“Through sanyama meditation on the relationship between Akasha (space) and the act of hearing the yogi gains divine hearing.”
śrotra sambandha sanyamád divyam śrotram
The two Sanskrit words, “akasha” and “śrotra” (hearing), are the subject of meditation in this sutra and the various commentators and translators define these words in various ways. Akasha is often left alone but is sometimes translated as space, ether or air. The word, “śrotra,” has been translated as sound, the ear, hearing, the power of hearing, the organ of hearing and the inner ear. The result of this meditation is called either super-normal hearing or divine hearing. I have kept “divine hearing” because the Sanskrit that Patanjali uses, “divyam,” indicates the divine. Divine hearing could be understood to be clairaudience which is just a sharper sense of the normal capacity to hear or it could be taken as an ability to hear sounds that are not normally heard by the human ear; that is, sounds made within higher planes, by angelic beings perhaps. Some commentators feel that this divine sound is heard almost exclusively as music and it is soothing and sublime. So this power does not indicate a type of eaves-dropping on angels talking to each other.
It is interesting to note that within the Sikh religious tradition the development of the power to hear divine sounds is central to spiritual practice. Learning how to hear such sounds is said to aid the spiritual seeker in purifying him or herself and also in gaining important spiritual experience/wisdom.
“With the mastery of the samána energy the yogi becomes radiant.”
samána jayáj jvalanam
Samána is another one of the 5 pránas listed within the Indian Ayurvedic medical system and so, it is like an air current that moves through the body. According to Iyengar this specific prána is located in the middle region of the body and is involved in the digestion of foods and the distribution of the nutrients thus gained. Some commentators make the insightful connection between this sutra and the halo of light (sometimes called an “aura”) that is often said, within many different religious traditions, to surround a saint. Of course, light or radiance is a central component of the “sattva” guna which is the specific guna that the yogi cultivates exclusively within yoga in order to eventually realize the truth of who we are beyond all the gunas, beyond everything seeable.
“Through mastery of the udána energy the yogi rises above water, mud, thorns, etc.”
udána jayáj jala panka kantakádisvasanga utkrántiś ca
The only real disagreement between commentators on this sutra is about how extensive this superpower of levitation, “utkrántiś,” is. Quite a few interpreters feels that it allows the yogi not only to walk on water, above mud and thorns, etc. (which is all that is specifically mentioned by Patanjali) but also allows the yogi to levitate, fly through the air and even die at will. Some even claim that this superpower gives the yogi the power to decide where his or her soul goes after death (based upon which direction it ascends away from the body upon death).
The udána energy is generally described as one of the 5 “moving air currents” within the body as postulated within the Indian medical or Ayurvedic system. These are the 5 pránas and they are crucial to diagnosing illnesses. Their imbalance or dysfunction is a major cause of disease. One of these five pránas is called udána so it is quite reasonable to assume that Patanjali is referring to this prána particularly in this sutra.
This superpower is possibly the most commonly known throughout the world due to the story of Jesus walking on water. In the East there are many stories of saints doing the same so it is just as widely known there. Bryant lists a few of the most prominent stories of saints walking on water and I would add the story of the Buddhist saint, Bodhidharma, who was said to walk on water after teaching the Chinese emperor about Buddhism. In that story (which was told to me by a monk in the Korean Zen tradition) it is his ability to walk on water that impressed the emperor and led him to promote Buddhism throughout China (and by extension, Japan and Korea). So walking on water, as a miraculous act, as a “miracle,” has played a large role within religion itself in order to verify its authenticity to non-believers. And as I mentioned earlier in this chapter, the “miracles” like walking on water are also used by critics to denigrate and dismiss religion itself. The important point here being that, due to his inclusion of these miracles in his sutras, Patanjali is teaching yoga in a way that indirectly supports the very same religion that many of its western practitioners are trying to get away from. If a student of yoga who has left the Christian church is now being taught by Patanjali to respect those who can walk on water as masterful yogis does this lead them to go back and re-think their dismissal of Jesus and his teachings? Or do they simply avoid studying or taking Patanjali too seriously within their practice of yoga and so, avoid any such difficult considerations? Or perhaps they learn to respect the superpowers when present within yoga but not with regard to Jesus.
“Upon being released from karmic cause and effect the yogi experiences going forth out of the physical body into a mind-made one.”
bandha kárana śaithilyát pracára samvedanác ca cittasya para śaríráveśah
My interpretation of this sutra differs significantly from all others that I have reviewed. Almost all translators and commentators of this sutra have interpreted it as stating that a yogi can inhabit or take over someone else’s body. Some commentators even state that this yogic power is so common in Indian history that it has come to define being a yogi in many eyes. One of those stories concerns one of the most famous Hindu saints, Sri Shankara, using this power to impress and win over a man who was to become his most foremost of disciples. Despite the popularity of this story and others like it there is solid supporting evidence to suggest an alternate way to reading this sutra.
