Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: THE SURFACE AND THE DEPTH, PART 1
Many centuries before the first printing press, teachers used short verses as teaching tools. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras embody elegant simplicity: Some aren’t even complete sentences.
The essence of the teachings offered in the Sutras can be elusive. They were written in Sanskrit, a “twilight” language with many shades of meaning. Because of the language’s seeming ambiguity, along with the great gulf in time and culture from then to now, the Sutra text is vulnerable to a wide variety of interpretations.
Adding to the confusion, scholars frequently take an academic approach to translating the Sutras, without having had the benefit of direct experience with them. At the same time, more conventional interpreters tend to project preconceptions and personal agendas onto Patanjali’s work.
Let’s take a look for ourselves.To get a taste of the bewildering challenge involved in translating the meaning of the texts, we begin with a look at Chapter 1, verse 2:
yoga chitta vritti nirodhaThis verse is widely considered to be the most defining verse of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Yet it consists of only four words, none of which are verbs. What is their meaning? Chitta means mind or consciousness. Vritti means fluctuations or activities of the mind. The word nirodha, however, is the pivotal word of the phrase, and it is open to a variety of interpretations. Throughout the years, different understandings of this one word have given rise to assumptions that have defined entire systems, lineages and techniques of practice for generations. Right or wrong, well-meaning teachers perpetuate what they have learned with the intention to honor the tradition of those who came before them.
Many who study the Sutras hold to the idea that the mind is like a monkey swinging through the jungle. To find peace and stillness, one must chain the monkey down. For them, nirodha means suppression, restriction, subjugation, inhibition, control, restraint. For them, meditation is a matter of concentration, forcing the mind and using outside-in methods of controlling the activity of the mind to reach a state of meditation. Their translation of the verse might read, “Yoga is the restraint or subjugation of the activities of the mind.”
They think of the eight limbs as eight steps, and they believe that the reason they never experience samadhi, pure bliss consciousness, is because it is the last step. They reason that they have to concentrate and strive to master the other seven steps first, and they hope to be able to reach the final one someday.
Sadly, such effort may not work. As the 11th-century sage Abhinavagupta put it, “You can’t jump over the shadow of your own hat.” In other words, you can’t use the activity of the mind to stop the activity of the mind.
Others believe that the best course is not to chain the monkey down, but to offer it a banana to find the stillness that resides within. To them, the word nirodha means absorption, dissolving, stilling or settling. Its translation might be, “Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.” Given the right means, they believe, the mind will effortlessly and naturally gravitate toward deeper levels.
For them, the next verse says it all: “When the mind has settled, we are established in our true nature, which is unbounded consciousness."
For those of us who have ever thought that there must be more to life, Chapter 1, verse 3 holds the promise of Yoga: that our true nature is unbounded. Chapter 1, verse 21 offers encouragement: “It is near for those who ardently desire it.”
Chapter 1, verse 4 acknowledges that maybe we don’t feel so unbounded on most days. “Our essential nature is usually overshadowed by the activity of the mind.”
It’s the nature of who we are, and yet it is obscured by the activity of the mind. We get caught up in the world, caught up in thoughts and sensations in the body and mind.
In Chapter 1, verse 12, Patanjali offers a solution: These mental activities can be settled through the practice of yoga and the freedom it bestows.
And how does he define yoga? Not by putting our foot behind our head. Not by forcing the mind, but by settling the mind into silence.
This silence is not just the absence of noise; it is a lively silence. A silence that one could even say is the source of life itself. This realization is not just a concept, an uplifting idea, a sticky note on the bathroom mirror. We must experience it for ourselves.
In the wisdom teachings, we find an exoteric, or more superficial, understanding as well as an esoteric teaching that offers greater depth. This is not to say that we should ignore surface truths, but that we should never stop there.
In Part Two, we will continue our exploration of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras with a discussion of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga.