Book 4, Sutra 25: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras


“The transcendent power of distinguishing the seer from the seeable cuts off the mental inquires around self, being and experiencing.”

viśesha-darśina átma-bháva-bhávaná-vinivrttih


Patanjali seems to know that we may still be confused about what exactly the “citta-vrtti-s” are from its early formulation in Book 1 (i.2) and he’s giving us more information on them in this sutra. We know that seeing the seer apart and unconnected to the seeable involves a special type of “seeing” that is transcendent in nature which he calls “viśesha-darśina” in this sutra. But how does that tie into the cessation of “citta-vrtti-s” that is the practical goal of yoga? In this sutra Patanjali ties the two together in teaching that the “citta-vrtti-s” or mental fluctuations revolve around our sense of being and experiencing in the here and now; in other words, they are based on our living out our lives according to the first of two possible life purposes he described earlier. That first purpose is based on the sense that “I am here, now, experiencing life in order to . . .[purpose]” (fill in the blank).

However, when the special distinction is made, the “viśesha-darśina,” it creates a roadblock on the path of that first purpose. If I am unconnected to the “seeable” and every thought or attribute I can observe about me (including memories about my life) is a part of the “seeable” then how can I go on considering “I am here, now, experiencing life . . .?” These considerations require there to be a connection, a relevance, between the seer and the seen. Without such a connection these thoughts fall apart: thus, “citta vrtti nirodhah” (cessation of fluctuating thoughts). The same is true with all inquiries about ourselves that we normally engage in; that is, Who am I? What am I? What was I? What will I be? etc. These types of inquiries have no legs to stand on without some sense of connection between the seer and the seen.

Vyasa, in the original commentary to this sutra, wrote: “The reflection regarding the self [that Patanjai] referred to is like this: Who was I? What is this? How did it come into being? What shall I be and how? Such queries cease for one who has the distinctive knowledge of the self, purusha.” In this case, Vyasa set a very good example in his understanding of this sutra that many translators since then did not follow. Many translations I have read limit this sutra to the thoughts that regard the mind as the self. In other words, for them, Patanjali teaches that the thoughts that regard the mind as oneself cease due to the “special distinction made.” But this sutra is actually much stronger and fiercer than this.

Patanjali specifically says that the thoughts that surround being and experiencing come to an end. And as Vyasa says, this includes all these philosophical questions about the true nature of oneself and the world. These questions end, not because final answers are found but because the enlightened person, devoid of ignorance, knows that the questioner is inherently false. The questioner, in all of these philosophical debates, is always just the mind, just a part of the seeable, totally unconnected with the seer, the purusha. “Seeing” that, the questions and these debates end. They are deflated in mid-sentence, because the mind recognizes it doesn’t have the capacity for “knowing” in this way. It can only know that it doesn’t really know anything except that it doesn’t know anything. “Not knowing anything” means knowing that the truth, the seer, the purusha/self, is apart from it, unconnected and independent. And only through that revelation, the “viśesha-darśina,” can all wanderings of the mind, powered by the first purpose of experiencing life/being alive, come to an end. Once these fluctuations, the source of suffering and sorrow, end then true all-inclusive knowledge arises and that’s the transcendent part that Patanjali already went through in Book 3. Ordinary thoughts cease, all questions cease, the yogi experiences the profound peace and quiet of samadhi and then all-inclusive knowledge arises. Here in Book 4 Patanjali is bringing all the aspects of yoga together in a concise but razor-sharp way.

As I have noted in reference to past sutras, this one also shows concordance with the Buddha’s original teachings from the Pali canon. The Buddha taught his disciples not to ask the types of questions that Vyasa summarized so well above. In Sutta MN2 the Buddha similarly states that “When a disciple attends unwisely he does so by asking: ‘Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what did I become in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I become in the future?’ Or else he simply remains inwardly confused about right now, asking ‘Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where will it go?’”

These are the very questions “around self, being and experiencing” that Patanjali refers to in this sutra. These are the questions that require the engagement of the first purpose of life, “bhogah,” that we are actually here experiencing life. For the yogi that first purpose has been completely replaced with the other purpose of liberation and so, these questions no longer arise. And so the evidence continues to accumulate that the Buddha’s and Patanjali’s teachings are much more harmonious then I have ever heard or read asserted before.




Book 4, Sutra 24: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

“Such a mind has a countless variety of habitual vasana-s although the other purpose will have an influence once activated.”

tad asankhyeya-vásanábhish citram api parártham sanhatya-káritvát


Many translations of this sutra again follow the traditional commentator, Vyasa’s lead here and are steered into very unhelpful territory. Vyasa interpreted this sutra as stating that the mind only serves something other than itself (like a house serves its owner once constructed) when it is in the throes of its countless desire-triggered reactions to the world. He wrote that “a mind which is essentially an assemblage cannot act on its own to serve its own interests. A happy mind does not enjoy the happiness. In a wise mind the wisdom is not for the emancipation of the mind. Both these are for serving somebody else.” In my opinion, Vyasa’s take on this sutra is not well evidenced by the Sanskrit itself and doesn’t make sense either. A normal mind which is afflicted by countless desires is unable to serve anything but itself, I would argue. That is the result of ignorance or avidya which Patanjali has already explained extensively. So, instead of interpreting “artham” as referring to “somebody else” that the ordinary mind is serving, I would say that “artham” refers to that “other purpose” not some “other person.” That “other purpose” is the purpose that arises or is activated through yoga to bring about “nirodhah” or cessation (which Patanjali already discussed at length in Book 2, ii.18 & ii.21).  Hartranft agrees with me here at least about the proper way to interpret “artham.” He writes for this sutra “Even when colored by countless latent traits, consciousness, like all compounded phenomena, has another purpose [artham]– to serve awareness.”

This second purpose is not blocked by our “vasana-s” but instead is able to work with, or collaborate with (“samhatya”) the mind that is infused with countless worldly desires and habit patterns. That’s the point that Patanjali makes in this sutra: yoga introduces the second of the two possible life purposes into the mind of the ignorant person and begins to collaborate with it in a way that delivers it to liberation. Ultimately, the second or “other” purpose of life takes over completely through the very special form of “seeing” (which Patanjali explained was not really an actual “seeing” but instead is some transcendent process of recognizing the true seer behind the mind). And that special form of “seeing” is the subject of the next sutra.




Book 4, Sutra 23: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

“A mind that is colored by both the seer and the seeable allows one to pursue any possible purpose in life.”

drastr-drśyoparaktam cittam sarvártham


So, from the prior sutras, we learned that we can become aware of the purusha behind our own mind when that mind takes on the form of the unchanging, by eliminating all the changes (the “citta vrtti”). Becoming aware of our own mind, “citta,” which Patanjali also calls “buddhi” or intellect, is important because then we can see that it is different and apart from the seer. Our mind is not seeing. It is the seer that sees and that seer is behind and apart from our intellect. The intellect is compared to the crystal in its ability to allow light to pass through. The crystal appears to be colored because of the light passing through it but it is not colored, it is actually colorless. The color comes from the object that is behind it. In the same way the intellect appears to see but it does not see. The power to see comes from the seer which is behind the intellect. This is yoga for Patanjali and this yoga is based upon and driven by the recognition of the difference between the changing and the unchanging, the pure and the base, the joyful and the painful, the “me” and the “not me” (sutra ii.5). Acknowledging, studying, and contemplating this difference forms the central engine of Patanjali’s yoga, around which everything else revolves.

This sutra, like others in this final Book 4, closes a circle by tying us back to earlier sutras. This loop is created through the use of the Sanskrit, “artham.” Many translations that I have read do not acknowledge or respect these loops and so they have chosen to translate “artham” in a way that doesn’t tie us back to those earlier uses. As a result there is diversity and confusion amongst the various translations. As I indicated in my notes to many sutras starting with i.32, “artha(m)” is used in some form or another in at least 17 different sutras. And as I have repeated before as well, it seems to me that any word that is repeated must be studied and comprehended in a way that respects all usages; that is, we must assume that Patanjali chose his words carefully and did not use a word in one sutra in a way that is totally unrelated to the way he used the same word in another sutra. If he did that would be a grounds for criticism. We would be able to fairly accuse him of having been a lazy, careless writer with little attention or mindfulness. But I don’t feel Patanjali can be criticized in this way. I see evidence that his words are carefully used, not carelessly, and so should be carefully analyzed with that in mind.

The root of the difficulty with this sutra and other similar ones where “artha” is found, can be traced back to the traditional commentator, Vyasa. Because his commentary is part of our oldest copies of Patanjali’s work many scholars have taken his words to be as trustworthy as Patanjali’s and perhaps even more so in determining what yoga is. I have shown, however, using many different examples of individual sutras, that Vyasa is fallible and does not fully comprehend Patanjali’s work in many instances. In this sutra, Vyasa insisted that Patanjali used the word, “artha(m),” in a way that contradicts other instances where it is found. For Vyasa, “artha” sometimes indicated “objects” and sometimes indicated “purpose” or “meaning.” My research shows that Vyasa interpreted “artha” as objects only as a way of trying to turn what was incomprehensible to him into something comprehensible and that the Sanskrit, “artha,” should be consistently read to indicate “purpose” or “meaning” in Patanjali’s work. In fact, my guess is that “artha” represents a key and concise part of Patanjali’s yoga which I have already expounded on in my notes to sutra i.49 and others.

