I received the following question: “I have read the sutras by Edwin Bryant and there is a concept that I don’t get. How can the individual soul, atman, be differentiated from another one, if the two beings were both illuminated? It seems to me that souls are distinguishable because of the imprints (karmasaya) they carry from life to life. Do the souls of jivanmukta “blend” together in some kind of cosmic Soul?”

While some of you may think that’s a problem that may not concern you unless you are well advanced on the path of yoga, the truth is unless you know where you are going you will end up somewhere else. After 40 years of yoga I wish I would have been very clear on these things right from the outset. I would have saved myself walking down a lot of dead-end streets.

Firstly, in the question above there is a trying to understand yogic philosophy against the backdrop of Buddhist/Vedantic terminology. The term Jivanmukta itself is usually associated with Vedanta whereas yoga uses more the term siddha. Also, in both Advaita/ Buddhism we have the idea that the atman/anatta merges into and dissolves in the Brahman/ nirvana like a drop that falls into the ocean and disappears into it. The very term nirvana means “extinguishing of the flame” or “entering nothingness”.

In his Brahma Sutra Commentary the great Advaitin Shankara expounds that the individual self (atman) is identical with the cosmic self (Brahman). The very term Advaita means “not two”, but one. The English name for Shankara’s school is Unqualified Monism. Monism because there is only One and unqualified because that One is without form and quality. Therefore whatever has merged with this One must be formless and cannot be distinguished from the rest.

In both systems, Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta, we would then see that what has merged with the Absolute (i.e. the soul of the fully liberated being) has disappeared or dissolved into it. Because this was the most vocal view held by Indian schools of thought modern Western yogis often identify if with the yogic view. However, there were many other ideas put forth in the history of Indic thought.

An important view we should investigate is the one held by Acharya Ramanuja, Shankara’s great adversary and founder of the Visishtadvaita Vedanta school (qualified monism). Ramanuja put forth the identity-in-difference doctrine (beda-abeda), which tells us that on one hand the individual self is identical with the cosmic self in that both are pure consciousness. On the other hand, however, they are different in that regard that the cosmic self is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent and the individual self isn’t. While this may sound abstract you can very easily ascertain it by the fact that when you identify in meditation with the consciousness within you you can experience yourself as infinite and eternal. When you get up, however, and walk away you notice that your body and mind are limited in scope and power. They are not infinite. Shankara’s Advaita solves this quandary by declaring the body and mind as unreal, as a mere mirage superimposed on the ocean of infinite consciousness. If that was the case then two liberated yogis would in fact not be distinguishable from each other. However, this view is not shared by the historical school of yoga.

Firstly let’s look at the fact that the school of Yoga is sometimes called “Sheshvara Samkhya”, meaning Samkhya with Ishvara. This refers to the fact that Patanjali, the compiler of the Yoga Sutra, took over the entire framework of the Samkhya system of philosophy and only added Ishvara, the Divine. If you look at how oddly Ishvara fits into the Samkhya we must say that Patanjali had serious reasons to do so. In sutra I.24 Patanjali defines the Divine as a “distinct purusha, un-assailed by afflictions and karma, whether it’s fruit or residue”. Firstly, it is very important that Patanjali almost always uses the term purusha (embodied consciousness) and hardly ever atman (pure consciousness). Atman is a term that is heavily used in Vedanta and one of its nuances is that consciousness here is untouched and pure, with an illusory world only superimposed on it. For this reason there can only be one atman, which we all share. In Yoga, however, there are many purushas. While we do share some essential similarities, your purusha (consciousness) is embodied in a different body and mind than mine and therefore expresses itself completely differently. In yoga we go as far as prescribing different sets of practices for people with different bodies and minds.

Let’s look now at the fact that Patanjali calls the Divine “purusha vishesha”, a distinct purusha. That means however high I may evolve through the practice of yoga, the Divine will always remain distinct from me. In this commentary to this sutra the ancient sage Vyasa says that as yogis we may become spiritually liberated and therefore in some way similar to the Divine. However, it will always remain clear that the Divine was eternally free whereas liberated yogis went through a course of bondage. This will leave a karmic residue behind, which is eternal. In yoga we see these residues as very important. For example Patanjali is thought to be an embodiment of the cosmic serpent Adishesha, meaning primordial residue. Adishesha is the combined residue of everything that was manifest and became un-manifest. This may become very clear in your life when an important person dies and their demise tears a hole into your life that will never be filled. Maybe you don’t want to fill it. Before my father died he said to me, “Keep me alive by remembering me”. Although my relationship with him was difficult at times, since that day I feel that he is always with me. That’s a case of residue. A living liberated person (jivamukti) will always carry a residue of who they were prior to liberation.

Let me make here a brief interjection addressed to those of you who may feel peeved because yoga does not let you become one with the Divine. Bhaktas (devotional yogis) do not aim to become one with the Divine but remain in an ecstatic swoon apart from it. The knowledge that permanent union may impede or end an ecstatic relationship, however, is not exclusive to Hindu mystics. In her book Mating in Captivity the psychologist Esther Perel says that too much intimacy may impede a successful relationship as “you cannot desire what you have become one with”.

Back to the sutras: Another important one to consider is III.32, “by samyama on the light in the head we get the view of the perfected ones (siddha darshanam)”. Here is a clear indication that a being that has attained a very high state of spiritual evolution does not just dissolve into some form of cosmic soup, ahem soul I mean. Patanjali actually suggests approaching them, the siddhas, for guidance. We must assume therefore that they remain distinguishable beings.

So who are those siddhas and how come that they haven’t merged with each other seeing that they are only pure consciousness? The answer simply is, “They are not!” Have a look at sutra IV.4. Here Patanjali says that a siddha can create minds from pure asmita (I-am-ness). Firstly this obviously means that a siddha does not just consist of pure consciousness but also of I-am-ness. This is one of the most subtle and important points of yoga that needs to be implored. Did you notice that this mysterious term asmita doubles up as a klesha (form of suffering) and a type of samadhi? How can that be?

Also, have a look at the sutras following IV.4. Patanjali says here that the mind(s) of the siddha are facilitated/empowered by the one pure mind (cosmic intelligence) (IV.5), what this intelligence brings forth is pure and without residue (IV.6), and if you follow it your doing will be karma-free, what the Daoists called wu-wei (IV.7).

While I don’t want to go into too much detail here there is what we could call, “The Way of the Siddha”. In the following passage I will describe how this process “feels” to me and the description may or may not stand up to scholarly word-mincing: By going through the eight limbs of yoga, culminating in the first four training samadhis you come eventually to what’s called asmita samadhi. In asmita samadhi you experience that a Cosmic Intelligence wants to express itself through you consciously. We did go through a 3 Billion + years of evolution of life but only unconsciously. Now for the first time there is a conscious co-creation with Cosmic Intelligence. Once you let this Cosmic Intelligence come through you life seems to become effortless and what seemed impossible before becomes possible. Contact with this Intelligence is made through the process of meditation (dhyana) and samyama. It leads to a process of surrender and acting for the good of all. Since personal interest is not in the foreground but acting for the good of all beings no further karma is accumulated although action takes place. Because this seeming action is powered by a higher intelligence it seems to take around a centre, which is completely inactive. While the centre may feel identical to other beings, on the action level one may completely differ from others.

Hence two liberated ones are easily distinguishable.