Patanjali Yoga Sutra - An Overview

Patanjali was the author of three great books of India (though not unanimously accepted but very popular). These are -

1. Yogasutra for the removal of impurities of the mind.
2. Patanjala-Mahabhashya for the removal of impurities of speech.
3. Charak Samhita, a book on medical science for the removal of impurities of the body.

Yogasutra, as the name itself suggests, is presented in the form of sutra i.e.‘Aphorisms’ and aphorisms being very short in composition have some special characteristics. This has been brought out in one Sanskrit verse -

Alpaksharamasandigdhamsaravatvishvatomukham /
Astobhamanavadyamcasutramsutravidoviduh //

''According to the knowers of Sutra, the Sutra composition essentially should be precise, not giving rise to any doubt, presenting essence of many thoughts, coherent and blemish less.''

And we find that all these qualities of sutra have been strictly followed by Patanjali in his Yogasutra composition.

Patanjali was not the founder or originator of Yoga. Instead he was a great compiler who used all the concepts and practices related with spirituality/spiritual practice available before him and presented this YOGASUTRA. Thus he was undoubtedly the founder of ‘Systematic Yoga’. If he did not exist during 2nd century B.C. it might not have been possible for the world to celebrate International Yoga Day.

Folded hands is called ‘Anjali’ and ‘Patan’ means falling into – and thus the story says that he was found fallen into the Anjali of a lady (who was later considered as the mother) and therefore the name Patanjali.

Yoga Sutra is popularly known as Patanjala Yoga Sutra - PYS. It is divided into four chapters (Pada) having a total number of 195 sutras viz.

1. Samadhi pada 51 Sutras: confirms the attainment of desired immediate purpose of Yoga as well as confirms also the attainment of Samadhi, the highest goal.
2. Sadhana pada 55 Sutras: discusses about the methods to attain that goal along with philosophical exposition about how the method contributes towards achievement of goal.
3. Vibhuti pada 55 Sutras: it discusses about the supernormal powers which is attainable through the higher practices of Yoga and they come to the yoga practitioners as an indicator of the progress in Sadhana - milestone .
4. Kaivalya pada 34 Sutras: Kaivalya is the ultimate goal. Patanjali also discusses about the nature of that ultimate goal.

While talking about Patanjali’s Yoga we have, for the facilitation of our study, divided this discussion into two parts, philosophical and practical aspects.

The philosophical concept consists in inquiry about why life, its purpose and goal. These metaphysical questions bother the human mind especially when one experiences some type of pain due to loss of wealth or life of some dear ones. Then one remembers the ephemeral nature of world and life. Such thoughts never come to the mind when a person experiences pleasure and happiness. But we conveniently forget that just as world is ephemeral so also is pleasure. ( ….duhkhamevasarvamvivekinah / PYS II/15) . Talking about philosophy, sage Patanjali presents why there is pain and what are the different types of pain.

When referring to the practical aspects Patanjali suggests methods to overcome the pain. He has clearly mentioned that with continuous awareness and practice we can certainly overcome the root cause of pain i.e. Avidya. Working upon avidya not only confirms that a person will attain liberation or freedom from birth and death cycle but can also transcend the feeling of both pain and pleasure.

1. Concept of Pain

Like all other Indian philosophies( excepting Charvak), pain has been discussed by Patanjali in a major way. He also discusses its remedy or removal in great detail. The three terms used by Patanjali for pain with special connotation are -

a. Klesha (PYS II/3,4) - This is responsible for and is the root cause of all the pain that we experience in this world. Special feature with this is that it is operative when we are alive in this world and remains operative even after death, it transmigrates and works as root cause for rebirth. This is also known as Karana Sharira - causal body.

b. Chittavritti (PYS I/2) - Another term used for pain is Chittavritti with which Patanjali starts his exposition of Yogasutra. This also transmigrates from previous life to this life but in the process of transmigration, it is not functionally operative after death and before birth. It becomes operative only after rebirth. They depend on our sense organs, intellect and mind. This is also known as Suksmasarira - subtle body.

