After the deep questioning about the nature of īśvara Patanjali generously gives our minds a rest with a (relatively) simple sutra. īśvara is unsurpassed in the knowledge of all, because īśvara is the seed of all knowledge.
tatra = in that (in this case in īśvara)
niratiśayaṁ = above all else, unsurpassed
sarvajña = sarva – all, jña (jñāna) – knowledge, knowing
bījam = seed
Bryant discusses the use of ‘seed’ in the context of there being different levels of knowing just as there are different levels of growth in the life of a plant. The seed contains all the knowledge of how to become a flower just as īśvara contains all the knowledge of how to become a universe.
In Bouanchaud’s beautiful book “the essence of yoga” he describes the relationship between the perceived individual self and īśvara beautifully.
“īśvara is a model for human beings – our essence is an identical spiritual entity. However…we are imprisoned in negative impulses and sentiments and bound by corporeal limits”
Bouanchaud, B. (2001). The essence of Yoga. Delhi: Sri Satguru, p.38.
It is the release from the prison of negative impulses and corporeal limits (see chapter three, probably wont get to this until 2025!) that a practice of yoga gives us, thus we unite with īśvara.
kleśa: affliction, pain, obstacle to clarity of mind.
karma: action, law of actions.
vipākāśayair: vipāka, result, consequence, ripening . āśayair, ‘by the receptacle, storage, or deposit of samskaras’ ¹.
aparāmṛṣṭaḥ: unaffected, unmoved.
puruṣa: consciousness as a soul.
viśeṣa: special, distinict.
īśvaraḥ is distinct consciousness which is unaffected by the law of karma, or by the afflictions which are stored as saṃskāras.
Bryant states that this is the sutra to which the longest and most detailed commentaries have been dedicated. It is no wonder that this would be the case as contained within these few words is the essence of a debate around the theistic nature of Patanjali’s yoga sutras.
īśvaraḥ is a special and distinct form of puruṣa. We first encounter puruṣa in the 16th sutra where Patanjali suggests that through dispassion we see the reality of the soul. The impression I got from sutra 16 was of some kind of all encompassing, nebulous, consciousness which pervades everything. Yet here it seems that Patanjali is creating a division or a differentiation between different puruṣas. If īśvaraḥ is a special kind of puruṣa then are there other kinds of puruṣa? Are we to think of puruṣa as a universal energy or one which is segregated?
Sri Brahmananda Saraswati describes īśvaraḥ as a force of puruṣa. īśvaraḥ is the “phycological consciousness (and) a symbol of God”² . īśvaraḥ as an element or an aspect of puruṣa. puruṣa is a big concept to try to wrap ones mind around, and it is potentially difficult to identify with an impersonal, universal force.
It is postulated by Bryant that the introduction of īśvaraḥ in this section of the yoga sutras is relevant to how Patanjali was asking us to relate to īśvaraḥ. Namely as a focus for our mediation. This is not a treatise on the nature of God as a creator or supreme orchestrator rather a description of how we can find a personal relationship with an element of puruṣa. The sutras between 23 and 29 detail a technique for mediation which has īśvaraḥ at its heart.
It is possible that Patanjali is providing us with a description of some of the qualities of īśvaraḥ to give us a guide as to what may constitute this special form of puruṣa to which we are surrendering, bowing down to and offering up out consciousness to. It is not, for example, a physical object or an idol, it is not an embodied being or another person. It is a reminder that although īśvaraḥ dwells within the murti (temple idol, statue) the murti is not the whole of īśvaraḥ. It could also be an attempt to make the yoga sutras accessible to all as a technique rather than a dogma. īśvaraḥ becomes a generic term for the force of puruṣa with which we can personally identify.
1. Bryant, E. (2009).The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. New York: North Point Press. pg 87.
2. Mishra, R. (2010). The Textbook of Yoga Psychology. Monroe: Baba Bhagavandas Publication Trust. pg 139.
p.s fear not klesa, karma and samskaras will all be discussed at a later point. I thought it was more important to continue and remain focused on isvarah as a term for now.
It is no wonder that this sutra should be the first stumbling block and cause for such an hiatus in my attempt to communicate an exploration of these ideas. Please accept my apologies for how long it has taken me to get back to writing this.
This is the first directly theistic sutra. It contains a word which cannot be defined through reason or logic. A word whose meaning is so diverse it sends as many running into ecstasy as it does running into denial and rejection. An appreciation of the vast nature of this sutra is almost impossible through the rational mind. And that is in many ways what Patanjali encapsulates in its simplicity.
First I invite us to consider some of the challenges of translation. Translation is not an exact science. Language is mutable and tricksy at the best of times. Meanings are fluid and personal. Definitions which should lend clarity an often divide opinion and lead to dispute.
We had a car once, and half of our family thought it was blue the other half thought it was green, no amount of word play, or analytical thought could develop our understanding of where the other half were coming from, we all acknowledged that there was room for ambiguity but also held firmly to our convictions of the colour. And this is just a colour and a car. What if the thing we all saw differently was something as vast as the universe? How do we find a word that encompasses all of it?
Not only is it difficult to imagine a single word that can adequately express this idea but translating this word from one culture to another adds further layers of challenge. For example let us imagine that in the original language (in this case Sanskrit) the word really can mean everything to everyone. Imagine there is a word that means both blue and green and all the nuances in between. Even if this word exits in one language unless there is a word that corresponds exactly in the language of translation we are still stuck in a mire of maya.
For a long time humans have tried to make sense of the world they see around them using language, we crave understanding and somewhere our understanding of understanding has become primarily cognitive rather than experiential. But life is experiential, we experience, we feel and if we’re honest how often do we actually understand?
For a western woman coming from the philosophical paradigm of the European enlightenment most of the philosophies I have been exposed to are written by men coming from a Judaeo-Christian culture. To fail to acknowledge that this will have an impact on my world view and certain words will be imbued with this cultural understanding is to not acknowledge a fundamental challenge most of us will face when confronted with the word Isvara.
