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The Study and Practice of Yoga

An Exposition of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali


Chapter 9: Perception and Reality

In the previous chapter we were discussing a very important subject which every student of yoga should remember: how the two types of perception, about which Sage Patanjali tells us some very important aspects, tell upon not only our personal and social life, but upon our efforts towards spiritual perfection. The determinate aspects of psychological experience were touched upon briefly as consisting principally of self-affirmation or egoism, which projects itself as love and hatred. Also, we had occasion to go a little deep into the mystery of love and hatred – as to why they arise at all. Generally this is the type of life that the individual lives in the world, getting identified with these psychological processes to such an extent that one cannot know that one is so involved.

The worst thing for a person would be to get involved in something and not know that it has happened, because in such a case, observation, experiment, and analysis would not be possible. There should be some sort of a possibility for objective observation by a state of mind which will act as a witness of these conditions which are to be observed. But when these conditions to be observed get identified with the witnessing consciousness itself, then observation is not possible. So, self-analysis is a very difficult process. It is a difficult process because in the self which is to be analysed, the subject and the object cannot be distinguished, and we are used to only those types and kinds of analyses where the objects of observation stand outside the subject of investigation. Self-investigation is difficult merely for this reason. One cannot know oneself, analyse oneself, study oneself, examine oneself, or treat oneself, for obvious reasons.

Why has this situation arisen? Why this vehement affirmation of the ego, this assertion of the mind in respect of a particular condition which is passing, transitory, phenomenal? The attachment of the mind to a particular condition is the principle of egoism. Why does it happen? Why does it breed the further problems of like, dislike, love of physical life, individual life, fear of death, etc.? This happens because of a background which is still deeper than this particular psychological involvement. The very belief in the reality of externals is the cause for this calamity, because the moment we have a conviction that an object of perception is real, we have to develop a real attitude towards it. The perception of the object as something real is the beginning of the trouble. The trouble then intensifies itself as a compulsive activity towards the development of an attitude towards that object. The precondition of this attitude is egoism.

To describe the series or the successive stages of this development – there is, first, a perception of the object, such as a tree, for example, in front. I perceive an object in front of me such as a tree, and I am convinced that it is a real tree. The tree is really there; it is not an unreal perception. The existence of the tree is real. It is really there outside me. The 'outsideness' of the tree is also real. The tree is real, its externality to me is real and, therefore, I am now compelled to develop a real attitude towards it.

Now comes the second problem. What is this real attitude that I have to develop towards it? The force that urges this real attitude towards the object is egoism. It is the breeding ground for the impulsive power which drives the consciousness out towards that object which has been regarded as real. It is not possible to merely perceive an object and have no attitude towards it, because the very consciousness of an object is the demand of the object to be recognised in a certain manner, and this recognition is called attitude. Therefore, we now have to find out the reason for this perception of the object itself.

We are going from the lower stage to a higher stage, from the immediate experience of a concrete trouble to the causes thereof. We have a complex problem in the form of like and dislike for objects, and we want to maintain this condition of like and dislike. Therefore, there is love of life and fear of death, which, of course, requires the affirmation of the individual subject maintaining this attitude. We have now arrived at the stage where we understand that the reason behind all this psychological activity is the perception of an object as a real something, external to oneself. Why do we perceive the object? We are not deliberately, or of our own accord, perceiving the object; here also, we are forced. Ultimately we will find that everything that we do is under a compulsion. Though people parade under the notion that they are free people and they can do whatever they want, it is not so. There is no free person in this world. Everybody is a slave of an urge, a force, a compulsion that is at the back of all these psychological activities. Just as we cannot see our own back, we cannot see the existence of these forces – they are behind.

The perception of an object is caused by a subtle activity that has taken place in the cosmos itself. We have to go back to the Upanishads and texts which are akin in nature. The human mind is not made in such a way as to be able to comprehend what has happened, ultimately. This is what they call the cosmological analysis of human experience. Why do we exist at all as individuals, and then are compelled to perceive objects, and then to have to undergo all this tragedy and suffering of positive and negative attitudes, etc.? This is a mystery for the human intellect. While we may be able to understand and explain what things are like in the world, we will not be able to explain ourselves – why we are what we are. Can we explain why we are what we are? "I am what I am, that is all. It has no reason behind it." But there is a reason, which is the reason behind the reason itself. Here we go back to a condition beyond human intellect. Great masters like Acharya Sankara, Ramanuja, etc. tell us that here we land in a realm where intellect should not interfere. The intellect has a boundary, and beyond that boundary, it is useless.

Now I am touching upon a realm where intellect will not work – and it is not supposed to work at all because this is a cosmic question, and intellect is made in such a way that it cannot understand cosmic relationships. The reason is that intellect is an individualised endowment; it is not a cosmic principle. It is a function of the individual psychological principle. This is what we call the intellect and, therefore, it will work only in terms of the affirmation of individuality. The intellect will always take for granted that the individual exists. But now we are trying to find out why the individual exists at all, so we know why our intellect will not work here. The intellect cannot work here because of the simple reason that we are trying to find the cause of the intellect itself – so intellect fails, as it has to fail.