c. Chittavikshepa (PYS II/30) - This does not transmigrate. Only its impressions get attached with Chittavrittis i.e. sense organs, mind and intellect. Therefore we find some person in Mudha-avastha of chittavritti or in Viksipta-avastha of chittavritti. This type of pain we acquire after birth depending upon our company, climate and country and also our erroneous reactions to the various situations. This is due to hyper functioning of Chitta and that is why they are called Chittavikshepas.

2. Concept of Klesha

Klesha fundamentally means PAIN. Kleshas are five but root or mother of all Klesha is Avidya i.e. wrong knowledge and Asmita (amness). Avidya gives birth to Asmita etc., Raga (attachment), Dvesha (aversion) and Abhinivesha ( fear of death) (PYS II/ 3,4).

Avidya has further been declared as root cause of our misidentification with the objects of the world and this misidentification results in pain. While presenting Yogasutra, Patanjali has also preferred to talk in almost similar method of Buddhist Four Noble Truths and coins four terms i.e. Heya, Heyahetu, Hana and Hanopaya.

Heya (PYS II/16) is the pain to be removed which has not yet appeared but is bound to appear in the future.

Heyahetu (PYS II/17) is the concept of misidentification between ‘seer’ and ‘seen’ principle. And here also comes the role of Samkhya. He also considers that our life span, family in which to be born and enjoyment in the world depend upon Klesha as it is the root cause for the store house of our Karmas ( PYS II/12,13).

Hana (PYS II/25) contains an optimistic approach confirming that removal of such pain is possible.

Through Hanopaya (PYS II/26) he presents a certain method. If followed one can attain freedom from pain for ever.

3. Concept of Chittavritti

a. As said, they transmigrate but before rebirth, they are functionally inoperative. They start functioning as and when we take birth and gradually as we grow, we get signals of their functioning or manifestation. They are basically related to our thoughts.

b. Pramana, Vipryaya, Vikalpa, Nidra  and Smriti ( PYS I/6). All these five Chittavrittis have been further defined sequentially starting with Pramana (Right Knowledge) (PYS I/7), Viparyaya (Wrong Knowledge) (PYS I/8), Vikalpa (Imaginary Knowledge) (PYS I/9), Nidra (Sleep) (PYS I/10) and  Smriti (Memory) (PYS I/11).  

c. We get the knowledge of the objects some times as presented and some times as we want to grasp them.

4. Concept of Chittavikshepa

1. One must understand that a person has to first of all work upon acquired pain. If he/she is unable to reduce the intensity of Chittavikshepa, one cannot work upon Chittavritti.

2. Cittavikshepas are nine (PYS I/30) namely Disease (Vyadhi), Mental laziness (Styana), Doubt (Samshaya), Heedlessness (Pramada), Physical lethargy (Alasya), too much attachment (Avirati), Illusory vision (Bhrantidarshana), Inability to attain a state (Alabdhabhumikatva) and Inability to maintain a state (Anavasthitatva).

Out of these nine, first six become causes for the seventh and eighth who in turn are cause for the ninth.

3. These being subtle, gross symptom becomes visible in the person suffering from hyper functioning of Chitta. These are four (PYS I/31) namely Pain (Duhkha), Mental depression (Daurmanasya), Tremor in the body (Angamejayatva) and Disturbed respiration (Shvasa - prashvasa).

5. Methods to remove Cittavikshepas or attain pacification of mind

There are seemingly seven methods mentioned by Patanjali but for the sake of convenient and simple study these can be reduced to three headings namely develop positive attitude of mind (PYS I/33), practice respiratory exercises (PYS I/34) and meditation on various objects (PYS I /35 to 39).