Furthermore the history of people who began to translate the Indian philosophies is dominated by white men, often Christian. So when presented with a word that represents the energy of universe in a way that one might be able to relate to personally, it is only natural that they would reach for a translation that they were comfortable with: God.
But how many of us are still comfortable with this word? How many of us come to the word God neutral? I was raised an atheist, I have had studied Christian theology and western and eastern philosophy, I’ve had more ‘religious’ experiences than I can shake a stick at and I still stumble when I say God in public conversation.
My experiences of God are not of the traditional Judaeo-Christian description, no burning bushes, no heavenly hosts. My experiences are of a sense of deep peace, deep love, and a conviction that everything will be ok.
When describing religious experiences the mystics of all faiths use similar language. From Rumi, to Aquinas the themes are the same and the language is very different to the dogma that many of us are first introduced to as religion.
Patanjali is a practical philosopher whose main interest is in finding ways that we can all have ‘religious’ transcendental experiences.
Up until this point Patanjali has discussed the need to practice but has given little guidance on what we practice to reveal these experiences. One could suggest that in this sutra Patanjali gives us our first practice, and if we nail it it can also be our only practice!
What is the practice? To offer everything up to Isvara. What is Isvara? Isvara is the manifestation of the energy of the universe which you can personally relate to. Whatever that may be for you. The key here is that it is a manifestation of the whole and that there is a possibility for a personal connection. This sutra is describing the devotion of bhakti yoga, the dedication of karma yoga. The act of offering up, of surrendering doership, of recognising that we are a part of something bigger. It is not surrender in the sense of quitting.
The word pranidhana can be broken down into components.
pra: completely, in front.
dha: to place
dhana: placing, holding
To place ourselves completely down in front of that manifestation of the universe we personally relate to.
We are making ourselves humble, we are removing our sense of self importance and beginning the long process of watching the ego dissolve. An alternate translation for pranidhanad is to transfer identity; again there is the sense of losing the self to find the Self.
There is distinction (viśeṣaḥ) between practicitioners, some are mild (mṛdu), some middling (madya) and some above measure (adimātra).
Commentators offer varying interpretations of this sutra.
Is the sutra discussing……
those practitioners who are most ardent in their practice and even amongst these there are varying levels of intensity. This understanding is built on the sandhi between tatah + api which becomes tato’pi – tatah means from that and api as well. If the ‘that’ is in reference to the intensity mentioned in the previous sutra then this interpretation is logical.
the previous three sutras. The mild practitioners are the prakṛti lyanam, the middling the faithful and diligent and the above measure the most intense.
a combination of both: A recognition that within every practice and practitioner there are varying levels of commitment, that at times we will be merged in matter and need that gross practice to still the mind, at times we will embody faith and this will stop the whirling thoughts and at other times we can be entirely focused, free from distraction. And at any given time the level of intensity of intensity will vary too, we could have a mild/mild practice or a intense/mild practice. It is a recognition that to be human is to embrace change, but remain consistent.
Whichever interpretation you favour, I find this sutra reassuring, the important thing is that we practice, that we practice regularly and with as much sincerity as we can. But we are embodied and human and therefore all we can ever do is our best. Some days we will be possessed by a fervent ardour to get on the mat or take our seat and other days we may find it more challenging. Patanjlai is reminding us Samadhi is always there, self realisation is inevitable, it just might take longer if our effort is restrained.
The keen (tīvra) having intensity (saṁvegānām) find samadhi to be near (āsannaḥ).
Patanjali is using this selection of sutras to discuss the qualities of practitioners or the qualities practitioners need to be successful. In 1:19 those who are merged in matter, find their way to a type of samadhi. Next are the faithful and diligent. Here we have the intense and ferocious in their quest for enlightenment.
It is possibly indicative of its evolution from Samkhya that Patanjali’s philosophy spends much time labelling and categorising. It is also useful for practitioners to reflect on our intension, our progress.
For example; if we take the prakriti layanam of 1:19, as Shri Bramananda Sarasvati does, to be those people who find peace in the repetition of material tasks and the yogis who practice with faith, vigor, and discernment (from 1:20), to be two different levels on the route to evolution then this sutra represents the yogi who will evolve the quickest and achieve samadhi in the shortest time through their enthusiasm.
The root vij gives rise to vega which forms the stem for saṁvegānām and such words translated as; violent agitation, the desire for emancipation, vehemence, and also hurricanes, rough seas and the heaving of the ocean. I infer from this a kind of tumultuous state which I would not normally associate with yoga. It feels more like the tapas, the extreme austerities performed when trying to bargain with the Gods for a boon. But perhaps Patanjali is reminding us to engage actively with the process of evolution, that samadhi needs effort to be put forth in order for it to manifest. Perhaps this choice of word is a reminder that the process of practice is not for the faint hearted.
Patanjali may be describing three different types of people who are all working in their own ways towards samadhi or possibly the stages of practice are being described. Maybe we all start by finding solace in Prakṛti, then we turn our attention inwards towards faith and learning to discern the real form the unreal. This sutra reminds us not to get delayed by our navel gazing but to remain focused and intense in our passion for puruṣa.
The ‘others’ of this sutra are those who do not fall in to the categories of videha (the disembodied) or prakṛti-layanam (merged with matter). For us Patanjali is telling us the foundations of a practice come before cessation of thoughts.
Patanjali loves a list so here he is listing the foundations:
Faith or Certainty – we need to believe firstly that liberation is possible, secondly that Patanjali’s methods will get us there.
Vigour, bravery, commitment – we need to be committed to our practice and our conviction. Faith leads to commitment.
Memory – we constantly remember our faith, we remember our focus and our aim, kaivalya. Commitment leads to this remembering why we are doing our practice.
Absorption – in the task of practice. This naturally arises when we keep coming back to our focus and faith and it spontaneously gives rise to >
Discernment or wisdom – we see and comprehend that we are more than prakṛti: we are puruṣa. Understanding arises that we do not need to associate our self with the whirling mind stuff but rather the underlying consciousness that pervades the universe.
