Overview of Yoga Sutras

Yoga as a system of thought and practice has a primary reference to the philosophical system that flows from the teachings of the ancient Indian Yoga philosopher, Patanjali. Maharishi Patanjali is believed to have compiled his Yoga Sutra around the 3rd or 4th century BC but archeological evidences and the study of ancient scriptures suggest that yoga was practiced in ancient India as early as 3000 BC.

In spite of the Yoga Sutra being by far the most definitive text on the philosophy of classical yoga, very little is known about Patanjali himself. In fact, the identity of this sage scholar is still being debated in academic circles. All that one might say about him is that he was a great philosopher and grammarian. Some also believe him to have been a physician and attribute a certain medical work to him. But even if such a medical treatise did exist, it has been lost to us through the passage of time. Scholars tentatively put his time somewhere around three centuries before Christ and though the date of the Yoga Sutra’s composition is also a controversial issue, place it within that broad time frame.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, which outlines the sovereign path of Raja Yoga, is composed of a total of 195 sutras or aphorisms. These sutras are structured around four padas or chapters:

• Samadhi Pada,
• Sadhana Pada,
• Vibhuti Pada and
• Kaivalya Pada.

Unlike Western theoretical texts, which are often self-explanatory, Indian classical texts are mostly composed in the form of extremely terse and self-contained aphorisms or sutras. Sutras literally mean ‘threads’-the idea being that each individual blossoms of thought are bound together to form the eventual wreath of a complex philosophy. Such pithy aphorisms, by their very nature invite a host of commentaries and annotations for their appropriate comprehension by the average learner-and that has been the tradition of ancient Indian scholasticism.

In this case, the six basic commentaries on the Yoga Sutra are:

• Yoga Bhashya by Vyasa,
• Tattva-Vaisharadi by Vachaspati Mishra,
• Yoga-Varttika by Vijnana Bhikshu,
• Raja-Martanda by Bhojaraja,
• Bhasvati by Hariharananda Aranya and
• Patanjala-Rahasya by Raghavananda Saraswati.

Beside these, there exist a number of tikas or expositions on this exemplary text.

Samadhi Pada

Isvara is the supreme Purusha, unaffected by any afflictions, actions, fruits of actions or by any inner impressions of desires.

In Him is the complete manifestation of the seed of omniscience.

Unconditioned by time, He is the teacher of even the most ancient teachers.

The word expressive of Isvara is the mystic sound OM.
-Samadhi Pada: Sutras 24-27.

The first chapter, which is composed of 51 sutras, contemplates on the absolute true consciousness or Isvara and delineates the problems an individual soul is likely to face in its quest to merge with this Divine Soul.

It begins with an understanding of human thought processes or vrittis, which deter us from realizing our true selves. The Samadhi Pada advises the restraint of such natural workings of the mind and discusses the problems encountered while trying to harness it. Then begins an elucidation of Isvara, the supreme consciousness and the various gradations of samadhis (a self-absorbed, detached state of being) one could enter into for attaining that highest level of spiritual awareness. Here again, the possible mental distractions are clearly stated and the best methods of conquering these impediments are also discussed.

By cultivating attitudes of:

• Friendliness toward the happy,
• Compassion for the unhappy,
• Delight in the virtuous and
• Disregard toward the wicked
the mind retains its undisturbed calmness.

Or that calm is retained by the controlled exhalation or retention of the breath.

Or the concentration on subtle sense perception can cause steadiness of mind.

Or by concentrating on the supreme, ever blissful Light within….

Gradually, one’s mastery in concentration extends from the primal atom to the greatest magnitude.

Just as the naturally pure crystal assumes shapes and colors of objects placed near it, so the Yogi’s mind, with its totally weakened modifications, becomes clear and balanced and attains the state devoid of differentiation between knower, knowable and knowledge. This culmination of meditation is samadhi.

-Samadhi Pada: Sutras 33-41.