Because of the incredible amount of investigation and decoding that has to be performed in order to bypass Vyasa, most translators since Vyasa have simply followed his lead instead of working out the true meaning. So this sutra is translated by many in the same general way: “Colored by the seer and the seen the mind is able to understand everything.” In this way they copy Vyasa but they then disagree on how to make what he wrote fit and make sense.

This series of sutras began with a debate between those who feel the universe is a product of the mind and those that feel that the universe is real, independent of the mind. Most translators have taken great pains to try and prove that Patanjali is of the second group and is refuting the first group in this series of sutras. But they don’t agree about what Patanjali’s actual stance on the issue is after the refuting is done. If the universe is “real” does that mean consciousness is a product of it? In other words, is the mind or the intellect simply a created instrument that is a conduit between the world and the spirit (purusha)? Some translators say yes, this is what Patanjali is saying. But there are many who are not so ready to accept the consciousness of the mind as a created thing. And if you look closely at how they’re interpreting these sutras you see that they fit more into the Idealist side of this debate then they’re willing to admit.

Many interpret this sutra as stating that the mind is capable of being all-knowing, all-comprehensive, once it recognizes the purusha. The mind thus becomes the ultimate truth, or the basis for reality, for these translators once the mind becomes an instrument through which the purusha shines through. So they are positing the mind as the primary principle, not the mind in the form of the intellect but mind in its ultimate expansive form, as purusha, the seer, the spirit, as pure consciousness. How can one refute the Idealist stance that everything comes from mind but then postulate that everything is dependent on “pure consciousness” in the form of the seer, the purusha, etc.? Is that really a refutation of Idealism? Aren’t these translators speaking out of both sides of their mouths? They want to support Patanjali’s obvious affirmation that prakriti is real, independent of the mind, but then they insist that the purusha or the true seer which is consciousness in its purest form is the ultimate enabling factor of existence. Isn’t this what the Idealists are arguing in the first place? Don’t the Idealists also argue that pure consciousness is the pure mind, the pure seer, the purusha, and that it knows everything, it dominates and controls all of matter? But Patanjali is not positing matter, nature or material objects as secondary in “realness” to purusha. He is refuting that Idealist assertion.

The truth is that Patanjali never establishes the seer as the source of the seen. He does not assert that one is more “real” than the other or that one comes out of or is produced by the other. He simply says that they are separate and unconnected. How can something be the source of something else that it has no connection to? That is why Patanjali is refuting the Idealist stance by asserting that prakriti is “real.” Most translators and commentators seem unable or unwilling to accept this. As I mentioned in an earlier sutra, some translators even refused to translate one of the sutras in this series that was particularly forceful in its affirmation of the “reality” of prakriti or nature. I would guess that this comes out of a traditional attachment to Hindu teaching that “Brahman alone is real” combined with an insistence that “Brahman” can be understood to be pure consciousness, ie., pure mind. Here Patanjali is trying to teach something different and most translators won’t have it.

From sutra ii.18 we know that Patanjali sees 2 primary purposes (“artham”) possible in life and we can choose between them. The first is experience (“bhogah”) and the second is liberation (“apavarga”). They are mutually exclusive like opposite ends of a magnet. The more you experience and revel in the sensual pleasures of life the less you move towards liberation. The more liberated, the less you experience (which is what the cessation of the “citta vrtti-s” amounts to). The difference is that “bhogah” is endless and cyclical and liberation obviously comes to a peak or conclusion. This sutra is specifically about “bhogah” and how it is enabled by the blending or confusion between the seer and the seen within the mind. The mind that cannot perceive the true seer is enabled, by that blindness, to experience or pursue any and all possible purposes or goals in life (“sarvatham”). This echoes ii.18-24 and the following sutra will continue on this track by switching focus from the first of the two possible purposes of life, experience, to the second, liberation.

If Patanjali taught that there are two possible purposes in life why does he use the Sanskrit, “sarvártham,” here, meaning “all purposes?” The reason is that one of the two purposes, “bhogah,” appears to be very diverse and multitudinous even though it’s not. In other words, when an ordinary, non-yogi, person picks a purpose for their life they can choose from a huge variety of possible purposes. Marriage, children, professional success, respect, health, money, adventure, truth, love, friendship or even humanitarian causes could be taken up as one’s purpose. Patanjali teaches that all these are really one, that of gaining experience, but they appear as a huge variety and that’s why he uses “sarvártham” here.