Its probably worth noting Patanjali still hasn’t outlined what we should be practicing, he continues to focus on how we practice. This is probably why it takes so many readings of the yoga sutras before we start to make sense of them, we need to have an overview of where Patanjali is leading us and then when we look back on the methods for practicing it becomes clearer. A linier approach to understanding the sutras leads to a less comprehensive understanding.
That śraddhā is placed as the foundation of the foundations resonates with me. It is faith in the practice which takes me to my mat in the morning, which keeps me vegan, which gives me solace when I feel sad.
As the man says “keep the faith” 😉
भव - प्रत्ययो विदेह – प्रकृति – लयानाम् ॥१९
bhava-pratyayo videha-prakṛti layānām
This is the hardest sutra I’ve yet to interpret. Even a literal translation is challenging. I have accessed many sources and find little cohesive thought. Have a look at the table below and get a sense of the disparate interpretations.
Where does this wealth of information leave us? The previous sutra was describing a state of Samadhi which is achieved without external support, where the mind needs nothing specific to focus on (ie a mantra, mandala, technique) as an to aid its journey to clarity. In the Samadhi achieved without a supporting technique the mind simply turns to look at itself and is absorbed in that Self. In this context the Self is pure consciousness, puruṣa. So, following the pattern of the sutras that each threads together from the preceding one (unless Patanjali notifies us of a change of direction which he doesn’t seem to be here) let’s try to deduce (using logical inference, maybe – अनुमान ) what this sutra is about. Probably some form Samadhi. Probably the same form of Samadhi as the last sutra.
There is consensus that the subject of the sutra is the videha and the prakriti-layanam; those who are unembodied or merged in matter. To me that these two classifications of being are placed in the same context is deeply confusing. how can we be incorporeal and merged in matter? Unless when we become merged in matter we become incorporeal?
In Shri Bhramanda Saraswati’s commentary on this sutra he seems to be suggesting that the act of becoming totally absorbed in something gives rise to a feeling of being out of bady – take an intense physical or psychological task (researching this for example, an asana practice, driving on a busy road in adverse weather conditions) anything that requires your full attention, when we are engaged in this task, which is of the physical relam, prakṛti, we are merged with the ‘real’ world around us. During the activity it is as though time has no meaning, place has no meaning, we have no sense of the individual self because we are so focused. If we let our concentration slip for a moment the consequence is that we come back to an awareness of separation between our self carrying out the activity and the activity. But for the duration our concentration holds it is as though we do not have a body, our consciousness is liberated from the restraint of ego or thinking mind and flows freely.
Perhaps Patanjlai is suggesting that this state is very similar to the state when the mind ceases it’s whirling and sees itself because it is so focused so concentrated, but that when we become ephemeral through being merged with matter it is very easy for the mind to be jolted back out of this state?
To be utterly honest this sutra is a real challenge for me to make sense of. Some of the commentaries talk about the videha as being the devas, the demi gods of the hindu pantheon. Or they mention that both those without bodies and those merged in matter are yogis who have not quite reached the state of Samadhi that transcends matter, and are still connected to prakṛti. But then there is Desikachar who favours a simple translation that some people are naturally born in a state of yoga.
I shall continue to explore the ideas in this sutra in my own practice, and perhaps through that study (swadyaya) I too may experience being ephemeral, outside of time and space, for a while.
pūrvaḥ – east (as in pūrvottanasa), early, before, previous. saṃskāra – mental imprints, learnt behaviours, habitual responses. śeṣaḥ – remaining, residual. anyaḥ – the other.
Patanjali has given us the descriptions of some states of Samadhi in the previous sutra. in this sutra he is describing the other (anyaḥ) kind of Samadhi.
The types of Samadhi in sutra 1:17 require an object for the mind to become absorbed in. The mind needs support to find absorption, something to anchor it and allow it to be focused, something to actively help it cease to whirl.
This begins as an active process, we have to put forth effort to concentrate on the object that supports the mind, for example if we are focusing our awareness towards, concentrating on, a flower we have to look at the flower, hold the image of the flower in our mind, and keep coming back to that flower as the mind tries to wander off to look at the rest of the garden. We have to stop the thoughts (virāma-pratyaya). The act of bringing the mind back to the point of focus is effortful and requires practice (abhyāsa).
In this analogy the remainder of the garden, full of bright flowers and butterflies, represents arising thoughts (pratyaya). The flower is the focus and everything else which encroaches on that focus is the mind being drawn into an old pattern of thinking (saṃskāra). Our focus is the flower but perhaps that shade of red reminds us of the soup we had for dinner last night and the mind falls into thinking about that. We have to consciously keep bringing the mind back to concentrating on the flower. And this process, this repetition of bringing the mind back, gathering it in to one point, this practice, then creates a new groove for the mind to rest in.
Once we have practiced stopping the ideas, thoughts, as they arise, they eventually stop arising. The mental imprints, grooves, are still there but they are latent (śeṣaḥ), the mind does not fall into them. Eventually with practice the mind rests in the groove of focus, and concentration. Eventually, with practice, the mind can rest here concentrating only on it’s own nature and requiring no external support – this is the other (anyaḥ) form of Samadhi that Patanjali is alluding to here.
We sit in the garden surrounded by the flowers of our thoughts but the mind rests completely in it its Self, the insects buzz by, the flowers are fragrant, but the mind is still.
ānanda = joy, happiness, bliss. (the end of the drama)
āsmitā = sense of “I”, I-ness.
रूपानुगमात् = rūpānugamāt =
rūpa = form.
anugamāt = followed by, attended by, accompanying.
संप्रज्ञातः = samprajñātaḥ = state of Samadhi in which there is still an object for the mind to focus on.
In the previous 16 sutras Patanjali has described what yoga is and what the mind is. We have a foundation for trying to still the vṛttis through this information. Essentially, and to simplify, we are trying to encourage the mind to get out of the way of our true nature.
In Patanjalian thought the mind is as much matter, physical stuff, as the body, more subtle matter but matter non the less. The only thing that isn’t matter is the consciousness of the universe. Puruṣa. In order to access Puruṣa we need to practice the focusing of the mind and adopt an attitude of dispassion.
