasting and smelling, for at the beginning it is valid to concentrate the mind on the subtle (tattva) elements. When seated for meditation one closes the eyes so the sight is transferred within.

Concentration means to hold one object in the mind and no other. When this is sustained, then dhyana or true meditation is possible, and knowledge can be gained of any object.

Samadhi or union with God, sometimes called ‘transcendence’, is the goal of yoga. The word ‘yoga’ is inclusive of both the means and the goal.


Notes

This article, Eight Limbs of Yoga, is from our book Thunder Perfect Gnosis.

© Oliver St. John 2023

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Prophecy of Hermes

Our focus here is on four chapters of the Perfect Sermon, XXIII to XXVI, sometimes called the Prophecy of Hermes (mid 2nd century). The Prophecy of Hermes discourse takes the form of a dialogue between the Master Trismegistus and Asclepius, his disciple.

Prophecy of Hermes: Thoth or TahutiThe Prophecy of Hermes was written down at a critical turning point in history. It was the cusp or event horizon of the precessional Age of Pisces, just as we are now on the cusp of the precessional Age of Aquarius. While the popular cult of Isis still survived and proliferated far beyond the boundaries of Egypt, it would be but a short time before the Egyptian language was completely forgotten.

When the Prophecy of Hermes was written there was still what Hermes-Thoth refers to as a ‘pure philosophy’ based on Gnosis or direct revelation and an emergent impure or pseudo philosophy, based on ordinary reason. Before long, the rational or profane philosophy would become the only acceptable ‘truth’ for most persons.

The Prophecy of Hermes begins with chapter XXII. Thrice Greatest (Trismegistus) has expounded to his disciple Asclepius on all matters concerning the immortal nature, and of those that will perceive it, and of those who cannot. The dialogue continues in XXIII on the nature of the images of Gods that man fashions in his own likeness.

Prophecy of Hermes: XXIII

The knowledge of the immortal nature is conveyed only to a few. These are chosen through the devotion of their heart.

1. Tris. Still, of the rest, the vicious folk, we ought to say no word, for fear that our sacred sermon should be spoiled by even thinking of them. Our sermon treats of the relationship and intercourse of men and Gods. Learn then, Asclepius, of wherein is the true power and strength of man.

As the Most High God created the Gods in Heaven, so man is the maker of the gods who, in the temples, allow all to approach, and who not only have light of blessing poured on them, but who also send forth their light on all; thus the devotee does not only go forward towards the Gods but also confirms the Gods on earth.

Are you surprised, o Asclepius? I see that you—even you!—do not believe.

2. Asc. I am amazed, Thrice Greatest; but willingly I give assent to all your words. A man is very blessed that has attained to such great felicity.

Tris. This is rightly so—for such deserves our wonder, in that he is the greatest of them all!

As for the race of the Gods in Heaven, it is clear from the commingling of them all that it has been made pregnant from the fairest part of nature. The only signs by which they are discerned are, as it were, from their source, before all else.

3. On the other hand, the species of the gods that humankind constructs is fashioned out of that most ancient and divine nature, and also from out of that nature in men. That is to say, it is fashioned out of the stuff of which they have been made and are configured, not only in their minds but also in each of their members and in their whole body.

It is thus that humankind, in imaging Divinity, stays mindful of the nature and the source of its own self.

Furthermore, in the same way that our Lord did make the Gods immortal, that they might be in his likeness, then so has mankind produced its own gods according to the likeness of the look of its own self.

 XXIV

1. Asc. Surely you do not mean their statues, O Master?

Tris. I mean their statues, o Asclepius. Can you not see how much you—even you!—doubt my word? Statues ensouled with sense and filled with spirit! These work mighty and strange results. Statues that foresee what is to come, and perchance can prophecy. They will foretell things by dreams and in many other ways. There are statues that take the strength away from men, or that may cure their sorrow, if they should deserve it.

Do you not know then, Asclepius, that Egypt is the image of the Heaven? Or that which is even truer, the transference or descent of all that are in governance or exercise in Heaven? And yet more truly still it must be said:

This land of ours is the Shrine of all the World.

2. It is proper that the wise should give utmost care in considering and understanding all that I have said concerning these matters. As for you, Asclepius, it is not right that you should be ignorant of the same.

The time will come when it will seem as if Egypt served the Divinity with single-minded devotion and care for nothing—for all her holy cult will fall to nothingness and be in vain.

