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Book 1, Sutra 50: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra



I have retained the Sanskrt word, “samskara,” here because of its complexity. “Samskaras” are commonly translated as “subliminal activators or residual impressions.” Simply stated, they are the latent tendencies that support our habits, which are themselves created by past actions. This gets even more complicated because “samskaras” are also inherited from past lives. So we are born with certain “samskaras” and we are constantly creating new ones in our lives. The old ones surface to create impulses to act in certain habitual ways. Those old ones then get exhausted but identical new ones are created by our re-enactment of past habits.

“Samskaras” imprison us within the wheel of rebirth. In other words, the latent tendencies and impulses that we die with lead to being born again. Although Patanjali has not told us that yoga is concerned with ending the cycle of rebirth we can logically connect “samskaras” to “vrttis” or disturbances of the mind. Later in book 4, sutras 8 & 9, Patanjali will talk more about “samskaras” and connect them to “vasanas.” Either way, it is certain that within Patanjali’s system “samskaras” must come to an end in order to reach the highest level of samadhi, as he will describe in the final sutra 51.

The wisdom born of samadhi causes these latent and unconscious tendencies and orientations to dissipate. Under the influence of this wisdom, we see only the underlying purpose or meaning to life and its objects. Seeing only the central purpose of life, the yogi is therefore not paying attention to anything else and so becomes naturally detached, “vairagyam.”

As Patanjali says in sutra 12, it is “vairagyabhyam” which causes the ending of mental disturbances, “citta vrtti nirodhah.” So the “prajna” of samadhi therefore generates an ever increasing “vairagya.” This is why the realization of “nirvicara samapatti,” the state of meditation in which this greater wisdom (which the Buddha calls “prajnaparamita”) arises, is the end of any effort that the yogi has to put forth. After that wisdom arises it has a life of its own, naturally terminating existing “samskaras” with its own “samskara.” And in the next sutra, Patanjali will tell us that this final “samskara” of the wisdom itself ends on its own naturally, completely freeing the mind of the yogi. Then the yogi has reached “nirbijah samadhi” which Patanjali will describe in the next, the final, sutra of book 1.





Book 1, Sutra 16: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra



I have used the word “Oneness” to translate the Sanskrt word “purusa” but there are a host of other equal possibilities. Other translators have chosen to use the word “God,” “the Seer,” “the True Self,” “the unbounded self,” “Pure Consciousness,” “the Atman,” “the absolute I AM,” “the soul,” “Brahman,” “the Supreme Personality of Godhead,” amongst others. I like the word “Oneness” because it captures an all-inclusive quality along with the idea of “Singularity.” When “Oneness” is realized then separateness is an illusion. The ego disappears and there is only one “I AM” and it is the creator and destroyer of everything and, at the same time, it is the essence of everything. As VishnuDevananda describes “purusa,” “It is unmanifest and without qualities. It is that all-pervading Supreme Being that exists in the soul of every person.”

In order to understand what freedom from attachment to the gunas means we need to understand that the gunas refer to the constituent elements of all of existence. The three gunas are said to be the fundamental elements that combine in different ways and intensities to create what we consider to be life itself. The gunas, however, do not just cover material reality like the four elements do within conventional western science. The gunas also make up our emotions and our thoughts. Therefore, everything that we consider to constitute “my” experience of this moment, right now, is a product of the interplay of the gunas.

To go beyond the gunas means that you no longer hold to the idea that you (the “you” that you can observe, including your own thoughts and emotions) exist as a concrete “special” entity. To go beyond the gunas means that you perceive directly that everything they create, through their interplay, is devoid of a “special” individual self. I use the word “special” to differentiate an individual self (which does not exist beyond the interplay of the gunas) from the True Self. The True Self is not “special” because it does not differ from one object to the next; in other words, the True Self that is within me is not different from the True Self that is in the laptop that I am writing on. The “special” self is the self that we commonly think exists within “me” that makes me special or different from you or this laptop. The “special” self makes “me” special.

To go beyond the gunas means that you no longer see any inherent specialness in one thing over any other, even when comparing your own body to a brick. Another way of describing that state of realization is to say that there is no longer any attachment to “existing” itself, since “existing” is always directly connected to a “special” body and mind that we are currently inhabiting. As Sri Rama says, this ultimate state is “the end of the pursuit of yoga abhyasa.”

