by Ian Whicher
An extract of pages  51-58 from the book. “Yoga: The Indian Tradition”,  by Ian Whicher


This essay centers on the thought of Patanjali (second to third century CE), the great exponent of the authoritative classical Yoga school (darsana) of Hinduism and the reputed author of the Yoga Sutra. I will argue that Patanjali’s philosophical perspective has, far too often, been looked upon as excessively “spiritual” or isolationistic to the point of being a world-denying philosophy, indifferent to moral endeavor, neglecting the world of nature and culture, and overlooking the highest potentials for human reality, vitality, and creativity. Contrary to the arguments presented by many scholars, which associate Patanjali’s yoga exclusively with extreme asceticism, mortification, denial, and the renunciation and abandonment of “material existence” (prakrti) in favor of an elevated and isolated “spiritual state” (purusa) or disembodied state of spiritual liberation, I suggest that Patanjali’s yoga can be seen as a responsible engagement, in various ways, of “spirit” (purusa = intrinsic identity as Self, pure consciousness) and “matter” (prakrti = the source of psychophysical being, which includes mind, body, nature) resulting in a highly developed, transformed, and participatory human nature and identity, an integrated and embodied state of liberated selfhood (jivanmukti).

The interpretation of Patanjali’s Yoga Darsana presented in this essay - which walks the line between a historical and hermeneutic-praxis (some might say theological or “systematic”) orientation — counters the radically dualistic, isolationistic, and ontologically oriented interpretations of yoga’ presented by many scholars and suggests an open-ended, epistemologically oriented hermeneutic which, I maintain, is more appropriate for arriving at a genuine assessment of Patanjali system.

It is often said that, like classical Samkhya, Patanjali yoga is a dualistic system, understood in terms of purusa and prakrti. Yet, I submit, yoga scholarship has not clarified what “dualistic” means. or why yoga had to be “dualistic.” Even in avowedly non-dualistic systems of thought such as Advaita Vedanta we can find numerous examples of basically dualistic modes of description and explanation.

Elsewhere I have suggested the possibility of Patanjali having asserted a provisional, descriptive, and “practical” metaphysics, i.e. in the Yoga Sutra the metaphysical schematic is abstracted from yogic experience, whereas in classical Samkhya, as set out in Isvara Krsna’s Samkhya Karika, “experiences” are fitted into a metaphysical structure. This approach would allow the Yoga Sutra to be interpreted along more open-ended, epistemologically oriented lines without being held captive by the radical, dualistic metaphysics of Samkhya. Despite intentions to render the experiential dimension of yoga, purged as far as possible from abstract metaphysical knowledge, many scholars have fallen .prey to reading the Yoga Sutra from the most abstract level of the dualism of purusa and prakrti down to an understanding of the practices advocated. Then they proceed to impute an experiential foundation to the whole scheme informed not from mystical insight or yogic experience, hut from the effort to form a consistent (dualistic) world view, a view that culminates in a radical dualistic finality or closure.

Patanjali philosophy is not based upon mere theoretical or speculative knowledge. It elicits a practical, pragmatic, experiential/perceptual (not merely inferential/theoretical) approach that Patanjali deems essential in order to deal effectively with our total human situation and provide real freedom, not just a theory of liberation or a metaphysical explanation of life. Yoga is not content with knowledge (jnana) perceived as a state that abstracts away from the world removing us from our human embodiment and activity in the world. Rather, yoga emphasizes knowledge in the integrity of being and action and as serving the integration of the “person” as a “whole.” Edgerton concluded in a study dedicated to the meaning of yoga that: “yoga is not a ‘system’ of belief or of metaphysics. It is always a way, a method of getting something, usually salvation.” But this does not say enough, does not fully take into account what might be called the integrity of Patanjali yoga. Yoga derives its real strength and value through an integration of theory and practice.

Cessation (nirodha) and the “return to the source”: (pratiprasava): transformation or elimination/negation of the mind?