For the next section of the first chapter Patanjali describes how the mind can focus to ever more subtle levels, each level moving our awareness through the prakṛti (matter) and towards Puruṣa.
This first chapter is called Samadhi Pada as it is giving information about Samadhi, interestingly though, it isn’t until almost halfway the chapter Patanjali specifically mentions Samadhi, everything is alluding towards this state, this clarity of mind, but the word is not stated unambiguously until sutra 20. Possibly this is due to the understanding that the teachings were not linear, this is a collection of aphorisms about the state and process of yoga. Patanjali is beginning with definitions of terms rather than practical advice. We start by learning about the state of the mind as it is and then move to some processes of how the mind may begin to quiet, before looking at a more detailed map of which route to follow.
Imagine a map without a legend. If we are looking for a church but don’t know the symbol for a church and we had never seen a church before we could be standing next to one and never realise it.
Patanjali is giving us the legend for yoga, before suggesting the best route.
To continue the route analogy (indulging in a bit of vikalpa here, do excuse me), climbing routes vary in difficulty and grade so to reach the summit there may be many paths, one which is suitable for any level of climber, just as Patanjali will offer us a range of techniques. But just as before we attempt to climb we need to know where we are going Patanjali offers us markers and check points, and an idea of where we may end up.
It is also significant that Patanjali is expecting us to practice, we are given waystones for where we are in our practice and what further stages of focus we can develop.
This sutra is the first which describes different states of clarity the mind can find. All of these states are samprajñātaḥ they are states in which the citta still requires a form (of some kind), to focus on.
Vitarka, the most concreate form. The mind becomes absorbed in something physical, for example the colours or shape of an idol, or a flower. There is something tangible the mind is focusing on.
Vicāra, more subtle, the essence of the form becomes the focus. So rather than the shape or colour of the flower the mind rests on the essential nature of the object – note an object is still present.
ānanda, from contemplation on the essential nature of the flower the mind rests in a state of deep bliss. Take the beauty and majesty of a sunset, we begin by admiring the physical form of the sunset, the oranges and purples, and the mind becomes cleared from the thoughts of the day, the anxieties and the triumphs, absorbing the beauty until the mind rests in that beauty, from this a sense of deep peace, bliss, or joy arises. It started with an object – the sunset.
I hope we have all experienced this at some time, I believe it is the experiential nature of the sutras which make them accessible. Patanjali is giving word and clarity to the mystical experiences we may have encountered.
The last state of clarity is āsmitā in this context it could be likened to the third sutra with the seer seeing it’s self. āsmi means ‘I am’. tā denotes ‘ness’. So this ‘I am – ness’ could be interpreted the deep sense of ‘everything will be alright’ which arises out of the bliss of absorption. We feel we belong, the yearning of the soul desists and we dwell fully in our own being. It is the sense of well being after savasana, the sense of lightness that comes in the heart when we allow the mind to clear and focus, when expectation and judgement cease and we can fully inhabit our essence. āsmitā begins with prakṛti (from the bliss that came because the mind became absorbed in an object) but ends in puruṣa.
tat = that paraṃ = highest (the highest vairāgyā/dispassion) puruṣa = the soul kyhāter = knowledge of/ perceiving
guṇa = the substances which make up the world, rajas, tamas, sattva. vaitṛṣṇyam = indifference
The highest dispassion is born from perceiving Puruṣa, this leads to indifference towards the guṇas (and therefore prakṛti).
vairāgyā can be achieved through a committed, sustained, firmly established practice of focusing the mind and thus stilling the citta vṛttis. In the previous sutra Patanjali describes that this is a dispassion towards objects in the material world and objects we have heard about and may desire. In this sutra Patanjali goes further in saying that it is possible to find indifference towards everything in prakṛti (which is everything in existence apart form Puruṣa). This includes matter not only in the physical world but also the psychological one. Thoughts and feelings are also composed of the guṇas. Emotions can be rajasic (firey), tamasic (lethargic) or clear (sattvic). Once we have knowledge of puruṣa we can become indifferent towards everything. Only puruṣa is not subject to guṇas and therefore puruṣa is the only constant thing in existence. Thus once we have perceived this what purpose does attachment to Prakṛti serve?
Once again there is the potential for nihilism to creep in. If everything is irrelevant except for puruṣa, what’s the point of it all? Now we need to apply śraddhā (faith) remember that the mind, the thoughts are coloured by the experiences, the saṃskāras, patterns and by the guṇas. Therefore the little voice which is the nagging doubt is no more real than the sky flowers or unicorns of vikalpaḥ. The part that questions and fears is not the seer seeing itself. Once the seer has seen itself and there is kyhāti of puruṣa then indifference towards the world naturally follows.
But indifference is not distain, nor is it careless, it is a security rooted in knowledge that beyond all this suffering and chaos is quietude, beatitude. Once the vṛttis cease and the mind is not seesawing between rajas and tamas with glimpses of sattva, like the sun through the clouds, once the clouds clear and we are illuminated by seeing the seer, then we become most effective, efficient and discerning, because we act without fear.
Dispassion (vairāgyam) is when ones consciousness (sañjña) is free from, or brought under control (vaśīkāra) so it no longer craves, or ‘thirsts for’ (vitṛṣṇasya) any worldly object in the sphere of the sensual (viṣaya). Regardless of whether these objects have been perceived directly or heard about from the Vedas.
There is a subtle difference between being free from craving and controlling craving. Which is liberation? To be devoid of desire or to feel desire but be unaffected by it?
It is possible to interpret the yoga sutras in a very ascetic way: where one has no desire and exists in a vacuum free from emotion. However it is equally possible to interpret the sutras as practical: a manual for the householder, the everyday human who is humbled by emotion and affected by the world. There is a difference between not feeling something and feeling it but not being distressed by it. It is possible to become cold and unfeeling to achieve dispassion, but I do not believe that this was Patanjali’s intension. Rather here we are offered the possibility to feel but to remain efficient in the world and act as a force of good by controlling the feelings. Again not suppressing or denying that we feel but rather acknowledging that we are not just a messy ball of emotions (although a perfectly reasonable reading of vaśīkāra could be subjugate, love the ambiguity of Sanskrit) rather that emotions are experienced by something, interpreted by the mind and how we react to those emotions is within our control.