Satyananda Saraswati says that when one attains this “para“ (supreme) vairagya then “there is no return to the life of cravings and passions. . . .There is no desire for pleasure, enjoyment, knowledge or even sleep.” Even the desire to be a yogi or to be renounced or to be wise or to be strong pass away at this stage because everything becomes the same or equal and none of it has the “specialness” that the ego formerly gave to one thing over another in life. Mukunda Stiles describes this type of dispassion as arising when “everything and everyone is experienced as one’s own True Self.” Whether you see everything as equally special or you see nothing as particularly special at all, the same supreme dispassion arises. The “purusakhyati,” knowledge of the Supreme, causes the “guna-vaitrsnyam,” supreme detachment.




Book 1, Sutra 12: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra



This sutra, like many of Patanjali’s sutras of the first chapter, are simple and yet, contain very profound and powerful knowledge. Earlier Patanjali told us that a permanent state of peace and happiness is possible when the five types of mental activities are ended. Now, in this sutra, he tells us how we can get free of those mental activities. He says that we must make a strong commitment to yoga that results in a habitual practice (abhyasa) and we must let go of our desires (vairagya). Patanjali tells us that if we want to be successful in yoga and become permanently liberated we must drop any impulse to give up or get discouraged and at the same time we must become indifferent to the results of all of our actions. These two elements work together to steer us steadily and safely to the goal.

Neither abhyasa nor vairagya have one set of equivalent phrases in English because they are complex spiritual ideas. By reviewing the variety of translations you may get a sense of this (the authors quoted are in parentheses):

For abyasa: “repeated and persistent practice” (satyananda saraswati), “tireless endeavor” (Sri Rama), “practice or repetition” (VishnuDevananda), “consistent earnest practice” (Stiles), “effort [made] for stability” (Tola & Dragonetti), “continuous practice of the will” (Condron), “persistent inner practice of Self-abidance, abiding in the “I AM” beyond body and mind” (Brahmananda Saraswati).

For vairagya: “a mental condition of non-attachment or detachment which is freedom from attraction and repulsion. . . . vairagya is freedom from likes and dislikes.” (satyananda saraswati), “elimination of emotional reactions to individuals and situations” (VishnuDevananda), “dispassion” (Arya), “indifference (asceticism)” (KN Saraswathy), “neutrality and unconcern, apathy and lack of interest” (KN Saraswathy), “nonreaction” (Hartranft), “objectivity of undivided attention” (Condron), “non attachment through discrimination” (Brahmananda Saraswati)

Some other notable comments further explaining abhyasa and vairagya:

“When a person loses all interest in material life then he is established in ‘vairagya’ (disinterestedness, detachment). It is not negative but the positive side of faith. Perserverance (abhyasa) and disinterestedness (vairagya) operate simultaneously. Together they help the mind gain greater mastery over itself to ultimately reach liberation (kaivalya). We should gain clarity of our goal and make a total commitment towards it.” (Sadhakas)

“We come across many spiritual aspirants who try to concentrate their minds without first practising abhyasa and vairagya, without first conquering raga (likes) and dwesha (dislikes). It is futile to make the mind silent without first removing the disturbing factors, namely (likes) and (dislikes), which make the mind unsteady. Patanjali tells us that abyasa and vairagya are the means one should first master so that meditation will follow easily.” (Satyananda Saraswati)

“Non-attachment (vairagya) does not mean there should not be love or compassion but rather that emotional thought waves are ignored. The vrttis (mental fluctuations) may arise but they are observed in a disinterested fashion, then put aside.” (VishnuDevananda)

“If one has disinterest in the world (vairagya) but no practice of meditation, the mind’s agitations will be pacified but the mind will enter into sleep (laya). The yoga of samadhi will not be fulfilled. Only with gradual practice (abhyasa), meditation may be elevated to greater heights.” (Nambiar)

“The moment that the idea dawns that desire is the basis for all of our material activities, desire is killed. . . . Both vairagyam and abhyasa (repeated practice) may seem simple words, but they stand for a great tremendous effort of the human will and variety of practices.” (KN Saraswathy)

“Strength must be developed to obtain detachment and freedom from desires.” (Iyengar)

“Practice (abhyasa) is the positive aspect of yoga. Detachment or renunciation (vairagya) is the negative. The two balance each other like day and night, inhalation and exhalation. Practice is the path of evolution; detachment and renunciation is the path of involution. Practice is involved in all the eight limbs of yoga. Evolutionary practice is the onward march to the discovery of the Self, involving yama, niyama, asana and pranayama [the 1st 4 of the 8 limbs of yoga, to be outlined later by Patanjali]. The involutionary path involves pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi [the last 4 limbs of Patanjali’s 8 limbed yoga]. This inward journey detaches the consciousness from external objects.” (Iyengar)