दृष्टानु श्रविक-विषय-वितृष्णस्य वशीकार-संज्ञा वैराग्यम्
dṛṣṭānuśravika-viṣaya-vitṛṣṇasya vaśīkāra-sañjña vairāgyam
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.