Patanjali Yoga and the Science of Self-Realization

From Early Teachings of Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Volume II

What is the aim of human life?

The aim and the end of human life is to attain liberation from bondage or self-realization. Many and varied are the ways by which the goal of self-realization can be attained. The main streams of thought are divided into three branches: the first, that the self could be realized only through jnana or real knowledge, the second, pointing to the path of selfless action for the same goal and, the third, maintaining that devotion to God is the only way to attain reality.

How does one decide which branch to follow: jnana, selfless action or devotion?

Before the journey towards the goal of self-realization can begin, the mind must be controlled and centred on one point. On the surface these three approaches may look different, but they all have the same aim.

Adi Shankaracharya in expounding his tenets of the Vedanta philosophy in various texts has attempted to show that the world is unreal and that the reality, the Brahman, alone is real and imminent. However, due to the influence of maya, the individual soul, out of ignorance, binds itself to the world. His main teaching was to know the Self by a process of elimination of all that was non-self i.e. all that was not permanent, unchangeable, blissful and true. Therefore, the mind had to be brought to a state of evenness by a steady practice of self-denial, whereby it could, as a matter of course, turn away from the senses and dwell on the Self.

The exponents of the bhakti school of thought emphasized the aspect of surrender and devotion to the supreme God with self-effacement. This also covered the ideal of selfless service where the concept of devotion was secondary, and the seeker took no responsibility as the doer of deeds, but behaved only as an agent of a divine power which he called God or divinity. Thus, he did not attach any importance to the world, as nothing belonged to him.

Does yoga prescribe a scientific technique for attaining self-realization?

Yoga, which is one of the principal schools of thought, does not lay down a separate philosophy or an independent system of thought. It aims at the same goal but where others leave the field of investigation open for the seekers to find out for themselves how to evolve their consciousness, to merge with the universal consciousness or ultimate reality, yoga prescribes a scientific technique.

Patanjali's goal is definite, as indicated in sutra two of 'Samadhi Pada': to establish one's self or to attain kaivalya. He mainly follows the Samkhya school of thought, differing only in one respect, when he introduces the concept of Ishwara and faith, but to Patanjali, Ishwara is not the end but the means to attain the aim of kaivalya. He had to introduce the concept as an expedient to help the seeker to achieve a state of concentration. Having indicated a clear objective, Patanjali goes on to indicate in a scientific, step-by-step manner how the aim could be achieved. It is because of this fundamental character of yoga that it is not classified as a separate philosophy. It is, in fact, the science by means of which the goal of self-realization could be realized by anyone of the followers of the various schools of thought. Patanjali had in view the basic difficulties which any seeker, whatever his faith or devotion may be, would find. To him a yogi was one who had so attuned his entire being that he could use it to attain kaivalya.

Unlike Adi Shankaracharya, Patanjali had no quarrel with the world, as he subscribed to the Samkhya doctrine and accepted prakriti as the causative factor of the universe and he did not dismiss the world as unreal. Even according to Adi Shankaracharya, the denial of reality of the world was a subjective attitude, a studied and perfect detachment which could be arrived at by the negation of all that was not real through the cultivation of vairagya.

Patanjali accepts man as he is, as a product of prakriti, an entity subject to 'the interplay of the three forces: the gunas, sattwa, rajas, tamas, the mental, and the emotional conflicts in him. Therefore, Patanjali states his technique on the basis of chitta vritti nirodha, the cessation of the modifications of the mind. Unless the agitations of the mind are silenced and the mind is made ekagra or one-pointed, no progress anywhere is possible.

Patanjali is a realist, who probed into the inner workings of the ego, which is again conditioned by vasanas. He said that the tendencies of the chitta vrittis are normally diffused and engaged in five different directions, which cause agreeable and disagreeable experiences and create new samskaras.

Does Patanjali define vairagya as renunciation or acceptance of the world?

Vairagya according to Patanjali is not renunciation of the world, but rather, the acceptance of the world as it is. It is a recognition that prakriti functions in its natural manner and one must abide by it until, by practice of yoga, one is able to transcend the laws. He defines vairagya as self-mastery, a freedom from desire of what is seen or heard. To him, non-attachment is the exercise of discretion. A sadhaka is not asked to renounce and go to a forest, but to strive and find the means and ways to transcend prakriti. This technique is what he teaches.

