The Study and Practice of Yoga
An Exposition of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 57: The Four Manifestations of Ignorance

The cause of all the problems that have to be encountered in yoga was mentioned as ignorance – avidya. This ignorance functions in many ways, and it can be detected only by its ways of working. Patanjali mentions its principle projectiles, by which it binds the individual to phenomenal experience. There are principally four ways in which it works, though in detail it can work in many other ways also. The first action of ignorance is to create a consciousness of the ‘not-Self’. The Self appears as the not-Self – this is the first blow it gives. Then, the impermanent looks permanent – another blow is given over that. Next, pain looks like pleasure – a third blow. Lastly, the impure looks pure. Four hits are given, and then down we go. This is the definition of avidya given by the sutra of Patanjali: anitya aśuci duḥkha anātmasu nitya śuci sukha ātma khyātiḥ avidyā (II.5).

It is not true that things are really outside us, but we are made to believe that it is so. This is a basic trait of avidya, and this is the most difficult thing to understand. It is the strongest of weapons and, therefore, it is the last thing that we can get rid of. Because of the very difficulty of the nature of the case, we have naturally to take up the easier ones first, and the stronger ones have to be dealt with subsequently. But, when we actually touch a difficulty, we will find that each one has its own peculiarity, and none can be regarded as inferior or superior to the other. Every problem is unique in its nature; it has a speciality of its own. Every day we see people being born and people passing away. Any day, anything can happen. There is impermanence reigning supreme as a law of the transition of the world process.

We cannot see any single atom sitting at rest in one place. Everything is moving. Static things are unknown. