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Yoga, Karma, and RebirthReview - Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth
A Brief History and Philosophy
by Stephen Phillips
Columbia University Press, 2009
Review by Mikel Burley
May 11th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 19)

The intended readership for this book includes both yoga teachers and practitioners and "philosophers and students of philosophy" (p. 5). It aims to introduce to such readers a plethora of ideas deriving from several Asian spiritual and philosophical traditions, including Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain sources, which the author bundles together into a very heterogeneous conception of "Yoga philosophy". It also, rather ambitiously, seeks to defend some of those ideas against the sort of ontological materialism that is pervasive in contemporary western philosophy. In the first of these aims, the book is largely successful; although its relentless intermingling of diverse traditions can be confusing at times, the reader is certainly introduced to a rich variety of themes and concepts in a relatively amenable way. As an attempted philosophical defense, however, the book is disappointing.

Among the author's strengths is his ability to artfully integrate terminological and conceptual explanation into an accessible descriptive context. We see this exemplified in Chapter 1, where a description of an average yoga class is used as a vehicle for discussing salient concepts such as those of the channels and centers of vital energy (prana) which, according to many practitioners, come more prominently into awareness as one's attention is withdrawn from external objects. Interesting comparisons and contrasts are made between the forms of description used by different exponents of yoga practices, some of whom emphasize the practices' physiological features while others focus on "occult" features. Surprisingly, Phillips does not regard the use of recorded music during yoga classes as a distracting or inauthentic western innovation; rather, he views it as a legitimate method of imbuing the class with a devotional atmosphere (p. 20).

It is chiefly in Chapter 2 that Phillips puts forward his would-be defense, against materialism, of an "inclusivist" Yoga philosophy. This inclusivism is exceedingly comprehensive, embracing everything from the ancient Upanishads, to Indian epic literature, to various systems of classical Indian philosophy, including Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions, as well as later tantric systems; indeed, as the author puts it, "practically all the spiritual philosophies of the East" (p. 65). This conception is so broad that it risks leaving the reader puzzled as to what the content of Yoga philosophy is supposed to be. Phillips' view is that all the Asian traditions with which he is concerned, despite their differences, are united in their rejection of materialism, where this latter position is understood to hold that "explanatory priority rests with the physical in that consciousness is physically caused" (p. 51). Against materialism, Phillips contends, in the name of Yoga philosophy, that mere correlations between brain activity and conscious states do not demonstrate one-way dependence.

What Phillips wants to argue is that consciousness -- the capacity to think and feel -- can exist independently of any physical body: "we have every right to be confident that at least something of our emotional and thinking beings survives" (p. 130). Yet his way of phrasing this claim sometimes makes it confusing. At one place, for example, he declares that "Yoga has no quarrel" with the view that certain brain states are "necessary conditions" of certain conscious states with which they are correlated. "Our quarrel", he continues, "is with the supposition that things physical could be sufficient for consciousness. You need an unsevered spinal cord to live and breathe and think and feel, but you also need something beyond the bodily instrument" (p. 52). What Phillips seems not to notice is that the proposal that neural or other bodily conditions are necessary for consciousness (irrespective of whether they are also sufficient) is inconsistent with the claim that consciousness could exist independently of the physical body. If x is necessary for y, then y cannot obtain in the absence of x. So it looks as though Phillips has been careless in stating his view, which he takes also to be the view of Yoga philosophy.

These problems detract from the plausibility of the claims that Phillips makes, in Chapters 3 and 4, on behalf of the doctrines of karma and rebirth. Having announced, for example, his confidence in survival beyond death (p. 130), he promises to defend this view against critics of reincarnation such as the philosopher Paul Edwards. When it comes to it, however, Phillips merely quotes Edwards endorsing the view that consciousness is dependent on the body and brain, and then states that "This, of course, has already been answered by us, in chapter 2" (p. 139). Given the confusions of Chapter 2, this response is hardly persuasive.

On a more positive note, I should mention that the book contains a wealth of supplementary material, including no fewer than five substantial appendices containing translations by the author of significant yoga texts. Among these is a complete translation of the Yoga Sutra, plus excerpts from Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Kularnava Tantra, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. There are also over sixty pages of endnotes, many of which facilitate further research by directing the philosophically-minded reader to more detailed sources, both primary and secondary. Features such as these contribute to the book's value for those with theoretical or practical interests in yoga and Asian traditions.


© 2010 Mikel Burley


Mikel Burley, Department of Philosophy, University of Leeds, Leeds, LS2 9JT, UK


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