For example I thirst for a new yoga mat, which I cannot afford to buy and I do not need. Without dispassion that thirst could grow into an obsession, my thoughts circling about how only when I have this new mat would I be able to achieve the perfection in asana (something else I thirst for) and only when I achieve perfection in asana can I achieve happiness (something else I thirst for). But I cannot have the new yoga mat so my asana remains sketchy and my happiness denied. The thing I am actually thirsting for is the happiness but I have associated this with the asana and the mat so the happiness is not possible without these material objects. I am also objectifying happiness as though it were a thing, an object to acquire. Patanjali asks us to question all of these assumptions.
What are we thirsting for? and why? and how do we quench that thirst?
In the context of this sutra, weight is placed on sensory objects for example a craving for coffee. Dispassion is the capacity to enjoy coffee when it is available but to take pleasure in water when there is no coffee. Ultimately the practice of becoming neutral toward sense objects will take us inwards towards a peace of mind and quietening of emotion.
Patanjali references both those sense objects we know of through direct experience (touch, taste, sight, smell etc) and those that we may have heard about in the Vedas. For example the celestial wealth possible only through the sacrifices and ritual presented in the Vedas. In his commentary on the Yoga Sutras Edwin Bryant suggests that this is an example of Patanjali directly criticising the Vedic traditions and presenting Yoga as a way to self realisation which will lead to liberation from samsara (the cycle of rebirth). Yoga is an internal practice, not requiring dogma or anyone to intercede between humanity and God.
The concepts of vairāgyā and abhyāsa are entwined, being able to experience emotion without becoming distressed takes practice. We practice focusing the mind and develop control so we can feel without becoming entangled (dispassion), and of course enjoy our coffee when we can have it but avoid distress when we can’t.
Practice is the effort we put in to achieving steadiness of mind. So whenever we are putting effort into making our mind steady we are practicing, whether this is through asana (physical shape making), dhyana (concentrating), yama (our conduct in the world) or anything else. Patanjlai is inclusive, rather than prescriptive, there is an acknowledgement that the mind may be made steady through many means and it is the effectiveness of the means rather than dogmatic adherence to a specific path which will lead to Self evolution.
As this is a short sutra and easy to grasp I thought you might be interested in a little Sanskrit?
from this sutra let us take ‘sthitau’ and ‘yatno’.
Sthitau comes from the root class sthā from which words associated with standing come. For example tishṭhati (third person) – stands, or samasthitiḥ – same standing or even/balanced standing, or sthira grounded, steady, firm. When you begin to get your head around the root, suffix, prefix, case system of Sanskrit you begin to find a melody and a poetry in the language. A word rarely, if ever, has one meaning. Mostly words are associated with ideas, for example standing can conjure images of a statue or an ancient tree, or people waiting at a bus stop. Because there is a spaciousness in the way Sanskrit can be translated, there is room for us all to find our own understanding. The essence of the idea is captured but we are not limited by a prescriptive definition. This flexibly acknowledges the inherent limitations of language. What I call green and you call green are probably not the same colour, what I consider just and your comprehension of justice is possibly different. Words mean what we want them to mean. Remember vikalpa? metaphor or imagination born of words with no foundation in reality? We live our lives striving for understanding, often times we think this comes through language, critical thinking and study but what if it came through putting effort into steadying the mind?
Yatno is probably from the root yam via yat. The origin of yam is to stretch – which is of particular interest to asana practitioners as we are stretching our bodies in an effortful way. Or in the context of concentration/mediation we are stretching our attention, in yoga we stretch our awareness to encompass all things, rather than alone we are all one.
The mind is unstuck from its habitual patterns (tannirodhah) through practice (abhyāsa) and nonattachment (vairāgyābhyām).
Also through the practise of nonattachment. It is the practise of yoga that Patanjali is advocating, the details of this will be expounded at the sutras continue. The more I study, explore and live with the yoga sutras the more I appreciate that they don’t exist in isolation of each other, whilst we can break them down and examine them each specifically, this is unlikely to be the most efficient way of grasping them . Patanjali lays firm foundations, I would describe this as a guide book rather than an instruction manual. Even when Patanjali does begin to go into greater detail about what we can practice the instructions are minimal and terse, it is the act of practising which becomes the teacher.
It is worthy of note that nonattachment rather than detachment is the translation I favour. It is a subtle but important difference. Nonattachment acknowledges that we love, we feel, we experience emotions and we may well need to acquire some material possessions to function effectively within society, but we are not attached to them, they come, they go we remain equanimous. From detachment I infer a coldness, an aloofness, a not engaging with life. Yoga is not about disengaging from life but rather living as fully as we can in a state of freedom. We are undisturbed by the horrors but this does not mean that we don’t see them and that we can’t agitate for change but we are more effective advocates as we see beyond the whirling mind stuff.
Please note this is bloody difficult, which may well be why it’s a practise! If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again, across as many life times as we need.
Hopefully you have seen that Patanjali is systematic in his approach to conveying information. He is grounded in definitions and explanations.
These first 11 sutras have given us;
a definition of yoga,
a description of what yoga is,
and what yoga is not,
– further to what yoga is not there have been some detailed descriptions of the five citta vṛtti.
Patanjali is striving for us to come from an attitude of negation: if we can clearly define and understand what constitutes citta vṛtti then what is left will be yoga.
In some respects this could be related to the practice of “Neti, neti” where we strive to understand Brahman through understanding what Brahman is not “not this, not that”. For example sitting in contemplation and focusing on our body our thoughts, realising that if we can focus on them whatever the thing that is doing the focusing can not be the same a the thoughts or body, therefore we are not our thoughts or body, so what are we?
Patanjali is offering us an opportunity to look deeply into the way the mind works. Remember that these five different patterns that the mind follows can be both detrimental and helpful in our evolution towards the cessation of all fluctuations of the mind, as we move towards steadiness.