In Patanjali central definition of yoga, yoga is defined as “the cessation (nirodha) of [the misidentification with] the modifications (vrtti) of the mind (citta).”7 What kind of “cessation” we must ask is Patanjali actually referring to in his classical definition of yoga? What does the process of cessation actually entail for the yogin ethically, epistemologically, onto- logically, psychologically, and so on? I have elsewhere suggested8 that nirodha denotes an epistemological emphasis and refers to the transformation of self-understanding brought about through the purification and illumination of consciousness; nirodha is not (for the yogin) the ontological cessation of prakrti (i.e. the mind and vrttis) Seen here, nirodha thus is not, as is often explained, an inward movement that annihilates or suppresses vrttis,thoughts, intentions, or ideas (pratyaya), nor is it the non-existence or absence of vrtti; rather, nirodha involves a progressive unfoldment of perception (yogi-pratyaksa) that eventually reveals our true identity as purusa. It is the state of affliction (klesa) evidenced in the mind and not the mind itself that is at issue. Cittavrtti does not stand for all modifications or mental processes (cognitive, affective, emotive), but is the very seed (bija) mechanism of the misidentification with prakrti from which all other vrttis and thoughts arise and are (mis)appropriated or self-referenced in the state of ignorance (avidya), that is, the unenlightened state of mind. Spiritual ignorance gives rise to a malfunctioning or misalignment of vrtti within consciousness that in yoga can be corrected thereby allowing for a proper alignment or “right” functioning of vrtti. It is the cittavrtti as our confused and mistaken identity, not our vrttis, thoughts, and experiences in total that must be brought to a state of definitive cessation. To be sure, there is a temporary suspension of all the mental processes as well as any identification with an object (i.e. in asamprajnata-samadhi, this being for the final purification of the mind), but it would be misleading to conclude that higher samadhi results in a permanent or definitive cessation of the vrttis in total, thereby predisposing the yogin who has attained purity of mind to exist in an incapacitated, isolated, or mindless state and therefore to be incapable of living a balanced, useful, and productive life in various ways.

From the perspective of the discerning yogin (vivekin) human identity contained within the domain of the three gunas of prakrti (i.e. sattva, rajas, and tamas) amounts to nothing more than sorrow and dissatisfaction (duhkha).’ The declared goal of classical Yoga, as with Samkhya and Buddhism, is to overcome all dissatisfaction (duhkha, YS II.16) by bringing about an inverse movement or counter-flow (pratiprasava) understood as a “return to the source” or “process-of-involution” of the gu2s, a kind of reabsorption into the transcendent purity of being itself. What does this “process-of-involution” — variously referred to as “return to the origin,” “dissolution into the source,” or “withdrawal from manifestation” — actually mean? Is it a definitive ending to the perceived world of the yogin comprised of change and transformation, forms and phenomena? Ontologically conceived, prasava signifies the “flowing forth” of the primary constituents or qualities of prakrti into the multiple forms of the universe in all its dimensions, i.e. all the processes of manifestation and actualization or “creation” (sarga, prasarga). Pratiprasava on the other hand denotes the process of “dissolution into the source” or “withdrawal from manifestation” of those forms relative to the personal, microcosmic level of the yogin who is about to attain freedom (apavarga).

