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Book 1, Sutra 47: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra



With this sutra we have come full circle and reached the promise that Patanjali made in sutra 3:

“tada drastuh svarupe ‘vashtanam.”

In that sutra Patanjali promised that through “yoga, the seer [gets] established in his or her own essential nature.” As I noted in the commentary to that sutra, the key word in that sutra is “svarupe,” roughly meaning “one’s own form.” In this sutra Patanjali uses the Sanskrt word, “adhyatma,” which is roughly translated as “higher,” “original,” or “first self.” It could also be translated literally as “study of the self or the soul.” Although Patanjali uses the word, “atma,” frequently, this sutra is the only one that contains, “adhyatma.”

“Know Thyself” is, of course, the age-old truth engraved by the Oracle at Delphi, ancient Greece. But this dictum is repeated in many other places as well. “Adhyatma” is, in fact, used by Krishna in a number of his key teachings within the Bhagavad Gita. In sloka 8:3 from that text Krishna defines “adhyatma” specifically. There are many different existing translations of that line but in the compilation that I made of that text, entitled “The Bhagavad Gita In Focus,” ( I list that sloka in this way:

“The principle behind awareness (adhyatma) is the essence of being ‘I’ (svabhavo).”

Krishna also uses “adhyatma” in another critical line within the Bhagavad Gita, 13:12. In that sloka Krishna identifies stable knowledge of the “adhyatma” as part of what true knowledge is. I list that sloka as saying:

“constancy of Self-knowledge (“adhyatma”)/ and an appreciation of Absolute Truth as the highest form of wealth;/ this is knowledge and anything to the contrary is ignorance.”

So, with these past 47 sutras, Patanjali has delineated a path to reaching and realizing that Self-knowledge: the highest stage of meditation beyond both sense impressions and their related thoughts (nirvicara samapatti).



Book 1, Sutra 38: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra



Patanjali listed the obstacles that can create distraction in the mind of the yogic practitioner in sutras 30-31. In sutra 32 he recommended that we apply a single antidote to any obstacle that might arise. Sutras 33-39 list examples of such antidote practices.

Translators and commentators differ on exactly what Patanjali is referring to here. He doesn’t give us a lot of instructions on how to use this tool to steady the mind. The assumption must be that a competent teacher would provide the details.

Brahmananda Saraswati suggests that this is “self-analysis through dream analysis and analysis of deep sleep.” Vishnudevananda says “Many times the Truth is revealed by the superconscious during sleep. . . . if that knowledge is meditated on consciously, great progress can be made upon the path.” Satyananda Saraswati says “The mind can be controlled by developing the method of conscious dreaming and conscious sleeping. . . . There is a method of seeing dreams consciously, but it is dangerous and only a few can practice it. . . . It is meant only for people who are psychic.”

Nambiar combines this sutra with the last one: “Meditate on the dream experience of a holy personality or a divine symbol to stabilize the mind.” Shearer says that it’s about “witnessing the processing of dreaming or dreamless sleep.”





Book 1, Sutra 35: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra



Patanjali listed the obstacles that can create distraction in the mind of the yogic practitioner in sutras 30-31. In sutra 32 he recommended that we apply a single antidote to any obstacle that might arise. Sutras 33-39 list examples of such antidote practices.

This sutra lists an advanced technique that involves capturing some sensorial image or experience within the mind itself and then focusing exclusively on it in order to bring stability of mind through detachment from the external world. In Sanskrt this is called “pravrtti” and will be the focus of the sutras in book 3, sutra 25 forward. In various translations for this sutra this technique has been called “higher objective perception,” “higher sense activity,” “sensuous immediate cognition,” “extraordinary sense perceptions,” and “mystical sense perception.”

Iyengar says that “One may equally attain an exalted state of consciousness by becoming totally engrossed, with dedication and devotion, in an object of interest.” I would qualify this somewhat to make it clear that such an object is being experienced entirely internally despite the fact that it still may be a sensual experience.




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Book 1, Sutra 32: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra



The previous sutra mentioned the 4 problematic states of pain, mental and emotional unease, physical trembling, unconscious breathing and excited breathing that result from distractions occurring within yoga.

This sutra is also translated in many different ways because of Patanjali’s use of the phrase “eka tattva” which means single object or single truth or single principle. Many translators incorrectly assume that Patanjali is giving the instructions for how to overcome the problematic states in this sutra alone. “Eka tattva” is not the name for some profound but vague special practice nor does it refer to a specialized focus on the Absolute “I AM” consciousness. These translations miss the fact that Patanjali gives the specific instructions in the following sutras and in this one, only prepares us with the idea that for each obstacle we should apply “one single truth/principle/practice” in order to overcome it. In other words, when we encounter an obstacle we should focus and intensify our practice in one particular way.

The meaning of this sutra is clear for me because I am aware of a very similar teaching of the Buddha’s. Here is another sutra of Patanjali’s that mirrors the Buddha’s teachings closely. A central practice within the buddhadharma is the application of antidotes to the “afflictions” that a meditator may encounter. Each affliction has a specific antidote. The following sutras will list techniques for overcoming obstacles or, in other words, for purifying our minds. In this way, these yoga sutras become very practical and methodical.




Book 1, Sutra 23: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra



Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is not commonly known as a religious text. This is because mention of “Iswara,” God, is rather limited to the next 4 sutras. Many translators have taken that as a sign that these religious instructions are more like a side option for the yogi rather than part of the core practice. For them the religious sentiment is an effective option but not absolutely necessary. Tola and Dragonetti particularly deny that Patanjali’s yogic goal is really about a relationship or union with God (this would make it different than the much more openly religious Bhagavad Gita). Iyengar admits that Patanjali is making religious devotion an option but doesn’t go so far as to say that the overarching goal of Patanjali’s yoga is non-religious.

