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Five Vrittis – workshop transcript, yoga sutras 1.6 thru 1.15

 [This is an edited version of the transcript of the monthly workshop on the yoga sutras held on September 16, 2017. In this session, we covered sutras 6 through 15 in chapter 1. Visit the podcast page on my blog for the audio recording]

Invocation to Sage Patanjali

In this invocation, Patanjali is credited with three areas of knowledge – science of Ayurveda to purify the body, the commentary on Sanskrit grammar to purify the speech and the science of Yoga (Yoga Sutras) to purify the mind.

योगेन चित्तस्य पदेन वाचां । मलं शरीरस्य च वैद्यकेन ॥योऽपाकरोत्तं प्रवरं मुनीनां । पतञ्जलिं प्राञ्जलिरानतोऽस्मि

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yogena cittasya padena vācāṃ । malaṃ śarīrasya ca vaidyakena ॥ yo’pākarottaṃ pravaraṃ munīnāṃ । patañjaliṃ prāñjalirānato’smi

"I respectfully bow down with folded hands and offer my salutations to Sage Patanjali, the highest among the Munis (sages), who has presented the remedies for removing the impurities of the body through his treatise on Ayurveda, of language through his treatise on grammar (Patanjala Mahabhashya) and the impurities of the Chitta (mind field) through his treatise on Yoga (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali)"

In the session last month, we covered the first five sutras of Chapter 1.

Sutra 1.6


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pramāṇa viparyaya vikalpa nidrā smr̥tayaḥ ॥6॥

pramANa=right knowledge; viparyaya=wrong/confused knowledge; vikalpa=fancy/imaginary knowledge; nidra=deep sleep; smRutayaH=memories

“They are right knowledge, misconception, verbal delusion, sleep and memory.”

All these vrittis are described individually in the subsequent sutras.

Sutra I.7

प्रत्यक्षानुमानागमाः प्रमाणानि॥७॥

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pratyakṣa-anumāna-āgamāḥ pramāṇāni ॥7॥

pratyakSha=direct perception; AnumAna=inference; AgamAH=testimony of a reliable source; pramANAni=sources of right knowledge

“The sources of right knowledge are direct perception, inference and scriptural testimony.”

Pramana or Right knowledge can be gained through these three means:

Pratyaksha (direct perception): Literally the word pratyaksha means something that is visible to the eye. But the word has taken a much broader meaning – anything that we can perceive through any of the five senses – sight, touch, taste, smell and hearing, is called pratyaksha (direct perception). With direct perception we have very specific understanding of what is perceived. If I am looking at you, I am not only looking at a human male face but I know who the face belongs to.

Anumana (inference): When we have prior knowledge of something, we can infer the right information; For example, at this time I am looking outside the window and can see the ground and the cars. Based on what I see I can tell that the sky is overcast. Even though I cannot see the sky, based on prior knowledge I can infer that the sun is behind clouds. The most common example of anumana in our literature is, “where there is smoke, there is fire”. If you see smoke at a distance you can infer that there must be fire even though you cannot see the fire. With anumana, however, we gather more “general” information as opposed to specific as was available with pratyaksha. If I hear footsteps outside the door, I can infer that someone is walking. However, I cannot get more specific – I cannot tell who it is that went by.

Agama (scriptural or verbal testimony): It refers to the word of a trusted being. Most commonly understood sources of such knowledge are the ancient scriptures. Because the scriptures are based on knowledge that the yogis received in their deep states of meditation, it is considered to be “the truth”, thus most reliable and trustworthy. Another term used in Sanskrit is “apta vakya” which means a “statement coming from a trustworthy source – a human or a scripture”. For example, there are many people who have a “guru” (a spiritual teacher) and they trust the word of the guru. In that sense the guru’s word can be considered an “agama”.

Thus “pramana” is the vritti or the fluctuation in the mind caused by any of the three means mentioned in this sutra. 

Sutra I.8

विपर्ययो मिथ्याज्ञानमतद्रूपप्रतिष्ठम्॥८॥

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viparyayo mithyā-jñānam-atadrūpa pratiṣṭham ॥8॥

viparyaya=wrong knowledge; mithyā=false, illusory; jñānam=knowledge; atad=not its own; rūpa=real form; pratiṣṭham=possessing;

“Misconception occurs when knowledge of something is not based upon its true form.”

