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The Study and Practice of Yoga

An Exposition of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali


Chapter 54: Practice Without Remission of Effort

The practice mentioned is for the purpose of directing the mind slowly towards its final achievement, and for the attenuation of all the obstacles. The difficulties that present themselves with great intensity, ostensibly as if they are insurmountable, will be there in that form for a long time, making it appear that perhaps they are impossible to approach and difficult to overcome. It is the experience of all students of yoga, and saints and sages of the past, that honey does not start flowing in the beginning itself. One cannot see the light of day at the very commencement of the practice. It will be like a dark sky thickly covered with black clouds, and the only thing that one will be able to see or visualise in front of oneself are problems, difficulties, pains, and everything that is the opposite of what one is asking or aspiring for. It is not till very late in the day that a feeling comes within oneself that, after all, things are not so bad as they appear.

These difficulties and pains that are consequent upon one’s strenuous effort are due to the thick layer of samskaras and karmas which have been accumulated in oneself since many births. The very personality of the individual is nothing but a bundle of karmas. It is made up of only these forces, and nothing but that. It is, if we would like to put it in that way, a heap of desires that has become this body, mind and personality – this outlook of life, even. Everything is made up of desires. There is nothing in us except desire. From head to foot we are made of that; every fibre of our body is only that. The only thing is, it is sometimes visible outside as an activity of the mind towards fulfilment, and sometimes it is present inside merely as a possibility, a latent tendency and an urge towards a particular fulfilment, which may or may not be conspicuous.

Long practice is the only solution. These difficulties, problems, pains, samskaras and desires cannot be faced with any armour or apparatus that we have with us. There is no alternative except continued practice. This is a kind of satyagraha that we are doing with these desires, we may say. We cannot face them in battle directly because they too are equally powerful. But, we can be persistent to such an extent that there is no chance for them to show their heads again. The feeling that one is moving towards one’s goal begins to rise within oneself after years and years of practice – not after months. Of course there are masters, great heroes on the path, who must have done this practice in previous births, such as Jnaneshwara Maharaj, Janaka, and such great heroes of the spirit who showed signs of mastery and achievement early in age. For others it is a torture – but it is a necessary ordeal that one has to pass through for the sake of scrubbing out all the encrustations in the form of anything that goes to make up this personality of ours in all its five vestures. Annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijnanamaya and anandamaya – all these five koshas are various densities of the manifestation of desire. There is nothing but that – like the dense clouds which cover the bright sun and make it appear as if the sun does not exist at all. But the kleshas,or these obstacles, become attenuated gradually due to the pressure of practice, abhyasa, and the accompanied vairagya. Samādhi bhāvanārthaḥ kleśa tanūkaraṇārthaśca (II.2) is the sutra. For the purpose of generating within oneself a feeling towards the achievement of one’s goal, which is samadhi, and for the obviating of all the obstacles, practice should be continued.

Therefore, practice is the panacea. The watchword of yoga is practice – abhyasa. There is no other method; there is no alternative; there is no other remedy. When continued practice is resorted to, the force of the practice keeps all these impediments in check, and because of this continued pressure exerted upon them by the practice, one day or the other we will see a ray of light of hope beaming through these dark clouds of opposition. At a later stage, it will be realised that no help from this world will be of any avail here in this endeavour. People cannot help us. Nothing in this world will be of any avail in this single combat with the powers of nature in which one is engaged with all one’s might. Our strength will be seen here in this duel that we have to engage ourselves in – between standing alone on one side, and the whole world on the other side. We have to face the whole world single-handed. Imagine what strength we must have! Nobody will help us here, though a day will come when all forces will come to our aid.

It is a great symbolic march of the soul towards its goal, represented in such epics as the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, etc., where a time presents itself when it looks as if we have no friends in this world. So was the case with Yudhisthira and others. They were thrown to the forest, into the wilderness. They were princes, born of great kings, but who bothers about this heritage and inheritance? They were driven to the wilderness with no help and no succour of any sort whatsoever, as if they were the most unwanted people in the whole world. This is the Mahabharata of the spirit that we are discussing – the war of consciousness with the entire structure of creation.

Here, the same problems will arise as have been depicted by the epics. There is an enthusiasm of spirit in the beginning, as was the case with the childish Pandava brothers in their jubilant youth when it looked as if everything was beautiful, the world was friendly, and they had parents, brothers, relatives and protectors. It was all very nice, no doubt. We have parents, friends and brothers, and all things that are needed for safety and security, but suddenly we will find that the earth will give way under our feet and we will be the target of the very same persons and forces whom we looked upon as our friends. The very same cousin-brothers drove the Pandavas out. They were cousin-brothers, not enemies; and the succour, the source of support, the great heroic elements in the family who were the refuge of all these brothers were helpless – in a predicament which was understandable only to God. Man cannot understand.

Therefore, there is a great suffering; and, tentatively, the suffering may end. There are various stages of our experience where we look like we are sinking down into the ocean of sorrow and then coming up and showing our heads once again, as if we are going to have a support to save us – and, again, going down. The suffering ends and we come back, and then we are coronated once again with the apparent rejoicing of the rajasuya, which was the great delight of Prince Yudhisthira. He thought everything was all right: “Now, what is the difficulty? All the kings are paying tribute to me.”

This is what we are all in – everyone, without exception. It looks as if we are crowned king now, and we are in a very secure position – very safe, and nobody can shake us. But this is a dangerous rajasuya coronation which has the seeds of destruction and opposition, and a further combat is going to follow; and then we have to go to the forest once again.

Here it is that we have the most interesting subject in mystical life. The Aranya Parva of the Mahabharata is the beginning of spiritual practice, which is almost equivalent to the first chapter of the Bhagavadgita, where we are lost completely – no one wants us and no one looks at us. No one is even aware of our existence, and no one bothers about our parentage, our heritage, our inheritance, our princely life, that we are children of a king, and so on – nothing of the kind. We may be the brother of Julius Caesar, but who bothers about us? We are in the forest. This is a condition into which we will enter after a rejoicing that everything has come. This is not the first stage itself; this is a stage that comes after a jubilant feeling that some sort of achievement has been made. There is first a sense of renunciation – everything is cast out, and we feel that we are directly in the face of God Himself, where we are perfectly protected from all forces that are opposed to us. But, this is only a feeling. Whatever the truth be of that feeling, it has the seeds of counter-opposing forces and experiences. There is a rising up, as I mentioned, in the rajasuya, and then again, a sinking down.

Here, one has to gather up one’s energies. It is not true that the path of yoga is a smooth movement, a continuous ascent, one step rising above another step, steadily. It is a very zigzag way. We have to go round and round, as if in a chakravyuha formation (an intricate labyrinth formation of troops and armament used in ancient combat) whose ways are not visible to the eyes. We can see only one step at a time, not a hundred steps. One step ahead of us may be visible, but the step after that cannot be seen because the path has turned.

There is a famous epic called The Divine Comedy written by the great Italian poet Dante, where he describes these winding processes of the movement of the soul in its higher journey through the Inferno and through various stages of ascent to the Paradiso. This is only a description of the winding movements of the soul in its higher journey where for miles ahead it cannot see things properly. It can see only a little bit in front of it, and is kept in uncertainty at every stage.

We cannot be clear and confident at any stage. Everything is uncertain. We cannot know what is going to happen to us the next moment, though we may be in a highly advanced condition. We may have more than a pass mark, and we are going to get a certificate of having won victory. It may be so, but even that will be uncertain. We will not know it. That everything is kept secret is the peculiar way of God, and in this Vana Parva, Aranya Parva of the sadhaka, he is almost a lost soul, with no help from the world and no help even from the gods. Everything is dark, misty and dusty, and tempestuous winds are blowing. The sorrow of Yudhisthira was unthinkable, intolerable, when he wept to the core of his heart and cried to the sage that came to him, and asked him, “Did creation see a person worse than me at any time?” Sometimes we feel like that: “Can there be a person worse than I? How miserable am I! I have no help. Neither God helps me nor man helps me.”

Well, these are stages we have to pass through. All great men passed through this wilderness. Rama went to the forest; Nara went to the forest; Yudhisthira went to the forest; and why not us? We have to go to the forest. No one can escape this great, terrific passage of the soul towards its ultimate victory. We may enjoy ramarajya in the end, no doubt, but in the beginning we are in the forest. We have lost everything. All the forces of nature set themselves tooth and nail against us in the Aranya Parva, and we are harassed even there. Even when we are downtrodden, and we have fallen and are sinking, we will be given a kick on the back. This also is to be tolerated, borne, and we have to face it and expect it.

Supreme fulfilment is the consequence of supreme relinquishment. It is only in the Udyoga Parva onwards in the Mahabharata that we have the description of powers coming to our aid, cooperation and coordination – where all that looked dark and hazy, misty and unclear becomes slowly clear, and one begins to feel that the sun is going to rise after all. It is not midnight, as it appeared to be. There is the light of hope visible in front of us, and we can see the dawn approaching. Then it is that all those powers which were keeping quiet up to this time gird up their loins and come to our aid – unasked. We need not ask for help. Help shall come, and it shall pour like rain from all sides. Even to excess, the help will come; beyond the limits of expectation and hope, support should come from all sides of nature. But that is only in the Udyoga Parva – not before that. Until that time we are in sorrow and are being harassed. We can imagine the pitiable condition of the Pandavas in the Aranya Parva and the Virata Parva. We will cry if we read these portions of Mahabharata. Even the reader of these portions will cry, let alone those people themselves. But, this is a necessary stage of purification – purgation as it is called in mystical language – for the purpose of the enlightenment into a new vista of things which will be seen in the Udyoga Parva where they gird up their loins once again. The situation is not over. The battle is going to take place further. Every parva of the Mahabharata is a parva of the spirit’s advance towards its great achievement.

