Home / Articles / #3 November 2011 / David Frowley. “Ayurveda accepts yoga philosophy fully - karma, moksha and so on”

David Frowley. “Ayurveda accepts yoga philosophy fully - karma, moksha and so on”

Conversation with David Frowley

Ilya: When did you get acquainted with yoga for the first time?

David Frawley: I have got acquainted with teachers of yoga in the late sixties, which is quite a long time ago.

Ilya: Who were they?

David: There were few of them. Masters who were following teachings of Yogananda, Ramana Maharshi, Ramakrishna,Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo, those times there was a considerable number of such groups. But on a spiritual level I was mainly taught by followers of Sri Aurobindo and Ramana Maharshi. I also studied Vedic astrology and traditional medicine. My visits to India and cooperation with Indian teachers began in late seventies. Sri Aurobindo’s Ashram started to publish my articles in 1979. Those were comments to Vedas, I also cooperated with Amma’s Ashram, and they also published my articles. As for Ayurveda I have started to work with Doctor Vasant Lad in 1983 in Mexico, that time he held there his seminars.

I was studying Jyotish from doctor Vallans since 1973. In late eighties we have founded Ayurvedic clinic in America, began to give consultations on Jyotish and to publish articles. I began to travel to Europe more than ten years ago and now I do it regularly. Doctor Vashta, one of the most authoritative teachers in Puna, was my main teacher of Ayurveda. I cooperated with him for more than ten years, he belonged to a senior generation, he graduated from college in 1949 (up to the end of thirties Ayurvedic education in India was forbidden by British Government), he wrote many books on Ayurveda, and gave consultations to the companies producing Ayurvedic medications.

Ilya: Does your Institute undertake scientific researches in Ayurveda?

David: None of private persons is able to carry out any scientific Ayurveda research; it is done by governmental organizations as it costs a lot of money. There were many such researches done in India and very little in America, basically, those were not Ayurvedic studying, but studying of medical characteristics of various herbs used in Ayurveda.

Ilya: Is there a parallel between Ayurveda and modern medicine?

David: There are similarities as well as differences, Ayurveda recognizes chemical medications and surgery, and prescribes them in certain cases. But the big difference consists in that Ayurveda is not limited only with a physical body: Ayurveda uses a concept of prana, a vital force, which is not characteristic to modern medicine. It also speaks about human mind and its condition as a key to healing. It considers the presence of the higher power which is far beyond the mind. It means that Ayurveda accepts yoga philosophy fully - karma, moksha and so on. Besides, Ayurveda does not begin with treatment of illnesses. It pays a lot of attention to a proper way of life: nutrition, etc, to how to live a healthy life. It says that the reason of disease lies in our mind and a wrong way of life. Figuratively speaking, modern medicine teaches how to put the fire down in a house; Ayurveda teaches how to build a house which would not fire up.

Ilya: Could you please explain the difference between modern and old approaches in Ayurveda and its studying? We know that nowadays students in state Indian colleges are given a certain mix of Ayurveda and allopathic medicine, earlier it was not like this.

David: Right, in modern India after the British Government allowed the opening of Ayurveda colleges, a big discussion took place concerning this topic: to make the education traditional or to combine Ayurveda and allopathic medicine. The second approach has won and now students study both. In the traditional approach Ayurveda includes Yoga, Vedic astrology, Vastu; general orientation of therapy and treatment is more spiritual. In modern colleges Ayurveda is not studied like this anymore, first of all the focus is made on treatment of physical symptoms. But we are more interested in traditional Ayurveda, and in India there are many people who study it and practice. Many modern doctors in colleges are not even taught pulse diagnostics, application of yoga techniques and mantras in Ayurveda. But nowadays in India there is a strong movement aimed to return to traditional Ayurveda. For example, in many Ayurvedic centers in Kerala they also teach yoga, astrology, mantras - it is a more traditional approach.

Ilya: Traditional training system is a system of Gurukula - from the teacher directly to the pupil. Is it possible to be taught traditional Ayurveda in a college without a constant personal contact between the teacher and the disciple?

