Samadhi is somewhat the Holy Grail of yogis. It's the eighth and final stage of yoga as codified by Patanjali in the Yoga-Sutra, representing an almost indescribable state that paves the way to liberation. So how does one approach such a subtly exquisite experience that surpasses cognitive domain on a theoretical and intellectual level? To explore this, we chatted with Alexandre Astier, an expert in the ancient history of Hinduism and author of many books on the topic (refer to his bibliography at the end of the article). We deeply admire his passionate pedagogical skills. In this conversation, he unlocks the doors to understanding this mysterious and fascinating samadhi that will hopefully no longer be a secret to you.
Citta Vritti | What is "samadhi" or "the samadhi"? What ideological framework does it fit into?
Alexandre Astier | Samadhi refers to a perfect contemplative state. This concept first appears in detail in Patanjali's Yoga-Sutra , dating from the early centuries of our era. It is described as the primary means of achieving the ultimate goal, which is liberation. In all the philosophies of ancient India (not in the Veda but from the Upanishad, in the Bhagavad Gita and also in Buddhism and Jainism), there is a fundamental quest for liberation (or deliverance) that consists in breaking the cycle of reincarnations. There is this ideological backdrop of belief in successive lives, something that transits from one life to another, which is explained by the law of the consequences of actions, known as the law of karma. Samadhi is primarily, in the text of the Yoga-Sutra , the main means to attain this liberation from the cycle of rebirths.
It's an inherently experimental state, which is not precisely knowledge, making it difficult to define. We are dealing with something that is experienced, that one experiments with oneself, but that is not in the realm of ideological knowledge. In somewhat modern terms, we could talk about a perfect meditative state. Furthermore, samadhi can also refer to something else entirely, namely the tomb of a holy person: the place of ultimate stability and rest.
What does the etymology of this word tell us?
The word "samādhi" derives from the verbal root dhā , enriched with two prefixes: sam and Ā. Dhā means "to put", "to place", "to establish", "to focus on". The prefix sam has several meanings: "with", "together", "completely", "perfectly", implying totality, perfection. Ā indicates proximity, approach, movement, "towards", in the sense of a return to the subject. Thus, the action returns to the subject of the verb, in an action that acts upon oneself. So samadhi is the perfectly stable position of the mind, of perfect concentration, of perfect contemplation, with the idea of mental rest. This is the famous definition of the second sutra of the first chapter (or pada) of the Yoga sutras : « yogaś cittavṛttinirodhaḥ (I,2) which means " yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind " (the famous "citta vritti"!). So the concept of samadhi is essentially a concept of calm, of inner rest, up to the cessation of the mind.
Mircea Eliade (historian of religions, philosopher, and expert on the Indian world) suggested translating samadhi by the concept of "enstasy", as opposed to ecstasy. A stasis is a state of cessation of activity, of immobility. Ecstasy, used in religious mystical experiences, is the idea of being outside oneself, towards an absolute or a divinity. From this notion of ecstasy, Mircea Eliade forms the opposite – "in" – a stable state established within oneself.
Did the concept of samadhi pre-exist the Yoga-Sutra?
It is likely that the concept of samadhi already existed in ancient Buddhism (the Buddha having lived in the 5th century BC). There it then referred to the same thing, namely meditation exercises also called dhyana (like the seventh limb of Patanjali's yoga). But in the field of Sanskrit and Brahmanic culture (ancient Hinduism), the term appears for the first time in a developed way in the Yoga-SutraThis concept is, in my opinion, related to the cultural milieu of Buddhism in the region of Magadha (which currently corresponds to the north of the State of Bihar in India) which saw the emergence of a specific culture around the law of karma and meditation. This will be taken up and adapted by the Brahmanic environment, then undergoing a thorough reform, towards an interiorization and a search for more meditative practices. It is probably in this context that yoga and samadhi, which is also an element of yoga, are adapted and codified.
Who seeks samadhi? Is it a practice for everyone?
The core of the Yoga-Sutra probably consists of brahmanes [priests, clerical class], ascetic renunciates, who have decided to say no to the world and whose goal is to definitively exit the cycle of rebirths. They view samadhi as the meditative experience that allows, after a series of other experiences, this exit from the world. Therefore, it is something that primarily concerns a spiritual elite and renunciates of the world. That being said, it's an exercise that can also be approached by people who practice yoga while staying in the world and practicing various forms of contemplation, up to the most intense.
What is the difference between the stage of samadhi, and that of kaivalya (or moksha and nirvana)?
In the Yoga-SutraIn the Yoga-Sutra, the notion of samadhi is the contemplative state that allows access to kaivalya, which is this liberation from the cycle of rebirths. In yoga, there are different meditative exercises where the highest and most perfect is the exercise of samadhi, which is complex and takes several forms [see our article : Les différentes formes de samadhi dans les Yoga-Sutra]. This exercise of samadhi allows the opening, the big leap, the passage towards kaivalya. In other words, samadhi is the contemplative exercise preparatory to kaivalya. Kaivalya is the term more commonly used in the philosophies of Samkhya and Yoga in a dualistic ideological framework. Moksha and nirvana are synonyms for kaivalya in different ideological contexts: moksha is used in the Brahmanic context of the Upanishad and non-dualistic philosophy. Nirvana is the equivalent in the field of Buddhism.