The word mithya means something that is not true. Mithya jnanam is false or untrue knowledge. “atadrupa” means not representing the true form; pratishtham means “based on” or “established in”. Thus the meaning of the sutra is “when the knowledge is not based on the true form of the object being observed, then it represent false knowledge or “viparyaya”. It is misconception because it can be refuted, contradicted and annulled by correct cognition. In chapter 2 we will be learning about “kleshas” or affliction/suffering. These kleshas are caused by avidya or ignorance which is talked about in the current sutra. The five kleshas listed therein are: avidya (ignorance), asmita (ego or I-am-ness), raga (strong attachment), dvesha (strong dislike) and abhinivesha (fear of death).

The most common example of misconception given in our texts is “snake in a rope”. In the evening twilight, you see something on the road which looks like a snake and you run away in fear. Someone else walking by has a flashlight in his hands. After finding out the reason why you are running away, he throws a flash of light on the “snake”, only to find out that it was nothing but a rope lying on the ground. Due to inadequate light, it gave the appearance of a snake which caused you to run away. The message here is: the true form of the object in question is a rope. However, due to inadequate light (darkness of ignorance) I was confused and mistook the object for a snake. This metaphor is equated with our “avidya” or ignorance which is caused by the ego which tries to superimpose false objects (mithya jnanam) on the true form of an object (atad-rupa pratishtham). This superimposition prevents us from knowing the true nature of an object. Thus, to know the truth, we need the light of wisdom so we know our true nature or form, which is the soul, or Purusha.

Viparyaya or misconception happens all the time in our life. We are constantly confused about the reality of things. We misunderstand statements made by other people. We misrepresent our own thoughts and ideas. Misconception eventually causes stress and suffering, as mentioned above.

Sutra I.9

शब्दज्ञानानुपाती वस्तुशून्यो विकल्पः॥९॥

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śabda-jñāna-anupātī vastu-śūnyo vikalpaḥ ॥9॥

Śabda=word; jñāna=knowledge, cognition; anupātī=following upon; vastu-śūnyo=empty of substance; vikalpaḥ=fancy, imagination

“An image that arises on hearing mere words without any reality [as its base] is verbal delusion.”

On hearing a word, we start imagining “stuff” associated with the word. In our own minds we have preconceived notions about every word. Based on these notions, we make our judgments about the word and its meaning which may or may not conform to reality. Most of the time when we discuss this sutra, we think of abstract nouns or words which have no tangible manifestation. For example, when we hear the word “time”, everyone interprets it differently. Everyone has their own concept of time. Similarly, a word like “God” conjures up a different meaning/image in different people. In the same manner words like truth, honesty, love etc. will also create an imaginary perception in the mind. We also have the ability to weave stories around words that come up from our deep sub-conscious levels in memory. These imaginary perceptions fall under the vritti of “vikalpa”.

Sutra I.10

अभावप्रत्ययालम्बना वृत्तिर्निद्रा॥१०॥

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abhāva-pratyaya-ālambanā vr̥ttir-nidra ॥10॥

abhāva=absence; pratyaya=content of mind; ālambanā=support; vr̥ttir=modification; nidra=sleep;

“That mental modification which is supported by cognition of nothingness is sleep.”

Nidra here means deep, dreamless state of sleep. There are three states that we can be in – jagrata avastha (waking state), Swapna avastha (dream state), sushupta avastha (dreamless, deep sleep state). In this sutra, nidra is referring to the deep sleep state. The dream state can be classified as the vritti of Vikala (imagination) discussed earlier.

The literal translation of the sutra would be, “In the absence (abhava) of any content in the mind (pratyaya), whatever vritti (modification of the mind) is supported in the mind (alambana) that is called the vritti of nidra (sleep)”. So, the question is “what is produced in the mind when in deep sleep”? When you wake up from the sleep, at least you know whether you had a good, restful sleep or not. That impression is left in the mind and that’s a vritti in the mind. If the deep sleep got disturbed by dreams in between, that also gets deposited in the mind and can come up as a vritti.

Q: Can anything left over in the mind during sleep cause more “karma”?

A: Indeed, yes, anything that’s deposited in the mind will cause more karma. This is something that just happens. We are not labeling them as good or bad. By defining these five vrittis we are trying to understand what all can cause a fluctuation in the mind.

Q: I thought you don’t want to keep depositing stuff in the mind!