David: It is very difficult. Studying in a college is absolutely different, you visit classes, and anyone is able to enter a college. In India there are some places where traditional Ayurveda is being taught, for example, in Coimbatore. Along with a modern college there is a system designed for seven and a half years where traditional Ayurveda is given, but training is conducted in Tamil language and Sanskrit, it means that you should know them well. Besides, this training is more chamber, it does not take place in classes, you directly communicate and work together with the teacher. However, we - Doctor Vasant Lad, Doctor Deepak Chopra and I - try to study and teach in a traditional way. We teach not only medicine, but also yoga, mantras, Vastu, astrology. We carry on a dialogue and we try to cooperate with allopathic medicine, but we want Ayurveda remains to be Ayurveda.

Ilya: There is a point of view that ancient knowledge given in classical texts nowadays requires some updating because of changed conditions of life, what do you think in this regards?

David: In Ayurveda it is said that all medications and systems of treatment should be applied in accordance with time, place and person. Therefore, constitution of a person, where he lives, how he eats, where he works always is taken into consideration. Ayurveda is not a thoughtless application of methods created five thousand years ago; it always considers a concrete moment. Certainly, there are classical texts and they are very useful, basic principles of treatment do not change. For example, you drink water, for the last five thousand years it has not changed; it is possible though to pass to Coca-Cola, but it won’t help you. For the last thousand years people did not create a new taste, there are six of them, did not become eight or ten.

It is necessary to understand that ancient texts are just guides to action; at school we learn physics by Newton and physicians study therapy by Hippocrates, but it does not mean that science is limited by these people. Ayurveda is an application of universal principles of life. The big difference of Ayurveda is that it deals with each concrete person, perceiving him as something unique, and allopathic medicine treats people in large quantities. We have traditional texts, but we do not limit ourselves just by them, therefore today many good books on Ayurveda are being written.

Ilya: There is a point of view that Ayurveda should be looked at now from positions of modern discoveries. What is your opinion?

David: A modern discovery is good, but it is not all. Doctors do not know everything; they are not all-mighty. There is a set of diseases which cannot be cured by modern allopathic medicine. Ayurveda is based on a prana concept but western medicine considers a human exclusively from the point of view of biochemistry. From Ayurvedic point of view modern medicine has many restrictions as the human is not limited only to a physical body. How does modern medicine treat diseases? Certain medications are prescribed. Some start to look at Ayurveda from the same point of view - to choose in Ayurveda equivalents to medications. It is not correct. Ayurveda can use medications or cannot use then, but, first of all, it will try to change patient’s way of life. He will be recommended a certain diet, panchakarmas, way of life and daily regime, everything makes sense. Ayurveda has a more adequate, holistic approach.

Ilya: How to teach traditional Ayurveda if in the west it is difficult to recreate Gurukula system? To transfer his knowledge, first of all, a teacher should possess a high level of spiritual development himself. It is impossible to prepare many lecturers with high spiritual level. How do you see the decision of this problem?

David: We try to influence the situation somehow. There should be a lot of clear information about the tradition. We publish articles, books; there is a set of video recordings and others. It is necessary to understand, that some things in Ayurveda are very easy to be applied right now, it is not necessary to study for ten years, you can acquire them even for one weekend, if the teacher is good. To conduct a more healthy way of life you should not be a doctor. We need to develop our internal knowledge, not everyone has a possibility to be in a number of five-six close disciples trained by guru. The main objective of our course of distant education “Yoga and Ayurveda” is to give a basic knowledge, an accurate and competent basis for further development.

Ilya: But it is impossible to study, for example, pulse diagnostics by mail.

David: Definitely you are right. We are not limited only to this course, there are many possibilities, and distant education cannot completely replace a direct training in a class. Not all of us have possibility or money to go where it is possible to study directly. We also have ordinary classes, seminars which you can visit. We cooperate with several Indian Ayurvedic colleges where you also can be trained later, get clinical practice, for example, with Doctor Sunil Joshi whom we recommend to our graduates. But a distant course is a good beginning; you receive a lot of information, basic and more profound. Naturally we also recommend other types of education. Today not everyone can just right away go and live next to the guru.

