Sanskrit and the Yoga Sutras


YSutraHouston By Vyaas Houston, M.A.

The “certainty of freedom” is a striking concept. Although the concept of spiritual freedom expressed through a word such as “liberation” exists in the English language, the actual meaning as we hear it is quite abstract, somehow foreign to the reality of our day to day lives. In Sanskrit the concept of spiritual freedom exists as a certainty. It exists within the context of an ancient proven science, equally precise as our modern science which has managed to send human beings into outer space and have them actually walk on the moon. For modern science to accomplish that extraordinary feat, there had to first exist the certainty that it was possible. For this to even be considered, there had to be an already existing language, that could gauge the precise requirements to get a vehicle beyond the gravitational field of the earth, find the moon, land and return. The necessary language was that of mathematics and physics. Because of the existence of mathematics, some scientists conceived of the certainty that they could land human beings on the moon.

The language that long ago established the certainty of freedom was Sanskrit. Like mathematics, Sanskrit is a language of infinite subtlety and functional precision. While the sciences of mathematics, physics, astronomy etc. continue to evolve, as scientists use them as tools to probe deeper into the nature of the universe, Sanskrit has not changed since 500 B.C., when it was meticulously codified by Panini. If the ultimate task of science, as well as the ultimate goal of life, had been to get a man on the moon, there would have been no need for science and mathematics to develop any further. It could have stopped right there. Sanskrit stopped being further refined precisely because it had become the sufficient instrument to facilitate human liberation, the ultimate purpose of human life. There simply was no need to go further. The enlightenment of the Buddha at exactly the same time in history could be viewed as an auspicious confirmation of the culmination of millennia of yogic research.

Although a wide range of manuals document the certainty of freedom by means of the technical language of Sanskrit from virtually every possible human perspective, there is one which stands apart as a jewel of scientific clarity, precision and brevity — the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Written sometime after the codifying of Sanskrit and the enlightenment of Buddha, the Yoga Sutras bring home the certainty of freedom as the inevitable outcome of the journey through life. A sutra is a short word equation that conveys a potent truth. A collection of sutras, such as the 196 in the Yoga Sutras, represents the interlocking correspondence of many potent truths from multiple perspectives to create a mandala, a cosmology, a complete and universal perspective of life, specifically the life of an individual progression from an unknown beginning through change and evolution to kaivalyam, being established in that which is beyond change. The truth of each individual equation is a convincing proof contributing to the ultimate perspective of the whole and conversely, the whole, a context for the essential truth of the individual sutra.

Before taking on such a perspective it’s essential to be convinced of the need to do so by the necessity of one’s own life. The process of adopting the perspective contained in the Yoga Sutras is well documented in the sutras themselves. It is perhaps the most significant rocket stage of insight that exists to accelerate momentum towards kaivalyam.

Consider the impact of the “certainty of freedom” as the fundamental context of your life. If you woke up every morning and went to bed every night, living life in the certainty of freedom, how would things be different?

No nagging fear of failure to accomplish this, of not resolving that with so-and-so, of being liked or disliked or controlled, of not being good enough, of losing health, suffering and dying not having accomplished goals, being less than others, than what you could have been.

The italicized above represents the perspective unconsciously adopted by the human race collectively. It operates not through the certainty of freedom but through the certainty of death. “The clock is running — I’d better prove myself before it’s too late.” Motivated by the certainty of death, individuals struggle for happiness or liberation all the time fearing they won’t make it. Patanjali dispenses with all this in a few words, saying:

duhkham eva sarvam vivekinah
All is pain to those who discriminate.