In the end, the yogi gains ritambhara prajna, which is true wisdom, whose means of knowledge are unlike any other-drawn solely from the awareness of the absolute. At this stage, the yogi becomes totally detached from all the four spheres of gross materiality (annamaya kosha), physicality (pranamaya kosha), psychology (manomaya kosha) and intellect (vijnanamaya kosha). His consciousness merely remains attached with the purely spiritual sphere of the anandamaya kosha. This is the state, which is defined as nirbija samadhi, when all seeds of earthly impressions are erased from the yogi’s consciousness.

Sadhana Pada

The karmas bear fruits of pleasure and pain caused by merit and demerit.
-Sadhana Pada: Sutra 14.

By the practice of the eight limbs of Yoga, the impurities dwindle away and there dawns the light of wisdom, leading to discriminative discernment.
-Sadhana Pada: Sutra 28.

After chapter one describes the different kinds of thought forms, practices to control them and the different kinds of samadhis culminating in the highest experience of nirbija samadhi, the second chapter follows it up with practical ways of attaining that state.

In 55 sutras, the Sadhana Pada establishes the aim of yoga as being the control of the chitta vrittis (thought processes) to attain the highest union or ‘yoga’. It prescribes the practice of Karma and Ashtanga Yoga as a means of achieving this union. This Pada identifies ignorance (avidya) and other obstacles to meditation as a major cause of our inability to naturally merge with the Absolute, and to this end it advices the eradication of all such kleshas by practicing the eight limbs of yoga and benefiting from their advantages.

It might be relevant here to mention the fact that Indian philosophy involves more of perception and understanding as opposed to the Western ‘love of knowledge’ (philosophy). The Sanskrit word for philosophy, ‘darshan’ literally means ‘to see’ or ‘to perceive’. In such a case, the philosopher takes on the role of a ‘spectator’ and having perceived the patterns of the ‘spectacle’ before him, prepares to merge with it and obliterates the subject/object dichotomy between the ‘perceiver’ and the ‘perception’. And it is practices such as Kriya Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga, which forces the yogi or seeker into action. Thus, far from being a passive ‘spectator’, the true philosopher and yogi actually gains mastery over the Divine Spectacle, which is our entire existence!

Vibhuti Pada

The practice of these three (dharana, dhyana, and samadhi) upon one object is called samyama.

By the mastery of samyama comes the light of knowledge.
Its practice is to be accomplished in stages.

-Vibhuti Pada: Sutras 5-7.

The 56 sutras of the third chapter focus on the achieved union and its result. The term ‘vibhuti’ denotes manifestation or residue and this Pada delineates all the accomplishments, which come as the result of regular yoga practices. They are also sometimes called the siddhis, or powers, which have become matured with practice. The practices, which have been stressed in the Vibhuti Pada are the final three limbs of Ashtanga Yoga: dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (contemplation), the amalgamated practice of which is known as samyama.

This chapter deals with the subtle states of awareness and advanced techniques of practicing samyama. The various kinds of knowledge or siddhis that might be obtained by practicing this yogic technique are also described. The Pada brings home the fact that knowledge is power and states the techniques of utilizing such potency for the best possible results.

The discriminative knowledge that simultaneously comprehends all objects in all conditions is the intuitive knowledge, which brings liberation.

When the tranquil mind attains purity equal to that of the Self, there is Absoluteness.

-Vibhuti Pada: Sutras 56-57.

Kaivalya Pada

Only the minds born of meditation are free from karmic impressions.
-Kaivalya Pada: Sutra 7.

Since the desire to live is eternal, impressions are also beginningless.
The impressions being held together by cause, effect, basis and support, they disappear with the disappearance of these four.
-Kaivalya Pada: Sutra 11-12.

Kaivalya, which is the ultimate goal of yoga, means solitariness or detachment. The 34 sutras of the fourth chapter deals with impressions left by our endless cycles of birth and the rationale behind the necessity of erasing such impressions.

It portrays the yogi, who has attained kaivalya, as an entity who has gained independence from all bondages and achieved the absolute true consciousness or ritambhara prajna described in the Samadhi Pada.

…Or, to look from another angle, the power of pure consciousness settles in its own pure nature.
-Kaivalya Pada: Sutra 35.


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