śabda-jñānānupāti vastu-śūnyo vikalpaḥ
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.