That Divinity is now about to depart speedily from Earth and return to Heaven, and Egypt shall be left alone. The Earth, which was once the seat of devoted and honourable cults shall be widowed, bereft—no longer knowing the presence of the Gods.

And barbarians shall fill this region and this land. Not only shall there be the neglect of the pious cults but—and what is still more painful—by profane laws, penalties shall be decreed against such devoted practices and worship of the Gods. These will even be totally prohibited.

3. This most holy land, the seat of our shrines and temples, shall then be choked with tombs and corpses.

O Egypt, Egypt! Only tales will remain of your cults, and these will be as unbelievable to your own sons as for the rest of humankind. Words alone will be left carved on your stones, to recount your beautiful deeds.

And Egypt will be made the home of those who are alien to her.

Yes! The Godly Company shall climb back to Heaven, and their forsaken worshippers will all die out. And Egypt, bereft of God and man, shall be abandoned.

4. And now I speak to you, O River, holiest Stream! I tell you what will be. Your banks will overflow with bloody torrents. Not only shall your sacred streams be stained with blood but also they shall all flow over with the same.

The cult of the dead shall far exceed the cult of the living. The surviving remnant shall be Egyptians in their appearance but in their deeds they shall be as the profane.

XXV

1. Why do you weep, Asclepius? There is more than this, by far more wretched. Egypt herself shall be impelled and stained with even greater evil.

For she, the Holy Land, once deservedly the most beloved of the Gods by reason of her untiring service to the Gods on Earth, she the sole abode of holiness and teacher of wisdom upon the earth, shall be the type of all that is most barbarous. And then, out of our loathing for mankind, the world will seem no more deserving of our wonder and our praise.

This entire good thing, of which none fairer was ever seen, nor is there anything, nor will there ever be, will be in peril.

2. And that will prove a burden unto men. On account of this they will despise and cease to love this Cosmos as a whole. They will cease to love the eternal work of the Divine; the glorious and entire creation, comprised of manifold variety of forms; the steadfast deliverer of the Divine Will. They will cease to love the multitudinous whole reflecting changeless unity in its variety of forms, that should be reverenced, praised and loved—by them at least that have the eyes to see. For Darkness will be set before the Light, and Death will be thought preferable to Life. They will not even raise their eyes to Heaven. And then they will think that the holy, wise and strong are mad. They will think that fools and profane are wise sages. The unruly mob will be held as strong, and ignorance will prevail over all.

3. Of the soul, and all concerning her, whereby she presumes that either she has been born deathless or that she will attain to deathlessness, as according to all that I have said to you:

All this will be considered not only a matter of jest and mockery, but even as vanity.

Believe me, if you will, that the penalty of death shall even be decreed to him who shall devote himself to the Pure Knowledge.

New legislation will be enforced, a novel law; nothing that is sacred, nothing holy, nothing that is worthy of the Heaven, or Gods in Heaven, shall ever be heard, or even believed in the mind.

4. The sorrowful departure of the Gods from humankind takes place. Only noxious spirits remain, who mingled with humanity will lay their hands on them, and drive the wretched folk to every reckless evil—to wars, and robberies, deceits, and all those things that are opposed to the soul’s very nature.

Then the Earth shall no longer hold together. The sea shall no longer be sailed upon. The Heaven shall not continue with the courses of the stars, nor the star-courses in Heaven.

The voice of every God shall cease in the Great Silence that no one can break. The fruits of Earth shall rot. Earth shall no longer bring forth. The air itself shall faint away in despair of that sad listlessness.

XXVI

1. This, when it comes, shall be the world’s old age and impiety, denoting irregularity and irrationality in all things.

Asclepius, when these things all come to pass, then our Lord [supreme principle], maker of the First God, to thwart the criminals, and to cancel the error of the corruption of all things, to restore all things so as to be in accordance with Divine Will, shall put an end to the evil. It will be washed away with water-flood, or burnt away with fire or forcibly expelled with war and famine. God will restore the Cosmos to its ancient form, so that the world shall once again be loved and worshipped. And once again, ceaseless praises and hymns of blessing will be sent forth.

2. In this rebirth of Cosmos is the renewal of all good things, and the holiest return of Nature’s self, by means of divine ordinance—of Nature, which was without beginning, and which is without an end. For the Divine Will has no beginning; it is ever the same and as it is, without end.

This then, is the Divine Will, and the whole world her Image.


Notes on Prophecy of Hermes

© Oliver St. John 2021, revised 2023 for the Second Edition.
This article includes a commentary in the book, Nu Hermetica—Initiation and Metaphysical Reality.

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