In the present context, it would only be possible to fully adopt the Yoga Sutras’ perspective of the certainty of freedom by being convinced that the only alternative credo, the certainty of death, is ultimately fraught with more struggle and suffering. There is no pessimism, whatsoever, in the statement, only a coming to terms with the lack of complete fulfillment that persists as long as one is not fully established in one’s own true nature. Patanjali states in the next sutras:

heyam duhkham anaagatam
Pain not yet come is to be ended. The word heyam, “to be ended” can also mean “endable”. That which is to be ended is endable. Anyone who decides to do so may. Consider once and for all ending suffering which otherwise is inevitable.

drashtr-drshyayoh sanyogo heya-hetuh
The cause of the suffering to be ended is the correlation between the seer (one’s true self) and that which is to be seen. What is to be seen is “seeable”. Anything which is other than my own true nature as the seer is seeable. When I identify myself with that which is essentially not myself, I continue to feel something is missing. This dissatisfaction is painful.

tasya hetur avidyaa
The cause of the correlation is avidyaa. The reason I correlate myself with what is not myself, fail to see what is to be seen, and therefore continue to feel dissatisfaction, is avidyaa, the absence of self-awareness.

anityaashuci-duhkhaanaatmasu nitya-shuci-sukhaatma-khyaatir avidyaa
Avidyaa is the identification with a self which is not one’s self, with happiness in what is really suffering, purity in what is impure, and permanence in what is impermanent. Not seeing the certainty of lasting happiness in my own being, I seek it elsewhere.

Giving Patanjali the benefit of the doubt — the certainty of liberation can displace the certainty of death only on the condition that I see that all that I believed would bring me happiness and freedom has not satisfied me. If I continue to hope for happiness through anything which identifies me as that which is the seeable, in effect, I deny the only possible true happiness, my own self. Any happiness other than my own self must be impermanent by nature, because all is changing. Seeking something I see in order to find happiness will definitely cause a correlation with it, and will definitely keep me identified with a self that is not the self, and will definitely cause future suffering — that which is to be ended.

To the one who is able to make this distinction, all is suffering. It would be equivalent to deciding “I will no longer pursue happiness where it does not exist.” Only for this one can there be the certainty of freedom. Such a conclusion inevitably leads one to a perspective such as the Yoga Sutras.

Once the decision has been made to establish the certainty of freedom in oneself, the Sutras have to be internalized and assimilated, preferably in the original Sanskrit. It’s not that they couldn’t be translated into English, but rather that they are infinitely more potent and effective in Sanskrit. Learning the Sutras in English could be compared to scientists using words rather than numerical equations to solve their problems. Not only does Sanskrit offer a precise technical vocabulary, but it is a completely fluid language consisting of vibrational harmonies, perfectly designed to bring the human energy system into phase with the subtlest matrix of creation. Since the Sutras are nothing more than word equations, the most rudimentary knowledge of Sanskrit suffices. The first step is to learn some basic Sanskrit, especially the pronunciation of its sounds. This is relatively easy, because the sounds of Sanskrit are based on being the purest, and most resonant the human vocal instrument is able to produce.

Another significant reason for the use of the Sanskrit is that the thorough assimilation of the perspective of the Yoga Sutras requires they be learned by heart. This is extremely pleasurable when approached through the chanting of them in the original Sanskrit. The fluid nature of Sanskrit lends itself to easy memorization. Each individual sutra being like a hologramatic segment, the overall perspective begins to gel just having learned one. The one links by way of sound continuity and philosophical context to the next and likewise that to the next. If one conceives the project as a quantitative one for the mind, it will tend to be abandoned. The number of sutras, 196, is more than most minds can deal with. A sutra can only be learned, one at a time. Each one must literally be learned “by heart”, an act of devotion to my true self, with a love for clarity and power of the truth being conveyed as well as the exquisite sounds it is conveyed through. It’s far more efficient when the inputting of the Yoga model is an experience that is consistent with the model.

For example, the very first sutra — atha yogaanushaasanam — serves to effect the paradigm shift by saying atha — now, definitively, distinctly breaking from past structures, a new beginning — yoga-anushaasanam — the model of yoga. The second sutra is the definition of yoga and the essential core of the entire text. All subsequent Sutras reference back to and develop the foundational depth of this one:

yogash-citta-vrtti-nirodhah
Yoga is the nirodha of the vrtti of citta.