A: Can you avoid it? As we live our life, stuff will continue to get deposited in the mind. Even if you are a self-realized person, any of your actions or thoughts will create an impression in the mind.  The purpose of yoga is to make that “stuff” deposited in the mind as samskaras ineffective. Vyasa, the commentator, calls it “dagdha bija” or “burnt seeds”. Just like a brunt seed cannot fructify, in the same manner the samskaras can be made ineffective through the practice of yoga.

Q: How do I do that?

A: Patanjali says you can get there by practicing the eight limbs of yoga. We will be talking about them in future lessons.

Sleep is dominated by the guna “tamas”. As we have talked before there are three gunas – sattva (purity), rajas (action) and tamas (dullness). Tamas has a negative connotation as it represents dullness, laziness, sleep, lethargy and negative tendencies. Of course, we need all three for survival, it’s just a matter of what proportion they are present at any given time.

Consciousness is active during sleep. In fact consciousness is alert during all three states of being – waking (jagrata avastha), dream (Swapna) and deep sleep (sushupta). You can look at consciousness as the light derived from the pure soul (Purusha). It is this light that keeps us conscious. In deep sleep, we are conscious but not “aware”. In the Vedanta concept, a fourth state is also mentioned, called the “turiya” (fourth) state. You can think of that state as the state of self-realization. In the turiya state I know who I am, what my true identity is – which is pure consciousness, not my body, mind and intellect etc.

Sutra I.11

अनुभूतविषयासंप्रमोषः स्मृतिः॥११॥

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anubhūta-viṣaya-asaṁpramoṣaḥ smr̥tiḥ ॥11॥

anubhūta=experienced; viṣaya=sense object, subject matter; asaṁpramoṣaḥ=not letting go or allowing to escape; smr̥tiḥ=memory;

“When a mental modification of an object previously experienced and not forgotten, comes back to consciousness, that vritti is termed memory.”

What we keep in memory could be something that we experienced through the five senses or just a subjective experience.

Observation: these memories are just what they are, not good or bad?

A: Indeed, labels of good or bad are attached to the memories by the ego. We briefly talked about it when we discussed sutra 1.2 – definition of yoga.

Memory is the result of any vritti that is caused in the mind. Every vritti represents a perception or an experience. Vritti can be the result of another memory coming up into the active mind. Thus memories can create further memories.

To recap, the five vrittis are: pramana (right knowledge), viparyaya (misconception or wrong knowledge), vikalpa (fancy or imagination), nidra (deep sleep) and smriti (memory).

Sutra I. 12

अभ्यासवैराग्याभ्यां तन्निरोधः॥१२॥

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abhyāsa-vairāgya-ābhyāṁ tan-nirodhaḥ ॥12॥

abhyāsa=practice; vairāgya-ābhyāṁ=and by non-attachment or detachment; tan-nirodhaḥ=suppression or inhibition (of chitta-vrittis)

“These mental modifications are restrained by practice and non-attachment.”

After enumerating the five vrittis, Patanjali now tells us how to start controlling these vrittis. If you recall, the word used by Patanjali for control or subduing of the vrittis is “nirodha” in “yogash-chitta vritti nirodhaH” (Sutra 1.2). In the current sutra he says that the nirodha of these vrittis can be achieved by “abhyasa” (practice) and “vairagya” (non-attachment/detachment). We need to distinguish between detachment and non-attachment. If you are already attached to something, then the task is to detach yourself from that attachment. For example, if you are attached to your cup of coffee at 7 AM every day, how can you detach yourself from this habit? These days, in the age of electronics, we get attached to so many things – TV, phone, watching youtube videos, whatsapp, facebook etc. etc. It will be very instructive and beneficial to try and detach from these, even if it is for short periods of time.

Of course, our objective is to stay non-attached to any object of the five senses.

Sutra I.13

तत्र स्थितौ यत्नोऽभ्यासः॥१३॥

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tatra sthitau yatno-‘bhyāsaḥ ॥13॥

tatra=there, in the state of suppression of fluctuations of mind; sthitau=being firmly established in; yatno=effort; abhyāsaḥ=practice

“The effort toward maintaining the state of Nirodha (subduing) or steadiness of mind is practice (abhyasa).”

