“[To focus] on strengths–[learn from] the strength of an elephant, etc.”
Today’s sūtra follows closely on the last and could be paired with it. In III.24, Patañjali extolls the four great virtues. Strengths (balāni), he says, come from practicing friendliness, compassion, joy, presence. In III.25 he elaborates: What strengths? Yes, let’s focus on strength. What is the strength that is needed for what lies ahead? What strength do we need for our lives, for this time?
Patañjali does not enter into abstraction to pursue these questions. Instead, he shifts our attention to the natural world. Look at the strength of elephants (hasti-bala). Look at other parts of the living world. Look at nature to understand yourself.
Traditional commentary has emphasized that the elephant is the physically strongest of animals. This seems off. The elephant represents much more, in India and elsewhere, than physical strength. The elephant has strong family bonds and lives in a matriarchal, interconnected social structure. Baby elephants live inseparable from their mothers for many years; they nurse exclusively for six months and continue to nurse intermittently after they have begun to eat other foods.
The Sanskrit name for elephant that Patañjali uses here is hastin, which literally means “the one who has a hand.” The trunk, of course, is the elephant’s hand, and it is remarkably adaptive–more so than our hand. Elephants use their trunks to gather food, hold objects, feed themselves, transport water for drinking and washing, reach out to others. They breathe and smell with the trunk, and they have more smell receptors there than any other animal possesses. They can detect food or water from miles away.
Elephants are also sensitive through their feet. They “hear” vibrations through the earth and can communicate over long distances this way. They are emotional, playful, and touchy–with their trunks and bodies. The “ones with a hand” are a symbol, to me, of mutual support and joy in the group.
Again, we may ask, what is the strength our world needs? Modern society creates hierarchy and glorifies power and domination. It is a sickness. We are in need of healing from it.
In her influential novel Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko tells the story of Tayo, a WWII veteran suffering from PTSD. Tayo is threatened with long-term commitment to a psychiatric hospital. He is a Laguna Pueblo Indian not just processing the atrocities he experienced in the war but the circumstances he was born into, the attempted destruction of his own traditional culture, the subjugation and crimes committed against his people. Silko says she wrote the book to find her own way to heal herself, to find her own way to sanity. At one point, a traditional healer tells Tayo, “We all have been waiting for help a long time. But it never has been easy. The people must do it. You must do it.”
Tayo himself knows, as Silko puts it, that
His sickness was only part of something larger, and his cure would be found only in something great and inclusive of everything.
The ceremony that unfolds, that Silko reveals, is part ritual, repetition, and part story-telling. European settler-colonists attacked native peoples by taking away story, by forbidding native languages, and by literally kidnapping native children, enrolling them in boarding schools often thousands of miles from their families.
One story that is told in this beautiful book is the creation of the European colonial mindset. The indigenous peoples themselves, the story goes, set into motion a terrible spell, a story itself that infected the people who became the colonists. The story takes hold of the colonizing people:
Then they grow away from the earth
then they grow away from the sun
then they grow away from the plants and animals.
They see no life
When they look
they see only objects.
The world is a dead thing for them
the trees and rivers are not alive
the mountains and stones are not alive.
The deer and bear are objects
They see no life.
They fear the world.
They destroy what they fear.
They fear themselves.
–Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony, p. 135
This spell describes capitalism pretty well, it seems to me, and it describes the culture I am part of today. We are alienated from the earth and unaware of the sun, separated from the plants and animals we consume. We are destroying our world. The individual healing we need is the healing the larger world needs.
If you would focus on strength, says Patañjali, learn what is the true strength of the elephant, learn what is the strength of the deer and bear. What is the strength of the water and the rocks. What is the strength of life.
I am writing this at the time of the winter solstice. Solstice literally means “the sun stands still.” At this moment of pause, when the nights are long, and the darkness can teach us, it is a wonderful thing, a good opportunity, to search out where our life comes from, to know the rhythms of sun and moon, to feel the cycles of life in us and around us, to recognize that our life, our wholeness, depends on the living world, not on objects that we dominate.
The strength of the elephant is receptivity and interconnection.
“In the preceding aphorism, Patañjali advised positive thought to obtain strength or moral qualities. In this aphorism … he recommends long periods of concentration on a concrete model, such as an animal, that embodies those qualities. For example, the elephant is strong, the snake is supple, and so on. In this way, we become like the model.” –Bernard Bouanchaud, The Essence of Yoga, p. 176
“[This verse] traditionally promises the yogi the physical strength of an elephant if he/she meditates fully on the physical strength of an elephant. I choose rather to invoke the figure of the shaman, who in earlier cultures negotiated communication between human and non-human realms–usually by learning the language or dances of animals or plants or weather patterns.” –Matthew Remski, Threads of Yoga, p. 176
• What helps you recognize that the world around you is alive? What helps you see living things, not objects? What helps you become receptive?
• What animals inspire you?
• Who and what are models for you?
neuter noun, 7th case plural, “on”
|masculine noun in compound
elephant (from hasta, “hand,” + –in, suffix denoting possession; the elephant is “one who has a hand”)
neuter noun in compound
neuter noun, 1st case plural
beginning with, etc.