Here we go to a realm where the revelations of the ancient masters, which are embodied in the sacred scriptures, become our guide. Otherwise we shall be blind – we will know nothing. The great masters who are the Gurus of mankind, who had plumbed the depths of being and had vision of the cosmic mystery, tell us something which the intellect cannot explain inductively, logically or scientifically. Our individual existence is caused by something which is prior to the manifestation of individuality and, therefore, let not the individual intellect interfere with this subject.

The masters, whose records we have in such scriptures as the Upanishads, for example, tell us that there is a cosmic mystery behind this operation of individuality – namely, the diversification of the Comic Principle. We cannot ask as to why it happened, because the intellect is interfering here. We are asking the reason why the intellect is there at all, and why individuality is there at all. That question cannot be asked because this intellect is an effect of individuality, and now we are trying to find the cause thereof. "Unbridled intellect is an obstacle," says Sankara in his commentary on the Brahma Sutras, because the intellect will insist that there is diversity. It will oblige us to accept that individuality is real, objects are real, our relationships to them must be real, and so forth. So we should not take the advice of the intellect hereafter. The mystery of cosmic manifestation, which is the diversification of the cosmic principle, is regarded as the controlling principle behind the existence and the functioning of the individual.

Nowadays, our scientists also have conjectured the possibility of the universe having been once upon a time constituted as a sort of a cosmic atom. One scientist said, "The whole cosmos was like an atom." By "an atom", he means an indivisible something. The whole universe originally was like an atom, and that atom split into two parts. This is also mentioned in the Manu Smriti, prior to the declaration of this scientist. In the first chapter of the Manu Smriti we find the process of creation described, and instead of an atom, Manu says "anda" – it was like an egg. Well, the scientist says "an atom". Does an atom not look something like an egg? It split into two parts. This original split of the atom into two parts is the cause of all our problems today. And it goes on, splitting and splitting – two became four, four became eight, eight became sixteen, and umpteen, a millionfold and uncountable in number. These little split parts are the individuals – you, me, and everybody included. We are struggling to become the original atom once again, as something unnatural has happened to us.

While the physical scientist thinks that the atom has really split into a millionfold parts, the sages tell us that really it has not split itself like that – it is only an appearance. Really there is no split, because if it has really split, we cannot go back into the original, just as curd cannot be converted into milk once it has become curd since the change is irreversible. But that is not the case here. If that had happened, there would be no urge of the part to go back to the whole. If we really have been cut off, then it is finished; the matter is over. Why are we urging back to unite ourselves with the whole? That means a real split has not taken place. A kind of mysterious bifurcation has taken place.

To put it in modern psychological terms, a kind of cosmic schizophrenia has taken place. In schizophrenia the person does not become split, but looks like a split personality. In this condition, which sometimes is compared to a dream split of consciousness, a real isolation does not take place. This is another analogy. Our personality splits itself into the observer and the observed world in dream. But are we really split? No. Otherwise, we would not wake up as a whole individual. The perception of real objects in dream, by a real subject dreaming, and a real attitude of like, dislike, etc., which that subject projects towards the object – all of this drama looking very, very real is not truly real, because if that had really taken place, there would be no waking up of the individual into a wholeness of consciousness. So this is explained only as a mystery beyond human comprehension.

This universal condition which has ramified itself, as if in dream, into the individual segments, is the cause for the affirmation of individuality and the perception of objects, and the likes and dislikes and the sorrows of this world. Our very sorrow is due to our loss of identity with the Cosmic. Otherwise, there would be no sorrow in this world. We are suffering due to an agony felt on account of our isolation from that Cosmic of which we are a part. So, the philosophical and spiritual advice in this context is that the mystery of life cannot be explained, and the sorrow of life cannot be obviated unless the original cause is discovered and it is dealt with in a manner which is requisite. This requisite manner of dealing with the ultimate question is yoga. As I mentioned earlier, yoga is a gradual process of identification of the part with the whole.

Now, analogically speaking, if the one has become two, and two has become four, four has become eight, etc., so that we are today what we are, in this condition, the reverse process of returning to the original unity would be by a successive recession of the very same process, stage by stage, missing not a single link. These are the stages of yoga. The steps in yoga, or the stages of knowledge, are the process of the recession of the effect into the cause, the condition of the effect in which one is – 'A' or 'B' or 'XYZ'. So we have to determine our present condition, and from that condition we must retrace our steps back – not suddenly to the topmost unity, but to the immediately-above condition. The step that is next to us, the condition above us, the stage ahead of us, is our goal for the present or the time being, with which we have to get united in meditation, in yoga. And that second step would effect a further stage ahead, and so on and so forth, until the final unity is achieved.

