The Wisdom of Patañjali's Yoga Sutras

Morning Light Press, Sandpoint, Idaho, U.S.A.2009.
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(also published in India by the Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, Chennai)


Sample Excerpt

Excerpted from the chapter titled


The kleshas are ignorance (avidya), the sense of a separate self (asmita), attraction (raga), aversion (dvesha) and clinging to the status quo (abhinivesha). 
Avidya is the cause of all the others, whether dormant, attenuated, intermittent or fully active.

Avidya is seeing the transient as eternal, the impure as pure, dissatisfaction as pleasure, the non-self as self. (2.3-5)

Several hindrances are enumerated here--avidya, asmita, raga, dvesha and abhinivesha—but the root cause of all of these kleshas is ignorance. This is so according to all the sages in India: the basic source of our human predicament is ignorance of our own true nature and of the nature of the cosmos. Everything else follows from this. “Avijja parmam malam (ignorance is the great blemish),” is a remark of the Buddha in the Dhammapada. It is in ignorance that we mistake the transient for the eternal, the unsatisfactory as satisfactory, and the non-self as self.  All this leads to illusion, conflict and suffering, to be free of which is the aim of yoga. 

Since the root cause of the problem is ignorance, naturally, the solution is jñana, knowledge. As was already said (see 1.49), this knowledge is of a radically different kind than the scientific or philosophic or scriptural knowledge. There are several words to refer to this special kind of knowledge: vidya (cognate with the English “video”, to see), jñana (cognate with “gnosis”), bodhi (the root, budh, of which is the same as in buddha, awake and discerning), prajña (insight). This insightful and direct perception is possible only when the mind is in samadhi, a state of consciousness in which there is a non-fluctuating and steady attention so that the perceiving, the perceiver and the perceived are fused into one single ordered whole. When the hindrances to the state of samadhi are removed, true insight into the nature of reality results.

Asmita is the misidentification of the power of seeing with what is seen.
Raga arises from dwelling on pleasant experiences.

Dvesha arises from clinging to unpleasant experiences.
Abhinivesha is the automatic tendency for continuity; it overwhelms even the wise. (2.6-9)

Asmita, the notion that I am a separate self, isolated from the whole, with my own ego-centered projects, is the first product of avidya. Asmita literally means “I am this” or “I am that”, thus separating the small self from the entire vast reservoir of Being, from Brahman (literally,  “The Vastness”). The Self says “I AM”--as in the very grand sayings of Christ, especially in the Gospel of John, in which he says in the state of oneness with Yahweh (which in Hebrew means “I AM”), I AM is the way and the truth and the life --but the ego says “I am this” or “I am that”, thus attaching itself only to a small portion of the Vastness. Asmita is the result of the misidentification of the power of seeing, which is Purusha (or Atman), with what is seen, namely chitta. Contrary to William Blake’s reminder that “Perception is not limited by the organs of perception,” the isolated self identifies itself increasingly with the mind or with the body, seeing the vehicle (body-mind) as the self. In the movement from asmita (“I am this”) to Soham (“I AM”), from a limited self to the Self, from the identification with chitta to oneness with Purusha, from the self-will of Arjuna to his willingness to carry out Krishna’s will, the right order is discovered. The resulting insight is naturally full of truth and order (rita), as an earlier sutra said, ritambhara tatra prajña (1.48).

Raga arises from an  attachment to pleasure; dvesha from an attachment to suffering. The natural tendency to wish to re-live pleasurable experiences is understandable, but it is particularly odd that we are more attached to our suffering than to our pleasures.  Moments of humiliation or situations in which we were ridiculed or made to feel small come back to us much more frequently and with a larger emotional force than the moments in which we were admired or looked up to. Experiences of suffering, especially psychological suffering, create deep grooves in our psyche, drawing attention to themselves quite mechanically and frequently.  Nations and groups can be attached to past humiliations and sufferings, perpetuating a sense of  victimization from generation to generation. No wonder that, among many other definitions of yoga in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says that “yoga is the breaking of the bond with suffering” (6:23).

