Issue #71 April 2024

The Power of All Powers: Yogic and European Philosophies of Power in Conversation

Alfred William Hunt, "Mount Snowdon through Clearing Clouds", (1857)

We often say that knowledge is power, but do we all mean the same thing? Many forms of contemporary debate both inside and outside of academia, seek to emphasise the role of dynamics of power in the production of what counts as knowledge, supported by the historical awareness of countless instances where a powerful group or institution consciously or unconsciously moulded so called ‘objective truth’ to suit their own ends. This tendency pervades the humanities as a whole today, including the study of Hinduism and Yoga, in which differing levels of controversy have arisen due to scholarly attempts to find various social and psychological dynamics at play under the face-value religious and philosophical claims made by gurus and Sanskrit texts.1placeholder This raises questions of reductionism, of how much space is left for the professed universality of these claims to truth, or whether we should see them as nothing more than the products of the dynamics of power that they conceal. When, for example, Yajñavalkya proclaims in the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad that “there, in that space of the heart, he lies — the controller of all, the lord of all, the ruler of all,”2placeholder to what extent are we to read this statement as an expression of a direct insight into the nature of reality, or a philosophical position that arose out of the “personal, regional and political rivalries,”3placeholder i.e. the dynamics of power, that characterised the lives of ancient Indian brahmins — or both simultaneously?

Taking a step back from these debates, it is important to acknowledge that the European philosophical tradition at the foundation of many contemporary scholarly approaches to Hinduism and yoga philosophy is not the only philosophical tradition that reflects on the link between knowledge and power. Sanskrit philosophical traditions themselves did so, albeit in radically different ways. For example, within yogic philosophies4placeholder we can find theories of flows of power (śakti) which run through the body and that have a direct influence on our ability to gain true knowledge (jñāna) about the world. These powers lay dormant within the body, or are dispersed and wasted, unless an individual controls, harmonises and enhances them through practice and thus transforms her cognitive capacities.

In the following essay, I want to both put European and Indian philosophical reflections on the relationship between knowledge and power into conversation, while also trying to get beyond the question of the ‘universality’ or ‘objectivity’ of truth claims within yogic philosophies by showing how a particularly yogic conception of embodied power can provide a basis for a revised understanding of the ‘truth’ of such claims. To put it simply, the aim is to allow yogic philosophies to enrich and transform the conceptual frameworks we use to understand those very philosophies themselves. To do this, I will trace a line of development from our contemporary discourses about power and knowledge back through Michel Foucault to their foundations in Nietzsche’s radical innovations. More than the political or even the psychological, a closer look at Nietzsche’s conception of power reveals that he grants a central role to power identified with the felt sense of forces within the body. Comparing this conception to a specific yogic model of embodied power which we will extract from a 10th-century philosophical epic called the Mokṣopāya,5placeholder I will show how — in its avowal of the possibility of controlling and, more importantly, harmonising bodily powers — the Mokṣopāya’s conception of embodied power (śakti) contrasts with Nietzsche’s understanding of the body as a field of irreducibly conflicting forces. This will provide a speculative basis for a reconsideration of yogic ‘knowledge’, not as an a-historical theory about the world, but a conditioned expression of the way the world appears differently when the forces of power within the body, which determine the way the world is known and appears, are transformed.


As I have mentioned, it seems harder and harder today to escape the fact that knowledge and power are tightly related. Though the first wave of ‘postmodern’ fervour began to burn out in the 1980’s, it passed the baton onto new conversations around postcolonialism, queer theory, critical race theory and intersectional feminism. Though these diverse currents contain various epistemologies and conceptions of how ‘truth’ functions in any  particular discourse, they each orbit around the idea that social structures of power —whether they be the hegemony of western imperialist institutions, norms of heterosexuality, or the dominance of white male voices — have a role in determining what has the authority of ‘truth’ in a given context. Each of these forms of contemporary critical theory, as well as our current broader conception of the interdependence of knowledge and power, owe their pervasiveness to a stream of thought concerning power that can be traced back through the work of Michel Foucault and Friedrich Nietzsche, and that shifted its form at each of these stages.6placeholder

Michel Foucault’s critical appraisals of notions of race, progress, and sciences such as biology, clinical medicine, psychology, and sociology were a means of deconstructing the Enlightenment notion that ‘man’ had a single essence, a firm unchanging nature that could be an objective arbitrator for questions of truth in all domains of knowledge. He instead saw social forces as shaping a human person, who, in modern societies, was not only controlled by power external to him (sovereign power), but was remoulded into a particular kind of subject7placeholder by institutional forces that were less public and recognisable (disciplinary power). Thus, in Foucault’s vision, the human subject as a rational agent is shaped from within, and is emptied out into wider dynamics that are inextricably tied to social power, a phenomenon he expressed in his concept of  le savoir-pouvoir, ‘power-knowledge.’8placeholder In works such as Discipline and Punish, and the multi-volume History of Sexuality, Foucault traced various forms of knowledge often taken to be absolute and universal, and revealed them to be historically contingent.