Ilya: It is possible to comprehend asanas and pranayamas during seminars. But how would you comprehend meditation methods if you have never seen a person who reached higher results on this way? After all there are only few people for the whole history that were able to reach spiritual heights independently, the teacher is needed to the rest.

David: Knowledge is never the superfluous. Even Yogananda used methods of distant training across all America.

Ilya: There are two concepts of evolution and manifestation of the basic elements. One, more ancient, considers, that the first element is Agni, the later one considers that Akasha element was the first.

David: In fact there are much more of such concepts. We try to apply local laws to the Universe as a whole. For example, Vayu is present everywhere and not just in space or air. Panchamahabhutas, doshas are energy concepts, but not concrete physical substances, the Universe is based on energy and consciousness, but we try to define it in terms of our physical material world.

Ilya: A fragment from your new book “Vedic Meditation” was published recently in Russian. Do you practice methods described in the book or it is only a scientific description?

David: If you will read the whole book, you will understand that we practice these techniques. In this case we do not represent ourselves as scientists who just study various practices or sacred texts, but do not believe in them. It happens very often in the modern world, many scientists publishing various researches, do not practice these techniques.

Ilya: If you practice these techniques can you tell who your teachers were?

David: I had many teachers. For example, as for teachings of Ramana Maharshi, I worked a lot and closely with Keini Teishion. Now he is 93 years old and he is the oldest of Maharshi’s disciples living nowadays. He also was the nearest disciple of Ganapati Muni, one of the main Maharshi’s disciples and he is the basic source of the information about him and his works. We are also close with Shivananda Muthi, he is almost 80 years old and one of the most outstanding teachers in Andhra Pradesh state. He has a centre in India near to Vishvakapad. We also work and design training programs with Swami Dayananda who belongs to Arsha Vidya Gurukulam. He has some centers in India in Coimbatore and Rishikesh, and also in the USA. He is one of the best English-speaking teachers of Vedanta. And there are many others. We cooperate with traditional Vedic teachers, we study not only Ayurveda, we also get knowledge on yoga, tantra, astrology, all in a whole.

Ilya: What is your daily sadhana?

David: It varies. I pass through different phases of life and do different practices. I do practices that concern Vedic teachings - various Vedic meditations. I also worship Devi by means of mantras, yantras and pujas in Mahavidya tradition, and also in Sri Vidya tradition by means of Sri Yantra. I chant Vedic mantras. My practice varies from time to time: sometimes I pay more attention to mantras, sometimes to meditations or pranayamas; it is like streams of energy that pass through me. We also make pilgrimage to various sacred places. I follow Hindu tradition, and I also teach Dharma to Hindus. We study ancient Vedas. In a whole, I can tell that many people deal only with one Guru, we deal with a tradition as a whole. I closely work with Indian ashrams and centers. At home we have different Deities and we fulfill practices devoted to them. In the west many prefer Ayurveda and Yoga as physical disciplines; we practice them at full extend and as religious disciplines too.

Ilya: We have read in your article that there is a following situation with teachers of hatha yoga in the West: they practice asanas, basic pranayamas but when their interest becomes deeper, and there is a desire to study meditation, they often choose other traditions - Vipassana, Zen Buddhism …