The five patterns are: Knowledge, error, metaphor, sleep and memory.
When the mind is no longer stuck in these patterns then we can see that we are not the mind but something else, we see our true form.
experienced sense objects not slipping away (is) memory.
Memory is our capacity to retain information.
We remember what we experience in the way we perceive it. Therefore memory is dependent on the other vṛttis. if we have correct knowledge of something we will remember it correctly, or we will remember the errors that we make and if we don’t realise we made an error then our memory may result in us making that error again. We often think and remember in metaphor, we may remember our ‘lovers face is like the moon’ or ‘she walked in beauty like the night’, and swapna (our dreams) are created by our memories. In nidra we may have no active vṛtti but on waking we remember the quality of our sleep.
Remember in the last sutra the concept of pratyaya (the imprint of an object in the mind)? When there are imprints which are collated by the mind into actions, or the performance of a task, through memory, they are called saṃskāras. Saṃskāras are the patterns that we learn in order to function in prakṛti, as an embodied being. For example the action of making a cup of coffee is a saṃskāra. I have learned to set up the areopress, put in the ground coffee, put water in the kettle, light the stove, place the kettle on the stove, wait for the kettle to whistle, add the boiled water to the coffee, press the coffee. All of these stages form the saṃskāra of making coffee. There are variations on the theme depending on the equipment and my familiarity with it. A few years ago I had a south Indian coffee press, it took me several days to learn and remember the order of the process, I had to modify my previous coffee making saṃskāra to include new information.
If any step in the pattern of the saṃskāra is crystallised incorrectly then the mistakes will be repeated. Let us extrapolate beyond coffee making. There are saṃskāras for every element of our lives, from mundane tasks to building relationships, they are all predicated upon our previous experiences, our perceptions, our understanding.
Thus our life and the way that we exist in the world is completely within our control. For example if my perception is that my self worth is low then Patanjali gives me the tools to change that perception. The process of yoga is an undoing of misunderstandings and misidentifications with parts of our mindstuff that we mistake for who we are. The answer to the question ‘who am I?’ is puruṣa. Yoga helps us to realise this. We can realise this as householders or renunciates but ultimately the purpose of our life is to live in harmony with ourSelf, in such a way prakṛti (the act of living in the material world) does not hinder the experience of puruṣa (the cosmic world).
Patanjali postulates the first step towards this is acknowledging the components of the mind so we can recognise we are not our mind. We can contemplate and analyse how we think, which in itself indicates we are not those thoughts but something else. Whilst this sounds like Cartesian dualism it is worthy of note that in the context of yoga puruṣa is not the mind, the mind is of the body but that puruṣa pervades all matter as well as being beyond matter (remember sutra 1:9, vikalpa, my experience of studying these philosophies is such that at some point I have had to let go of trying to put my understanding into words because words are not fit for the purpose of understanding.
Just sit in the silence and watch, become the drṣṭṛ and see for yourself who you are.
abhāva-pratyayālambanā vṛttir + nidra or abhāva-pratyayālambanā tamovṛttirnidra
When the mind is in a state of deep sleep one could consider all patterns, fluctuations (vṛttis) to have ceased, but is this not cittavṛtti-nirodhaḥ (छितवृत्ति निरोधः) as described in sutras I:2, 3, & 4. Although the mind may seem to not be whirling or taking the form of any pattern, in the state of nidra the guna of tamas (heaviness, solidity, denseness, lethergy) is dominant. In the cittavṛtti-nirodhaḥ which leads to the seer seeing itself, and all vṛttis ceasing, the guna of sattva presides. Please note that there are two versions of this sutra, one where the guna of tamas is implied and one where its presence is stated.
(For a little more information on the gunas look at the Yoga, Sankyha, Vedānta pdf in the “What is Yoga?” section of the website)
A literal translation of this sutra could be:
absence of impressions supporting the mind stuff is sleep
absence of impressions in the mind stuff caused by tamas is sleep.
ālambanā is a support, it can refer to the object which has been chosen as the focus of concentration/meditation. For example if I focus my awareness on the North Star then the North Star is the support, the ālambanā.
Pratyaya refers to a cause or something that forms the basis for something else, it can also mean an imprint that is made by an external object on to the mindstuff, like the negative of a photograph which needs to be developed, in this case the pratyaya is ‘developed’ by the buddhi and then presented to purusa. Both of these terms will reoccur throughout the sutras.
Patanjali differentiates between nidra, deep sleep, and swapa, the dream state. The dream state is related to the next pattern for the mind to follow, smṛtiḥ, memory.
Knowledge resulting from words which are devoid of a real object is the third pattern Patanjlai introduces us to. Vikalpa is often defined as imagination but Patanjali is more specific than simple flights of fancy or day dreams. śabda means words and śūnya devoid or empty. Therefore this pattern relates to figurative language, words which are in common usage but are in fact devoid of objective meaning.
For example we say the sun rises. In reality the sun does not rise or set the earth moves around the sun, the sun appears to move and therefore we use language which reflects that even though it is not accurate. There are many examples where the language we use may be illustrative rather than literal, but is convenient and comprehensive therefore we continue to use it.
Part of the problem with this is that we become lazy and less precise in our expression of meaning. If it’s ok to talk about things in ways that make sense but are not ‘correct’ then how we understand the world may suffer. The philosopher Wittgenstein concerns himself with a similar challenge with his discussion of the beetle in the box . Language is like a beetle in a box. We all have a beetle that we keep in a box, we never see anyone else’s beetle. But the thing that we all keep in our boxes we all have agreed to call a beetle. That doesn’t mean we have the same thing in our boxes only that we call it the same.
This illustrates but is slightly different to vikalpa as with vikalpa we know there isn’t really a beetle but we are saying there is for ease of understanding. For example a unicorn, we know what a unicorn is even though we also know that they don’t exist. The word ‘unicorn’ conjures an image of a form in our mind which we (collectively as society have agreed on). The word itself has meaning even if there is no vastu (objective reality). Another example could be skyflower. We can imagine a skyflower even though we’ve never seen one.