The echoes of this groundbreaking work in contemporary discourses around power are not hard to recognise, yet Foucault’s work itself was indebted to important philosophical developments of the 19th century, particularly the writings of Nietzsche. Indeed in an 1984 interview, four weeks before his death, Foucault remarked that he was “simply a Nietzschean,” and that he tried to see “with the aid of Nietzsche’s text… what can be done in this or that domain.”9placeholder Tracing Foucault’s conception of the power-knowledge relationship back to Nietzsche, however, reveals that he extracted only a specific strand from Nietzsche’s broad construal of power that contained, analogously with yogic conceptions, a notion of power linked to flows of force within the body.

Foucault’s debt to Nietzsche stems from the latter’s willingness to go further than Descartes at the beginning of modern philosophy and question not only all his deeply held beliefs, but even the value of truth itself. “The will to truth needs a critique — let us define our own task with this —, the value of truth is tentatively to be called into question.”10placeholder By questioning the very motivation to find truth, Nietzsche saw himself as opening the door to the possibility that our so-called truth-seeking is not so much a pure will for something valuable for its own sake, but is motivated instead by the search for power.11placeholder In The Gay Science Nietzsche claims that “the strength of knowledge lies not in its degree of truth, but in its age, its embeddedness, its character as a condition of life,” and speaks of “the force of impulses” that is an essential feature of knowledge.12placeholder The Zarathustra of Nietzsche’s great drama proclaims: “And even you, seeker of knowledge, are only a path and a footstep of my will; indeed, my will to power follows also on the heels of your will to truth!”13placeholder

But what exactly is the will to power that Nietzsche claims to find in “the heart of life itself”?14placeholder Foucault’s various notions of power reflect an aspect of it, most notably expressed in the quasi-historical analysis of the ‘slave’s revolt’ in The Genealogy of Morals, in which Nietzsche connects Christian (and Christianised) morality to a historical event in which a class of slaves decided to reform moral values to exalt their weak natures.15placeholder Indeed Foucault’s ‘genealogical’ method reflects the title of this central Nietzschean work. Yet the will to power in Nietzsche’s conception contains many other facets, and while I cannot possibly do justice to all of them here, I would like to focus on the way in which Nietzsche sees dynamics of power raging not only in the broad social sphere, but within the individual herself.

In Daybreak Nietzsche writes:

“Suppose we were in the marketplace one day and we noticed someone laughing at us as we went by: this event will signify this or that to us according to whether this or that drive (Triebe) happens at that moment to be at its height in us… One person will absorb it like a drop of rain, another will shake it from him like an insect, another will try to pick a quarrel, another will examine his clothing to see if there is anything about it that might give rise to laughter, another will be led to reflect on the nature of laughter as such, another will be glad to have involuntarily augmented the amount of cheerfulness and sunshine in the world — and in each case, a drive has gratified itself, whether it be the drive to annoyance, or to combativeness or to reflection or to benevolence. This drive seized the event as its prey. Why precisely this one? Because, thirsty and hungry, it was lying in wait.”16placeholder

For Nietzsche the way the world appears is relative to a particular perspective, but contrary to common understandings of ‘relativism’, these perspectives are not the possession of one or another subject, but of the various drives that make up the subject. For Nietzsche any given individual is a multiplicity — a view that is perhaps well expressed by the novelist and Nietzsche enthusiast, Herman Hesse: “No self, even the most naive, is a unity. Rather, it is an extremely diverse world, a miniature firmament, a chaos of different forms, different states and stages of development, different legacies and potentialities”.17placeholder It is not I who have a different perspective from you, but rather each of us contains a manifold of perspectives based on the manifold of our internal drives.18placeholder Thus where Foucault focused primarily on the way in which the subject’s perspective and constructions of knowledge were governed by forces of power in the social world external to himself, Nietzsche’s conception of power extends to the governing role of conflicting forces within the individual.

This may seem like a theory of the individual concerned with psychology — indeed it resonates profoundly with Freud’s understanding of the psyche as containing conflicting drives (Triebe). Yet while this, just like the power of social groups, is also an aspect of Nietzsche’s encompassing notion of power, and indeed Freud’s theory was indebted to him (though he never admitted it),19placeholder Nietzsche’s conception emphasised the body in a far deeper way than Freud and much of post-Freudian psychoanalysis ever did. “It is crucial for the fate of individuals as well as peoples,” Nietzsche writes, “that culture begins in the right place — not in the ‘soul’ (which was the disastrous superstition of priests and half-priests): the right place is the body, gestures, diet, physiology, everything else follows from this….”20placeholder Indeed, Nietzsche thinks that mental life, thought, cognition, everything we see as ‘soul’,21placeholder actually springs out of processes within the body. “But the awakened, the knowing one says: body I am through and through, and nothing besides; and soul is just a word for something on the body.”22placeholder Thus, we can cultivate our minds by cultivating our body through diet and physical exercise. He writes: “the way Julius Caesar guarded against sickliness and headaches: huge marches, the simplest regimen, staying outside for extended periods of time, constant strains and exertions — these are, basically, the general guidelines for protecting and maintaining the subtle, extremely vulnerable, most highly pressurised machine that is called genius.”23placeholder

