Huston’s Yogas

Huston’s Yogas

Hindu Wedding Card by Parekh Cards
Hindu Wedding Card by Parekh Cards

I’ve been reading Huston Smith’s World Religions for ordination studies. The book is well-written but dominated by recent academic perspectives of the topic. It offers a general overview of the larger faiths, but I wouldn’t base my practices on it.

In the Hindu section, Houston outlines the primary Yogas or paths to union.



In brief, these are:
– Hatha yoga is the path of the body
– Karma yoga is the path of action and perception
– Bhakti yoga is the path of devotion
– Gyana or jnana yoga is the path of the intellect

When I first read of the paths decades ago, I thought we were each on one path or the other. And that it was necessary to follow only that path to make progress. As they said, we fail if we try to follow the dharma of another.

Huston observed that karma yogis have 2 styles, devotional and intellectual. A devotional karma yogi acts from devotion, seeing action as a service. A Gyani karma yogi does one’s duty while favouring detachment from doing.

This observation of a natural blend is superior to my early concepts. The paths are not separate. We’re each a blend of laws of nature and thus typically a blend of paths too.

After some early confusion about my path, I came to recognize this. I have a strong intellect but the primary path is one of perception, Karma. Action in service is also key, which is devotion. And I practice asana from Hatha.

At distinct points of the journey, different yogas have become more prominent. When there is a heart opening, devotion becomes stronger. Unity stage needs the intellect. And so forth.

The Yoga Sutra encourages Raja Yoga, a blend of practices to bring it all along and make the most progress. This approach has served me well.

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  1. Don salmon

    Smith’s original book on world religions, “The Religions of Man,” opened, as your edition does, with a chapter on Hinduism.

    I always thought that Smith’s opening in the Hinduism chapter showed remarkable insight.

    He begins by citing some lines from Rudyard Kipling:

    East is East and West is West
    And never the twain shall meet

    He goes on to observe that these lines had long been cited to bolster the position that the “West” has reached a superior point in world civilization, and if there were to be any “meeting’ of the West and East, it would have to be on the West’s terms.

    Then Smith notes that the last 2 lines of the quatrain have, unfortunately, been ignored:

    Until Heaven and Earth meet
    On God’s Judgement Day

    Smith goes on to make what to me are a series of stunning observations, with implications for the present day, right down to seeing the current pandemic in a radically different Light.

    He writes that perhaps, on that fateful day in August 1945, when the scientists from the Manhattan Project tested the first atomic bomb in the deserts of New Mexico, there was a meeting of East and West.

    Evidently Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the scientists involved in the project, had become so entranced by the Bhagavad Gita when he was a physics student at UC Berkeley, he taught himself Sanskrit and memorized all 700+ verses of the Gita.

    Some years later, he was standing in the New Mexico desert at midnight, with his fellow scientists, 200 miles away from the site where the atomic bomb was set to go off.

    When the explosion occurred, the pitch black sky of the desert “lit up, as at noon” according to one of the physicists.

    It has been widely reported that Oppenheimer recalled, at that moment, a line from the 11th chapter of the Gita (the chapter where Krishna reveals His universal Form to Arjuna, thus scaring the bejeezus out of him – the Form that can only be seen when the separate self is not there) – “I am become death, the destroyer of world” (the fact that Oppenheimer translated Kala – which is more appropriately translated as Time – as death, in itself says a lot about Oppenheimer’s Western state of mind).

    But another line from the Gita – from the same chapter – also occurred to Oppenheimer as he witnessed the light illumining the vast sky:

    “If a thousand suns were to blaze forth all at once in the sky, that would need equal the splendor of the Supreme Spirit.”

    Huston Smith, after quoting this line about 1000 suns, suggests that “At that moment, when heaven and earth were lit up with the radiance of the bomb blast, was perhaps “God’s Judgment Day” that Kipling referred to, and that line from the Gita, the quintessential scripture of the East, occurring to Oppenheimer, a supreme representative of the Faustian urge of the West, perhaps represented a meeting of East and West also foretold by Smith.

    I kept up with Smith’s career over the years (contacted him once for permission to include that story in a 45 minute piece for choir, orchestra and electronic tape, many years ago) and it has been quite interesting to see how he has built on that prediction. Watching the first explosion of interest in Asian spirituality in the West back in the 60s – particularly represented by the TM movement – and on to the surge of Tibetan Buddhism, Sufism, the revival of Christian contemplative practice, and to some extent, the emergence of new forms of practice, devotion, service, knowledge, etc all appeared to Smith to be integral aspects of this movement toward universality growing over these many decades.