Does a “return to the origin” culminate in a state of freedom in which one is stripped of all human identity and void of any association with the world including one’s practical livelihood? The ontological emphasis usually given to the meaning of pratiprasava — implying for the yogin a literal dissolution of prakrti’s manifestation — would seem to support a view, one which is prominent in yoga scholarship, of spiritual liberation denoting an existence wholly transcendent (and therefore stripped or deprived) of all manifestation including the human relational sphere. Is this the kind of spiritually emancipated state that Patanjali had in mind (pun included)? In YS II.3—17 (which set the stage for the remainder of the chapter on yogic means or sadhana), Patanjali describes prakrti, the “seeable” (including our personhood), in the context of the various afflictions (k1eas) that give rise to an afflicted and mistaken identity of self. Afflicted identity is constructed out of and held captive by the root affliction of ignorance (avidya) and its various forms of karmic bondage. Yet, despite the clear association of prakrti with the bondage of ignorance (avidya), there are no real grounds for purporting that prakrti herself is to be equated with or subsumed under the afflictions. In yoga, the world is clearly affirmed; prakrti is deemed to be real (YS IV.13—14), all forms of prakrti being comprised of the three gunas: sattva, rajas, and tamas. To equate prakrti with affliction itself implies that• as a product of spiritual ignorance, prakrti, along with the afflictions, is conceived as a reality that the yogin should ultimately abandon, condemn, avoid, or discard completely. Patanjali leaves much room for understanding “dissolution” or “return to the source” with an epistemological emphasis thereby allowing the whole system of the Yoga Darsana to be interpreted along more open-ended lines. In other words, what actually “dissolves” or is ended in yoga is the yogin’s misidentification with prakrti, a mistaken identity of self that — contrary to authentic identity, namely, purusa — can be nothing more than a product of the three gunas under the influence of spiritual ignorance. Understood as such, pratiprasava need not denote the definitive ontological dissolution of manifest prakrti for the yogin, but rather refers to the process of “subtilization” or sattvification of consciousness so necessary for the uprooting of misidentification — the incorrect worldview born of avidya — or incapacity of the yogin to “see” from the yogic perspective of the seer (drastr), our authentic identity as purusa.

The discerning yogin sees (YS II.15) that this gunic world or cycle of samsaric identity is in itself dissatisfaction (duhkha). But we must ask, what exactly is the problem being addressed in yoga? What is at issue in Yoga philosophy? Is our ontological status as a human being involved in day-to-day existence forever in doubt, in fact in need of being negated, dissolved in order for authentic identity (purusa), immortal consciousness, finally to dawn? Having overcome all ignorance, is it then possible for a human being to live in the world and no longer be in conflict with oneself and the world? Can the gunas cease to function in a state of ignorance and conflict in the mind? Must the gunic constitution of the human mind and the whole of prakrtic existence disappear, dissolve for the yogin? Can the ways of spiritual ignorance be replaced by an aware, conscious, non-afflicted identity and activity that transcend the conflict and confusion of ordinary, samsaric life? Can we live, according to Patanjali’s yoga, an embodied state of freedom?

“Aloneness” (kaivalya): implications for an embodied freedom

In the classical traditions of Samkhya and Yoga, kaivalya, meaning “aloneness,” is generally understood to be the state of the unconditional existence of purusa. In the Yoga Sutra, kaivalya can refer more precisely to the “aloneness of seeing” (drseh kaivalyam) which, as Patanjali states, follows from the disappearance of ignorance (avidya) and its creation of samyoga  the conjunction of the seer (purusa) and the seeable (i.e. citta, gunas) — explained by Vyasa as a mental superimposition (adhyaropa, YB II.18). “Aloneness” thus can be construed as purusa’s innate capacity for pure, unbroken, non-attached seeing/perceiving, observing, or “knowing” of the content of the mind (citta)) In an alternative definition, Patanjali explains kaivalya as the “return to the origin” (pratiprasava) of the gunas, which have lost all soteriological purpose for the purusa that has, as it were, recovered its transcendent autonomy). This Sutra (YS IV.34) also classifies kaivalya as the establishment in “own form/nature” (svarupa), and the power of higher awareness (citisakti). Although the seer’s (drastr/purusa) capacity for “seeing” is an unchanging yet dynamic power of consciousness that should not be truncated in any way, nevertheless our karmically distorted or skewed perceptions vitiate against the natural fullness of “seeing.” (Patanjali defines spiritual ignorance (avidya), the root affliction, as: “seeing the non-eternal as eternal, the impure as pure, dissatisfaction as happiness, and the non-self as self” (YS II.5)). Having removed the “failure-to-see” (adarsana), the soteriological purpose of the gunas in the samsaric condition of the mind is fulfilled; the mind is relieved of its former role of being a vehicle for avidya, the locus of egoity and misidentification, and the realization of pure seeing — the nature of the seer alone — takes place.