It is important to note that this is not a naturalistic philosophy which reduces everything to biological mechanisms; in fact Nietzsche’s thought contains stronger traces of idealism than is often recognised.24placeholder It is rather an emphasis on impulses or forces within the felt sense of the body, and a focus on bodily factors in the construction of knowledge.25placeholder The interpreter of Nietzsche who paid the most attention to this aspect of his thought is the French writer Pierre Klossowski. Klossowski’s own thought follows Nietzsche in exalting the priority of the body to the mind, and thus he sees his investigations of thinkers such as Nietzsche and Marquis de Sade as “essays devoted not to ideologies but to the physiognomies of problematic thinkers,” (i.e. the expression of their thought in their physical characteristics).26placeholder In Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle, Klossowski builds on his interest in the Christian mystical writings of figures such as Meister Eckhardt and Teresa of Avila to develop an apophaticism of the body, in which the ‘immanent and chaotic movements’ of the body’s ‘fluctuations of intensity’ form the unfathomable and ineffable depths out of which the concrete forms of thought and knowledge arise.27placeholder For Klossowski, it was not Nietzsche’s readings of Greek drama, nor even his turbulent emotional life, but rather his constant migraines and illnesses that were the greatest inspiration for his philosophy. In the agonising trance brought on by these valetudinary states, Nietzsche’s mundane process of thinking and sense of self were suspended, and he was able to gain and be inspired by a more direct access to the chaotic sea of bodily forces that constituted his being.28placeholder

Klossowski’s interpretation of Nietzsche differs strikingly from the influential readings of Freud and Foucault, yet it deserves attention due to its recognition of the centrality of the body in Nietzsche’s thought. In tracing this current of thought back from contemporary discussions of power dynamics through Foucault to Nietzsche, and observing the role of the body in Nietzsche’s writings, we can see that at the root of our current discourses around the relationship between knowledge and power lies a broader conception of power containing an image of the individual’s mental life, and thus his cognition, as the product of a field of conflicting forces that lie within the felt sense of the body. We might see this as an under-pursued and under-developed aspect of Nietzsche’s writings, a forgotten element in our centuries-old conversations around power, that, as we shall see, has the potential to be picked up on, revived and enriched by forms of yogic philosophy.

Alfred William Hunt, "Cwm Trefaen", (1855-1860)


Indian philosophies that conceptualise the body as a field of subtle forces are manifold and differ widely on their systems of subtle physiology and yogic practices that they prescribe. Yet many of them converge on the basic idea that mental processes (and hence our knowledge) can be influenced by the cultivation of powers latent within the body. The 10th-century philosophical epic entitled the Mokṣopāya (The Means to Liberation)29placeholder is a vast text, originally written by a single author,30placeholder which relates an extended dialogue between the well-known hero Rāma and the sage Vāsitṣṭha, in which the latter instructs the former on the nature and means of liberation. While the primary dialogue of the text is between Rāma and Vasiṣṭha, the latter’s teaching involves the telling of numerous stories which often contain characters offering their own forms of instruction. Once such example is the story of Bhusuṇḍa,31placeholder an age-old crow, who is skilled in theory and practice of a yogic philosophy32placeholder which he calls “reflection on the breath” (prāṇacintā). Towards the beginning of Bhusuṇḍa’s description of this reflection, he describes the body using the metaphor of a house:

paśyedaṃ bhagavaṃs tāvad dehagehaṃ manoramam /
tripradhānamahāsthūṇaṃ navadvārasamāvṛtam //
puryaṣṭakakalatreṇa tanmātrasvajanena ca /
ahaṅkāragṛhasthena sarvataḥ paripālitam // MU VI 25.14-15

Look at this house of the body, Vasiṣṭha, which is pleasing to the mind. It has three principal great pillars, and is covered by nine doors (14). It is protected from all directions by the woman of the house who is the subtle body, the man of the house who is the ego, and their kinsman who are the five physical elements (15).33placeholder

Within the body, Bhusuṇḍa goes on to describe, is a flow of vital breath (prāṇa), which contains a manifold of powers (śakti).

prāṇāpānasamānādyais tatas sa hṛdayānilaḥ /
saṅketaiḥ procyate tajjñair vicitrācāraceṣṭitaḥ //
hṛtpadmayantrakuharāt samastāḥ prāṇaśaktayaḥ /
ūrdhvādhaḥ prasṛtā dehe candrabimbād ivāṃśavaḥ //
yānty āyānti vivalganti haranti viharanti ca /
utpatanti patanty āśu tā etāḥ prāṇaśaktayaḥ //
sa eṣa hṛtpadmagataḥ prāṇa ity ucyate budhaiḥ /
asya kācin mune śaktiḥ praspandayati locane //
kācit sparśam upādatte kācid vahati nāsayā /
kācid annaṃ jarayati kācid vakti vacāṃsi ca //
bahunātra kim uktena sarvam eva śarīrake /
karoti bhagavān vāyur yantrehām iva yāntrikaḥ // MU VI 25.25-30

