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Yoga Sutra


This is the royal knowledge, the royal mystery, the most excellent purifier, clearly comprehensible, not opposed to sacred law, easy to perform, and inexhaustible.


 A careful study of Patanjali's priceless aphorisms on Raja Yoga is immensely valuable to all who wish to learn the discipline of true meditation while at the same time discerning the sharp contrast between the psycho-spiritual and the psycho-physical systems of yogic training. Metaphysics and ethics are linked through psychology. A therapeutic program of self-study, undertaken with discrimination and detachment, is integral to the progressive realization of knowledge of spiritual law and a calm reliance upon the moral order. The subtle externalizations implicit in the separative and pseudo-autonomous portraits of human nature, found in all psycho-physical systems of self-development, are incompatible with gnostic metaphysics of the highest spiritual sort and subvert the ethical ideal of compassionate direction of all one's emanations. "The divine discipline" involves a grasp of correspondences between the universal and the particular, the macrocosm and the microcosm in man, and requires a noetic fusion of the psychological and spiritual. Patanjali could assist us in this art of self-study and in the science of mind control, but to make full use of his teaching, we must not lose sight of the dual metaphysical and ethical basis of his aphorisms.

 Spiritual growth may be regarded as a gradual deepening of perception and strengthening of will. As personal beings, bound by desire to the material limitations of the phenomenal world of sense-objects, our perceptions are crude and our volition is perverted. It is the limited perception of life, the inability to sense conscious or even individual existence outside of form or beyond the material plane, that constitutes real death. "Real life is in the spiritual consciousness of that life, in a conscious existence in Spirit, not Matter." Meditation is needed to free ourselves from the limitations imposed by our fleeting sensory perceptions and by our false sense of identity and personal volition. The point of departure of Patanjali's text is the diffusive, fragmented, ephemeral, limiting nature of our everyday consciousness, i.e., our mental awareness of objects and subjects and of our own natures. Spiritual consciousness is, by contrast, concentrated, deliberate, unifying, liberating and permanent. This is not merely an initial contrast but one that persists even as we ascend through higher levels of awareness, planes of perception and states of will-activity. The aphorisms have meanings and implications that recur with a heightened significance as we proceed with meditation and self-study.

 Perception and will are bound up with two forces – noetic (from nous) and psychic (from psyche), derived from Buddhi and Prana (moral perception and vital energy) – and the possibility of the former using the latter. We can attach a minimal, everyday sense to the notion of moral power, acting on the will of man. This moral power and energy in man can be consciously cultivated by individuals and by groups and applied courageously to the quest. We must always distinguish between what is salutary and what is pleasant, between sreyas and preyas, to achieve a harmony between thought, word and deed, so that life becomes a fulfilled oath, a constant vow or vrita, a perpetual pilgrimage, a continual sacrifice. The votary of truth is not a muddled idealist but a man who meditates before getting into action. He does not take refuge in theoretical speculation but remains steadfast in contemplation while constantly trying to endow his whole life of conscious activity with a pervading sanctity of pavitra. It is only by personal steadfastness, by holding on to his vow that a man may be useful to others to an exceptional degree. It is impossible to live as a sadhaka in the midst of society if one's entire life is not a fulfilled oath.

 The metaphysical basis of Patanjali's text is laid down in a few aphorisms in each of the four parts of the sutra. Book I, the samadhi pada, points to a fundamental truth which must be grasped even before we embark on meditation and self-study:

 The state of abstract meditation may be attained by profound devotedness toward the Supreme Spirit considered in its comprehensible manifestation as Ishwara.

Ishwara is a spirit, untouched by troubles, works, fruits of works, or desires.

 In Ishwara becomes infinite that omniscience which in man exists but as a germ.

Ishwara is the preceptor of all, even of the earliest of created beings, for He is not limited by time.

Book I: 23-26

 Beyond the phenomenal universe lies pure spirit, known in its comprehensive manifestation as Ishwara, unmodified by material form or phenomenal change, untouched by sorrow-producing sensations or by particular precipitations, by causal connections and external conditions, or the stimuli of impulses and desires. The germ of omniscience – the knowledge of this unmodified reality – exists in man and becomes infinite in Ishwara. Man can move from the atomic to the infinite through mental awareness and change of consciousness if he grasps and applies the truth of the distinction between his ever modified mind and his status as a soul, a spectator without a spectacle.

 At the time of concentration the soul abides in the state of a spectator without a spectacle.

 The student whose mind is thus steadied obtains a mastery which extends from the Atomic to the Infinite.

 That meditation which has a subtle object in view ends with the indissoluble element called primordial matter.

Book I: 3, 40, 45

 These aphorisms point to the metaphysical realization possible to every monadic consciousness, and also indicate a relationship to primordial matter, the indissoluble element that exists in the very constitution of the manifested universe. Lest a false impression of these states should arise and contribute to moral indifference, Patanjali declares:

 Although the Universe in its objective state has ceased to be, in respect to that man who has attained to the perfection of spiritual cultivation, it has not ceased in respect to all others, because it is common to others besides him.

Book II: 22

 Book II of the aphorisms, the sadhana pada, is concerned with the practical means of establishing concentration. Ignorance or avidya is identified as the cause of the variety of mental afflictions and is defined in its metaphysical sense:

 Ignorance is the notion that the non-eternal, the impure, the evil, and that which is not soul are, severally, eternal, pure, good and soul.

Book II: 5

The culmination of ignorance, inhibiting self-awareness, is the natural tendency to material manifestation and the self-reproductive power of externalization:

 The tenacious wish for existence upon earth is inherent in all sentient beings, and continues through all incarnations, because it has self-reproductive power. It is felt as well by the wise as the unwise.