According to yet another sutra (YS III.55), we are told that kaivalya is established when the sattva of consciousness has reached a state of purity analogous to that of the purusa.2’ Through the process of subtilization or “return to the origin” (pratiprasava) in the sattva, the transformation (parinama) of the mind (citta) takes place at the deepest level bringing about a radical change in perspective: the former impure, fabricated states constituting a fractured identity of self are dissolved resulting in the complete purification of mind. Through knowledge (in samprajnata samadhi) and its transcendence (in asamprajnata-samadhi) self-identity overcomes its lack of intrinsic grounding, a lack sustained and exacerbated by the web of afflictions in the form of attachment (raga), aversion (dvesa), and the compulsive clinging to life based on the fear of extinction (abhinivesa). The yogin is no longer dependent on liberating knowledge (mind-sattva), is no longer attached to vrtti as a basis for self-identity. Cessation, it must be emphasized, does not mark a definitive disappearance of the gunas from purusa’s view. For the liberated yogin, the gunas cease to exist in the form of avidya and its samskaras, vrttis, and false or fixed ideas (pratyaya) of selfhood that formerly veiled true identity. The changing gunic modes cannot alter the yogin’s now purified and firmly established consciousness. The mind has been liberated from the egocentric world of attachment to things prakrtic. Now the yogin’s identity (as purusa), disassociated from ignorance, is untouched, unaffected by qualities of mind, uninfluenced by the vrttis constituted of the three gunas. The mind and purusa attain to a sameness of purity (YS III.55), of harmony, balance, evenness, and a workability together: the mind appearing in the nature of purusa.
Kaivalya, I suggest, in no way destroys or negates the personality of the yogin, but is an unconditional state in which all the obstacles or distractions preventing an immanent and purified relationship or engagement of person with nature and spirit (purusa) have been removed. The mind, which previously functioned under the sway of ignorance coloring and blocking our perception of authentic identity, has now become purified and no longer operates as a locus of misidentification, confusion, and dissatisfaction (duhkha). Sattva, the finest quality (guna) of the mind, has the capacity to be perfectly lucid/transparent, like a dust-free mirror in which the light of purusa is clearly reflected and the discriminative discernment (vivekakhyati) between purusa and the sattva of the mind (as the finest nature of the seeable) can take place.
The crucial (ontological) point to be made here is that in the “aloneness” of kaivalya prakrti ceases to perform an obstructing role. In effect, prakrti herself has become purified, illuminated, and liberated from avidya’s grip including the misconceptions, misappropriations, and misguided relations implicit within a world of afflicted identity. The mind has been transformed, liberated from the egocentric world of attachment, its former afflicted nature abolished; and self-identity left alone in its “own form” or true nature as purusa is never again confused with all the relational acts, intentions, and volitions of empirical existence. There being no power of misidentification remaining in nirbija-samadhi, the mind ceases to operate within the context of the afflictions, karmic accumulations, and consequent cycles of samsara implying a mistaken identity of selfhood subject to birth and death.

The Yoga Sutra has often been regarded as calling for the severance of purusa from prakrti; concepts such as liberation, cessation, detachment! dispassion, and so forth have been interpreted in an explicitly negative light. Max Muller, citing Bhoja Raja’s commentary (eleventh century CE), refers to yoga as “separation” (viyoga).  More recently, numerous other scholars have endorsed this interpretation, that is, the absolute separateness of purusa and prakrti. In asserting the absolute separation of purusa and prakrti, scholars and non-scholars alike have tended to disregard the possibility for other (fresh) hermeneutical options, and this radical, dualistic metaphysical closure of sorts surrounding the nature and meaning of Patanjali yoga has proved detrimental to a fuller understanding of the Yoga Darsana by continuing a tradition based on an isolationistic, one-sided reading (or perhaps misreading) of the Yoga Sutra and Vyasa’s commentary. Accordingly, the absolute separation of purusa and prakrti can only be interpreted as a disembodied state implying death to the physical body. To dislodge the sage from bodily existence is to undermine the integrity of the pedagogical context that lends so much credibility or “weight” to the yoga system. I am not here implying a simple idealization of yoga pedagogy thereby overlooking the need to incorporate a healthy critical approach to the guru—disciple dynamic. Rather, I am suggesting that it need not be assumed that, in yoga, liberation coincides with physical death. This would only allow for a soteriological end state of “disembodied liberation” (videhamukti). What is involved in yoga is the death of the atomistic, egoic identity, the dissolution of the karmic web of samsara that generates notions of one being a subject trapped in the prakrtic constitution of a particular body—mind.