Freedom from the whole domain of like-dislike, and pleasure-pain is a very great freedom. Then we do what needs to be done, whether we like it or not. It is possible to say that the whole meaning of the exquisite symbol of the cross for a serious Christian lies precisely in this: even if something is disagreeable or unpleasant or will produce pain, if it is necessary according to a higher understanding, then one would embrace the suffering intentionally and submit oneself to the right action.  The outstanding example of this is the Christ himself. On the eve of his crucifixion, he prayed to God in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Yet not my will but thine be done” (Mark 14.36).

Although abhinivesha is sometimes translated as a “wish to live”, it is closer to a “wish to continue”, or a “wish to preserve the status quo”. Abhinivesha is what is technically called “inertia” in physics, as in Newton’s First Law of Motion (also called the Law of Inertia) according to which a body continues in a state of rest or of motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an external force. Abhinivesha is the wish for continuity of any state and any situation, because it is known. We fear the unknown and therefore we fear change which may lead to the unknown.  In fact, this fear is of a discontinuation of the known, simply because the unknown, if it is truly unknown, cannot produce fear or pleasure. In one of the dialogues of Plato, there is a scene in which Socrates has been given hemlock to drink and he is about to die. Some of his disciples are quite understandably very upset and are crying. Socrates says to them, “You are behaving as if you know what happens at death. And furthermore, as if you know that what happens is undesirable. As for me, I do not know. Therefore, I am free.”

Freedom from abhinivesha, from the wish to continue the known, is a dying to the self, or a dying to the world, which is so much spoken about in so many traditions. It has often been said by the sages that only when we are willing and able to die to our old self, we can be born into a new vision and a new life.  There is a cogent remark of St. Paul: “I die daily” (1 Corinthians 15.31).  A profound saying of an ancient Sufi master, echoed in so much of sacred literature, says, “If you die before you die, then you do not die when you die”.  During a conversation about life after death, Krishnamurti said, “The real question is 'Can I die while I am living? Can I die to all my collections--material, psychological, religious?'  If you can die to all that, then you'll find out what is there after death. Either there is nothing; absolutely nothing.  Or there is something.  But you cannot find out until you actually die while living.” 

Dying daily is a spiritual practice--a regaining of a sort of innocence, which is quite different from ignorance, akin to openness and humility. It is an active unknowing; not achieved but needing to be renewed again and again.  All serious meditation is a practice of dying to the ordinary self. If we allow ourselves the luxury of not knowing, and if we are not completely full of ourselves, we can hear the subtle whispers under the noises of the world outside and inside ourselves.  Sri Anirvan, a twentieth-century sage in India, remarked that the whole world is like a big bazaar in which everyone is shouting at the top of their voice wanting to make their little bargain. A recognition of this can invite us to true metanoia, a turning around, to a new way of being. Otherwise, abhinivesha, the wish which maintains the status quo, persists.

This wish for continuity is rooted in a search for security and for permanence. Abhinivesha, the wish to hold onto the past, keeps us in the momentum of time. Being present from moment to moment requires a freedom from abhinivesha, and a freedom from abhinivesha brings us to a radiant presence, where we can be free of the fear of dying and of living.

Freedom from abhinivesha is intimately related with the Buddhist understanding of “anitya” (“anichcha” in Pali): nothing is permanent and therefore change is the norm of the cosmos. Noting that the Tao is transformation, a Taoist sage said, “Ride the chariots of the Tao.” Transformation is said to be the fundamental principle of the cosmos.  Fire, Agni, is the principal symbol of transformation and is invoked as a priest.  No Hindu ceremony—whether name giving, initiation into schooling, marriage or funeral—is complete without the presence of fire as a witness. The very first mantra of the Rig Veda, the most ancient text in any Indo-European language, is an invocation of Agni.

