In this interview, I sit down with Mark Whitwell and Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi to talk about polarity and what it might mean in our lives.
(YourDigitalWall Editorial):- New York City, Jan 7, 2021 (Issuewire.com) – Rosalind Atkinson: Mark Whitwell, in Autobiography of a Yogi, Yogananda describes how “…the physical world operates under one fundamental law of maya, the principle of relativity and duality. God, the Sole Life, is Absolute Unity; to appear as the separate and diverse manifestations of creation He wears a false or unreal veil. […] The entire phenomenal world is under the inexorable sway of polarity. […] To rise above the duality of creation and perceive the highest unity of the Creator was conceived of as man’s highest goal.”
Could we talk about your perspective on polarity, a term you often use, and how it aligns or differs from what Yogananda is saying here?
Mark Whitwell: The first thing I’d like to say is that the word maya is usually translated as an illusion, and in Vedanta, it is usually described as a creation of the divine. But this framework, and Yogananda’s language of “he wears” implies the veil to be something real, when in fact the veil is a delusory invention of mind and has no substantiality at all. It is seen to be a reflection of the divine only, a non-binding reflection only perceived in humanity’s mind. He is implying the veil is somehow created by God. It’s given some kind of reality.
In polarity, there is no separation of the poles at all. That is the fault of the conventional ideas of Tantra, that there is some kind of progressive merging. There is no left without right, no male without female.
Rosalind Atkinson: In Yogananda’s words above, polarity seems to have a negative taint, something like enslavement to the senses or the phenomenal world, as something obstructing or apart from a life of Unity. Much as the Vedic tradition encouraged a life apart from sexuality and what it might call worldliness. Is there an alternative way of describing what he is saying here?
Mark Whitwell: The Vedic view is that you must pierce the veil and discover the Source behind the seen. That there is an inner and an outer. It creates the presumption of the material world, relationship, and sexuality as something dead to be bypassed or overcome. Rather than these being non-binding modifications of the divine, to be engaged positively, in recognition of them as divine.
The normal life has been created by this duality of material and spiritual. Most of the world has chosen (or been raised in) the material and knows nothing else. At best they are involved in a progressive play or struggle or merging of the opposites, particularly male and female. And religion has been advising for thousands of years to drop that enterprise. Has that worked? No. The fact is, there are no inner or outer conditions separate from each other, there is only reality itself. Source and seen are one reality. The so-called outer conditions are to be engaged, with utter positivity as the non-binding reflections of reality.
Rosalind Atkinson: In your use of the words, what is the difference between polarity and duality?
Mark Whitwell: duality is an idea of two things being separate. It is an assumption.
Like male and female. Or like left and right. That is an illusion. Even the idea that there are two and they come together through some kind of progressive play or merging or struggle. Even the most romantic idea of union is an illusion of duality if it starts from a position of two things being separate. Polarity defines two, but the two in polarity are not separate, they are one. One depends on the other for its existence. Male and female. Left and right. Sun and moon. This is why, in Vedanta, it became apparent to some that the Tantras of participation in the two as one was a requirement. That offered a refinement to the Vedantic idea of a somehow divinely caused veil.
Rosalind Atkinson: So, for example, the conventional understanding of ‘sexual union’ and the way we use that word ‘union,’ is that there are two separate people who come together and (ideally) have an experience of oneness, which then ceases. And they to whatever degree resent or crave one another as the gatekeeper to that treasured limited experience of oneness. And this idea of two things coming into union seems to be the basis of many Tantric ideas. But you are saying they are already in union. So perhaps something might be happening for some people sexually where their illusion of separateness might drop temporarily, but all the while, they were always already in union. And realizing that would take the desperateness and exploitation out of sex. Do I have that right?
Mark Whitwell: Yes, that coming and going, empty and full, empty again, is seen to be an illusion. That recognition removes the drive to attain a union from a sense of emptiness. Participation only in fullness.
Rosalind Atkinson: So, to go back to Yogananda, it seems to me that this philosophy is very seductive, but subtly disrespectful and even damaging to Nature in its repercussions. Coming out of a culture of materialism only, it is attractive hearing these beautiful words acknowledging the Source, acknowledging Divinity, acknowledging God as something other than a judgemental bearded patriarch concept. I can feel how easy it is to launch out of materialist culture into a ‘yoga’ culture that glamorizes Source and subtly denigrates the Seen, just reversing the usual values, but continuing the imagined split. For example, after the line about “ris[ing] above the duality of creation,” Yogananda writes that “he who thus denudes the universe is the only true monotheist. All others are worshipping heathen images. So long as men remain subject to the dualistic illusions of nature, the Janus-faced Maya is his goddess; he cannot know the one true God.” This sounds pretty much like patriarchal religion to me. Is that unjust?
Mark Whitwell: Well, you have to understand that Yogananda appeared in culture, Vedic culture, that since the 14th century had almost completely dissociated itself from the Tantras that had appeared since approximately the 4th century. He was in all-male lineages that glamourized celibacy and denied the feminine. It was not just the chance that celibacy was recommended, the philosophy of escaping the feminine is logically woven throughout thought and action. The whole book is a denial of the feminine.
And we can see the dreadful impact upon the world of the religious project to “denude the universe” — that is extremely creepy language, by the way. The universe is beautifully dressed. Leave Her Alone.