Vikalpa is so commonplace it is hard to go through a day without the mind whirling into this vrrti and interaction between people would be challenging, to say the least, if we eradicated it. There is one significant difficulty that arises due to vikalpa, we have become accustomed to using language to describe everything, but there are some things that can not be described. Puruṣa can not be described in language as the concepts that we require to try to comprehend puruṣa are beyond words. So here Patanjali is encouraging us not to think about what puruṣa is like but rather to clarify what puruṣa isn’t. It is a warning that whilst poetic and creative language may make the spirit soar it can also limit us in our understanding of the vastness of the universe.
The second of the patterns that the mind traces, like water tracing the same grooves on the beach to the sea, is viparyayo; error.
The mind gravitates towards the patterns we have developed and can get caught in them.
Error or being mistaken arises when there is a breakdown in communication between the mind and the real world. Please note that in this context we dwell in the realm of prakriti, matter. Therefore there is a ‘real’, physical, material world that exists; in this context the tree does make a sound when it falls in the forest regardless of whether anyone is there to hear it; Schrödinger’s cat is either alive or dead before the box is opened.
Error occurs or is established (pratiṣṭham) when there is mithyā, false, jñānam, knowledge of the form (rūpa). The classical example is that false knowledge of the form of a rope creates the erroneous belief it is a snake.
In one discussion with Dr Jayashree we explored other kinds of form which we mistake, for example the form of a ‘dirty look’. It is common that we are mistaken about someone’s intention or thought because we make assumptions which are not founded in reality. We bring perceptions and inferences into our interactions and lives. Whilst these are clouded by the vrtti of viparyayo they reinforce our sense of separation and are detrimental to our evolution. How do we part the clouds, clear the water? Through Yoga of course 😉
Through the consistent practice of analysis and observation, until we smooth out the grooves and the mind can roam in the realm of Puruṣa.
Through sense perception, inference born of logic and authoritative testimony knowledge is gained.
The mind moves in its circles, sometimes these movements move us towards clarity and understanding, sometimes they catch us and halt our evolution.
The first set of patterns the mind can move into are those associated with how we can acquire accurate, ‘correct’ knowledge.
This immediately raises the question of absolute truth, is there ever such a thing as ‘correct’ knowledge? Everything that we consider to be true is only true in the context of the information we have at present. Established truths are constantly changing as we acquire more knowledge that we consider to be authoritative. Probably the best example of this is our understanding of the cosmos. There was once a time the earth was flat and the stars in the sky were placed there as Hercules through his demons in to the heavens. Exploration and investigation have led to current thinking believing the earth is elliptical and the stars are balls of plasma held together by their own gravity. But these accepted truths will change and evolve as more information is gathered and our understanding expands.
At this point Patanjali is not concerned with what the truth or ‘correct’ knowledge is but with how we acquire knowledge. If the process of acquisition is flawed then the veracity of the knowledge is irrelevant.
The practical nature of the yoga sutras places the greatest authority on empiricism, knowledge gained through direct experience from the senses. The process of yoga clarifies the senses so that we can ever further collect more accurate information. Imagine the mind is a window. If the window is dirty we can’t see through it, we might see shapes or movement but we cannot identify what those shapes or movements are. Yoga cleans the window so we can see clearly, our senses (physical and psychological) become more refined and our understanding increases. This is Pratyaksa.
Once we can see, hear, feel things accurately how can we interpret the information we have gathered correctly?
Patanjali calls the most effective way of interpreting the information anumana, through the logical application of inference. In western philosophy this is called syllogism. For example:
All aliens are green.
Tim is an alien.
Therefore Tim is green.
The crucial elements of a syllogism are in understanding its limits. Because we know that “all” aliens are green if Tim is an alien he must be green. This will hold true until we find a yellow alien and then the syllogism cannot be applied, because we now know that not all aliens are green, some (at least one) are yellow.
It is also necessary that Tim is definitely an alien before we conclude he must be green, maybe he just looks like an alien? A syllogism also doesn’t work backwards, just because Tim is green doesn’t mean he’s an alien, he could be an unripe banana.
The reliability of applying logic depends on the reliability of the premises. Another example could be as simple as a literal application of “there is no smoke without fire”.
If the only circumstance in which smoke is produced is in the presence of fire then it follows logically that if there is smoke there must be a fire. Again this can only be logically true for as long as there is no other cause of smoke.
Patanjali is suggesting that we need to be able to apply these precise criteria in order to gain correct knowledge. However how does one know when one has purified the senses to physically see, hear, smell, taste, and touch free from bias? How can we know the syllogism we apply is flawless?
The third way of knowing is possibly the most ambiguous but also the easiest (in certain contexts) to access: Agamah, reliable testimony (verbal). Ambiguous because how do you know the testimony is reliable? First we need to know the person who is giving the testimony is reliable, they should be of irrefutable character free from blemishes, and they should have direct experience of that which they speak. The words of this trustworthy person can create a pattern in the mind of the listener and the citta will then flow into that pattern, facilitating a direct experience in the listener. Finding the trustworthy person is the crux.
Patanjali is writing in the post vedantic era, the concepts of the Veda are firmly established and there is an assumption of their knowledge and understanding in the Yoga Sutras. Yet whilst The Vedas placed the emphasis on ritual and the Upanishads shifted the emphasis to the experience of or searching for experiences of ParaBrahman, Patanjali is guiding us directly towards those experiences. There is no mention of any specific scriptures in the Yoga Sutras, direct experience of Iswara, ParaBrahman is considered to be the goal. Rather than learning about others experiences we should go and have our own.
The stuff of the mind can be pulled into different patterns. Some of these patterns are beautiful the mind will dance with them for a while, some of the patterns bring us pain and the mind can become cloaked in their darkness. The goal of yoga is to help the mind stop both dancing and becoming shrouded: to help the mind turn back inwards and reflect the consciousness.