Patanjali already has covered the two primary purposes of life extensively in earlier sutras, principally in Book 3, sutra iii.9 onwards. This is typical of his style. He explains the main yogic points over and over in different ways and from different angles. In Book 3, sutra iii.9 onwards, he described the two purposes as a parallel to the two primary sanskara-s, “vyutthána” and “nirodháh” (the desire to grow outwardly and the desire to disappear, respectively). In sutra iii.11 he specifically mentions “sarvártham” as what disappears or is eliminated in “samadhi.” In other words, the first of the two primary purposes of life gives way to the second one (renunciation) through the influence of “samadhi.” So in Book 3 he taught about “sarvártham” in reference to the transformations that happen in “samadhi” whereas in Book 4 he teaches about “sarvártham” in relationship to the mind’s recognition of the purusha. When the purusha is unrecognized “sarvártham” dominates but when purusha is recognized then the other purpose can take over and that’s what the next sutra is about.



Book 4, Sutra 22: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

“When one’s mind assumes the form of the unchanging principle that is beyond time then it truly knows itself.”

citer apratisankramáyás tad-ákárá pattau svabuddhi-samvedanam


Patanjali is telling us that when the false seer steps out of the way by the cessation of the “citta vrtti-s” then true knowing and experiencing begins. So here we learn why Patanjali taught all 8 limbs of yoga earlier in Book 2. All of these practices help our “false” mind shape-shift from an anxious, fearful, greedy creation of the ego into a still, calm and joyful reflection of the true seer that is sitting apart completely unaffected by all the nonsense and drama of our lives. “Tad-ákárá” refers to “that form” or “the shape” of the seer that we must come to resemble before the truth of the seer can dawn in our consciousness. Our false mind must take on the form of our true mind before our knowing and experiencing passes through the false into the true. At that point we know for sure that nothing of the senses has any impact or relevance on who we are, that nothing seeable has any connection or power over us that we haven’t given it ourselves because of our ignorance.

Patanjali gives us another piece of information about the purusha or the seer in this sutra. He describes it as “apratisankramáyás” which is interesting in that it implies a freedom from time. If we look back to those particularly dense sutras of Book 3, iii.13 to iii.16, we see the same theme there. Now we can understand that Patanjali’s points in Book 3 about the accomplished yogi going beyond time connects with his description here of the purusha or seer as being beyond the confines of time. Patanjali went to great pains in Book 3 to explain why time is such an important concept and part of life to contemplate on. He connected time with “dharma” and also connected time to the purpose or purposes of life. So this sutra loops back on those earlier ones and that is further evidenced by the next sutras reviewing this idea of purpose, not in relation to the practicing yogi, like Book 3, but now in reference to the purusha or the true seer.



Book 4, Sutra 21: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

“If there were two minds, seeing each other, there would be an infinite regression of perception and a confusion of memory.”

cittántara-drśye buddhi-buddher atiprasangah smrti-sankaraś ca


The true inner seer cannot act like a mind in the same way that our ordinary mind does, Patanjali explains here, because if it did we would have two operating minds seeing each other see each other seeing each other, etc. in an infinite regression. This is just what happens when you put two mirrors facing each other and put an object in between them. You get an infinite regression of images within images of the object reflected in the mirrors. If we had two operating, experiencing minds within us we would suffer such madness and have no capacity to operate in the world. On top of that there would be a confusion of two memory streams, combining, contradicting and creating chaos overall. So in this sutra Patanjali is explaining why the true seer within us cannot function in the same way that our changing mind does. Descartes said ‘I think, so I am’ but Patanjali is saying, ‘I am not because of this thinking, rather this thinking is sitting on top of my true self.’

This sutra also refutes those who deny there is a soul or a spirit within us that we cannot directly perceive. Patanjali does so by explaining why that inner spirit cannot be seen by our normal “seeing” mind. The inner spirit definitely is doing the true seeing, he teaches, and because it does, it can’t mingle with the ordinary mind which only claims to ‘see.’ So the inner spirit must remain hidden if we are to be able to function in a normal cohesive way in the world. It is as if our ordinary seeing mind is a surrogate “seer” who is just a dummy for the true seeing that lies hidden behind it.

This whole series of sutras in chapter 4 are extremely profound and difficult to explain. That is why you will find many different variations on this and the prior sutras in the different translations available. With so many versions, they can’t all be right unless you propose that Patanjali wrote these sutras without a clear meaning and path of instruction in mind. No, I would assert that Patanjali has a singular and clear teachings that he is trying to convey. Many versions of this sutra are in fact easily refutable as incorrect interpretations of what Patanjali is conveying here. The most obviously mistaken are the translations of this sutra that assume Patanjali is talking about two different minds of two different people and the inability of one mind to “see” another person’s mind. This interpretation is immediately refuted by the fact that in Book 3 Patanjali already discussed the “super power” available to the yogi to read and “see” into another’s mind and, as some translations suggest, even take over another person’s mind! So clearly, Patanjali is not teaching us some type of law (which is how this series of sutras in Book 4 reads, as laws) that prevents one mind from “seeing” or reading another’s. On top of that, these misinterpretations fail to consider the context of the prior sutras mentioning the duality of purusha vs. the changing mind. So clearly “citta antara” means “another mind” and not “the mind of another person.

