Book 1, Sutra 10: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra
“DEEP SLEEP (NIDRA) IS A MENTAL FLUCTUATION THAT IS BASED ON A SURRENDER TO THE SENSE OF NOTHINGNESS OR NON-EXISTENCE.”
Controversies and discrepancies abound regarding this sutra. There are quite a few issues of contention here between the different translations and their commentaries. I will try to outline some of these and explain why I have derived the above version of Sutra 10.
First of all, the Sanskrt word “nidra” is connected with sleep but not with all types of sleep. Apparently Sanskrt doesn’t consider all types of sleep equal, just as the Eskimos differentiate between 12 or so different types of falling snow. Most translations and commentaries start from this point that “nidra” does not mean all types of sleep. Which types it does mean is not clear. Some commentaries say that “nidra” is dreamless sleep. Some others say that it is a lazy type of sleep.
The Bhagavad Gita also talks a little about sleep by saying that some sleep is necessary for the yogi. So, Patanjali’s “nidra” can not mean all types of sleep since these sutras are about types of fluctuations of the mind (“vrttis”) that don’t exist in the perfected Yogic mind. So the “vrtti” described by this sutra and that causes “nidra” disappears completely in Yoga but that doesn’t mean all sleep ends for Yogis. “Nidra” must be a certain type of sleep.
If Patanjali is connecting “nidra” with a type of mental fluctuation (“vrtti,” in Sanskrt) then “nidra” must involve a certain mental attitude that induces this type of sleep. And this makes sense when we consider the other Sanskrt words included in this sutra. Those words imply a reliance upon or a connection with a sense of non-being. So, “nidra,” then, is connected with a mental attitude of acceptance towards the idea of not-existing.
We can notice that when we get tired and fall asleep there is some underlying attitude of giving up in going to sleep. It’s not a failure, it’s more a gratefulness for the opportunity to “not be” for a little while; to take a break from being ourselves for some time. During sleep, then, our senses shut down in accordance with our desire to “not be” or “not function.” But the shutting down of the senses is not the defining core of “nidra” which is what many translations imply.
Some other versions of this sutra or commentaries about it that I felt somewhat missed the crux:
“Sleep is based upon mind states in which perception of material things through the five senses is absent.” (CONDRON) Yes, but the important point of the sutra is the mind state or attitude that causes this to happen.
“An absence of any content in the mind.” (VIVEKANANDA) This is the result but does not describe the VRTTI that causes it.
” . . . non-regulation of the senses.” (SRI RAMA)
“. . . there is no object before the mind.” “. . . an absence of mental contents.” (SATYANANDA SARASWATI) In a way, this describes the goal of Yoga that Patanjali already gave us a concise version of when he talked about ceasing the fluctuating thoughts and perceptions of the mind. Many of the translations of this sutra, like this one, make it sound like the experience of “nidra” is close to the ideal experience in Yoga. This doesn’t make sense because Patanjali is including “nidra” in a section about mental states that are not included in Yoga.
The connection between sleep and samadhi has been made in other texts but that seems counter productive to the practice of Yoga, especially considering that the Bhagavad Gita says that yogis take only a little sleep. If nidra was like samadhi then they might sleep a lot, I would guess. I don’t think that Patanjali supports the connection that has been made between samadhi and nidra.
Some commentaries helped to point me in the right direction, understanding this sutra as pointing to a mental state behind the experience of “nidra:”
“. . . not a state of unconsciousness but a positive state of nothingness.” (NAMBIAR) In other words, our positivity towards “taking a break” from existing as an individual in the world is a fluctuating mental state that disappears in Yoga. Ironically, in sleep we don’t lose our existence at all but our experience of deep rest is what we might imagine non-existence might be like if it happened only temporarily.
“For the purposes of (attaining) samadhi (Yoga) this VRTTI, too, should be brought under control.” (NAMBIAR)
“. . . dependent on the absence of mindfulness.” (STILES)
“Sleep (nidra) is a definite state of mind.” (SADHAKAS) It may be absent of content but the important point is that it comes from certain mental thoughts or mental orientations that are connected with or dependent on a surrender to not existing.
“The sleep fluctuation is based on the intention of non-becoming.” (CHAPPLE)