Another interpretation of vrtti is pattern, possibly an habitual pattern, a pattern of behaviour, a conditioned reaction. The citta (mindstuff) falls into this pattern and the energy of consciousness follows it. This is best exemplified by the classical conditioning demonstrated in the 1890s by Ivan Pavlov and his dogs. We respond to certain stimuli in the ways which we are conditioned to. Patanjali is offering an insight in how to change that conditioning.
Sutra 1:5 tells us that there are five patterns which the citta follows. Of these five some are conducive to a still, quite mind and others will agitate it further.
It is worthy of note the adjectives kilsta/aklista describing the patterns (vrttis) as either detrimental or beneficial have the same root as the word klesha: kils which can mean to trouble or to torment. Think of Macbeth “oh full of scorpions is my mind” this describes beautifully a tormented by vrtiis pulling the consciousness into a negative spiral.
Because Patanjali is taking us on a logical path next we are introduced to these five patterns.
pramana: accurate assessment of a situation, a source of ‘right’ knowledge.
viparyaya: inaccurate assessment of a situation, error.
At any given time when we are not in a state of yoga the mind will be following one of the patterns.
To recap: Yoga is the state when the mind stuff stops whirling and because it is still our true nature is revealed. Our true nature is pure consciousness and whilst matter is essential it is also transitory, in contrast to the permanence of consciousness or energy. If everything is matter vibrating, the vibration is the constant, the matter the variables.
Patanjali builds from sutra to sutra so once a concept is expounded or presented subsequent sutras don’t reiterate it.
When we are not in a state of yoga, dwelling in union with Purusa (at other times, itaratra), we feel distinct, separate, our mind follows and takes the form (sarpuyam) of the whirls and fluctuations (vrtti).
If the mind is whirling we can not realise pure consciousness. For example when we become caught up in a web of emotions. the physical sensation of sadness or the sense of lightness which follows joy we are existing with an acute awareness of prakriti matter. We feel and we then identify with those feelings. We say “I am sad” or “I am happy” and whilst we are experiencing those emotions they fill our existence. It is difficult to recall the sensation of sadness when we are happy and vice versa.
Thus it takes practice to still the mind. In the meantime (spoiler alert) it takes faith that it can be stilled – More of this later……….
Just as the magician reveals the conclusion of a magic trick, Patanjali reveals the consequences of yoga. When the vritti of the citta ceases then the Seer is revealed to itself.
sva rupe can be translated as “our own form” not our physical form but the form of the seer.
‘vasthanam contains the root ‘sth’ which forms the basis for ‘stand’, as in samasthiti. Here it is to denote the firm standing, and total comfort of the drastr the seer, in it’s own form.
The Seer in this context is consciousness or Purusa, that which resides as the essence of being. Baring in mind Patanjlai’s roots are in a dualistic system of philosophy there is the sense that mind as matter is separate form consciousness. This separation, is the cause of suffering. When the mind can be still there is no separation as our awareness is full of the realisation of consciousness. It is a moment of pure bliss, of total quietude. A moment which with practice can become longer and more substantial.
Thus ultimately yoga brings about the cessation of suffering through the revelation of our true form, as formless perfect consciousness.
Part of the genius of Patanjali is that a simple format is followed throughout the sutras. Make a statement, then refine the components of that statement. First we are told we will be instructed in yoga, then we are told what yoga is.
For Patanjali yoga is presented as the blissfully simple clarity of mind.
In this context clarity is stillness. Just as when the water of a lake is still we can clearly see through it thus when the mind is still we have achieved the state of yoga.
The Patanjalian concept of mindstuff, “Citta”, comes from the root “Cit” which can be translated as ‘to think’ or ‘consider’ – note that this is an active process from which I infer some degree of practice may be necessary.
Citta is made up of three elements:
Buddhi. The capacity to discern, to be awake.
Ahamkara. The individuating principle, the sense of I in “who am I?”, the part which enables us to function as an active individual in the world. If the recipe of our personality in this lifetime is written by samsara, with our past karma as the ingredients, Ahamkara is the chef who puts it all together.
Manas. To continue the above analogy Manas is the taster of the finished dish. The interpreter of information in the context of the sense of I. It is also through Manas that the information about the world is gathered.
Together these three elements describe the inner life of the individual. They are intertwined and co-dependent.
For Patanjlai the mindstuff is separate from consciousness. The mindstuff can be flawed, fooled, muddied. Yoga is how we correct the flaws, educate and clear the mind, and find our way to consciousness.
The flaws in perception are born from the constant movement (vrtti) of the mindstuff.
For most human animals our mind is in a continual state of flux (vrtti), our senses feeding information to Manas, Manas interpreting how that information is relevant to Ahamkara, Buddhi discerning the nature of that information and what we need to do about it.
and what is yoga?
Yoga is when that whirling (vrtti) ceases (nirodhah).
Now, follows the instruction upon the state and practice of Yoga.
Opening with “atha” “Now” Patanjali grabs our attention. “Now I am offering this instruction; now you can hear this instruction; now is the time for this instruction”.
This remains as true today as it was when it was first composed and chanted. When we are ready the teachings become clear, but that doesn’t mean we have to wait until we are ready to start listening and practicing. As if we are a garden, a vegetable patch, the ground is prepared, the seeds are chosen, then planted, the earth is nurtured, watered and fed with light, eventually following perseverance (practice), and observation (dispassion, patience) plants begin to flourish. In this context the plants are our understanding, our capacity to see clearly, free from misknowing or misunderstanding, free from fear and grasping.
And all of this is possible right “Now”.
“sasanam” are the instructions Patanjali will lay out. There is an imperative implied in the term, as though these are instructions which are universal laws, once heard and understood they must be followed. “anu” the smallest possible observable thing (similar to atom) also suggests an inevitability to these teachings, once the world is seen as a whole, through the lens of the yoga sutras, it is impossible to unsee, to unhear. As William Blake said “to see the world in a grain of sand” – this encapsulates the term “anu” both tiny and immense.
Now, then, let us begin. Here follows my understanding, interpretation and exploration of Patanjali’s instructions and teaching, thank you for joining me on the adventure.