instructional texts

A Short Reflection on Yogic Meditation as Described in the Yoga-sutra Attributed to Patanjali

The Yoga-sutra, or The Thread of Yoga, is the famous classical work attributed to the legendary sage Patanjali and it is a seminal, rather systematic and very influential work on Yoga. It is sometimes even considered to be the most important, most comprehensive and most revealing work ever written on the subject. This complex, delicate and difficult subject of the so called „classical Yoga” usually associated with Patanjali’sfoundational work and its traditional commentaries (more than 20 of them until the end of the 19th century, the earliest and most important one being that of the enigmatic sage Vyasa called Bhashya) can be critically approached from many different perspectives, but usually it is studied in its historical, linguistic, philosophical and practical aspects.

Historically speaking, the Yoga-sutra is still and probably will always remain a huge mystery, since very little has been so far known concerning the origin, creation and authorship of the Sutras (195 or 196 of them, divided into 4 chapters). It was probably first transmitted only orally within a closed group of practitioners and then written down sometime between the 2nd century B. C. and 5th century A. D. It was composed in classical Sanskrit in the literary form of a sutra, which is the most compact way of expounding the principles of some school of thought, art form or any field of human knowledge. The school that produced it, if there was one, hasn’t survived but the text did and consequently was interpreted in many different ways by many different people. As already pointed out, next to nothing is known about its proposed author, the semi-divinity Patanjali, often considered to be an incarnation of the cosmic serpent Ananta, Adisesha, or Nagaraja, and so it is possible that the work was created in patches by a few different authors over decades or even centuries until it got consolidated in the form known to us for the last thousand years or so. It is also possible that Patanjali and Vyasa, or Vindhyavasa, may have been one and the same person commenting on his own original work, which is the practice well-known in India for centuries.

The philosophical analysis shows many influences, most notably from Buddhism and Jainism, but its philosophical basis is a form of sankhya, arguably the oldest philosophical system in India whose origin is most probably outside of the Vedas. However, by the 14th century or so, Patanjali’s yoga was recognized as one of the six orthodox philosophical systems (darsana) within the fold of Brahmanism and usually classified in three pairs, together with sankhya, nyaya and vaiseshika, purva-mimamsa and uttara-mimamsa. Unlike classical sankhya as described in the Sankhya-karika and Sankhya-sutra that are an atheistic radical dualism of spirit (purusha) and nature (prakrti) with a rather intellectual approach to the philosophy of human liberation, or soteriology, the type of sankhya expounded in the Yoga-sutra is sort of theistic since a kind of god, or Isvara, is admitted into the system, and it is decidedly pragmatic since the main theme of the Yoga-sutra is the meditative liberation of spirit from nature.

The well-known fact is that the main intention and orientation of the whole of Yoga is practical and so the same is true of the Yoga-sutra. This is the reason why it was not studied only by scholars, but also by very different practitioners of Yoga throughout the centuries in its various forms with the idea to understand and apply the techniques presented in it in quite different philosophical and psycho-cultural contexts. The central theme of the Yoga-sutra, as we have already pointed out, is the ending of human suffering by means of an intense Yogic meditation as the crown of all the preceding Yogic efforts to soothe the disturbed and therefore confused mind. They were very systematically delineated by Patanjali in his famous eightfold Yoga path. The first four sutras (here all translated by the author) of the first chapter give the definition and purpose of yoga, and constitute the core of the teachings:

1.1. Now the authoritative instruction in yoking (yoga).

1.2. Being yoked (yoga) is the arrest of the whirling of consciousness.

1.3. Then the seer abides in its own form.

1.4. Otherwise, conformity with the whirls.

The second sutra of the first chapter is probably the most famous and best known ancient definition of Yoga within Hindu tradition – yogascittavrttinirodhah – and Yoga is here unambiguously defined as the deep meditation and clarity of the mind that makes possible a deep insight into the true nature of reality and selfhood. The desired result of the practice of Yoga that is right for the practitioner (viniyoga of Yoga) is the stoppage of all the mental activities that cloud a clear vision of actuality. In this state of being yoked (yoga), in the arrest (nirodha) of mental confusion (citta-vrtti), or with mental collectedness (samadhi) fully established, there is a spontaneous clarity of consciousness (citta-prasadana) and truth-bearing wisdom (rtambhara-prajna) that cannot be obtained by any other means. In the second chapter, the well-known eight-limbed Yoga, or ashtanga-yoga, is described like this:

2.28. From the fervent pursuing of the limbs of yoking (yoga), after the impurities have been destroyed, there is a light of knowledge leading to discriminative insight.

2.29. The eight limbs are abstention, observance, posture, restraint of the breath, withdrawal of the senses, concentration, meditation and integration.

While in the second chapter the first five external limbs are described, in the third chapter, Patanjali explains the three last internal limbs that actually comprise the three phases of Yogic meditation also known as constraint (samyama) when practiced in succession as one unit on one object and they are succinctly defined like this:

3.1. Concentration (dharana) is the binding of consciousness to a point.

3.2. Meditation (dhyana) is one continuous flow of ideas in relation to that.

3.3 Integration (samadhi) indeed is this shining forth of pure essence, as if emptied of its own form.

So, dharana is concentrating our whole attention on one object of our choice: the connection between the subject and object is still interrupted by moments of inattention. Dhyana is delving with continuity into the object of concentration: the connection is well established and there is an uninterrupted learning about the object. And samadhi is merging totally with the this same object of meditation: the communication is total and cognition of both subject and object is perfect. In that state of the highest possible concentration of attention to one point (eka-grata) there is a feeling of losing one’s subjective identity while the object of cognition simultaneously reveals its essence.