Book II: 9

 We must see this power for what it is, but our valuations alter if we recognize, as in aphorism 28, that the entire universe, visible and invisible, compounded of the purity of the unmodified Ishwara (reflected in primordial matter), the activity and the withdrawal involved in manifestation, the material elements and organs of action, that all exist for the soul's experience and emancipation.

 Aphorism 20 of Book II defines the soul as the Perceiver, vision pure and simple, unmodified, which looks directly upon ideas. Hence the possibility of omniscience set forth in Book III:

 By concentrating his mind upon the true nature of the soul as being entirely distinct from any experiences, and disconnected from all material things, and dissociated from the understanding, a knowledge of the true nature of the soul itself arises in the ascetic.

 From the particular kind of concentration last described, there arises in the ascetic, and remains with him at all times, a knowledge concerning all things, whether they be those apprehended through the organs of the body or otherwise presented to his contemplation.

 In the ascetic who has acquired the accurate discriminative knowledge of the truth and of the nature of the soul, there arises a knowledge of all existences in their essential natures and a mastery over them.

Book III: 36, 37, 50

Aphorisms 23 to 26 of Book II show why man is bound and why he can free himself, why he is actually ignorant and potentially omniscient – the soul is conjoined with the organ of thought and thus with nature. The conjuncture is caused by ignorance, but the quitting of bondage to matter is possible through perfect discriminative knowledge.

 Aphorism 9 of Book III, the vibhuti pada concerning yogic attainments, shows that while the modifications of mind produce a train of self-reproductive thought, so too another train of self-reproductive thought arises when the mind is engrossed solely with the truth.

 There are two trains of self-reproductive thought, the first of which results from the mind being modified and shifted by the object or subject contemplated; the second, when it is passing from that modification and is becoming engaged only with the truth itself; at the moment when the first is subdued and the mind is just becoming intent, it is concerned in both of those two trains of self-reproductive thought, and this state is technically called Nirodha.

Book III: 9

The cycle of cosmic involvement is ideation, manifestation and retention of transcendence. For the individual the cycle is reversed – impure involvement or false ideation, disengagement and self-subsisting universal self-awareness. Once attained, this could be followed by a new cycle in which the individual creates in the manner of spirit – by ideation, constructive manifestation (through the power of projection) and retention of transcendence. This divine and human prerogative is enshrined in the doctrine of Jnana Yagna, the practice of Buddhi Yoga, and the spiritual powers of Kriyashakti and Icchashakti.

 These involve a grasp of Karma (Book III, 23), sattwa or the property of luminousness (Book III, 21), udana or vital energy (Book III, 40), and the five classes of properties in the manifested universe (Book III, 45). Thus we can gain the knowledge that saves us from involuntary rebirth (Book III, 55) and the condition of emancipation or Isolation of the Soul (Book III, 56). Book IV says more about the perfections (Book IV, 1), the transformation of nature (Book IV, 2), the mental deposits left by Karma (Book IV, 8), the three qualities of objects (Book IV, 13), our awareness of time (Book IV, 32), and the re-absorption of the qualities (Book IV, 33).

 All this is abstruse, a statement of principles and possibilities. How are we to make this knowledge accessible? By drawing the ethical corollaries of the metaphysical truths given. The mind cannot be withdrawn from its repeated modifications to the unmodified state of the soul without constant practice – abhyasa. To do this we require a firm position, growth in dispassion to displace the power of tanha and the desire for externalization through attachment and repulsion, and a knowledge of the soul as distinct from all else.

 This exercise is a firm position observed out of regard for the end in view, and perseveringly adhered to for a long time without intermission.

 Dispassion is the having overcome one's desires.

 Dispassion, carried to the utmost, is indifference regarding all else than soul, and this indifference arises from a knowledge of soul as distinguished from all else.

Book I: 14-16

 The obstacles to concentration are set out in Book I, 30 – sickness, languor, doubt, carelessness, laziness, addiction to sense-objects, erroneous perception, failure to attain to abstraction, instability in any state when attained. To prevent these, according to aphorisms 32 and 39 of Book I, any one truth which one appreciates should be dwelt upon until the mind is steadied. Further, the mind must be purified through the practice of benevolence, tenderness, complacency, disregard for objects of happiness, grief, virtue and vice. Hence the enormous importance of detachment and resignation and forbearance, the essential and universal duties, and special religious observances or ascetic rules.

 Forbearance consists in not killing, veracity, not stealing, continence, and not coveting.

 These, without respect to rank, place, time, or compact, are the universal great duties.

 Religious Observances are purification of both mind and body, contentment, austerity, inaudible mutterings, and persevering devotion to the Supreme Soul.

Book II: 30-32

 These "Religious Observances" or niyamas are especially relevant to all who wish to pursue the path of spiritual growth, but they must be developed on the firm basis of constant practice of the universal great duties, the mahavritam. One of the oldest meanings of vrita, as found in the Rig Veda, is "divine will or command." The order (rta) observable in nature was considered to be the consequence of the vrita of the gods, and it could be reflected in human society through the deliberate and vigilant performance of dharma. The instinctual behaviour of the lower kingdoms and the motions of natural objects have a rhythm and a reliability that men must consciously emulate if they are to become conscious embodiments of the divine power that pervades the universe. Any conscious or unconscious infringement of the divine order is to be expiated by imposing on oneself some sort of self-denial. Such a resort to vrita was supposed to purify the performer and elevate him spiritually. The observance of vows is even more necessary for the aspirant to a life of complete renunciation or for a seeker after mystical attainment as in the Yoga Sutra. Dispassion must accompany the discrimination sought through the special religious observances. Then meditation will become meaningful and fruitful. The task is arduous, but every effort brings strength and joy.

Hermes, August 1976
by Raghavan Iyer

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