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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Straddling two worlds, 17 Dec 2009
Dennis Littrell (SoCal) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Circle of Fire: The Metaphysics of Yoga (Paperback)
Dr. Mazumdar comes from a long tradition in Hinduism. He is a champion of one of the six orthodox philosophies of India, that of Advaita, which can be seen as both a philosophy and a monistic religion. He is also a man of science, a surgeon with a clear understanding of the scientific method and a man who is aware of the latest advances in scientific knowledge in such diverse fields as medicine, physics and evolutionary biology. What he tries to do here in this most interesting book is justify Advaitic philosophy in light of modern science. I was impressed with his effort, but I am not sure he was entirely successful. It is difficult to straddle two worlds.

Note well the complete title of his book: "The Circle of Fire: The Metaphysics of Yoga." To justify a metaphysical position with the empirical findings of science is indeed a difficult task. What I think can be shown is that a philosophy or a religion or any metaphysical edifice is not in contradiction with science. In this sense I think Mazumdar is admirably successful. But he is not satisfied with that. What he wants to show--and this is something he insists upon--is that of all the philosophies of India, including not just the orthodox ones coming from the Vedas but the heterodox ones including Buddhism, Advaita is the one most in line with the findings of modern science.

The key idea in Advaita is that the phenomenal world is an illusion somehow resting upon the eternal truth of Brahman, Brahman being the Ineffable (God) of the Vedas about which nothing can be said. Furthermore in Advaita we are part of Brahman in the same sense that a molecule of water is part of the ocean. Mazumdar uses the image of a whirling firebrand that creates the circle of fire as a way of expressing what he sees as a metaphysical truth. The firebrand is real but the circle of fire (the phenomenal world) is an illusion created by the whirling firebrand. Today we might see a whirling battery-powered light instead of a burning piece of wood.

The strength of the book is in the clear, if a bit repetitious, delineation of the Advaita philosophy and how it differs from other philosophies such as Vedanta, Samkhya, Buddhism and others. Mazumdar does a good job of arguing that Advaita is in agreement with quantum mechanics in the sense that particles and energy have a kind of fuzzy existence that cannot be objectified in a definite sense (all is relative), contending that there must be an absolute truth beyond this shadow show similar to the Advaitic absolute which is Brahman. What he doesn't do is demonstrate this in any scientific sense. Of course no one else has either and it is doubtful that anyone ever will. Metaphysical "truths" can be in agreement with scientific discoveries but they are unlikely be proven through scientific methods anymore than science is likely to establish the God of Abraham.

It should be noted that this book is about yoga in the broadest sense of the word. Mazumdar spends most of his expression on the metaphysics of Advaita devoting only some of the latter parts of the book to the yogas presented in the Bhagavad Gita (Bhakti, Karma, and Jnana) and to Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (usually understood as Raja Yoga). He makes it clear that the most important method employed by Advaitists is Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of faith and devotion. He is comfortable with the various rites and rituals of the Advaitic practice believing that if nothing else they are psychologically efficacious.

This sort of straddling of two worlds by Mazumdar is also seen in this statement: "...the exact relationship between Brahman and the world in Advaita cannot be described in terms of human experience." (p. 113) In other words, although Mazumdar believes that Advaita is true and the best of all religious philosophies, it cannot be established!

I happen to agree with Mazumdar's concept of the absolute, although I usually just use the more secular term "the Ineffable" rather than "Brahman." And I certainly agree with this: "There is no way to describe the absolute. Brahman is 'that from which all words turn back.'" (p. 115)

Interesting is Mazumdar's semi-idealistic position on information. He posits that information "can be said to exist both dependently and independently of matter-energy...and would not exist if there was no other existence in the universe"; but "...can exist potentially with any form of existence that is manifested from the absolute." (p. 228) Incidentally, this is cognate with modern physics which sees the cosmos in terms of information.

Another nice observation is this about the so-called psychic powers achieved in the practice of Patanjali's yoga (invisibility, levitation, etc.). They are considered stages on the way to the final samadhi and to be refused. Mazumdar notes, "This is somewhat like the powers offered to Jesus by the devil." (p. 333)

Now for a quibble:
I was not able to appreciate how learning or our ability to learn establishes free will as Muzumdar asserts on page 75. It seems to me that any act or experience of learning is no different in terms of causation than other acts or experiences. Remember Hume's Fork: either our actions are determined, in which case we are not responsible for them, or they are the result of random events, in which case we are not responsible for them. This seems to do away with free will.

Additionally Mazumdar writes: "...our individuality comprises layer upon layer of relative and changeable personality traits, memories, thoughts, and feelings, but there is no absolute reality holding these things together." (p. 104) One wonders how such an entity could will anything and seems similar to the Buddhist "no-self" which to my mind negates free will.

For anyone interested in the philosophies of India and how they relate to the modern world, this is a book not to be missed.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars THE CIRCLE OF FIRE, 13 Dec 2009
Alan Jacobs "tigers jaws" (Edgware, Middx.) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Circle of Fire: The Metaphysics of Yoga (Paperback)
This superb book tackles the difficult questions contained in the Metaphysics of Yoga with great clarity, so that to-day's educated laymen, eager to understand these great Truths, will find it comparatively easy to comprehend them.
P.J. Mazumdar is a distinguished Indian Surgeon, and is thus able to bring, through his knowledge of Modern Science, the necessary lucidity to find the satisfactory congruence with contemporary knowledge, and the ancient hallowed teachings of Advaita Vedanta and Non-Dualism.
He interestingly covers the different Paths of Knowledge and Action in his fourteen chapters, harmonising the seminal teachings of the great Indian Philosopher and Sage Adi Shankara, with to day's natural, physical and medical sciences.
This highly successful achievement, makes a unique contribution to the literature, directed towards the understanding and solution of the many metaphysical questions, relating to Higher Consciousness Studies and the task of Self Realisation.
I am confident that this book will serve as an indispensible guide for all those earnest readers keen to follow and understand the essential wisdom of the major Upanashadic Truths, still applicable more than ever for the modern man and woman.

Alan Jacobs , President Ramana Maharshi Foundation UK
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The Circle of Fire: The Metaphysics of Yoga
The Circle of Fire: The Metaphysics of Yoga by P.J. Mazumdar (Paperback - 1 Jun 2010)
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