Can samadhi be achieved in our lifetime, or is it a state that only concerns the soul beyond the physical death of the being?
Forms of samadhi are contemplative exercises that the yogin performs and in which they can remain for more or less time. The ultimate stage of samadhi opens onto kaivalya and probably at the time of the Yoga-Sutra, liberation was only conceived at the moment of death and the abandonment of the body. In general, liberation was conceived as being able to occur only at the death of the physical body. But soon, Hinduism will develop the idea that one can achieve liberation and remain alive until the death of the body: this is the notion of "liberated while living" ("jivan-mukta"). This appears probably a little bit in the Bhagavad Gita but especially in the tantric movements at their peak with Abhinavagupta, the great non-dualist master of the Shaivite school of Kashmir in the tenth century of our era, who develops this idea that one can achieve liberation in one's lifetime. That is, to remain liberated while living for years before the death of the physical body while the soul, the spiritual principle, is already liberated.
When one enters samadhi, is it a final state? Or should one continue to practice?
In the Yoga-Sutra samadhi is very clearly a time-limited experience, which can be a few minutes, a few hours, or perhaps a few days for very advanced mystics. Ancient India tells many legends about spiritual masters whose bodies are cared for for several days so that they stay alive in a state of samadhi, that is, complete absorption. But it's a meditative state that is necessarily transient since it either leads to a return to the world or to liberation. In the old version, it leads to liberation at the moment of death. Then, it leads to this notion of liberated while living. At that point, one is both in the world while the spiritual principle is no longer there. But technically, samadhi is time-limited.
We sometimes read that this or that yoga master has "reached samadhi": what does this mean? It seems that it is the disciples who posthumously award this achievement to their masters. So, how can they know?
This is no longer samadhi in the technical sense of a meditative exercise but is used in place of the notion of liberated while living. Samadhi is also used to refer to the definitive death of the body: the name for the tombs that I mentioned earlier. This means that the master is in the definitive state of the end of the reincarnation of his spiritual principle while still being in the world. Or it's that he is in his meditative state: he does not speak, he does not move, he does nothing, he is just in the contemplation of his consciousness.
Then, in current movements that are more or less Orientalist and esoteric, it is said that this or that master is liberated, it is hard to say. We can also have short-term experiences of this kind that are not necessarily definitive and at that point, we are on other aspects of spirituality, even in the realm of propaganda around gurus.
How can this experience be put into words?
It's not possible. The yogin who lives this experience, when they return to the world and recover the use of their mind and words, will try to describe the memories of their impressions but it's necessarily imperfect. It can be described in different ways; and probably yogins who were in a dualistic framework will describe it with dualistic words while other yogins who have lived the same thing will describe it in a non-dualistic framework. In the context of non-dualism: a yoga of the union of the Atman and Brahman, and in the dualistic context a yoga of the divorce of the spiritual principle Purusha and Nature Prakriti [On this subject read our article: Cliché #1: "Yoga is Union" ... or not!]. All this is play, intellectual reasoning but which is probably frames of the analysis of thought when we use reasoning and words but which describe in any case imperfectly an experience that cannot be described by words since it is beyond words.
Also read the second part of this interview with Alexandre Astier on Samadhi: The different forms of samādhi in the Yoga-Sutra.
You can find Alexandre Astier's books (in french) in bookstores, including: L’Hindouisme pour les Nuls en 50 notions clés (Paris, Broché, 2020) ; L’hindouisme (Paris, Eyrolles, 2013) ; Citations hindoues expliquées (Paris, Eyrolles, 2008) ; Les maîtres spirituels de l’hindouisme (Paris, Eyrolles, 2008) ; Petite histoire de l’Inde (Paris, Eyrolles, 2007) ; Comprendre l’hindouisme (Paris, Eyrolles, 2006).
And to go (even) further, Alexandre Astier kindly shares with us his bibliographic orientation on the concept of samadhi :
- BAREAU André, Jacques MAY, Tara MICKAËL, « Samādhi », dans Sylvain Auroux (dir.),
Encyclopédie Philosophique Universelle, II : Les Notions Philosophiques, Tome 2, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1990, p. 2894-2896.
- ANGOT Michel, « Samādhi », dans Le Yoga-Sūtra de Patañjali, le Yoga-Bhāṣya de Vyāsa, édition, traduction et présentation de Michel ANGOT, Les Belles Lettres, 2008, 2nde éd. 2012, p. 841-843.
- SARBACKER Stuart Ray, Samādhi: The Numinous and Cessative in Indo-Tibetan Yoga, Albany, State University of New York Press, 2005.
- BRYANT Edwin F., « Samādhi in the Yoga Sūtras », in Halvor Eifring (ed.), Asian
Traditions of Meditation, Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Press, 2016, p. 48-70.
Image : Partie centrale du tableau Trois Aspects de l’Absolu de Bulaki. Tiré d’un manuscrit de Nath Charit, 1823, Inde. Aquarelle opaque, or et alliage d’étain sur papier ; 47 x 123 cm. Mehrangarh Museum Trust, Rajasthan.