What Patanjali Means by Power and Freedom
Films often portray extraordinary feats of personal power. Yoda, a character in the Star Wars series, easily lifts a fighter plane from the depths of a swamp. His only tool is mastery of what Yoda calls “The Force.”
In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a warrior sword fights a woman while they leap from branch to branch among the slender, swaying tops of a bamboo forest. How can they do this? As the young woman’s martial arts master taught her, “Listen with your mind.”
“There is no limit to the power of the human mind,” wrote Swami Vivekananda in his introduction to “Raja Yoga,” the swami’s translation of and commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. By “power” the swami meant much more than a filmmaker’s demonstration of mind over matter — no matter how dramatic.
There are many levels of yogic power. Students of hatha yoga learn asanas and other practices that give them better control of their bodies and minds. Regular practice of this yoga can yield improved health and a longer life, physical and mental flexibility and poise, and grace.
Relatively few yogis go beyond this level. Those who do may use their very-well-trained bodies and minds to learn Patanjali’s advanced methods of concentration and meditation. He promises that when his teachings are followed faithfully and persistently for many years, the student can manifest unimaginably greater power.
For example, Patanjali wrote, “By making Samyama on the discrimination between the Sattva and the Purusha come omnipotence and omniscience.” (Yoga Sutras, Ch. 3, Sutra 50) This says—unambiguously—that a yogi who discerns the difference between the changing (Sattva) and the changeless (Purusha) becomes all powerful and all knowing.
One in consciousness with the Goddess of Creation, the yogi shares some of her attributes. Yet, this exalted state of being is still short of Raja Yoga’s goal. Patanjali continues in Sutra 51, “By giving up even these powers comes the destruction of the very seed of evil, which leads to Kaivalya.”
Swami Vivekananda comments, “(The Yogi) attains independence (kaivalya), and becomes free. When one gives up even the ideas of omnipotence and omniscience, there comes entire rejection of enjoyment, of temptations. When the Yogi has seen all these wonderful powers, and rejected them, he reaches the goal (freedom from all limitation) …”
Here are definitions of some Sanskrit and other words used in these last paragraphs: Samyama is the simultaneous practice and experience of: • Dharana: one-pointed focus or concentration • Dhyana: prolonged meditation, which may lead to • Samadhi: loss of selfhood in union with the Divine
Discrimination is a spiritual aspirant’s ability to see clearly the difference between the impermanent and the eternal. After long practice a yogi begins to experience the subtlety of this difference. (In Sanskrit the term is viveka, the root word for Swami Vivekananda’s name.)
Sattva is one of the three gunas. These gunas are aspects of the Goddess of Creation (prakriti), who manifests as our universe — the human being’s body-mind complex and all other matter, and our experience of time-space-causation. Sattva is called “the revealing power.” The other two gunas are tamas, the concealing power, and rajas, the projecting power.
Sattva is experienced by yogis at all levels as purity itself —radiant, restful, and inspiring. For a yogi nearing the goal, Patanjali teaches that sattva must be understood as a limited, changing aspect of universe. It is not purusha. Purusha is the true original nature of the seen and the unseen, the Self — unlimited, unchanging, eternal Consciousness. Purusha cannot be known by the mind or the senses. Yet it is the source of the primal energy, prakriti, that gives rise to the human form and all the rest of creation.
Hinduism teaches that our unconscious knowledge of the Self prompts us to pursue yoga and other spiritual practices. A yogi’s realization of purusha, in the superconscious state of samyama, leads to kaivalya.
Kaivalya is the yogi’s final enlightenment; it is also called moksha (liberation). According to Patanjali, the yogi—having rejected even the allure of omnipotence and omniscience— becomes utterly fearless, free from all attachment and desire, and from all pain and suffering.
When the Yoga Sutras promise freedom, this is what they mean.
According to Swami Vivekananda, this freedom is the destiny of every human being—our eternal birthright.
Vivekananda wrote this final commentary on a yogi’s liberation: “Nature’s task is done, this unselfish task which our sweet nurse, nature, has imposed upon herself. She gently took the self-forgetting soul by the hand, as it were, and showed him all the experiences in the universe, all manifestations, bringing him higher and higher through various bodies, till his lost glory came back, and he remembered his own nature. Then the kind mother went back the same way she came, for others who have lost their way in the trackless desert of life. And thus is she working, without beginning and without end. And thus through pleasure and pain, through good and evil, the infinite river of souls is flowing into the ocean of perfection, of self-realization. Glory to those who have realized their own nature. May their blessings be on us all!”
Brother Shankara is the resident minister of the Vedanta Center of Atlanta. Email Brother Shankara at [email protected]