Internalized Asceticism: Taxonomy, Tattva-Abhyāsa, and Jñāna-Yoga

By Centre of Yoga Studies|December 1, 2020|Uncategorized|0 comments

In September 2020, the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies ran a seminar series titled ‘Yoga and Philosophy’. After the seminars, we invited participants to write posts reflecting on each one.

The presentation portion of the seminar series is available on our YouTube channel.

Screenshot of Karl's seminar

Seminar: Internalized Asceticism: Taxonomy, Tattva-Abhyāsa, and Jñāna-Yoga’ led by Karl-Stéphan Bouthillette.

This post written by: Tamara Cohen.

On 14 September 2020, Dr. Karl-Stéphan Bouthillette presented a seminar on “Internalized Asceticism: Taxonomy, Tattva-Abhyāsa, and Jñāna-Yoga” to the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies. Bouthillette obtained his PhD in 2018 in Indian Philosophies from the Institute for Indology and Tibetology of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, in Munich, Germany. His research focuses on the function of philosophical doxography in early Madhyamaka, Jainism and Advaita Vedānta. Bouthillette adds yet another piece to the growing evidence that suggests that there were two simultaneous streams in the pre-history of early Haṭha Yoga: an ascetic tradition with the goal of embodied yogic power and a philosophical knowledge-based tradition with meditative realization or gnosis as its goal. Bouthillette himself does not identify these two separate historical streams or claim any clear link between the topic of his seminar and later developments early in Haṭha Yoga, but rather suggests that a philosophical practice, which he calls jñāna-yoga, emerged from within ascetic communities after they were institutionalized and Sanskritized in the early first millennium of the Common Era.

Bouthillette discerns a consistent progressive interiorization of sacrifice within the Indic tradition, noting two successive historical sequences. He traces these by means of textual evidence. The first sequence is the ‘Sacrificial Thought Generalist Species’ which starts with the four Vedas. In Bouthillette’s analysis, the Vedic saṃhitās are canonical and not philosophically systematized. These become the basis for further reflection in the commentarial literature, which includes the Āraṇyakas and Brāhmaṇas, and early sūtra texts. In this second phase of the Generalist sequence, the symbolic meaning of ritual sacrifice is elucidated. The Upaniṣads are the final phase of this first sequence in which sacrifice is philosophically interiorized as self-sacrifice for the sake of attaining self-identification with brahman. The second historical sequence suggested by Bouthillette is the ‘Self-Sacrificial Thought Specialist Subspecies.’ This sequence begins with a notion of sacrifice as a self-seeking practice. Here, the Upaniṣads are the canonical base along with the śramaṇa literature that is external to the Vedic corpus. The texts become systematized in the doctrinal sūtra and śāstra literature of the first century of the Common Era. From about the second century onwards, the sutras and śāstras become interiorized by means of a knowledge practice which Bouthillette identifies as jñāna-yoga. In jñāna-yoga, philosophy itself is the ritual, the spiritual exercise (yoga) that leads to proper vision (samyag-darśana), the means to the goal and the goal of the practice.

Bouthillette locates this knowledge practice in early doxographical texts that systematize relationships between doctrines and traditions through taxonomic practice. He suggests that  making and defending lists of forms, categories, rules, canons and systems is a mental exercise, a practice of reality (tattva-abhyāsa) that leads the practitioner to correctly discern the essence of reality. Jñāna-yoga has three codified steps. The first of these is tattva-abhyāsa, in which the teachings are ritually learned, texts are studied, lists are made and rules are applied. Next, meaning is understood through investigation (tarka) of experience, the performance of texts, and by reading and writing commentaries and sub-commentaries. This second step reveals what is to be cultivated and what is to be sacrificed, what is to be practiced and how to live a proper life. Eventually, by means of this practice, the yogin attains a state of bhāvanāmayīprajñā, wisdom that comes from contemplation. This contemplative wisdom is the final stage in the process of liberating knowledge, jñāna-yoga.

Recognizing the essential distinction between conventional reality (saṃvṛti) and absolute truth (paramārtha) forms the basis of jñāna-yoga. Bouthillette takes Nāgārjuna (1st – 2nd C CE) and the Prajñāpāramitā literature, in which all worldly things (dharma/dhamma) are ultimately unreal because absolute reality (paramārtha) is essentially empty, as the historical beginning of jñāna-yoga, followed by the Jaina Kundakunda (2nd – 5th C CE), the Vedāntin Gauḍapāda (5th – 7th C CE), Bhāvaviveka (5th – 7th C CE) and the Jaina philosopher Haribhadra (6-7th C CE). The term jñāna-yoga comes from Haribhadra and Bouthillette applies it to earlier Buddhist literature, however prajñā is a more commonly used term for knowledge than jñāna in that tradition. Hence, the term jñāna-yoga is more etic than emic, and therefore not historically accurate. However, Bouthillette’s study is useful in that it highlights a historical turning point in which knowledge itself becomes the means of soteriological seeking, and this shift in focus and method can be seen to have reverberated throughout the later Indic philosophical landscape, including tantra and yoga traditions.

Karl-Stéphan Bouthillette is what he likes to call ‘French-Canadian’: a Québécois. However, his studies have turned him into quite a globetrotter. He obtained his PhD (2018) in Indian Philosophies from the Institute for Indology and Tibetology of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, in Munich, Germany, where he was a member of the Distant Worlds: Munich Graduate School for Ancient Studies, in the division researching on ‘coexistence’. He was then invited as a Fellow Researcher in Leiden, Holland, after receiving a Gonda Fellowship, following which he moved on to Ghent, in Belgium, where he was awarded a prestigious FWO Post-Doctoral Research Grant.

His current areas of research focus on early developments in Indian philosophical doxography and list-making. He is also theorizing the Indian intellectual dimensions of spiritual life, especially in the scholastic aspect of their expression. In brief, he has taken interest in what he describes as the ‘yoga of reason’, or the ‘path of knowledge’, pursued by the ‘nerds’ among yogins.

Tamara CohenTamara Cohen is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation consists of an historical textual analysis of the yoga passages of the Mokṣopāya (950 CE). Tamara’s published papers on the Mokṣopāya include, “What if the Author of the Mokṣopāya were a Woman?” and “Uddālaka’s Yoga in the Mokṣopāya.” Forthcoming is “Arjunopākhyāna: A Functional, Non-Authoritative Translation of the Bhagavadgītā”.


  • Bouthillette, Karl-Stéphan. 2020. Dialogue and Doxography in Indian Philosophy: Points of View in Buddhist, Jaina, and Advaita Vedānta Traditions. Routledge.
  • Bouthillette, Karl-Stéphan. 2017. ‘Hermeneutic Praxis: The Yoga of Reason(Ing)’. Studia Religiologica 50 (2):103–15.
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