Not being content with mere theoretical knowledge, yoga is committed to a practical way of life. To this end, Patanjali included in his presentation of yoga an outline of the “eight-limbed” path (astanga-yoga) dealing with the physical, moral, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of the yogin, an integral path that emphasizes organic continuity, balance, and integration in contrast to the discontinuity, imbalance, and disintegration inherent in samyoga. The idea of cosmic balance and of the mutual support and upholding of the various parts of nature and society is not foreign to yoga thought. Vyasa deals with the theory of "nine causes" (nava karanani) or types of causation according to tradition. The ninth type of cause is termed dhrti -- meaning "support" or "sustenance." Based on Vyasa’s explanation of dhrti we can see how mutuality and sustenance are understood as essential conditions for the maintenance of the natural and social world. There is an organic interdependence of all living entities wherein all (i.e., the elements, the animals, humans, and divine bodies)  work together for the good of the whole and for each other.

Far from being exclusively a subjectively oriented and introverted path of withdrawal from life, classical yoga acknowledges the intrinsic value of "support" and "sustenance" and the interdependence of all living (embodied) entities, thus upholding organic continuity, balance and integration, within the natural and social world. Having achieved that level of insight (prajna) that is "truth bearing" (rtambhara) the yogin perceives the natural order, "rta", of cosmic existence “unites” with, and embodies that order. To fail to see clearly (adarsana) is to fall into disorder, disharmony, and conflict with oneself and the world. In effect,  to be ensconced  in ignorance implies a disunion with the natural order of life and inextricably results in a failure to embody that order. Through yoga one gains proper access to the world and is therefore established in the right relationship to the world. Far from being denied or renounced, the world for the yogin has become transformed – properly engaged.

Page 58 ~

From “Yoga: The Indian Tradition”,  by Ian Whicher

This is a small extract from an awesome book. Strongly recommended!

Ian Whicher is also author of "The Integrity of the Yoga Darsana: A reconsideration of Classical Yoga", State University of New York, 1998. This is a thematic presentation of the Yoga Sutras, treating each sutra as a thread in an over-all integral weave of Great Integrity. Where the commentator, Vyasa, has assumed dualism, while Patanjali himself is silent on that, Whicher follows Patanjali's own words, not Vyasa's.


Yoga Sutra Chapter I: Samadhi Pada

Yoga Sutra Chapter II - Sadhana Pada

Yoga Sutra Chapter III: Vibhuti Pada

Yoga Sutra Chapter IV: Kaivalyam

Alien Gods: Samkhya Interpretation of Nature (using Brahmacarya as the example)

Countering World-Negation: The World Affirming and Integrative Dimension of Classical Yoga by Ian Whicher

A Review of S. N. Tandon's. A Re-appraisal of Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras in the Light of the Buddha’s Teaching by Georg Feuerstein

A Review of Ian Whicher's. The Integrity of the Yoga Darsana: A Reconsideration of Classical Yoga by Georg Feuerstein

Yoga Sutras Made Accessible: Extracted from the morass of over intellectualization

Back to Yoga Sutra Index

Glossary of Yogic Terms

Back to HeartMind Home Page

Swami Venkatesananda Source Page

Sri Pungaliya on Patanjali and Jnaneshwar