The wise describe the wind in the heart, which moves and changes in various ways, as prāṇa, apāna, samāna etc., depending on [their own] conventions (25).34placeholder The collected powers (śaktayaḥ) of the vital breath flow out from the lotus in the heart, upward and downward through the body, like beams from the disc of the moon (26). These powers of the vital breath come and go, springing up, withholding and releasing, rising and falling quickly (27). The wise say that this [breath] is called prāṇa when it is within the lotus in the heart. O Sage! One of its [i.e. the vital breath’s] power’s causes the two eyes to twinkle (praspandayati locane) (28), another takes touch upon itself, another blows through the nose, another digests food and another utters words (29). What is the point of saying more on this topic? — the air is the lord that does everything in the body, like the driver of a machine (30).

Here we have a picture of the body as containing a system of vital powers, governed by the breath, that rise and fall and fluctuate in intensity. Indeed, an early verse in the next section says that prāṇa is ‘always moving’ (sadāgatiḥ 6,26.2). As is also similar to Nietzsche’s picture, we have a sense of how these vital powers govern not only the physical processes of the body, but also sense experience (touch and vision are mentioned), as well as mental processes. Though the house of the body has a ‘man of the house,’ i.e. the ego, which dwells within it, the ultimate governing force in this picture is not a guiding soul, like it would be for Descartes, but the vital breath that is the ‘driver of the machine,’ and gives rise to all other psycho-physical processes.35placeholder This fits well with other yogic philosophies, in which the basic ontological division is not a Cartesian split between body and mind, but a division between pure being or consciousness, and the psycho-physical elements that make up an individual.

Then the practice of pranayama is described, which is earlier defined as the ‘restriction’ of the breath (prāṇasaṃrodha, VI 13.3), but also seems associated with an awareness of the breath’s natural movements. In a number of the ensuing verses, he says that knowledge of this process can lead to the yogi not being born again (buddhvā bhūyo na jāyate, VI 26.18), that the process gives liberation (muktidā, v.19), that those who attain it have attained all that needs to be attained, and they are unwearied: (prāptaṃ prāptavyam akhilaṃ tair akhinnās ta eva hi v.24). This is important because much of the rest of the text exalts knowledge of the self (ātmajñāna) as the proper means to liberation. Clearly there is an equivalence being made between the path to liberation understood as a purely cognitive process, and the path understood as involving energy in the body. Knowledge and embodied power are, in the Mokṣopāya, two sides of the same coin.

Following this, the text turns to a fascinating description of the process of restraining and understanding the breath, which sees the inhalation (apāna) and exhalation (prāṇa) mirroring a cosmic duality:36placeholder

bāhyākāśonmukhaḥ prāṇo vahaty agniśikhā yathā /
hṛdākāśonmukho ‘pāno nimne vahati vārivat //
apānaś candramā deham āpyāyayati bāhyataḥ /
prāṇas sūryo ‘gnir atha vā pacaty antar idaṃ vapuḥ // MU VI 26.31-32

Facing external space, prāṇa flows like the flame of a fire. Facing the space of the heart, apāna flows into [its] depths like water (31).  Apāna is the moon, it swells the body from without. Prāṇa, is the sun, or rather fire [itself], it ripens the body from within (32).

He who understands that this duality, this push and pull, is the source of the mind and soul is liberated from birth and death.

hṛdi candrārkayor jñātvā nityam astamayodayam /
ātmano nijam ādhāraṃ na bhūyo jāyate manaḥ // MU VI 26.40

The mind that knows the eternal rising and setting of the sun and the moon in the heart, which is its own continual support, is not born again.

Again, we see in this verse, that the rise and fall of the breath in the body is the basis (ādhāraṃ) of the mind (manaḥ), which is liberated when it becomes reflexively aware of its own vital conditions. This can help us understand why pranayama seems to have the double meaning in this text of both breath restriction (prāṇaāyāma literally means ‘restriction of breath’)37placeholder and breath awareness.38placeholder On top of the practised harmonisation of the two breaths, we can understand pranayama is the creation of a feedback loop: the breath gives rise to the mind, which turns back on the breath as its vital condition, creating a dynamic system in which the flow of the breath and the mind change simultaneously. This moves beyond Nietzsche, whose writings often suggest that the forces of the body simply produce the mind in a deterministic way — here we have a looping system in which bodily energy forms the mind and then the mind turns back on bodily energy, as one changes so does the other. Harmonisation, we might then say, is not enforced on the breath as much as an organic product of unification of body and mind in breath awareness, a process that eventually becomes effortless (‘ayatnasiddha’ c.f. MU VI 26.57-8). This process might be familiar to those who have some experience in forms of meditation where focus is applied to the bodily sensations associated with the breath. Many experience that when they observe their breath, their breath physically changes, becoming slower and smoother, longer and more continuous. This in turn stills the mind and allows the breath to be observed with more clarity, which further transforms the breath. Though it is difficult to remain undistracted, the practice of meditation is aimed at riding this feedback loop toward a transformed state of consciousness.