    1. Hi Don
      Yes, he brought great insight to the field and became beloved by many. A friend wrote his biography. I’m spoiled by the direct insights of gnostics.
      Good insight on the quote. There’s a few famous ones like that around. I commented on a Descartes example here:
      Yes. I’m still surprised Hindus refer to themselves as that. It’s a name the British gave them.
      I knew of Oppenheimer’s love of such works but not that detail. The Gita is pretty accessible Sanskrit but it’s not a short story! I’ve read it in Sanskrit myself but there’s a big difference between reading it once and memorizing it!
      I think it takes more than that to see the full form of Vishnu. Arjuna was stepping through the stages and was pretty far along by Chapter 11.
      Thanks for sharing your insights.

  2. don salmon

    Yes of course – didn’t mean to imply that seeing a physical light was in any way comparable to gnostic Recognition of Vishnu’s form:>)

    it was a magic time, those 2 1/2 years I spent putting that piece together. I sat down one morning, in September 1983, and began thinking about what I wanted to do for my graduate thesis in music composition.

    Smith’s observations came to mind, and I thought of doing a small chamber music piece, perhaps with a 4 voice choir and someone reading some verses from the Bhagavad Gita.

    I sketched out some melodies and themes, and felt stuck. I went to turn on the radio, and WBAI (a listener supported station in NYC at the time) was at that very moment just starting to play an audio version of a documentary on the making of the atom bomb.

    I rushed to get out my 4 track tape recorder and recorded the whole show. It featured over a dozen physicists from the Manhattan Project describing their experience.

    Some of the most memorable:

    “There was speculation [before the test of the bomb occurred] that it might be possible to explode the atmosphere… in which case the world disappears.”

    To think they were actually considering that the test of the explosion might destroy the planet, and yet went ahead!

    Freeman Dyson’s musings were quite poignant: “I have felt it myself, the glitter of nuclear weapons. To feel it’s there in your hands, to lift a thousand tons of rock in the sky. It’s what you might call a kind of Faustian arrogance, and it is, I think, responsible for all of our troubles.”

    I ended up taking the recordings of the voices, mixing them in various ways, adding electronic distortions as well as the electronically modified sounds of an accordion and piano, and wrote a full orchestra piece + full choir (never got performed, as with most theses, but I did make a recorded version to accompany an abstract animation at one point).

    My meditation teacher at the time was a professor of Indian philosophy and knew Sanskrit, and made a recording of the opening 12 verses of Chapter 11 of the Gita, in both English and Sanskrit, which I played over an actual recording of the atomic bomb explosion.

    And at the conclusion of the explosion, I played a recording of 100 nuns from Nicaragua and El Salvador, who had come to the New York Archdiocese, sponsored by the Catholic Church. Father Dominquez, with whom I was a co-director of one of the Spanish church choirs, was helping many fleeing the 1980s wars in Central America.

    It was near Easter and they sang, with such passion fueled by the horrors they had witnessed, “Resucito, Resucito, Resucito, Alleluia.”

    Envisioning the resurrection after the reading of the Gita verses seemed appropriate, and I fit it in just as the bomb blast was fading out. After all of that, Oppenheimer’s voice can be heard, trembling with the sense of profound shame after the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima:

    “‘I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds’….. I guess we all felt that, one way or another.”

    1. Hi Don
      Yes, the scientists were not the decision makers. There were some similar concerns over experiments at CERN more recently. We do tempt fate sometimes. 🙂
      You may enjoy the film Sita Sings the Blues. It mixes elements from the Ramayana, more recent shadow puppets, and a 40’s blues singer.
      Yes, it’s a horror when your work is weaponized although it should not have been a big surprise for him. I had a somewhat similar experience some thousands of years ago.

        1. Agreed. I also wouldn’t describe it as an accurate representation of her experience or the story. But it’s beautifully done, does reflect how many experience life, and was entirely done by one person on their computer.

  3. don salmon

    PS: it seems I’m unable to figure out how to get paragraph separations in the previous comments. Has something changed in the formatting? Didn’t used to be difficult. (new paragraph): Hope you don’t mind the personal story. I thought the synchronicities might be interesting to your readers.

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