In this regard, Patanjali seems to play the role of the modern psychologist, when he points out the obstructions to the seekers as well as the development of supraphysical powers and the need to avoid them. He knows the pitfalls that lead to a jnani's or a bhakta's decline, therefore, he points the way to kaivalya in a systematic, step-by-step manner. He does not despise the body, the instinctive urges or the desires in man, but accepts them as necessary evils, and indicates the way to purify them and transmute them by faith and energetic efforts.

What keeps us from being able to realize the Self?

Patanjali's instructions in ashtanga yoga are a concise and effective treatment for securing physical, mental, emotional and spiritual harmony. He does not regard the world as sinful, nor does he introduce the ideas of hell and torture. For him, sin is what leads to alienation from the Self. Thus, he does not frighten the seeker, but rather, he points out how a patient and steady effort releases the latent divine powers in man and how such awareness leads the seeker to strive more for self-realization.

Patanjali points out how kleshas arise, how ignorance or avidya, which he defines as the notion which regards the non-eternal as eternal, impure as pure, painful as pleasant and unreal as real, is the cause of all afflictions. It is because of avidya that realization is not attained. Therefore, Patanjali says that afflictions which are yet to come with the fruition of past samskaras should be anticipated and destroyed. The root cause of all misery is the false identification of the drashta, the experiences with the objects of experience. The object experienced is composed of the three gunas and the identification is caused by avidya. The Self or the experiencer is pure unchangeable consciousness. The object of experience is to serve this atman, this Self, to show the true nature of both drashta and drishya. When this identification ceases, kaivalya is attained.

Are the doctrines of yoga in harmony with the experiences of sages?

It is not possible in a short essay to discuss at length the significance and importance of concepts in the context of highest philosophical truths as expounded by the various philosophical dissertations. However, yoga contains no doctrine in conflict with the experiences of sages as revealed in the Upanishads. On the contrary, many things which remain mysterious and unexplained in obtrusive language are made comprehensible.

Whatever may be the divergence of the approaches, the fact remains that the aim of man is liberation by whatever name it is indicated: moksha for the Vedantin, vairagya of the yogi, Vaikuntha of the bhakta, and so on. Patanjali neither disputes Vedanta nor underrates bhakti. For him, the Self is the only reality and in his Yoga Sutras, there is a place for all. After all, it is through the mind that the universe is created and through the mind alone it is dissolved.

Sage Patanjali's treatment of concentration, meditation and samadhi is a process of devolution from the surface to the depths. Like the psychoanalyst, he wishes that through his technique, he can bring awareness to the area of consciousness which lies in the depth of the debris of unconsciousness. He wishes to develop awareness of that supreme truth, the atman, which is the pure consciousness, by the light of which the mind, intellect, ego, senses and sense organs, in fact the entire universe, is illuminated. When awareness is firmly fixed, swaroop anusandhanam, discovery of one's Self, takes place and the seeker attains self-realization or kaivalya.

Can Brahman be an object of meditation?

Patanjali declares that our awareness is compounded by name, quality and knowledge. So long as consciousness remains established in these aspects, meditation does not lead to kaivalya, because even this deep meditation, even in its subtlest aspect it is within the limitations of prakriti. The four kinds of concrete meditation, samprajnata samadhi, to which he refers, are within the realm of phenomena and are only preparation for the state of union with Brahman. Brahman is not an object of concentration but pure, undifferentiated consciousness.

Patanjali, therefore, declares that all past impressions are wiped out by nirvikalpa samadhi and when these are so extinguished, there are no more modifications of the mind and the seeker enters a state of nirvikalpa samadhi. Adi Shankaracharya describes nirvikalpa samadhi as a continuous consciousness of the unity of atman and Brahman, leaving no trace of duality. That indeed is the state of realization of kaivalya, for consciousness is never experienced in the plural but only in the singular, and that is the self-realization to which yoga leads the seeker.

— October 1963, Bombay