My interpretation of this sutra is based on three points. The first concerns the teachings of the Buddha, the second involves Patanjali’s use of the Sanskrit, “cittasya” and the third refers to the questionable ethics of this superpower as commonly described. To the first point: as I have already shown in many previous sutras (and will show again in many sutras to come) there is a striking parallel between the original teachings of the Buddha (as conveyed in the Pali canon) and Patanjali’s yoga. Certainly they are not identical but their similarity is obvious in many ways, one of which is that Patanjali uses the very same Sanskrit phrases that the Buddha used in instances where other words were more often used and customary within Hindu texts. Futhermore, in regards to the superpowers listed in this Book 3 there are many instances in which they mirror the superpowers that the Buddha listed as naturally occurring to the meditator. One of the principal superpowers that the Buddha taught concerned the ability to leave the physical body behind and travel within a “mind-made” body (see Buddha’s sutra MN 77.30). The Buddha called this secondary body “mind-made.” The Buddha taught that the meditator creates this new body in his mind and then it separates away from the physical one, allowing the meditator to travel quickly and easily anywhere.
Patanjali specifically uses the Sanskrit “cittasya” in this sutra and that word is commonly translated as meaning “of the mind.” So the phrase “cittasya para-sarira” could easily mean “another body of the mind” (with “para” meaning “other” and “sarira” meaning “body”) instead of the way that it is commonly read as “another person’s body/mind.” “Cittasya” seems unnecessary in this sutra if the yogi is simply entering another person’s body. Many commentators feel that “cittasya” indicates that it is “the mind that projects itself like a television picture and enters into another’s body” as Swami Brahmananda Saraswati writes (typical of many). My argument is that the Sanskrit word, “cittasya,” does not really fit this usuage because it is not actually referring to “a mind” but rather indicates “of the mind” instead. Something is being owned by the mind. It doesn’t seem to be the right form of the word for “mind” if it is indicating that the mind simply travels into another body. But it is the right form of the word for “mind” if the “other body” (para-sarira) is made by the mind or made “of the mind.”
I do not deny the truth behind any of the stories of yogic saints entering into the bodies of others but I am suggesting that this sutra of Patanjali’s Book 3 could be legitimately interpreted as describing some other power. My third point is that this superpower, as it is commonly interpreted, does not seem to match the noble picture of a yogi that Patanjali is painting in other sutras. For a yogi, who according to other sutras already has a supernatural source of knowledge at his or her fingertips, to take over another person’s body seems ethically questionable at best and potentially downright violent. The story of the “saint” Shankara that I referred to earlier, in which he inhabited the body of a king in order to have sex with that king’s wife using this superpower, is not an honorable one. Certainly it is not flattering to the legacy of this great saint to continue to believe in such a story. It sounds, to me, like a story that might have been conjured up by the many Hindu tantric “left-hand path” practitioners, who lived many centuries after Shankara’s death, in order to support their own deviant ways.
“When these superpowers are simply external powers they are obstacles to achieving samadhi.”
te samádháv upasargá vyuttháne siddhayah
Throughout this Book 3 Patanjali has listed superpowers that occur to the yogi through a meditative state he calls samyama. This meditative state is a form of samadhi and is a culmination of all 7 prior limbs of yoga (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana and dhyana). So the yogi who gains superpowers in this way already has tremendous insight, wisdom and internal concentration (see sutra iii.5). In fact, in his description of samyama in sutra iii.9 Patanjali already stated that there is a cessation of the normal external focus (that detachment is the “vairagya” of sutra i.12) and he uses the same Sanskrit word for the external, “vyutthána,” there that he uses in this sutra. But this is not the only way to gain superpowers. Patanjali will explicitly tell us about other ways at the beginning of Book 4 but for now, he is just warning us that those other ways, which do not include the cessation of the external that samyama does, are obstacles to eventually achieving samadhi. The main reason they are obstacles, he will explain in sutra iii.51, is that they create pride in one’s attainments. Pride would only serve to preserve the misapprehension of the connection between seer and seen which is counterproductive to what the practice of yoga strives for.