Moreover, this awareness can lead to a new perception of time and space:

prāṇabhakṣyonmukhāpānaṃ deśaṃ kālaṃ ca niṣkalam /
vicārya bahir antar vā na bhūyaḥ pariśocyate //
apānabhakṣaṇaparaṃ prāṇaṃ hṛdi tathā bahiḥ /
deśaṃ kālaṃ ca samprekṣya na bhūyo jāyate manaḥ //
yatra prāṇo hy apānena prāṇenāpāna eva ca /
nigīrṇo bahir antaś ca deśau kālau ca paśya tau // MU_6,26.54-56

Having reflected on apāna, which consumes prāṇa, as well as undifferentiated time and space both outside and inside, one is no longer saddened [by anything] (54). Having observed prāṇa which consumes apāna, as well as time and space both inside and outside, one’s mind is not born again (55). Observe, [O sage! The nature of] both space and time, without and within, at the place where prāṇa is swallowed by apāna, and apāna by prāṇa.

A dense and ambiguous passage to be sure, but it seems to be linking the contractions of the breath to our wider sense of time and space. This would fit with the Mokṣopāya’s conviction that time and space are illusions, demonstrated in various stories, such as the story of Lavaṇa, where a king experiences years of life in a single moment, or the story of the Girl in the Stone, where a whole universe exists within a single atom. Here we see that the text is tying this relative view of time and space to the movements of the body, specifically that we acquire our wider sense of time and space both ‘inside’ and ‘outiside’, from the way the inner movements of the breath condition these forms of our sensibility. Just as for Nietzsche, it is the conditions of life and the living body that are the basis of what we often take to be objective features of a world ‘out there’.39placeholder

Yet unlike Nietzsche, for whom the conflicting powers within the body were the beginning of knowledge, the Mokṣopāya posits something beyond these, a unitary life force, a power identified with a principle of consciousness:40placeholder

prāṇāpānarathārūḍham aprāṇāpānam ātatam /
yac chaktirūpaṃ śaktīnāṃ tac cittattvam upāsmahe // MU_6,26.69

prāṇāpānaparāmarśasattārūpāvabodhakam /
yat prāpyaṃ prāṇamananāt tac cittattvam upāsmahe //
yat prāṇapavanaspando yat spandānandakāraṇam /
kāraṇaṃ kāraṇānāṃ yat tac cittattvam upāsmahe // MU_6,26.71-72

We honour that principle of consciousness which mounts the chariot of both prāṇa and apāna, which is [itself] neither prāṇa nor apāna, which is spread out [over the body], which has the form of the power of all powers… (69) We honour that principle of consciousness which is the teacher of the true form of reflection on prāṇa and apāna, which should be attained by contemplating the vital breath (71). We honour principle of consciousness, which is the purifying vibration of the vital breath, is the cause of the joy of vibration [of the psycho-physical functions], [and] is the cause of all causes (72).

Nietzsche, especially in Klossowski’s reading, saw the body as a site for the vicious conflict between the drives. While the description of vital breath in the Mokṣopāya does have a sense of internal multiplicity of powers that fluctuate in intensity and move around in the body (see above MU 6,25.27) this arises out of a basic dualistic rhythm that plays out between inhalation and exhalation, which is in turn based on a still more primordial unity of a principle of consciousness that is described as the power of powers and the ultimate life force within all living beings (paraṃ jīvasya jīvitam 6.26.62). Through the practice of prāṇāyāma, we can move our awareness from the chaotic movements of bodily energy through to the basic duality of inbreath and outbreath and finally to the basic vibration of power itself, which does not so much transcend the body as lie within the heart of the body’s constitutive dualities. Thus, where Nietzsche’s conception of bodily powers reflects his particular vision of the cosmos as “an ocean of tempestuous and torrential energies”41placeholder (WP S1067), the Mokṣopāya’s vision of bodily power reflects its own metaphysics, in which the multiplicity of the world arises from a primordial power that is both empty and full of pure consciousness.42placeholder

Alfred William Hunt, "Snowdon, after an April Hailstorm", (ca. 1847)


To return to our initial observations, a superficial investigation of European intellectual history reveals that our contemporary conversations around knowledge and power dynamics do not arise out of nowhere, but they have a particular history that can be traced back through some of the most important thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Tracing our understanding of power and knowledge to Nietzsche, we see that he envisioned power as functioning on a variety of different levels, including not only political and social but individual, psychical and bodily power. Yogic conceptions of the body as a field of vital powers show similar concerns, and if Nietzsche were around today, when far more resources on these philosophies are available, he may well have taken a strong interest in yogic philosophies such as the one expressed by Bhusuṇḍa in the Mokṣopāya.43placeholder