6. Methods to remove Chittavrittis

1. Chittavrittis can be controlled by means of Practice (ABHYASA) to remain on one point and also Developing Attitude of detachment (VAIRAGYA) (PYS I/12). Approach towards practice has also been described by Patanjali( PYS I/14).

2. There is also an alternative method known as Ishvara Pranidhana (PYS I /23) for the sake of control over Chittavrittis.

7. Methods to overcome Kleshas

In fact all the practices available in Yogasutra ultimately contribute towards attenuation of kleshas but two practices are supposed to be specific for the purpose. They are -

a. Kriyayoga - in order to attenuate Kleshas (PYS II/1). It consists in the practice of Tapas, Svadhyaya and Ishvarapranidhana and

b. Ashtangayoga - for the removal of impurities, kindling of knowledge and attainment of discriminative knowledge thereby stoppage of birth and death cycle (PYS II/28).

Ashtangayoga (PYS II/29) consists in the practice of Eight fold path known as -

1. Yama (PYS II/30) - Yama are five. They are Non Violence (Ahimsa), Truthfulness ( Satya), Non-theft (Asteya), Celibacy (Brahmacharya) and Non possessiveness (Aparigraha).

2. Niyama (PYS II/32) - Niyamaare five. They are Cleanliness (Shaucha), Contentment (contentment), Austerity (Tapas), Self-study (Svadhyaya) and Surrender to Ishvara (Ishvarapranidhana).

3. Asana (PYS II/46,47) - Stable and pleasurable position of the body maintained effortlessly.

4. Pranayama(PYS II/49) - Respiratory exercises.

5. Pratyahara (PYS II/54) - Withdrawal of sense organs from their respective sense objects. Out of the Eight limbs of Yoga, the first five are considered to be External Yoga in comparison to last three.

6. Dharana - (PYS III/1) Binding mind at one region.

7. Dhyana - (PYS III/2) One pointed experience of mind.

8. Samadhi - (PYS III/3) As if the subject is devoid of its own original form. Ashtanga yoga works in following manner-

Practice of Ashtanga Yoga
Removal of impurities
Kindling of Knowledge
Attainment of Discriminative knowledge
Removal of ignorance
Removal of misidentification
Isolation of seer principle

8. Stages of Samadhi

Samadhi proceeds with the attainment of samapatti which is the result of pacification of mind. Samadhi has four stages - Savitarka, Nirvitarka, Savichara and Nirvichara (PYS I / 42-44) known also as Sabija Samadhi.

This results into dawn of Ritambhara Prajna which has seven stages. This leads to Nirbija Samadhi (PYS I/51). Sabija Samadhi in the process bestows extra ordinary powers known as Vibhuti (PYS III/5,6). These have been enumerated in Vibhuti chapter i.e. third pada of Yoga sutra. And in the final chapter known as Kaivalyapada, Patanjali describes about the nature of Dharmamegha Samadhi, the highest goal.

About Author: Prof. G.S. Sahay, M.A.(Sanskrit Gold Medalist), born on 2nd July 1951, joined the World renowned Yoga Research Institute in the year 1976 and  worked as Research Officer in Philosophico-Literary Department, Kaivalyadhama (Lonavla) till his retirement in July 2011.

Prof. Sahay  has  around 34 years of teaching experience to the post graduate students at G.S. College of Yoga and Cultural synthesis  Lonavla near Mumbai. He taught  Indian philosophy, Patanjali Yoga sutras, and Traditional Yogic texts .He has also delivered lectures in  different re-orientation programs organized for the teachers from schools of Maharashtra and Central Govt. He has conducted yoga camps and workshops in India, Switzerland, China etc.

Author site The author takes courses on various aspects of Yoga for students and teachers, the details of which are available on site.

Also read
1. Patanjali's Yoga Sutras
2. Concept of Yoga in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras
3. Role of Kriyayoga in Yoga Sutra
4. Understanding Asana from Sanskrit commentaries