As mentioned earlier, fluctuations of the mind happen because of the dominance of the gunas rajas (action) and tamas (dullness). By making the guna sattva more dominant, we can subdue the effects of rajas and tamas and help maintain a steadier, calmer mind. Abhyasa, then, is the effort to bring about the dominance of sattva guna. One who is neither pleased nor displeased on receiving pleasant or unpleasant sensory input is considered calm. Effort to get there entails zeal and enthusiasm, courage, steadfastness and patience, pursuit of spirituality and an attitude of selfless service. 

Sutra I.14

स तु दीर्घकालनैरन्तर्यसत्कारासेवितो दृढभूमिः॥१४॥

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sa tu dīrghakāla nairantarya satkāra-āsevito dr̥ḍhabhūmiḥ ॥14॥

sah=that (practice); tu=indeed; dIrgha=prolonged; kAla=time duration; nairantarya=without interruption; satkAra=reverence; Asevitah=attended to, practiced; dRuDha=firm; bhUmiH=ground

“Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break or interruption and in all earnestness, with a sense of faith and devotion.”

In this sutra, three attributes of abhyasa (practice) are provided:

Dirgha kala (prolonged duration): Prolonged duration could imply multiple lifetimes! Because it is so hard to attain the objective of calming the mind unconditionally, it is not possible to get there in one lifetime. There may be exceptions for people who are already at a high level of spiritual advancement, either through intense practice or from previous births. In recent history, examples of such people include names like Ramana Maharshi, Paramahansa Ramakrishna etc. Devotees of gurus like Swami Satchidananda, or Swami Sivananda claim that these gurus had attained spiritual enlightenment. Patanjali talks about re-birth and reincarnation in chapter 2.

Nairantarya (with no interruptions): Literally, the word means “no gaps” which could imply 24 hours of the day. In that sense the practice of yoga becomes a lifestyle. From the point of view of doing practices like asana, pranayama and meditation, without interruption would imply setting a daily schedule and sticking to it without a break. If you start introducing breaks in the practice, then you can lose any gains that you may have attained with the practice. Interruption allows negative vrittis to creep into the mind, negating previously attained gains.

Satkara-asevitaH (with a sense of faith, trust and devotion): This implies total commitment with a sense of devotion, faith and trust. You are convinced that this practice is the means to attaining the undisturbed state of the mind that you are seeking. So you do the practice with reverential attention and devotion. According to one commentator, reverence entails ascetic practices, tapas, control over sexual passion, knowledge and unflinching faith.

Sutra I.15

दृष्टानुश्रविकविषयवितृष्णस्य वशीकारसंज्ञा वैराग्यम्॥१५॥

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dr̥ṣṭa-anuśravika-viṣaya-vitr̥ṣṇasya vaśīkāra-saṁjṇā vairāgyam ॥15॥

dRuShTa=seen, perceptible; anushravika=heard (from Vedic scriptural revelations); viShaya=sense objects; vitRuShNasya=of one who is free from all cravings; vashIkaara=mastery, full control; saMjnaa=conciousness; vairaagyam=dispassion, non-attachment

“The consciousness of self-mastery in one who is free from craving for objects seen or heard about is non-attachment.”

The word drishta literally means “seen”. However, in the present context, and, in general in most literature, it implies perception through all the five senses. Anushravika means heard from or learned through revelations as presented in Vedic texts – e.g., the Upanishads. For the most part, it refers to ritualistic practices that may lead to heaven after death etc. The first part of the Vedas, the ritualistic part, contains such proclamations. Vishaya are the objects of desire created through the five senses. The word vitrishna means “no thirst or desire”. “vashikara” means total control or mastery over something.

This sutra states that we need to detach ourselves completely from attractions that we get through the five senses.  Objects of attraction that are perceptible through the five senses may include persons of opposite sex, food, drink, music, material possessions etc. Imperceptible attractions may include paradise or heaven, achievement of ‘siddhis’ (supernormal powers) etc. There are yogis who are mainly focused on attaining siddhis for the purpose of showing off. In one of the sutras, Patanjali warns strongly against such tendencies as these are a deterrent in our pursuit of final liberation or self-realization. As a result of intense yogic practices, if you do attain some of these siddhis, think of them as side effects of yoga, not as the prime object of desire from the practice. In my view, there is nothing wrong in setting a goal. We need to make sure that the goal is set by the intellect, not by the ego. However, as long as you are not attached to the outcome of the endeavor, you are practicing detachment. That means, if the goal is not achieved, you are not mentally disturbed or upset in any way.

The vairagya discussed in this sutra is considered the lower form of vairagya.

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