A Review of Stephen Phillips’ Yoga, Karma and Rebirth

Stephen Phillips is a leading scholar and interpreter of classical Indian thought amongst professional academic philosophers. His work has ranged from a study of Sri Aurobindo’s conception of Brahman to a fairly technical translation and commentary upon the epoch-making epistemological text Tattvacintamani by the Nyaya master Gangesha Upadhyaya. His recent release Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth: A Brief History and Philosophy (Columbia University Press) is, in one sense, something of a departure for Phillips. Though it indeed engages with the classical thinkers with precision and care (indeed, even bringing the logically rigorous Nyaya school into the discussion), this book has a more robust objective: his goal is to articulate and defend a core set of metaphysical and ethical commitments which support a life of yogic practice. In other words, although his text is historically and philosophically informative, the information is cited and explored in support of his main position, that a core set of yogic commitments, gleaned from the classical thinkers but interpreted and adapted to modern conceptions, is rationally defensible. As I understand his project, Phillips is arguing for a set of theses and attitudes which may be appropriated and developed by individual traditions, akin to the way in which the “God of natural theology” may be common to both Hindu and Christian theists. While the notion of Vishnu and the notion of Jehovah are different, thinkers of both traditions may share a core notion of divinity (a God of justice, sustainer of creation, etc.). Likewise, the positions which Phillips defends may be appropriated by and developed upon by members of different yoga traditions.

Some highlights: Chapter 2 contains an argument against the thesis that mind can be equated wholly with brain states, a fairly common attitude amongst modern professional philosophers. Such materialism, Phillips argues, militate against the yoga thesis that there is “top-down” causal influence from mind to matter, as evinced in a yogin’s increasing control over her psycho-physical functioning by means of yoga practice. In support of his thesis, Phillips argues against materialism, while drawing from the yoga traditions for a positive view of the self. In Chapter 3, Phillips provides a nuanced interpretation of the notion of karma, and focuses on its moral and psychological ramifications. Chapter 4 argues for a view of rebirth which supports trans-life yoga practice. Chapter 5 takes up what is to my mind a very under-appreciated question, the ethical underpinnings of the yogic life. While “ahimsa” is a fairly common by-word amongst yogins, how it is an integral and holistic part of a life dedicated to yoga is not always clear. Phillips tries to  make it clear with a notion of compassion to everyone including one’s “future self”, which should inspire spiritual practice now. The appendices ground the earlier philosophical theorizing with original translations of select passages of the Gita, the Yoga-sutra, the Hatha yoga-pradipika, and Kashmiri Tantric texts.

I’d like to mention briefly two of the merits of Phillips’ book. First, by trying to consider both classical and modern objections to core yogic principles, Phillips is admirably recognizing that those dedicated to yoga should not escape into pockets of intellectually isolated thought-bubbles. We live in this world right now, and if we are truly committed to yoga practice and think that yoga teachings are true, we should be able to articulate our beliefs in a way that is sensitive, charitable to opposed views, and rationally respectable. At the same time, Phillips argues that yogins need not be unduly cowered by the overwhelming materialistic sentiment of modern intellectual life. In doing so, Phillips’ book nicely draws on the ancient and medieval Indian thinkers, illustrating their own philosophical genius.

Second, Phillips (61ff) rightly criticizes the trenchant world-denying escapism often attributed to classical Yoga, illustrating that it is both philosophically and yogically problematic. He rather embraces what is best in tantric thought: the idea that yoga practice is not merely meant for escape, but at best, to positively transform the world (especially ourselves as parts of the world). To this end, he notes the bhakti traditions as aspects of the broad “tantric turn.” In Bhakti too, emotion and beauty are not to be rejected (as opposed to the classical Samkhya and Yoga view that they are elements of prakriti to be ultimately shunned). Rather they are to be purified by being developed in relation to God.

One of the merits of the book, its wide engagement with many Indian traditions, helps acquaint the reader with much of the best of India’s adhyatmic (spiritual) traditions. Occasionally, the book’s breadth of engagement does engender all-too-brief discussions of important topics which would ideally receive more detailed treatment. I think that the discussion of bhakti, for example, tends to treat it merely as yet another kind of tantra, perhaps not doing complete justice to the notion of God-centeredness and transcendent devotion which are at the root of bhakti. But that said, such is usually inevitable in a book which strives to be both informative and readable to non-specialists.

In short, I think that philosophically inquisitive and thoughtful readers will benefit from reading (and rereading) Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth, which is a unique contribution to the burgeoning literature on yoga.


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3 responses to “A Review of Stephen Phillips’ Yoga, Karma and Rebirth”

  1. Kaustubha das Avatar

    “At the same time, Phillips argues that yogins need not be unduly cowered by the overwhelming materialistic sentiment of modern intellectual life. In doing so, Phillips’ book nicely draws on the ancient and medieval Indian thinkers, illustrating their own philosophical genius.”

    Medieval Indian thinkers in general or does he use specific examples?


  2. Ananda Goldstein Avatar

    A very satisfying, encouraging and edifying review of a very interesting book. I have never heard anyone explicitly explain Bhakti Yoga as a Tantric path before, (by engaging this world in a process of spiritual transformation and connection to God). This is an exciting time to be on Earth.

  3. Matthew Avatar

    He uses specific examples (abhinava gupta, Vacaspati Mishra, etc.), and sometimes cites whole schools or passages of key texts.