“From that realization supra-sensory abilities are born (hearing, touch, sight, taste, smell and intelligence).”
tatah prátibha śrávana vedanádarśásváda várttá jáyante
Some commentators follow the older Bhoja Raja interpreting the super senses as abilities to experience the higher heavenly realms and its beings. This is an ability that occurs to meditators according to the Buddha’s teachings as well. So this sutra then is very similar to sutra 32 which described the ability to interact with enlightened beings. This sutra describes a similar ability to interact with things that ordinary people cannot; that is, angels and their realms.
And so, this sutra brings full circle something that Patanjali began in sutra 33 when he first mentioned “pratibhad,” the flash of realization. That realization centered on the heart, he wrote in sutra 34, and concerned the true self, “purusa,” he taught in sutra 35. That flash of insight produces the super sensual powers, the ego-increasing effect of which he will warn about in the next sutra.
“Through sanyama meditation on the distinction between the sattvic and the self, the way that thought doesn’t recognize that distinction and the inherent self-interest of ordinary life (ignoring the true purpose of life) the yogi gains direct knowledge of the self.”
sattva purusayor atyantásankírnayoh pratyayáviśeso bhogah parárthát svártha sanyamát purusa jñánam
This sutra touches upon a number of the most important, most emphasized, most centralized terms and ideas within Patanjali’s yoga. “Purusha,” “bhogah,” “artha,” and “sattva” are all Sanskrit terms that Patanjali has used before and will use again but whose nuances are explained in a unique way in this sutra. Specifically, the important points made in this sutra include the relationship between the sattva versus the other two gunas (tamas and rajas), the relationship between all gunas and the true self (purusha), the distinction between ordinary (“bhogah”) experiencing and the perspective of the yogi, and the role that the perception of life purpose plays in determining whether one is practicing yoga or not. All of these points have been made in prior sutras. In this sutra, however, Patanjali puts them all together as a focus for sanyama meditation. He states that sanyama meditation on these issues leads to direct knowledge of the true self (“purusha”). Because this is the third sutra on a series of sutras focused on “pratibhah” (the flash of insight of sutra iii.33) Patanjali is also defining what this entails.
The first and second, of the important points made in this sutra, involve the “sattva” guna. The gunas have already been explained as the primary components of life within the traditional Indian or Ayurvedic system. The sattva guna is key to yoga because it represents all the qualities the yogi needs to develop within the first two (of 8) limbs of yoga (sutra ii.29): “yama” and “niyama.” Essentially these are virtues and include such “good” behaviors as the “yamas” of truthfulness, non-stealing, non-violence and sexual responsibility and the “good” attitudes and practices of the “niyamas” such as joy, sacrifice, consistency, humility/devotion and surrender.
The key point regarding sattva that Patanjali makes in this sutra comes from the fact that he mentions only the sattva guna when referring to the yogi practicing sanyama meditation. By doing so he makes it very clear that the yogi who wishes to gain direct knowledge of the true self and end all ignorance must have FIRST purified his or her attitudes and behaviors so that they are virtuous. Thus, the yogi must first become “sattvic” before going beyond all of the gunas in realizing the true self. This is an important point mainly because it has become quite common within spiritual circles to claim that a spiritual seeker can skip over this process of becoming virtuous and go directly to realizing the truth. This is a very popular teaching, understandably so because it cuts out the very hard work in becoming sattvic or virtuous. In this sutra, however, Patanjali clearly rejects the idea that yogi can be purely intellectual in the practice of yoga in this way.
So the true self is realized after a level of virtue or purity is reached and that true self is completely apart from all of the gunas, which is the second important point of this sutra. Patanjali has repeated this over and over and clearly it is central to all of his yoga; that is, the gunas (particularly the sattva guna, mentioned here) and the true self (purusha) are absolutely unmixed (“atyanta asankirnayoh”). He has stated this very same thing in different ways many times already using the terms, “drasta” and “drshi,” the “seen” and the “seer” (and many other versions of the same Sanskrit verb to see); that is, there is no connection between the seer and the seen. In this sutra, Patanjali makes the special point that ordinary life, which is characterized as a life of gaining experience (“bhogah”), involves thought which does not recognize this crucial distinction or separateness of the seer vs. seen (or the gunas vs. the true self). In other words, ordinary life is grounded in “experiencing” because that separation is not seen. We could take this the next logical step and say that ordinary life involves thinking because that separation is not recognized. In that way we circle back to the original definition of yoga from sutra i.2: “yogah citta vritti nirodhaha,” yoga is a mind without thinking. From this sutra we now know that it is the thinking that is produced by a failure to see or acknowledge the separation between the gunas and ourselves (or the seer and the seen) that is eliminated in yoga.
