Book 1, Sutra 11: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra
“WHEN THOUGHTS CREATED THROUGH AN EXPERIENCE RETURN TO MIND AFTER THE EXPERIENCE HAS ENDED THAT IS MEMORY (SMRTI).”
With “smrti” we don’t need to have any real experiences right now in order to have changing thoughts right now. We can simply dredge up thoughts of things that happened in the past. This involves our choice. Most commentators agree that we must actively re-call a thought of an experience we had in the past in order to qualify for “smrti.” In other words, “smrti” doesn’t include latent, stored but inactive memories. We could have had a myriad of different experiences in life but unless they are re-called into active memory they are not part of our mind set right now. So, with Yoga, we don’t need to forget anything that has happened but we do stop actively remembering our past. Patanjali states that a Yogic mind, or a mind that is anchored in stability and is free of fluctuation is not actively re-calling any experiences of the past. This mind is simply in the present moment with no baggage from the past. The memories might be there, latent in our mind, but we don’t re-call them.
Although “smrti” involves a calling to mind or, as some commentators say, a “retentive power,” it is not a re-experiencing of something we already experienced. It is simply a thought, not an experience that generates thoughts. We could choose to have another thought in reference to a memory but we don’t have to, in order to be saturated with “smrti.” Actively remembering, itself, is called a fluctuation of the mind by Patanjali.
I disagree with some commentators (Nambiar) who claim that, with “smrti,” you can remember a fantasy; in other words, you can have a “smrti” of a “vikalpa.” No, “smrti” is a remembering of an experience with some object. If you remember another thought or a fantasy, you are actively having THAT type of thought (whether correct, incorrect, fantasy or void). You cannot have a memory of another thought without that thought itself taking over in the present moment.
Similarly, I would disagree with commentators (Satyananda Saraswati) that connect “smrti” with dreams, the subconscious and even the unconscious mind. If you think about a dream you are having a “vikalpa,” you are thinking about something that cannot be verified. It is not a memory as such. Did you experience any actual objects in that dream? If you say “No” or “maybe” then the thought is clearly a “vikalpa.” If you say “yes,” I would ask whether you can verify that.
To summarize “smrti” as “past knowledge” (as Satyananda Saraswati has done) is also somewhat incorrect as well. It is not knowledge of the past but an active reviewing or re-calling of some experience. If we remember that we knew some type of knowledge in the past then it is a “pramana” thought (assuming we actually did know this in the past). If we remember the knowledge itself, if we recall something that we learned in the past, it is also either “pramana” or “viparyaya” depending on whether the knowledge itself is correct. We might see a snake and then leave the room. Later we return to the room see something and remember that we had seen a snake. It could have been a real snake the first time and just a rope the second time, indicating a “pramana” followed by a “viparyaya.” A “smrti” however, would be a re-calling of the experience of seeing a snake but if we apply that memory to something new then that involves some other type of thought.
Sri Rama connects “smrti” to all of samskara and then states, in his commentary, that for this reason memory cannot ever be destroyed. I don’t see from what part of the Yoga Sutras this comes from and it seems irrelevant to the point that Patanjali is making here: we can have all the memories from a million lives available for recall but if we don’t actively recall any of them we are not disturbing our mind with this type of fluctuating thought or “vrtti.”