Patanjali, in his sutra, samādhi bhāvanārthaḥ kleśa tanūkaraṇārthaśca (II.2), mentions that we need not be disconsolate and melancholic. There should be no discomfiture about our future. Everything shall be all right; one day or the other there shall be success. But, we must wait for that day. We should not ask for the fruit to fall from the tree merely because we have sown the seed for the tree today. It shall have its own time for maturity and ripening. Karmaṇy evādhikāras te mā phaleṣu kadācana (B.G. II.47): Our duty is to do what is expected of us and not expect the fruit thereof, because the fruit is not in our hands. While it is in our hands to plough the field, sow the seed and take care of the little plant that grows, it is not in our hands to produce the harvest; that is in the hands of other forces, and we should not compel them to work instantaneously or overnight. They will take their own time, and they will work in the manner necessary.

So the practice of yoga, which is expected to be a very strenuous, relentless pressure of the mind towards its goal, will release the tension of the impediments mentioned already. All the obstacles will disperse, and the mind will tend towards the goal. Now the mind is tending towards objects of sense. We have to bring it back with great effort. We have to struggle hard to wean the mind from the objects which it is contemplating day in and day out. All our effort now is in a negative direction, in the sense that we have to see that the mind does not fall upon the objects again and again. The positive effort is a different thing altogether. The positive effort of the mind should be towards contemplation on the goal of life. But that is far ahead; it has not yet come. Now the whole effort is directed in respect of not allowing the mind to go to the objects. Before trying to be positively healthy in our body, we have to see that we do not become worse in our sickness, that the illness does not become more and more emphasised. Before we try to see that we are positively strong, healthy and robust, we should see that our temperature does not rise higher tomorrow.

The confidence and the power of will that one has to manifest in this practice are almost superhuman because, while the inward tendencies of the mind towards its goal always remain submerged and never become visible outside, the problems will always be visible – and they will be the only things that are seen before the eyes. We will see only the seamy side of things – the problems, the evil, the ugliness, the pain, the sorrow, the difficulty and the almost impossibility of doing anything in this world. That is the only thing that we will see outside. The positive side will be like the undercurrent of these outer waves that are dashing upon us, and it will not be felt in the beginning stages.

The reason is that we are floating on the surface. We have not gone deep into things. When we are on the surface of the ocean, we will be subject only to the onslaught of the waves. The calmness of the bottom of the ocean is not known, because we have not sunk deep. Hence, the struggle is to first get out of the clutches of these waves. We cannot go into the bottom of the ocean because the waves will not allow us to go; they will throw us hither and thither. The moment we try to escape being hit by one wave, we will be hit by another wave, so that we will be dashed hither and thither, and we cannot go in. But once we go in, we will not see the waves at all. There is a profundity, a depth, a deep silence and a grandeur whose powers are far superior to the clattering noises that the waves make on the surface; and the silence of the spirit will be realised to be more thunderous than the shattering noises of the senses and the sensuous mind.

Samādhi bhāvanārthaḥ (II.2). For the purpose of directing the mind towards samadhi, to generate within oneself the feeling towards the ultimate goal, to create in oneself a confidence that one is moving in the right direction as well as to put down all the obstacles, one has to set oneself to practise. Again, to reiterate, we have to emphasise the importance of practice – namely, the continuance of whatever little we are doing every day, without remission of effort. We should not withdraw the effort merely on the assumption that success is not forthcoming. We cannot complain that years of meditation have brought nothing, and feel that evidently, “It is better I give it up.” This is a wrong approach because who can know what is ahead of us and when we will achieve success? We cannot dig three inches into the ground and say, “I am not finding water.” Even if we dig twenty feet down, we may not find water. Therefore, we should not lose hope, because if we dig twenty feet and then think that nothing has come and we give up hope – well, we are going to be the loser, because water may be there at the twenty-first foot.

There is an old story of a devotee of Lord Siva. It seems he used to carry a pot of water from a distant river for abhisheka in the temple, and he was told by his Guru, “Do abhisheka in this manner 108 times, and you will have darshan of Lord Siva.” It was a strenuous thing, because he had to carry water for a long distance. This disciple followed the instruction of the Guru, and was indefatigably working, sweating and toiling, carrying this holy water from a distant river and doing abhisheka to the murti, the linga of Lord Siva in the temple. He did it 107 times and got fed up. He said, “107 times I have done it; nothing is coming, and is one more pot going to bring anything?” He threw the pot on the head of Siva and went away. Then it seems, a voice came, “Foolish man! You had not the patience for one more pot? You were patient enough for 107. You could not wait for one more? And that would have worked the miracle!”

Likewise may be the fate of many people like us. We may be working very hard. We may be spending half of our life in sincere effort towards achieving something, but at the last moment we lose hope and give up the effort altogether. The advice of Patanjali is that this should not be.