Errors like this one are common when the sutras are not clearly seen with a wide-angle lenses that takes them all in as a whole. These sutras are beads on a string and as such, one can be decoded or understood properly only when in relation to the others around it and when also considering the string as a whole. From the sutra prior to this one we already know that Patanjali is teaching us about the changing mind and the unchanging seer within each of us. So this sutra clearly references this dichotomy when he writes of the two minds (“citta”) and the two intellects (“buddhi”). If the seer operated as a perceiving mind in the same way that our ordinary changing mind does then we would be very confused. But we are not confused because it does not.



Book 4, Sutra 20: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

“It is impossible to be aware of both at the same time.”

eka-samaye cobhayánavadháranam


In this sutra Patanjali introduces us to the door through which the yogi can escape the conundrum of the seer vs. seen duality. Within that duality the seer cannot ever be seen. If the seer becomes seen then the duality of seer vs. seen breaks down. This is the same duality we call subject vs. object. We need that duality in order to exist as one object in a world of objects. So the end of that duality is the end of existing as we commonly experience it. Patanjali is preserving and not destroying this duality. In fact, he uses it to induce us to let go of our sense of being a part of the seeable and thus, subject to its changing and often destructive conditions. Patanjali is using this duality for its ability to force us to drop any sense of identity that is grounded in any object that is seeable because all objects that are seeable are also changeable. And ignorance is partly defined by identifying with what is changeable, as he taught in sutra ii.5. The duality of seer vs. seen teaches us that we must be what is unchanging within. We can know what is unchanging by eliminating everything else. But how can we know what is unchanging directly? How can we see the seer? As I said, that is impossible if we maintain the truth of this seer vs. seen duality. It is in this sutra, however, that Patanjali begins to explain how yoga accomplishes the impossible: the yogi becomes aware of the seer and goes beyond the seeable without destroying the duality of seer vs. seen.

So the word, “both,” in this sutra indicates the changing mind that we normally identify with AND the seer, the true inner witness or self. Patanjali teaches that the two cannot be known side by side. He doesn’t say why because it may not be possible to provide a rational explanation here. It’s more like he’s saying, ‘trust me, you can’t know both together.’ What’s his point though? He’s giving the reasoning behind his original definition of yoga: “yogas citta vrtti nirodhah.” We must eliminate the changing mind through yoga. Why? Because only when we get the changing mind completely out of the way can the true seer be “seen.” I put “seen” in quotes because we’re really beyond reasoning or language at this point. We’ve dropped our dependence on the changing mind which is the domain of language. The seer is “seen” only when the organ of thinking and language has been overcome so that means I must keep the word “seen” in quotes because there are really no words functioning at this stage.

This sutra posits the secret escape to the seer vs. seen, the subject vs. object, conundrum. Without it, no one could ever come into direct knowledge of one’s own true inner seer. The seer vs. seen duality forbids it. Again, I say “forbids” because it’s simple math. The subject can’t also be the object. You can’t add 2 + 2 and get 73. Ever. But Patanjali is teaching us a work-around to this seemingly dead end road. Through yoga he is teaching us to go beyond this duality and know the seer directly: an otherwise impossibility.

What is the trick that he’s teaching here? Since you can’t see both the changing mind and the true seer at the same time you must eliminate the changing mind. You have a choice, either you can be aware of the changing thoughts and states of the mind or you can be aware of the inner seer, the true self. Why would we want to become aware of the inner seer? What’s the advantage there? When we become aware of the inner seer all our suffering ends because there is no connection between that inner seer and the entire world including our bodies and minds. Our inner seer is unchanging so what could we possibly worry about or crave after knowing this directly? So the awareness of the inner seer brings about a permanent state of peace. That’s the carrot on the end of yoga’s stick.

Why can’t we just ignore the changing mind in order to become aware of the inner seer? Because the only way to ignore the changing mind is to focus instead on the external world. The seer has to look at something! But Patanjali’s point is that it can only see only thing at a time. Normally it’s looking at the external world. That’s why it doesn’t see the changing mind. It’s in a state of ignorance about the mind itself when it focuses on the external world. Ignoring our own changing mind does not help to see the inner seer. Patanjali teaches that only when we bring the changing mind to a standstill; that is, bring all its fluctuations to an end; can it turn around and see the true inner seer. Why? How does this work? It’s also simple math. The seer MUST see SOMETHING otherwise the duality breaks down and the seer ceases to exist. So if we stop the fluctuating mind we stop its ability to see the external world because the external world is fluctuating and a mind that witnesses what is fluctuating must fluctuate as well. If we stop this fluctuation then the mind cannot perceive the external world as such. But it must continue to see something. So it begins to “see” the only thing remaining; itself, the inner seer.