As we have seen, the Mokṣopāya’s conception of the body concurs with Nietzsche in seeing the mind and thus cognition as intrinsically linked to vital powers within the body, as well as acknowledging the possibility of transforming our minds and knowledge through cultivation of the body. Yet this cultivation of the body involves the harmonisation of body and mind, constituted, as we have theorised, by the simultaneous transformation of breath and awareness in the psycho-physical feedback loop of pranayama. This can lead to an awareness of a true understanding of the self, which has at its core not simply a chaotic multiplicity, as it is for Nietzsche, but rather a vital unity, yet a unity that is not the unity of an individual soul, but the unity of consciousness itself which unfolds in the bodies, lives, and minds of all living beings.

One way of explaining this philosophical difference — using a Nietzsche-inspired hermeneutics of suspicion — would be to point out that our experience of our own body is likely going to affect the way we conceive of the universe at large. Nietzsche’s unfortunate experience of his own body as a hellish ecstasy of migraines and epileptic seizures perhaps makes it unsurprising that he saw the whole universe, as a “vast confusion of contradictory drives.”44placeholder The Mokṣopāya, on the other hand, with its descriptions of the harmony of inhalation and exhalation, may be an example of a philosophy based on a harmonious experience of the body, which reflects its contrasting metaphysical conception of ultimate reality as unitary, productive and blissful consciousness.

However we explain this, the present comparison occasions a return to our initial reflections on reductionism. As we observed, the trends within contemporary academia toward unearthing dynamics of power underneath the prima facie truth claims of Hindu and Yoga philosophies are illuminating, yet can lead toward over-reductionism if the philosophical and phenomenological dimensions of these claims are left unconsidered. Thus, the challenge arises as to the weight we can give these claims without seeing them as the a-historical, objective truths that the various facets post-Enlightenment philosophy have spent decades deconstructing. Building on the preceding analyses, I believe that a way of moving forward here would not to be to reject a philosophical worldview in which knowledge and power and intrinsically linked, but to extend our notion of power beyond the political and the psychological (as Nietzsche himself did) and to acknowledge the role of forces within the felt sense of the body as the conditions for our knowledge. This framework would allow us to view yogic knowledge, not as objective theoretical information given in a special experience but as a historically conditioned expression of the way the world as a whole changes when the psycho-physical forces within our body that condition our mind are transformed by techniques of practice. This, I believe, is a healthy way of understanding yogic knowledge or enlightenment experiences. It does not dismiss them as either non-existent or reduce them to being mere internalisations of communally-constructed religious ideas, but maintains the possibility of them offering important and valid insights into reality, whilst also acknowledging that they are not ‘infallible’ in a simple sense, and that there can be harmful dynamics of social power involved in the institutions in which they are cultivated.

Aamir Kaderbhai is a PhD student at the University of Oxford. His interests range from continental philosophy, particularly Nietzsche, Bergson and Deleuze, through to Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit poetic literature. His various projects stem from the intention of using a creative combination of philosophy and philology to study classical Indian philosophies and methods of psycho-physical transformation, as well as using this to develop new, (and potentially scientifically informed) forms of speculative metaphysics. He is currently working on a dissertation on the 10th-century Kashmiri epic poem entitled the Mokṣopāya, a unique, unorthodox, and genre-defying philosophical text that makes the ambitious claim of being able to being the reader to enlightenment. Through his analysis of the way the text seeks to create this transformation, Aamir hopes, amongst other things, to investigate the possibility of the academic study of Indian philosophy taking claims about transformed human subjectivity more seriously while remaining philologically detailed and philosophically rigorous.


Examples of this abound. One famous one is Sheldon Pollock’s The Language of the Gods in the World of Men (2009), which details the relationship between Sanskit as a vehicle for knowledge construction and political power. When it comes to yoga or esotericism, there has been pushback against the psychoanalytic elements of books such as Jeffry Kripal’s Kali’s Child (1995) and David Gordan White’s Kiss of the Yogini  (2006), which aimed to understand examples of yogic and tantric practice through a psychoanalytic, particularly Freudian, lens. It is important to note, however, that the question of whether any of these studies are reductionistic is particular to each case, and most likely none of these scholars would want their work to be understood as fully overwriting the face-value religious claims of the texts in question.  My essay does not seek to undermine these analyses, but rather to speculatively reframe the claims to universal knowledge, which Indian philosophies profess are accessible through practice and experience, in the terms of the implicit metaphysics behind power-based conceptions of knowledge.


ya eṣo’ntarhṛdaya ākāśastasmiñchete sarvasya vaśī sarvasyeśānaḥ sarvasyādhipatiḥ’  BU 4.4.22.


Brian Black Dialogue as Discourse: Priests, Kings and Women in the Early Upaniṣads (2003), p151, specifically Yajñavalkya’s attempts to win patronage from King Janaka.