So, it would not be judicious on the part of any individual to vehemently assert that the physical perceptions of the world are all-in-all. The materialist's conception is, therefore, not correct, because this conception arises on account of a miscalculated attitude towards everything. This is the reason why, in the practice of yoga, expert guidance is called for, because we are dealing with matters that are super-intellectual, super-rational. Here our own understanding is not of much use, nor are books of any use, because we are treading on dangerous ground which the mind has not seen and cannot contemplate. We are all a wonder, says the scripture. This is a mystery, a wonder. It is a wonder because it is not capable of intellectually being analysed. The scripture proclaims that the subject is a great mystery, a great wonder and marvel; and one who teaches it is also a marvel, and the one who receives this knowledge, who understands it – the disciple – is also a wonder, indeed, because though the broadcasting station is powerful, the receiver-set also must be equally powerful to receive the message. The bamboo stick will not receive the message of the BBC. So the disciple is also a wonder to receive this mysterious knowledge, as the teacher himself is a wonder; and the subject is a marvel by itself.

Thus arises the need to be cautious in the adjustment of the mind and the judgement of values in life. The sutras of Patanjali that I referred to give only a hint, and do not enter into details – the hint being that the vrittis or the modifications of the mind are of a twofold character, which I translated as determinate and indeterminate, and have to be gradually controlled. This control of the vrittis or the modifications of the mind is regarded as yoga: yogaś citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ (I.2). Yoga is the control of the modifications of 'the stuff' of the mind, the very substance of psychological action. Not merely the external modifications, but the very 'stuff' of it, the very root of it, has to be controlled, and this is done in and by successive stages. We have always to move from the effect to the cause in the manner indicated in this analysis that we have made.

Ultimately it comes to this, that our perceptions are our problems. They become a problem because we pass judgements on these perceptions. Mere perceptions as they are, left alone to themselves, would be a different matter altogether. But we do not simply perceive an object and keep quiet. The moment we perceive something, we pass a judgement on it. "Oh, this is something. This is a snake." This is a perception. "Oh, it is dangerous." This is a judgement. "I have to run away from it." This is another judgement. "This is a mango." This is one judgement. "It is very sweet." This is a second judgement. "I must eat it." This is a third judgement. We go on passing judgement after judgement of various complex characters on an object of perception. So, judgements become subsequent effects of the perception of an object.

Now, perceptions are of two kinds: real perceptions and unreal perceptions. When we perceive an object in the world, like a tree, it appears to be real; we cannot say it is unreal. Why is it real? What is the definition of reality? This is another very interesting philosophical subject. How do we know that any object is real? If we are asked how we define reality, what we mean by 'real', what is our idea? If we are asked to define reality, define the character of anything being real, we will find that it is difficult to define it. If I project my fingers and attempt to touch it, I must have a sensation of touch – then it is real, isn't it? The sensation of touch should say there is a hard object, and then I say it is real. Is this the definition of reality? So we want only a sensation of hardness. The moment that sensation comes, it is real. And it has to be corroborated by the eyes; they must also say, "Yes, we are seeing a shape." The eyes can see only a shape. But how do we know that the shape is real? The fingers will tell us, "We are feeling solidity – a hardness and concreteness." If it has a smell and a taste, etc., then it becomes real. We have passed judgement – it is real. So, the nose should smell, the fingers should feel the concreteness and solidity, the eyes should see a shape, etc.; then, the thing is real. Is this a definition? This is a dangerous definition, but we cannot have any other definition.

The reason behind our feeling a solidity, concreteness, hardness, etc. of an object and a shape perceived by the eyes, is because the condition of the senses which perceive and that of the mind behind the senses are on the same level as the constitution of the object. That is why we can see this world and not the heavens, for example. We cannot say that heavens do not exist; but why do we not see them? Because the constitution of the objects of the heaven is subtler than, less dense than, the constitution of our present individuality – the two are not commensurate with each other. Or, to give a more concrete example, why don't we hear the music when the radio is not switched on? Somebody must be singing at the radio station now, but our ears are unable to hear; they can't hear anything because the constitution, the structure, the frequency, the wavelength of the electrical message that is sent by the broadcasting station is subtler than the constitution and the structure of the eardrum. It is not possible for the eardrum to catch it because it is gross. But if you talk, I can hear, because the sound that you make by talking is of the same level or degree of density as the capacity of the eardrum. I can hear your sound, but not the sounds of radio waves, music, or the message, because of the dissimilarity of the structure of frequency, wavelength or density of structure.

So, the world need not be real merely because of the fact that we are seeing it. It only shows that we are as much fools as the things are. We are in the same level or degree of reality as the atmosphere around us. This is not a great proof for the reality of the world. If I agree with you, it does not mean that our agreement is based on any judicious judgement. Suppose you have an opinion and I agree with that opinion; it does not mean that this opinion is correct. Merely because I agree with you, it need not be correct. It shows that my way of thinking is similar to your way of thinking, that is all. But it does not mean that it is a correct opinion; a third person may not agree with it.

So, merely because our mental make-up and sensory constitution agree with the structure of things outside, it does not mean that the world exists or that it is real. It only indicates that we are on the same level, that is all. Here is a word of caution: we have to be on guard in our attachment to things and our taking them for ultimate realities. We have to withdraw ourselves into higher, more judicious judgements for the purpose of higher unity.