Other translators, like Nambiar, feel that Patanjali is outlining two separate sets of instructions (religious and non-religious) that should be integrated together by the yogi. Some translators, like KN Saraswathy, feel that this religious part of Patanjali’s instructions is the most important part. Like her, VishnuDevananda says that Iswara is “the One God, who is so omnipotent that he is able to manifest in as many forms as are needed by individuals of different temperament to focus on the Supreme.” Mukunda Stiles takes this religious sentiment even further by translating this sutra as “The end of spiritual practice is only attained by placing oneself in the Lord.” Although in later sutras he backs down a bit from this type of religious sentiment.

Some translators, like Hartranft, feel that Patanjali is not actually being religious, even in these 4 sutras. According to him, “neither yoga nor samkhya [philosophy] is theistic, per se. . . . Iswara is neither god, nor purusa, in the usual sense but rather a divine mirror towards which people throughout the ages may turn to catch a glimpse of their own true nature.” In places, Brahmanada Saraswati and Hartranft seem to deny a traditional religious element in Patanjali by turning “Iswara” into the more abstract “I AM” pure consciousness and recommending devotion to that.

Iyengar, who expresses some religious fervor here, gives us a great definition of Patanjali’s word for devotion. He says that “pranidhana is surrender of everything: one’s ego, all good and virtuous actions, pains and pleasures, joys and sorrows, elations and miseries to the Universal Soul. Through surrender the aspirant’s ego is effaced and the grace of the Lord pours down upon him like a torrential rain.” Clearly though, not all translators would agree with Iyengar here.

If we divide the translators into two camps, one that respects religious sentiment and one that doesn’t, we could put Iyengar into the first just from this heart-felt description of “pranidhana.” I would put Tola and Dragonetti into the opposite camp principally for their refutation of Vyasa’s commentary on “this receiving of the Lord’s grace.” Vyasa wrote that when the yogin surrenders himself to the Lord, the latter inclines to him and favors him. Tola and Dragonetti wrote in response, “Iswara is on this account essentially an entity isolated in itself, indifferent, changeless, without thought, without emotions, without activity—an entity to which it is impossible to ascribe an attitude of grace towards the person who surrenders himself to it.”

Tola and Dragonetti are not, however, alone in the non-religious camp. Many of the translations feel that for Patanjali, religious sentiment is merely a yogic tool to attain a non-religious goal. In other words, surrender to God is just a very effective way to develop renunciation which Patanjali has already stated is vitally important to the yogi.

Patanjali has already, and will again, refer to the realization (or maybe more accurately, “the actualization”) of one’s True Self, or one’s true form, as the goal that results from stilling the mind. Does that goal have anything to do with “God?” Those in the religious camp might say that such a True Self is none other than God or “Iswara” and that anything other than Iswara is illusion or ego. Those in the opposite camp might say that Iswara is a trick to get us to stop thinking about the mundane details of life long enough for our own true Eternal Nature to become obvious. Some may argue that these two camps are really saying the same thing but I feel that there is a difference here. If you are in the religious yoga camp then a certain type of emotion, a certain type of passion, is justified by the realization of the Truth. If you are in the non-religious yoga camp then no emotion will remain upon liberation, only serene and stable contented detachment will be there.

The question remains concerning which camp Patanjali belonged to. The answer certainly varies amongst the translations that I have consulted. Maybe Patanjali purposely wrote in a way that straddled both sides of this fence in order to foster debate and also to force us to come to our own conclusions.




Book 1, Sutra 13: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra



Patanjali further describes the first part of his two part formula (abhyasa and vairagya) here. Essentially he tells us in this sutra that, in order to reach the state free of the vrttis (mental fluctuations), we must apply ourselves without thoughts of defeat, failure or ever giving up, over whatever period of time the task requires. We must try and try again, over and over, slowly uprooting the tree of mental agitation. It is a big tree, so we must be prepared for a long and strenuous battle. Further on in his sutra, Patanjali will give us his recommended techniques, strategies and practices for this battle. But for now, he is warning us that a sustained and serious effort is required.

It is the nature of the ego to want shortcuts in life and unfortunately, it is the nature of the ego to offer those shortcuts to others. Patanjali is telling us, however, that the very idea of shortcuts prevents us from developing one of the two essential qualities that we need in order to reach the goal: unrelenting persistence of effort. To believe in shortcuts undermines our ability to maintain a prolonged struggle, our ability to weather innumerable momentary defeats and failures. Patanjali tells us that it is more important that we persist than we are successful. In fact, as he will tell us in his definition of vairagya, success is actually something we have to renounce on the yogic path but sustained effort cannot be given up until we reach the goal.

Satyananda Saraswathi says “Abhyasa means continued practice, you can not leave it at all. It becomes a part of your personality, a part of your individual nature.” He uses the word “sadhana” and connects it with abhyasa. Sadhana is the word commonly used to indicate a particular set of exercises meant for spiritual progression. So abhyasa is an executed dedication to some type of sadhana. The important difference between Patanjali’s and others’ use of abhyasa and sadhana is that it is here connected with stilling the mind. The yoga that Patanjali describes cannot be separated from stilling the mind and in this verse he tells us that we can only achieve this with repeated, prolonged effort.

In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna teaches essentially the same thing about the necessity of repeated effort. In Chapter 6, Sutra 35:

“The Blessed Lord said:
No doubt, you are right, O mighty Arjuna, that the mind is hard to control, wavering and restless, but by repeated effort and dispassion it can be done.”