David: The reason is that their own teachers of hatha yoga did not teach them spiritual practices. In the West the majority of types of yoga concern only its physical aspect. Therefore majority of teachers do not know yoga deeply, do not practice and do not teach others to its spiritual aspects. Asanas is only one of yoga components. It is strengthening of a body but not yoga in a whole. This is why when these people want to get a more profound knowledge they have to look for something else, methods of meditation widely known and accessible in the west. Earlier teachers such as Yogananda, Vivekananda, disciples of Shivananda were teaching mantras and meditation. In general, meditation in yoga is not taught to a large number of people at once, meditation in yoga is taught individually. In other traditions meditation can be taught to the mass and also many people consider that it is easier to do something together. But what would you tell about the doctor who prescribes the same medication to all his patients? Nothing good. The same is with meditation. Unfortunately, in the West the majority of people are trained by not profound yoga teachers, but by those who only teach exercises. I know many people who are trained by someone only to hatha yoga exercises, and they do not consider their teachers as Guru. You simply should see the difference between an ordinary teacher of techniques and an enlightened Guru. The basic essence of yoga is meditation, dhyana, and samadhi. There is no text where it is said that yoga is only exercises for the body, it is a phenomenon of the modern world. And people should understand that if they want to be seriously engaged in yoga and meditation. They should practice in line with tradition otherwise they cannot use and apply the whole number of yogic teachings.

Ilya: What is a tradition of yoga? There are various points of view. For example, the concept described in Yoga Sutras by Patanjali is the concept of dvaita, there is a definition of Prakriti and Purusha…

David: Do not make a big and fundamental error: do not identify yoga exclusively with Patanjali as now many do. Patanjali is a rather modern teacher. You can read Mahabharata, Vedas, Puranas where the names of many yoga teachers are mentioned, Patanjali is not among them. To identify yoga only with Sutras by Patanjali is the same as to reduce Christianity teachings only to Saint Foma and to his comments. The essence of yoga is not only Yoga Sutras, its essence is a whole set of teachings and their application in practice. And Patanjali is just a composer and a collector of already existing teachings. Even the concept of eight stages of yoga is much more ancient than Yoga Sutras. If we study yoga history we may see that, for example, Krishna is named the great avatar and teacher of yoga. Patanjali can be compared with a person who wrote a good scientific book, but it was not him who invented the science. In Christian world it is accepted to identify Christianity only with one book and one person - Jesus Christ and the Bible. It is incorrect to do the same in yoga, it is a very wide and deep tradition where there is a set of teachers and it is necessary to correctly define a place of Yoga Sutras in it. Modern people do not study traditional knowledge; the majority does not know Sanskrit. Even the founder of Yoga Darshana system is considered to be Hiranyagarbha but not Patanjali. In various traditions of yoga there are concepts of advaita and dvaita, but yoga first of all is a practice, a way of accomplishing certain things. And it should not be identified only with a system of philosophy. There is a difference between Patanjali’s philosophy and yoga practice. For example, advaita is a part of jnana yoga, yoga of knowledge, but it contains many elements of bhakti, worshiping deities: Shiva, Vishnu, Devi and others. Hatha Yoga Pradipika is the text of advaita; it explains that raja yoga, hatha yoga and samadhi are advaita. There are many various philosophies but all at them can have a general practice of yoga.

Ilya: It is impossible to study yoga just theoretically as something abstract. You should get practical guidelines from your Guru who has achieved results in practice. Many paramparas exist. For example, some authors write, that ancient yoga of Rishi and Muni which is described in Vedas and Puranas is one tradition, and, for example, hatha yoga of Nathas is another. What do you think?

David: There are many sampradayas. There are many paramparas, some are more focused on jnana, some are focused on bhakti, and there are some that use both. Some are more modern, some are more ancient. Yoga it not a dogma, it is a way of application of various practices to different people; it is a sadhana, but not a system of beliefs. You may find many distinctions and a lot in common, they can be classified differently - Tantric, Vedic, Natha. Hatha yoga known nowadays was developed in traditions of Nathas as well, but parallel to it there were also other traditions which also used the same practices. Actually, the majority of them are not based on Patanjali, he was a rather modern figure living two and a half thousand years ago. The majority of yoga methods were known long before him. Another example: Yogananda represented the tradition of immortal Himalayan Saint Babaji and roots of this knowledge go far back into the centuries. There are lots of traditions; usually in a tradition it is said who was the founder and the Teacher. But all of them are parts of a uniform sphere of yoga, many people know parampara but sometimes they do not know, a part of that it is. For example, Krishnamacharya belonged to Vaishnava tradition, sampradaya of Sri Ramanuji, but the majority of his modern followers know nothing about it, they think, that he was simply the teacher of asanas.

