Book 1, Sutra 9: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra
“IMAGINATION (VIKALPA) IS A THOUGHT BASED ON A MENTAL IMAGE DESCRIBABLE BY WORDS BUT NOT BASED ON AN OBJECT DIRECTLY OBSERVABLE.”
Anytime we think of something that doesn’t exist as an observable single object then we are experiencing “vikalpa.” This thought form describes all forms of fantasy or day-dreaming and according to some commentaries also covers tautological expressions and judgements. In other words, when you speak about something abstract like consciousness itself (as one of the commentators, Vyasa, writes) then you are holding a “vikalpa” thought.
However, this sutra seems to fall apart a bit if we over-analyze it in this way, as many commentators have done. It can be argued that many forms of fantasy MAY have directly observable objects that they refer to, which do exist SOMEWHERE. We may not know WHERE they exist or how to get where they are, but it is possible, so the argument goes. Someone might say, for instance, that there is a secret kingdom that exists somewhere in the sky. Patanjali would say this is a “vikalpa” purely because there is no such kingdom that we can readily point to. BUT, someone might argue, this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. So we must back away from including the judgment about whether something exists or does not, for this sutra. A “vilkapa” thought involves something that we haven’t been able to observe, ever. This covers “fantasy” and it also covers thoughts related to the future but does it cover abstract thinking as well?
Vyasa’s commentary connecting “vikalpa” to abstract thought because it doesn’t have a reference-able object is problematic if only because “pramana,” or correct thought (from sutra 7), already covers inference or logical reasoning which is often abstract. Within that type of “pramana” thought, if we inferred the existence of something abstract like consciousness itself, and are correct about it, but can’t point to an object called “consciousness,” we have a “pramana” thought and not a “vilkalpa.”
Patanjali is referring to a type of thought that we can’t verify (now or in the past) whether it is correct or not, when he describes “vikalpa,” because it refers to an object as if it exists, but the thought can’t be verified by connecting it to its object. The thought itself, therefore, claims that the object does exist but whether that is true or not we can’t (ever) tell. We can’t know whether the “vikalpa” thought is correct or not because the object of this type of thought is nowhere to be found (but claims to be). With “vikalpa,” then, we are thinking about something that may exist or may not, may come to exist or may not come to exist. We don’t know. If we ever encountered a unicorn, for example, our “vikalpa” thought about it could turn into either a “pramana” or a “viparyaya” depending on whether the single horn had been glued to the horse’s head or not. In the meanwhile it remains a “vikalpa” thought.
The commentaries that use this sutra to claim that Patanjali only believes in an objective view of reality are therefore not entirely correct, in my opinion. Patanjali really doesn’t care about what is real or what is not regarding the “vikalpa,” it seems to me, he is just stating that if we are thinking about something that may or may not exist, that cannot be readily verified, we are dealing with a “vikalpa” or “fantasy.” He is not saying that the objects of fantasies don’t exist anywhere, in any world, he is just saying that if the object is not available for verification it is called “vikalpa.”
Iyengar, in his commentary, used the example of a “hare that imagined it had horns” as a “vikalpa.” I would disagree. I would say this is a “viparyaya” or wrong knowledge because the hare can examine itself and see that it doesn’t have horns. If, on the other hand, the hare imagined that somewhere there is a three hundred pound carrot then it is experiencing a “vikalpa” because there is no such object that can be readily verified. It is called “fantasy” because we don’t know of such an object.