Om! agnimile purohitam 
yajñasya devam ritvijam  (Rig Veda 1.1)

Om! I invoke Agni, the first Priest, 
the lord of yajña, born of Order…

The vrittis and the kleshas both prevent a quiet and a steady attention, but there are subtle differences between them. The vrittis, the distractions of the mind, are personal and particular for each one of us, while the kleshas are cosmological forces which constitute the psychological reality of ordinary humanity. Freedom from the vrittis can be achieved by finding a freedom from the noise within, possible with our own effort, but freedom from the kleshas is a transformation of the ordinary level of the mind and this requires an internal re-ordering in the light of a higher mind. Freedom from the vrittis is possible for the Son of Man, but only the Son of God can find a freedom from the kleshas. With dedication to Ishvara, we acknowledge that without a connection to the larger cosmos and to the higher levels of reality we remain isolated and imprisoned in our own smallness.

Vrittis are a result of human conditioning—which varies from person to person—but the kleshas are a result of the human condition to which we are all subject. Efforts to be free of both the vrittis and the kleshas require a sacrifice of our smallness and of our attachment to the way we are.  What is needed is a dying to the old self, in order to allow a new birth, a spiritual birth.

In this context, please see R. Ravindra, The Gospel of John in the Light of Indian Mysticism; especially chapters 6 and 14.

Excerpts from Reviews

“I was particularly impressed by your commentary on Patañjali Yoga Sutra, which is extremely useful for people who want to learn the essence of Sutra having no knowledge of Sanskrit or any other Indian language. I always recommend your book to those people who enquire of me about the Yoga tradition.”—Samdhong Rinpoche, ex Kalon Tripa (Prime Minister) of the Tibetan Government in Exile, Dharamshala

"Professor Ravi Ravindra writes with the authority and clarity of a spiritual master. Whether writing about Christianity, Buddhism or the teaching of Krishnamurti, he brings deep insight. Now he has clearly and admirably presented the Yoga Sutras. It will raise many questions for thoughtful readers. Highly recommended." --TKV Desikachar, author of The Heart of Yoga.

“Ravindra draws on his wide reading in multiple traditions to illuminate the often cryptic sutras. Far from an exercise in multiculturalism, however, the work that results feels intimate, seemingly aimed at leading us into the depth of a practice that might otherwise remain closed to us…. In Ravindra’s capable hands, seekers of all traditions can discover why Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are a perennial source of eternal truth. They may also enrich their understanding of their own and other traditions along the way.”—Review in Parabola, Fall 2009.

The Wisdom of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: A New Translation and Guide by Ravi Ravindra is yet another exposition on Patanjali’s yoga sutras and one that merits not only being reread but reread more than once. I absolutely was blown away by the scholarship of Ravindra who draws on his own broad ranging spiritual knowledge, sprinkling his book with quotes from a variety of spiritual paths including Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism… Read through once, this book is an invitation for more and read only once I can’t imagine any open minded reader wouldn’t be moved to change. Read more than once, no doubt the effects of what Ravindra shares would ripple endlessly, carrying the reader further and further each and every time. It is not often I come across a book with this much potency and I’ll eagerly read anything else Ravi Ravindra has written.”—Satia’s Journal, September 24, 2010.

“This new edition of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras will surely become a classic, and establishes Ravi Ravindra as a translator and editor of the stature of Radhakrishnan, a number of whose editions I have on my shelves…. This is a book for contemplative reading, for savouring a few pages at a time, since it deals with the most profound aspects of human consciousness inherent in the human condition in every generation.” .” -- Reviewed by David Lorimer in Scientific and Medical Network Review.

“The book's highlights can be found in the concluding self-reflections, made to further your understanding of the text and its use as a guide on the yogic path. Ravindra is eclectic, expanding on his reflections with quotes from the likes of J. Krishnamurti and poet William Blake. Ravindra's style is quite readable, his commentaries on the individual sutras are always provocative and insightful, and his exercises offer juicy questions to chew on for years to come.”—Yoga Journal.