Ilya: But his son T.K.V. Deshikachar most likely follows Sri Sampradaya.

David: Yes, but not his Western followers. And after all he belonged to a line of Nathamuni who was the founder of temple worshiping in the Southern India. All these people were a part of a more general great tradition. In the modern world people often know their Guru, but do not know what tradition he belongs to.

Ilya: The same situation is with Pattabhi Jois. He is a Shaivist bramin, but his western disciples often do not know about it at all.

David: That is why for them he is not a Sadguru but mainly the teacher of asanas.

Ilya: I do not think that Krishnamacharya was just a teacher of asanas, in texts it is said that he taught different things to different people.

David: Probably, but he did not preach widely, as for example Ramana Maharshi was teaching advaita. So, traditions continue to exist, but people are not interested in what they are studying and a part of what their Guru is. In the West they try to isolate yoga from the rest of Indian tradition. This is why people use yoga physical exercises, but do not use the rest of yoga practices.

Ilya: What is the basis of mantra-therapy and what is the most important in it: correct pronunciation of mantra or concentration of mind in certain parts while reading mantra?

David: There are various types of mantras. There are bija mantras, core sounds or syllables which open certain charkas in your body when you concentrate on certain points. Such mantras should be pronounced correctly. The sounding of mantra is Shakti, the meaning is Shiva. Bija mantras have meaning, but they do not have a literal translation, for example, mantras OM or HRIM. In such mantras the element of Shakti prevails. When we pronounce a name of God, for example, OM NAMAH SHIVAYA, pronunciation matters, but bhakti is more important. You can sing correctly but if you do not feel devotion to Shiva there is little sense in it. Besides, there are longer mantras, prays, for example, Gayatri mantra. They have certain meaning and translation, while pronouncing it you should meditate over its meaning. Here the sound matters, but only the sound is not enough. If you sing such mantra, not knowing its meaning, the effect decreases. Certainly, if to sing it with a wrong sound, the effect decreases too, but, there are schools where they sing incorrectly, but there is an effect. For example, Tibetans do not sing OM MANI PADME HUM correctly from the point of view of its pronunciation in Sanskrit, but they have bhakti and consequently they get the result.

Ilya: I think here purashcharana matters (a creation of “a power field” of mantra due to its long repetition) if several generations of high Tibetan yogis sing this mantra, it creates certain energy.

David: Yes and then mantra ceases to be Sanskrit and becomes Tibetan.

Ilya: Can mantras be used by those people who do not have any spiritual or religious connection with them?

David: Yes, some of them can be used as a part of therapy, just pronouncing the sounds. In this case you get a positive effect only from mantra’s sounding; of course, the effect will not be such as if you used it completely. For example, Shanti mantra will calm the mind and desires of a person even if he does not believe in God. There are different levels of application of mantras. They can be used in Ayurveda with therapeutic purposes for various doshas, in Vastu, for defining a correct direction, in astrology for reducing negative influence of planets. In yoga they are used for various purposes: to activate certain nadi and charkas, to develop bhakti.

Ilya: What is the difference between mental repetition of a mantra and it’s aloud pronunciation, in respect of its influence on thin components of a human body?

David: There are three levels of mantra’s pronunciation - voice, breath, and mind. You should not sing silently a mantra which you have never heard. If you sing a mantra and link it with breathing it is possible to control prana, to direct it in a certain way through different nadi, to influence charkas. Repeating mantra in mind you start to influence its deep layers. Practically all traditional texts say that a concentrated mental repetition is the most effective and you can do it at any time; but always begin with sound performance to put a basis first.

Ilya: Thank you. Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti!

Website of David Frawley American Institute of Vedic Studies

Conversation took place in Saint Petersburg, 5 November 2007

Fotos by Ed Zadlo (Puja with Pt. David Frawley in Rishikesh)