Only at that point does the inner seer actually function like a “mind” in the normal sense in that its “seeing” becomes our experience. This is difficult to explain but is the subject of the next sutra so I just want to introduce it here. For non-yogi’s the mind functions as the self. What the mind sees appears to be what “I” see. This is due to a connection between the sense of self and what the mind sees. This connection, however, Patanjali has been teaching, is false. For the accomplished yogi, however, the sense of “I” originates directly from the seer and not the changing mind because the seer has “seen” itself. But one might ask, why isn’t the true seer giving me the sense of being “I” directly right now? Why doesn’t it function that way for all people with or without yoga? If the inner seer is my “true self” why can’t I sense that right now? Why can’t I think and perceive with the inner seer in the same way I can think and perceive right now with the changing mind? That is the question Patanjali will address next.



Book 4, Sutra 19: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras


“The changing mind is not self-illuminating because it is part of the seeable.”

na tat svábhásam drśyatvát


Patanjali is referring to the “citta vrttayas” (changing mind) of the last sutra once again in this sutra. In the last sutra he stated that our fluctuating mind becomes completely known to the accomplished yogi because the yogi has realized the difference between it and the true seer. This realization is possible because the true seer is unchanging and that distinguishes it from the changing mind. In this sutra he further distinguishes the changing mind (the false seer) and the purusha (the true seer). The changing mind does not illuminate itself meaning that it cannot see itself. The power of illuminating something is an analogy for becoming aware of something. Only when something is lit up do we say that it can be seen. This is another way of simply saying that the changing mind is part of the seeable and not a part of the seer because the seer cannot see itself by very definition. If the seer could see itself it becomes the seen and the duality, seer vs. seen, falls apart. Patanjali is not breaking apart this duality but emphasizing it as an important concept to study in yoga.

Because the changing mind is not self-illuminating one could also say that it is not self-conscious, or going further, one could say that it is not actually conscious at all since consciousness implies the presence of a seer at the center of something who is actually seeing. If the changing mind is not self-illuminating, it is not self-aware and it is not self because the definition of what is self is the part within that sees, that is the seer. Therefore the changing mind lacks the seer and so cannot be ourself. If that is so then who is doing the seeing? Who is actually aware when our mind perceives an apple or even reads this sentence? For now, from this sutra, we know that Patanjali is teaching that the one who is aware is not this mind that thinks and perceives or even necessarily remembers what it thinks and perceives.



Book 4, Sutra 18: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras


“The changing mental states and activities are always known to one who has mastered them through the knowledge of the unchanging nature of the purusha.”

sadá jñátáś citta-vrttayas tat-prabhoh puruśasyáparinámitvát


So far Patanjali has been talking about objects and how we can know them. This sutra takes a giant leap forward in the discussion by identifying the “citta-vrttayas” as objects to be known as well. Remember how important ““citta-vrttayas” are from his original summary of yoga in sutra i.2: “yogas cittas vrtti nirodhah.” Yoga is the cessation of “citta-vrttayas.” In this sutra Patanjali now tells us that “citta-vrttayas” are objects to be known just like any other objects. So that makes them part of the “seen” or the “seeable” and not part of the “seer” which is the primary duality which Patanjali has centered his entire treatise upon (which he sometimes labels as “prakriti” vs. “purusha”). So “citta-vrttayas,” which are the ever fluctuating thoughts and states of the mind, are not part of the seer but are instead objects to be seen by the seer.

This sutra is translated almost universally as stating that the seer, which Patanjali calls the “purusha” in this sutra, is always fully aware of “citta-vrttayas.” He explains why the purusha is always aware very simply but very profoundly. The purusha is always aware of “citta-vrttayas” because the purusha is unchanging. This statement seems simple until we realize that Patanjali is referring once again to that original duality between the seer and the seen. “Citta-vrttayas” are always changing. Purusha is never changing. Nambiar succintly points out the important take-away here: “There must be something which is always unchanging [in order] to know things that are [always] changing.” In other words, Patanjali has defined for us the essential difference between the seer and the seen: the seer is the rock-solid central point around which the seen revolves. The seer witnesses the seen because the witness MUST be stable otherwise it cannot be said to be a witness.

If it was important to keep watch over the front door of a bank in order to prevent the same person from entering twice then you would post a sentry there to watch everyone entering very closely. If you changed the person who filled that position a few times each day you would make the task impossible. The person who filled the afternoon shift watching the front door would have no memory of who came into the bank in the morning and so would be unable to notice a repeat customer. In the same way, if the identity of the seer within us was changing or fluctuating we would not have a sense of living out our lives as we do now. Therefore the seer within us must be unchanging and unchanging means unaffected; thus Patanjali is restating that there is no connection or contact between the seer and the seen. If there was any contact then the seen could affect the seer in some way, changing it. If the seer changed then the linearity, the cohesiveness, of being “me” would break down.