In effect the rest of the text is largely devoted to expand the dimensions of these three words citta-vrtti-nirodhah. English has no exact equivalents. Although it can be helpful to use some English approximations such as, Yoga is a process of ending the mental artifices which specifically localize and define an individual (energy) field of consciousness; the real task at hand is to associate the original Sanskrit terms with elements of one’s own experience, especially through the process of Yoga. In other words feel, the vrtti — that which defines my individual energy field (citta). Now the nirodha — process of ending that vrtti — definition can become a dynamic force, a direct experience rather than just a definition, by simply enjoying the sounds and the rhythm of the sutras.

With a little training in Sanskrit, there is the pleasure of the tongue vibrating behind the upper teeth in many of the sounds, specifically the tt in citta and vrtti and the n and dh in nirodhah. In the last word, the release of extra breath with the sound dha, and the closing breath h. By chanting it a number of times, one can become absorbed in rhythm and vibration. The entire body can begin to resonate with sound. And followed by a moment’s silence, one can feel citta as a vibrant energy field. There takes place the nirodha of the prior vrtti-definition of myself as an individual person struggling with the uncertainties presented by a restless mind. In the very act of learning the sutra, I have had a living experience of it. Subsequent experiences can be easily accessed by using the word nirodha to define a specific inner state — infinitely more effective than trying to get the mind to stop. In this way, from the very outset, the sutras become a dynamic internal software, a program which thrusts one’s citta onwards towards a complete resolution of all vrtti limitations. With each sutra learned, and linked to one’s experience of life, the model gains momentum, establishing the certainty of freedom, while displacing the certainty of death, and the constraints that its companion fears impose on our lives. The sutras provide a new language of previously unknown distinctions by which we define and therefore determine our inner experience.

The subtlety of Sanskrit and the vitality of the truths conveyed through it, combine to propel the model to the very depths of the unconscious, where ultimately the certainty of freedom has to be established. This process of transformation is also well described in the Sutras:

vyutthaana-nirodha-sanskaarayor abhibhava-praadurbhaavau nirodha-kshana-cittaanvayo nirodha-parinaamah
The experience of Yoga in which there is the nirodha — ending of a vrtti limitation — deposits a sanskaara — subliminal impression in the unconscious — which then begins to serve as a subliminal activator for further experiences of nirodha.

Every time the nirodha sanskaara is activated, while at the same time there is a recession in the activation of the old patterning, there occurs a transformation of citta, the individual energy field, what Patanjali calls nirodha-parinaama or nirodha-transformation. The next sutra:

tasya prashaanta-vaahitaa sanskaaraat
The calm flow of that transformation occurs because of continuous subliminal activation.

The patterning that we establish in our fields each moment is a choice. By not choosing the certainty of freedom, we leave ourselves at the effect of the default setting, destined to repeat the patterns we know so well. A quote from the astronaut, Stuart Roosa, who orbited the moon alone while Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell explored the surface, sums it up nicely, “Space changes nobody. You bring back from space what you bring into space.”

In the final analysis, Yoga is the very essence of the great movement of life. All life is moving towards freedom. The repeated trials, pains and struggles of life ultimately help to establish nirodha and advance each individual life form beyond eternal repetitions of the same suffering. The Yoga Sutras are a scientific documentation of the process of life, by which we as human beings who do have a choice, may accelerate our journey, by seeing the root cause of suffering, and choose to not reinforce it. May we all choose to know the calm flow of the certainty of freedom, subliminally activated each moment, bringing about the transformation of citta and with that:

tadaa drashtuh svaruupe’vasthaanam
At each of those moments, the establishing of I, the seer, in my own true nature.

Vyaas (Tuck) Houston is the founder and director the American Sanskrit Institute. After teaching Sanskrit and Yoga for more than 15 years, he discovered in 1987 a successful method for teaching Sanskrit based on the yoga model of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. His Sanskrit Training has provided thousands of people with the opportunity to discover their own unique relationship with Sanskrit. Vyaas Houston is the author of Sanskrit by CD and the Sanskrit Atlas 1.0, and has recorded and translated many Sanskrit classics.

See information about our Yoga Sutras Intensives, in the “Learn Sanskrit” Section of Houston’s website.

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