The ordinary way of living life, outside of the practice of yoga, sees life as a process of experiencing (“bhogah”). When the yogi acknowledges and then sees the separation between the seer and the seen he or she no longer views life in this way. That is when the secondary or yogic purpose to life (“artha”) comes into play to deliver the yogi’s perception away from the ordinary (sutra ii.2 and others). This other purpose of life is actually the center point of yoga and is the attainment of liberation (from ignorance and the suffering it causes). “Artha,” the important yogic purpose of life, has already been focused on extensively in earlier sutras like i42, i43, i49 and many others. What Patanjali adds to our understanding of “artha” here in this sutra comes from his use of the Sanskrit, “svártha.” Roughly translated this means “one’s own purpose.” This tells us that ordinary life is characterized not only by a sense of experiencing (“bhogah”) but also of living for oneself, having “one’s own purpose;” that is, serving oneself.
Living life for oneself denies “sacrifice” as a key and purposeful part of life. “Sacrifice” is central to yoga and liberation, a point that Krishna makes abundantly clear in the Bhagavad Gita (iii.10-16), in that it is crucial to the dis-identifying process involved in acknowledging the separation of seer and seen. “Sacrifice” is also what makes becoming virtuous, sattvic or aligned with the yamas and niyamas so difficult. The habits of oridinary life, grounded in living “svártha,” for oneself, have to be relinquished for habits that are more considerate of others. This is not easy work. It is understandable why spiritual seekers want avoid this hard work of actually becoming virtuous or selfless in the practice of yoga. But from this sutra, it is clear that all claims that yoga doesn’t necessarily include becoming virtuous are against Patanjali’s teachings.
“This knowledge comes through connecting the heart and mind.”
hrdaye citta samvit
Some translators interpret this sutra as a repeat of the earlier sutras on reading other’s minds (Arya, Purohit, Vivekananda, Iyengar, Hariharananda, Dvivedi and others); that Patanjali is restating the power to know the mind and its workings thoroughly in self or others. They say that Patanjali is indicating that such knowledge comes from focusing on the heart or the heart chakra. But the last sutra specifically mentioned the occurrence of a special flash of illumination, “pratibhah,” that happens to the yogi. And the next sutra, iii.35, attempts to describe the nature of that illuminative “pratibhah,” connecting it to the “sattva” guna. And then the next sutra after that, iii.36, tells us more about that “pratibhah.” So it makes more sense to me that this sutra is also specifically about that “pratibhah.”
With that in mind then, Patanjali appears to be teaching that the precious special knowledge that comes through “pratibhah” originates in the heart. Furthermore, the Sanskrit, “hridaye,” of this sutra means “on the heart,” so the “citta,” or mind, focuses there, and not that the “mind” is the object of knowledge as most translators have stated. So this sutra identifies the heart as the central meditative focus which is a valuable point that Patanjali has not previously made. Just as sutra iii.29 told us that specific information comes from focusing on the navel chakra, in this sutra Patanjali is telling us that other specific information (which he has labeled as “pratibhah”) comes from focusing on the heart chakra. In the next sutra Patanjali will explain the content of the knowledge which makes up this flash of illumination produced by centered focus on the heart. That content is not simply the mind and its workings itself but something special about our own true self, “purusha,” as we shall see next.
“All is revealed to the yogi in a flash of spiritual perception.”
prátibhád vá sarvam
Patanjali introduces what seems to be a technical terms, “prátibhá,” here which he will explain over the next 3 sutras. Most commentators agree that it refers to a sudden flash of light or illumination and some commentators identify this as intuition. In the next sutra Patanjali connects “prátibhá” with the heart as its center and then in sutra iii.35 he identifies it as “sattvic” which means, among other things, illuminated or filled with light.
Bryant says this experience is not acquired through sanyama but “is a knowledge that is obtained without a teacher.” Brahmananda Saraswati disagrees, stating it is produced from sanyama on the inner light of the soul. Although sutra iii.36 seems to explain exactly what superpowers the word “sarvam” here refers to, many commentators to this sutra feel that “sarvam” is unlimited; that is, this sutra is attributing omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience to the yogi through some sudden flash of knowledge.
We will have to see what Patanjali adds to “prátibhá” in the following sutras but at this point it seems clear that it is connected to some spiritual insight or knowledge that occurs suddenly. From this insight the yogi enters a state in which miracles can occur. So in that way, this sutra is actually restating what he has previously identified as sanyama meditation in which spiritual insight does not directly produce miracles but opens the door to them as possibilities in the yogi’s life. In that way, the yogi is not to be understood as a “doer” of supernatural actions in the way a normal person would use such powers. The yogi simply focuses exclusively on spiritual truth and, in the high level of faith that such a state entails, miracles occur to provide the yogi with what is needed.