Many translators use the Sanskrit “purusha” alone in this sutra to indicate our True selves, the inner seer. I feel however this is oversimplifying a complex matter. Patanjali doesn’t just use “purusha” here but instead has “tat-prabhoh purusha.” The inclusion of “prabhoh” changes the way Patanjali is identifying the seer. “Prabhoh” here means the “master” and I believe that he uses it to indicate the accomplished yogi, not the purusha. It is the accomplished yogi that has mastered the “citta-vrttayas” because the yogi has recognized the fact that the seer or the “purusha” is eternally unchanging and unaffected by what is changeable. The yogi uses the awareness of the inner seer to master the ever-changing mind thus accomplishing its cessation or relinquishment (“nirodhah”). That is the goal of yoga in fact: the relinquishment of the changing mind through the realization of the unaffected and unchanging nature of the inner seer.

Shearer translates this sutra in a way that is close to what I am saying here but not quite. For this sutra he writes “But the mind itself is always experienced because it is witnessed by the unchanging Self.” He has the right idea connecting the knowledge of the changing mind to the unchanging Self but he leaves out “prabhoh.” Without “prabhoh” he implies that everyone is always fully aware of the mind itself and its changing states but that is clearly untrue. Certainly the self-awareness of the changing states of the mind is greater in the person who meditates than in the person who does not. That is, meditation facilitates the act of looking at the changing states of the mind. In the same way, we can confidently say that someone accomplished in yoga is more aware of the fluctuations of the mind than someone who is untrained in yoga. This is a generalization but as such it has truth. Certainly not everyone is equal in the degree to which they are aware of the fluctuations of their mind, to which their mind is “sadá jñátáh,” always known. In that way, Patanjali’s inclusion of “prabhoh” in this sutra is significant because it identifies a procedure: you train in yoga to become aware of the mind in order to become aware of the purusha or the true seer.

Interestingly, Patanjali also teaches that yoga involves the opposite procedure as well, at least in the early stages of training. In other words, Patanjali has been teaching us to intellectually become aware of the purusha (the seer) as different from the mind in order to reduce the mind’s fluctuations. Once the mind has quieted down completely we will be able to see the purusha for ourselves instead of just taking his word on the matter. So first we must trust Patanjali that the seer has no connection to the seen, use this teaching to quiet our minds and then, once successful with that, we will verify in our own meditative experience that Patanjali was right.



Book 4, Sutra 17: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

“Due to their interdependence, a mind gets colored by the knowledge of an object.”

tad uparágápeksitvác cittasya vastu jñátájñátam


Most commentators and translators take this sutra as a simple extension of Patanjali’s anti-Idealist argument. The older commentator, Vyasa, uses the analogy of a magnet and iron filings to explain how “objects of sense, like magnets, bind to themselves the mind-stuff . . . and affect it” as James Woods explains. Most translations since, follow Vyasa’s lead. The argument could be continued by stating that if objects weren’t real then the mind must also by unreal because if the mind alone were real then it couldn’t be affected by an unreal object. And in that way, the Idealist stance is further refuted.

Nicolas Sutton does a great job of summarizing most of what I’ve read from the various translations on this sutra: “In this sutra, the Yoga sutras confirm the Sankhya ‘satyavada’ philosophy which claims that the world we perceive is real. Our perception of it may be flawed but each object does have an objective reality to it.”

There are a few translators, however, who hedge their bets on this debate. Vishnudevananda writes that “what is perceived or cognized by an individual is entirely dependent upon the orientation and tendencies of that mind and not on the object itself.” Here we see how the inherent reality of objects can be upheld in yoga while admitting that we can only know that reality in a limited way through the limited faculties of the mind.

Just as I proposed in the last sutra that Patanjali’s argument is more complicated than commonly accepted I also feel that this sutra has a hidden side that is worth investigating. That side revolves around the Sanskrit word, “uparága,” which is mostly translated as “coloring,” or “reflected” and describes what happens to the mind when it encounters and tries to know an object. But if we dig into that word a bit then we see that it contains the word, “rága” which is a very important word in Patanjali’s treatise so far. Rága has been mentioned in many previous sutras starting with i.37 where it is used to indicate the attachment that happens to ordinary minds when they encounter objects. In sutras ii.3 & ii.7 Patanjali includes “rága” in the primary list of all “klesha-s” or obstructions to success in yoga. In fact, ii.7 is interpreted by many translators as describing a type of “coloring” that happens to the mind when it seeks sensory pleasures. The Manduka Upanishad is often cited in relation to this sutra for its assertion that the ‘atman does not color, dye, stain or tint (rága) matter.’ Thus, in this ancient text the word “rága” is used with the same connotations that the word “uparága” is said to carry in this sutra. So perhaps there is an important connection to be made here.

