Book 1, Sutra 17: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra
“THE INITIAL STAGES OF THE PROCESS OF STILLING THE MIND ARE CALLED “WITH KNOWLEDGE” (SAMPRAJNA) BECAUSE AN AWARENESS OF THE GROSS AND SUBTLE ASPECTS OF OBJECTS IS RETAINED. THIS IS ACCOMPANIED WITH FEELINGS OF JOY AND IS GROUNDED IN THE IDEA OF EXISTING.”
The Sanskrt of this sutra is rather terse and has created a number of diverse interpretations of its meaning. Fortunately a few translators have done an in depth analysis to sort out some of this confusion. Tola and Dragonetti have convincingly concluded that the many translators who assume that Patanjali is referring to “Samadhi” in this sutra are wrong. This is because Patanjali does not use the word “Samadhi” in this sutra and only introduces this word in sutra 20. Furthermore, Patanjali is talking about the cessation of the mental fluctuations (“nirodha”) in the previous 15 sutras and without clearly changing the subject, it is most likely he is still referring to this in sutra 17. Hartranft supports this conclusion as well in his translation.
My version of this sutra departs a bit from both Tola and Dragonetti and Hartranft because I recognize a close connection between this sutra and the teachings of the Buddha. Essentially, this sutra and the next are exact parallels of the Buddha’s descriptions of the “jnanas.” The four “jnanas” in Buddhism serve as a guide for meditators to gauge how deep they are going into meditation and what to expect next or further on. According to the Buddha’s description of the “jnanas” the early stages are described just as Patanjali describes in this sutra 17. These early stages are characterized by an intense awareness of the gross characteristics of reality. To that gross awareness, an intense awareness of the subtle aspects are added (emotions and then thoughts). Meanwhile, both of these growing types of awareness are accompanied with joy, which is generated from the natural relaxation that results. Underlying these stages of meditation is the retained sense that the meditator exists and is meditating.
Unlike Patanjali, the Buddha doesn’t specifically mention that the meditators in the early “jnanas” are retaining a sense of their own existence but he does imply that in later stages this idea drops away. So there is a direct correlation between the characteristics in the stages of development in meditation (which Patanjali has only referred to as a stilling of the mind, “nirodha”) described by the Buddha and by Patanjali. Which one influenced the other is irrelevant and cannot be conclusively determined, I believe. The important point is to accept that such similarity supports both teachings and helps to break down barriers between the two religions and in this case, helps us to understand an otherwise cryptic sutra.