It must be noted that there are ongoing questions amongst philologists as to what exactly counts as ‘yoga’ philosophy. Though the term is associated most often with the Pātañjala Yoga Śāstra (c. 4th century C.E) and is the name given to one of the six traditionally designated schools (darśaṇa) of orthodox Hindu philosophy, the term was used throughout Sanskrit literature with a number of different meanings (the introduction to James Mallinson’s and Mark Singleton’s Roots of Yoga (2017) is a good place to find more information on this). In this article, rather than identifying a ‘yoga philosophy’ with philological rigour, I instead appeal to what I term ‘yogic philosophies’, which I define as philosophies which centralise the claim that knowledge of reality can be transformed and enhanced by forms of psycho-physical conditioning. Such philosophies clearly abounded in ancient India, and the philosophy of the Yoga Sūtras is clearly an important example. The question, however, of how to characterise ‘yogic philosophies’ and their relation to the complex concept of ‘yoga’ remains open.


In this essay I pick a particular text as an example of a yogic philosophy. Though I believe that what I extract from the Mokṣopāya has close resonances across various Indian philosophies (and perhaps beyond), substantiating this claim remains a desideratum.


It goes without saying that the history of ideas that lead to the intellectual atmosphere prevalent day is long and intricate — what I present here is merely a single, albeit important, element of it.


Foucault plays on the double meaning of subject, in both English and French, as meaning both an individual as the thinking self but also the individual as subjected to a certain regime of power.


It is important to note that this term does not intend to completely reduce knowledge to dynamics of power, only to indicate their inextricable connection.


Michel Foucault, Foucault Live, translated by John Johnston, edited by Sylvere Lotringer (1989), p. 327.


The Genealogy of Morality, III. §24. All quotes from Nietzsche (except from The Will to Power) are taken from the Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy editions.


More accurately, Nietzsche is critical of an attitude that puts truth above all else, and sees this as a sublimated form of the will to domination.


The Gay Science, III. §110.


Thus Spoke Zarathustra, On self-overcoming.


Thus Spoke Zarathustra, On self-overcoming.


It should be noted that it is very unclear whether this is meant to be a literal history. Moreover, we should emphasise that though Nietzsche often sounds quasi-fascistic, or a thinker of ‘might makes right’, this would be to oversimplify his corpus. The ideal of the übermensch is one of solitude, an individual who strikes out independently and dominates others not in a violent way, but by overcoming their ideals and creating his own set of values.


Daybreak, §119.


Herman Hesse, The Steppenwolf, Penguin, (2012), p. 100.


Smith, Daniel W. “Klossowski’s Reading of Nietzsche: Impulses, Phantasms, Simulacra, Stereotypes.” Diacritics 35, no. 1 (2005), p10.


Cybulska, Eva. “Freud’s burden of debt to Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.” Indo-Pacific Journal of Phenomenology 15, no. 2 (2015), 1-15.


Twilight of the Idols, “Skirmishes” §47.


The term soul here (psykhḗ in Ancient Greek), should be read as referring as much to the ‘mind’ studied by modern psychology, as to the ‘soul’ in some religious sense.


Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘On the Despisers of the Body’.


Twilight of the Idols, “Skirmishes” §31.


See the section on Nietzsche in Guyer, Paul and Rolf-Peter Horstmann, “Idealism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2023 Edition), Edward N. Zalta & Uri Nodelman (eds.), URL =


It is very important to recognise that although Nietzsche’s language very often sounds reductionistic in a similar vein to contemporary discourses of mechanical-biological and mechanical-physical reductionism, his own metaphysical vision was far less mechanical. This comes out especially in his last writings, where the will to power is understood as a metaphysical principle that lies behind what we call ‘matter’, but has an ‘inner’, qualitative, you might even say ‘mental’ dimension: “The triumphant concept of ‘force’, with which our physicists have created God and the world, needs supplementing: it must be ascribed an inner world which I call ‘will to power’… There is no help for it: one must understand all motion, all ‘appearances’, all ‘laws’ as mere symptoms of inner events, and use the human analogy consistently to the end” (Nietzsche Writings from the Late Notebooks, p. 26). Thus, Nietzsche’s notion of ‘force’ (Kraft) covers a similar semantic range to the notion of śakti in the Mokṣopāya, discussed below.


Klossowski, Pierre., and Dan Smith. Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle (1997), postface p. 137.


Smith, Daniel W., p. 9.


Smith, Daniel W., p. 11-12.


The text commonly known in India as the Yogavāsistha has been shown in the last three decades to be a later and redacted version of a text now known as the Moskṣopāya. For the most seminal studies of this family of texts, see Walter Slaje’s Vom Mokṣopāya-Śāstra zum Yogavāsiṣṭha-Mahārāmāyaṇa (1994), Jürgen Hanneder’s Studies on the Mokṣopāya (2006) and Mokṣopāya: Weg zur Erlösung (2012). The text has been almost entirely critically edited and can be found online for free (but without critical apparatus) at Anonymus Casmiriensis: Mokṣopāya (GRETIL).