RA: So what are the implications here for how we could reframe or choose to understand Samkhya theory? Is the Tantric belief in the oneness of spirit and matter really necessarily so different from the dualistic philosophy of Patañjali in the Yoga Sutras? Because I personally have felt uninterested or even repelled by the framework of Purusha and Prakriti as eternal divine (male) versus delusory, changeable (female), and all the misogynistic tropes of the ensnaring, untrustworthy, uncontrollable, lesser female to be conquered and controlled. However much this is softened by later tantric influence. Yogananda’s words themselves are proof of this framework’s persistence in Vedic culture. Which, let’s be honest, is misogynistic culture. The veil is ironically a very revealing word to use — a piece of clothing that has been forced on women to supposedly cover up their beauty and stop them from distracting men from his religious project.
Mark Whitwell: Well, in my language, the Source and Seen ARE one reality — Samkhya darshana artificially separates consciousness as superior to the appearance of consciousness, prakriti. And that is an assumption that negates and vulgarises the seen reality. But this doesn’t negate us reading the Yoga Sutra.
In Krishnamacharya’s presentation of the Yoga Sutra, the text is there for us, it comes alive in the relationship between teacher and student. It is not like the western tradition where the text is a fixed authority and we have to “figure it out and agree on what it means.” The text is a tool within the teaching relationship of Yoga that came from the Tantras, which was thoroughly Tantric. Krishnamacharya never called it that, because of the bad reputation Tantra had by then, something like western panic about witchcraft, but it absolutely was. He taught Tantric Hatha yoga, and it came out of the wonder of medieval Tantric India, which in turn was a blossoming out of Patanjali and Upanishadic culture before it. This is the lens through which he interpreted the Yoga Sutra. Krishnamacharya would say that texts were dead unless there was a teacher and a student, that it was like a manual for the study and it was the relationship that put the life, the Shakti, into the text. Then it was a useful document.
RA: I guess that once prakriti is vulgarised we want to reject that, because it seems offensive to associate ‘feminine’ with something negative or lesser, something to be conquered — we end up drawn towards an idea of unity that rejects such divisions altogether. But fundamental to yoga philosophy and the Tantras is this idea of polarity, and it seems like it doesn’t HAVE to have any negative social implications or hierarchy. Like we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Do you think this is why we are seeing many drawn to ‘non-binary’ in many forms because traditional polarities have been so degraded with social assumptions and forced into artificial hierarchies? Do you feel Yoga too, should dispense with philosophies of polarity? But as soon as I say that, I think, it’s not a philosophy, it’s something deeper.
Mark Whitwell: Actual polarities have been turned into conceptual dualities, and then engrained in social thought. And the simple answer is to understand that one can never be senior to another. That prakriti can never be inferior to purusha. In fact, to know prakriti is to know purusha and vice versa. To know a flower is to know the Source of the flower. To know the Source is to know the flower. No dissociation arises. No seeking is caused.
So we are free to engage in the Tantras of the perfect union of opposites, which has happened, which is happening. To deny this Tantra is to deny God. And to deny God is to deny the Tantra. The two are one.
RA: So to be clear, when you speak about polarities it’s not just a metaphor for something — rather, like Yogananda, you’re referring to something very real, a principle of the fabric of life, despite the damaging social assumptions they have accumulated.
Mark Whitwell: Yes. No less than the substance of existence. The forces that create new life, the nurturing force of life that creates motherhood and fatherhood, and the intelligence, beauty, and intrinsic harmony of a new life.
RA: Yet unlike Yogananda, you are saying this reality does not need to obscure Unity in any way, does not need to pierced or controlled or transcended.
Mark Whitwell: Yes.
RA: I’ve heard it described as an anthropocentric projection of human culture onto reality to talk in terms of male and female principles. What do you think?
Mark Whitwell: Male-female is a projection of Reality onto humanity, not the other way around. I can’t tell the difference between my male-female and your male-female. Just because we have toxified the terms with social gender assumptions and deathly boxes of expectations, doesn’t mean to throw the sacred words out altogether. Just like the words God, Sex, Yoga, and Guru, we can continue to use important words to mean their pure and beautiful meanings, and not allow toxifications to negate our actual language. All language is corrupted in a corrupt culture. This is why real teaching happens in a relationship, the sincerity of the relationship holds friends together long enough to look into what is actually indicated, and not just leap to the least benevolent conclusion. In friendship or goodwill, there is the opportunity to look into what is meant.
RA: Often I see people using the word ‘duality’ to apply to social concepts of right and wrong which don’t seem to me to be actual opposites but just things that have been put in opposition in the social mind. For example, someone does something mean and a defensive response might be ‘we all have duality’. Or something is condemned using a person’s discernment, and that valid objection is often dismissed as ‘dualistic.’ Do you think right and wrong or good and bad are actual oppositions?
Mark Whitwell: No. the appearance of anything is just the modification of Reality. All there is is Reality, and within the appearance, there is positive participation in the polarities of how life is working. This does not include right and wrong and good and bad, because these are only social concepts. In the positive participation in the polarities of the prior union, there is a natural economy and a sense of right action. Right and wrong have been created by church and state as apparatuses of control of the population.
RA: Any final thoughts?
Mark Whitwell: Life is a unity. That’s what it is. There is no dualistic ‘other’ that you have to get beyond. All appearances are within this unity. In polarity, there is no separation. Your Yoga is merely your participation in this Unity. No process, nothing gradual, no bringing together of two opposites. Participation in the union of opposites reveals the source of all opposites, the hridaya Heart.
This article is a conversation between Rosalind Atkinson and Mark Whitwell. Mark Whitwell is a student of renowned Yoga master T. Krishnamacharya and his son T.K.V. Desikachar, as well as deeply influenced by their friends Jiddu Krishnamurti and UG Krishnamurti, and in his early life empowered in the Tantric Siddha Yoga tradition. He has taught Yoga around the world since 1975. Rosalind is also a student of Yoga, having studied and traveled with Mark for several years. Her additional research interests are mystic poetry, in particular, that of English Yogi William Blake.