Samprajnata-samadhi/cognitive integration always has an object on which attention is focused and its goal is a complete absorption (samapatti) into the object of concentration with the aim to know it completely. Asamprajnata-samadhi/non-cognitive integration (which is Vyasa’s term not found in the Yoga-sutra) is „the other” type of samadhi whose aim is to empty consciousness of all its content so that only pure consciousness remains, just pure subjectivity (asmita-matra, or buddhi) in its pristine form (sattva), and samprajnata-samadhi, also known as sabija-samadhi (“with seed”) is its precondition. Nirbija-samadhi, or seedless integration, on the other hand, is the highest form of concentration in which all the subliminal determinants (samskara) and unconscious imprints (vasana) are totally eliminated from consciousness, not just its conscious content (citta-vrtti). When consciousness is so pure that it is equal in purity with spirit, it is known as powerful awareness (citi-shakti), which is kaivalya, the final goal of all spiritual aspirations, or aloneness of spirit in its full independence. One first needs to know prakrti, or that which is not spirit (purusha), but the instrument to know it, that is one needs to know the mind/consciousness as the most subtle and most useful form of matter. Only then, by means of a discriminative insight (viveka-khyati) supported by profound meditation, can one know spirit, or more precisely, can spirit know/cognize itself as the real and unchanging subject of all changing experience, which is radically different from what it is experiencing and therefore absolutely free from all enslaving and painful materiality (prakrti), including individual mentality (asmita).

In the Yoga-sutra, nirbija-samadhi is considered to be a more refined state than sabija that can only be reached via sabija, or samprajnata-samadhi, that is slowly developed in four distinct phases (vitarka, vicara, ananda and asmita, in which gross and subtle thinking about the ever more refined objects of meditation are transcended in the feeling of pure bliss and finally in the strong feeling of one’s own existence). Asamprajnata-samadhi seems to be an intermediary state between sabija and nirbija in which only the mental concepts are fully terminated, but still some subliminal determinants remain in the depths of consciousness. Nirbija is very close to kaivalya, only kaivalya is permanent, and nirbija is not, so when one is firmly established in nirbija, kaivalya is only a question of time, and when kaivalya is there, there is no time any more. There is also a type of samadhi quite poetically called dharma-megha-samadhi, or integration rain-cloud of righteousness, described in the fourth chapter of the Yoga-sutra like this:

4.29. Integration the rain-cloud of righteousness always results from discriminative insight in the one who is disinterested even in the subtlest contemplation.

However, it is quite unclear what its relationship to nirbija actually is. They may be the same thing or it is an even higher state than nirbija that only has the content of pure righteousness, or truthfulness, which seems to be a state of complete fullness when spirit finally shines forth after consciousness first emptied itself of all its content that is not spirit in nirbija-samadhi. Thus automatically ends all the action leading to suffering, says the following sutra. And spirit is irrevocably and utterly free from nature.

As a matter of curiosity, T. Krishnamacharya, „the father of modern yoga“ and an avid student and teacher of the Yoga-sutra who even wrote a traditional commentary in Sanskrit (Yoga-valli), didn’t value nirbija-samadhi much because he was only interested in what he called bhagavata-dhyana, or meditation on God, in his case on Narayana, or Vishnu. Nirbija was too empty for him to be considered a valid goal of the spiritual life because he was a bhakta, a devotee of God, not a sankya-yogi like Patanjali. However, in Patanjali’s system there is no place for a divine intervention; it is superfluous. One’s own effort to liberate oneself should be enough. If someone needs a divine support(er), there is devotion to Isvara (Isvara-pranidhana), but It is not the God that creates the world or liberates souls, only an ideal type of a special soul that is primordially and absolutely free, and so can be a model for imitation or a perfect object of concentration for achieving samadhi quickly for those who are religiously inclined. For others, who are self-sufficient and self-reliant, no idea of god, with a form or without it, is necessary.

The goal is not a union with/ascent to the Divine or a grace/descent of the Divine, only aloneness of a spirit that is completely absorbed in itself and so totally free of all experience because it requires absolutely nothing else. This of course feels very dry and void to many aspirants, and that is precisely the reason why there are very few serious practitioners of patanjala-yoga and why there are so many interpretations that would like to soften Patanjali in one way or another. In this sense, Patanjali’s goal is much more similar to the Buddhist nirvana than to Vedantic moksha, but, unlike Buddhism, he admits that there is a soul that should be liberated, although it is essentially free, and that there is a kind of a god that can be helpful on the difficult path of Yoga, although it is not essential for reaching the final goal. However, for most people this goal is actually impossible to achieve and its very nature is quite controversial from many perspectives, but this exceeds the limits of our present discussion and will be addressed on some other occasion.

Undoubtedly, the Yoga-sutra has a strong liberating potential for the human psyche even today, around 2,000 years after it was offered to the world, because it insists on self-reliance and independence when it comes to understanding and obtaining human freedom. However, it must be clearly understood that essentially a very radical solution for the fact of human suffering given in the Sutras may not be and usually is not the right response to being alive as a concerned human being in the complex world of the 21st century. Some less radical and more suitable ways of doing Yoga effectively must be and are being developed. Still, the inspiration, experience and insight offered by Patanjali certainly have they relevant place in our own attempts at finding a creative way to live out our full human potential in spite of all the destructive tendencies prevalent in this decisive time of the globally pervasive human and spiritual crisis.

by Domagoj Orlić