If “uparága” should be understood in this sutra in connection with the klesha of ‘attachment’ then Patanjali is referring to a type of knowing of objects that is inherently flawed. In other words, Patanjali is criticizing the very idea of perceiving and knowing an object as a process that is completely discarded by the accomplished yogi. This supports the theory I put forth under the last sutra that Patanjali is only appearing to engage and take sides on the timeless debate of which is primary, mind or matter. Really, what he is doing is debunking the debate itself by criticizing each side. His criticism of the argument that matter depends on the mind (that ‘reality is due to a diversity in perception’ from sutra iv.15) is obvious so far. But is he also making a more subtle but just as critical argument against the claim that the mind depends on an essential core within all matter (that ‘reality is due to a homogeneity in objects’)? I say yes he is. Using “rága” in his description of the process of knowing objects means to me that he is describing a mental habit that is overcome through yoga. The mind of the accomplished yogi does not become “colored” (“uparága”) by objects, as he made clear in the earlier sutras. So this sutra is not actually arguing against the Idealist stance that objects depend on the mind but rather arguing against the stance that the mind can affirm an inherent essence within objects. The mind that attempts such knowledge is simply becoming attached in a way that obstructs the true knowledge of the Seer and its total freedom from the seen. And that is why in the next sutra Patanjali discusses the true Seer and how its process of knowing is different from that of the untrained, unaccomplished mind.



Book 4, Sutra 16: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

“Objects don’t depend on a single mind in order to exist for what would happen to them then when they aren’t thus seen?”

na caika-citta-tantram vastu tad apramánakam tadá kim syát


The older commentators tell us that Patanjali is refuting the Idealist philosophy in this sutra which holds the view that reality is dependent on cognition or perception. Apparently a few of the commentators actually disregard this particular sutra for that reason. Bhojadeva and Swami Vivekananda both ignore this sutra and others have explained this absence as due to a protest against Patanjali’s anti-Idealist stance. Swami Hariharananda, however, celebrates the anti-Idealism and argues that Patanjali is making a very lucid affirmation of the independence of objects to the mind. Ironically this argument has become hotly disputed by modern discoveries in quantum physics as I mentioned in the last sutra commentary. Nevertheless, Swami does a great job summarizing this anti-Idealist stance: “. . . when the distinction between mind and matter is established, the views of the Idealists become untenable. . .  it must be admitted that an object has distinct existence common to all and minds are also distinct and peculiar to each individual. The realization arising out of the contact of these two is the experience of an object by a person. . . . This sutra establishes that an object is common to all, whereas the mind is peculiar to each individual.”

This argument is apparently a set one within the Sankhya philosophy which Patanjali is said to belong to but with which I have already shown he differs with in past sutras. According to Sankhya, both the seer and the seen exist in their own right. The first is an immutable entity and the second is constantly changing. The goal of life within such philosophy is to directly know and realize the truth of this. But regardless, within Sankhya, an object is said to have an objectivity that is commonly shared by all.

As I mentioned in regards to the last sutra, I see Patanjali debunking both sides of this classical argument in this section of Book 4. In this sutra he refutes one side, the Idealist side, which states that there is no reality to objects outside of our perception of them but I would argue that he doesn’t necessarily take up the opposite side of the argument either; that objects have a fixed reality or essence that is common to all and independent of perception.

Interestingly, modern physics seems to be supporting the Idealist side more than it did traditionally. According to many modern physicists, objects, at least on the smallest quantum levels of perception, are not considered fixed and common to all in the same moment. Furthermore, many physicists consider the possibility that objects do not have an existence at all when they are not being measured. When objects are not being measured they exist as probabilities for objects, not actual objects according to these theories. They only get fixed as objects when we examine them. This is called the “wave-form collapse” or the moment when perception forces nature to take an objective stand in defining what and where an object is. Of course, this is all hotly debated even within this specialized field of physics. And there are many proposed explanations for how an object can seemingly come into concrete existence only when looked at. I won’t get into these here because they can be quite complicated and maybe not immediately relevant to our discussion. The point I would make is that Patanjali’s argument in this sutra is, today, just as debated as it might have been in his day.

Even if no one is there to witness it, trees do fall in the forests, Patanjali argues. And if you look at a tree and then look away and then look back, the same tree is in the same place. Even though modern physics has proposed theories that challenge this seemingly common sense argument, for now we see Patanjali simply stating that objects have some objectivity that is shared by different observers. In the following sutras we will try and trace where Patanjali is going with all this which I think is the most important thing to consider.