See page 5 of Hanneder’s 2005 essay “The Mokṣopāya: An Introduction.” In The Mokṣopāya, Yogavāsiṣṭha and Related Texts: Based on Revised Versions of Lectures Delivered at the ‘Mokṣopāya Panel’ Held at the 29th German Oriental Conference in Halle, edited by Jürgen Hanneder. Geisteskultur Indiens Texte Und Studien 7. Aachen: Shaker Verl.


For more other discussions of the Bhusuṇḍa narrative in the Mokṣopāya, see Sthaneshwar Timalsina’s “Liberation and Immortality Bhuśuṇḍa’s Yoga of Prāṇa in the Yogavāsiṣṭha,” in Yoga Powers: Extraordinary Capacities Attained Through Meditation and Concentration, Ed. Knut Axel Jacobsen, 2012, 303-326, and Tamara Cohen’s 2023 PhD Thesis available here:


The question of the role of yoga in the Mokṣopāya is an ongoing debate. Walter Slaje in particular has argued that yoga actually plays a minor or subordinated role in the text’s philosophy (c.f. Slaje, W. “On changing others’ ideas: The case of Vidyāranya and the Yogavāsistha.” Indo-Iran J 41, 103–124 (1998)). For a counter argument see Tamara Cohen’s 2023 PhD Thesis (cited in previous note). In the context of this article, it matters little what exact role Bhusuṇḍa plays in the text as a whole. We need only acknowledge that the text presents a detailed yogic philosophy (c.f. n.4 above) that is clearly a possible means to liberation.


All translations of the Mokṣopāya, unless otherwise indicated, are my own.


The point expressed by the word saṅketaiḥ is that the different divisions of the vital breath are based on linguistic convention only and are not ultimately real.


For more explicit evidence that the prāṇa is the basis and support for the mind, we can look to MU V 92.48-51: ‘Rāma, vāsanā (latent impressions in the mind) and the vibration of prāṇa are two seeds of thought, and when one of the those two is destroyed, the second also is destroyed quickly (5.92.48). Indeed, these two seeds are the mutual cause of the mind in a living being, Rāma, like a cloud and a water pool make a waterway (5.92.49). Indeed, together they produce thought, which has the nature of consciousness, just as wind and scent produce the bliss of the sense of smell (5.92.51)’ (translated by Tamara Cohen in her thesis, p. 201).


The breath is actually divided into eight different forms, a system which may have drawn from other traditions of hatha yoga. For more information on this, see Cohen’s and Timalsina’s studies of this narrative.


This is the understanding of prāṇāyāma found in Patañjali’s Yogasūtras.


The text often uses verbs of knowing to describe the right relationship to the breath. See for example: aviratagatayor gatiṃ viditvā hṛdi marutor anusṛtya coditāṃ tām / na punar iha hi jāyate mahātman muditamanāḥ puruṣaḥ praṇaṣṭapāśaḥ // MU VI 25.38 ‘Knowing the movement of the two continually moving (breaths), observing the arising of the two winds in the heart, the great souled one, the joyous-minded man, he who is disciplined in breath, is not borne again on this earth.’


C.f. “Life no argument. We have arranged for ourselves a world in which we can live — by positing bodies, lines, planes, causes and effects, motion and rest, form and content; without these articles of faith nobody now could endure life. But that does not prove them. Life is no argument. The condition of life might include error.” The Gay Science III. §121.


We should take the cittatvam of these verses to be not just the mind but the Self itself, absolute reality, since it is described earlier as cidātmā (MU VI 26.60-5) and knowledge of it is clearly liberating. This ties in with a larger metaphysical vision of the Mokṣopāya which holds that from one perspective absolute reality is completely still, pure and devoid of content, but from another, it naturally and spontaneously produces phenomenal diversity. Here the Self is seen as a vital and vibrating force that gives rise to the forces within the body.


The Will to Power §1067. (Penguin Classics edition (2017)).


As another verse states: tat sarvaśakti kacitaṃ sarvaśaktisamudgakam / nabhaso ‘py adhikaṃ śūnyam avedyaṃ ca cidātmakam // MU VI 9.27 ‘That which possess every power, that which shines forth as the container of every power, which is emptier than space and unknowable, that is the essence of consciousness.


Nietzsche was actually a great reader of the Sanskrit translations of foundational Hindu texts that were available to him. These were limited however, and to my knowledge he never read anything specifically on yoga. This may have informed his opinion of brahmanical religion as a body-rejecting ‘priestly’ belief system based on ressentiment (e.g. The Genealogy of Morality I. §6).


The Will to Power §259.


April 2024


“Would Humanity Be Healthier Without The State?”

by A. Scott Buch

The Power of All Powers: Yogic and European Philosophies of Power in Conversation

by Aamir Kaderbhai

Understanding Edgar Allan Poe

by Ermanno Bencivenga

Diverse Thoughts on the Lightly Enlightened, circa 17th Century France

by Trent Portigal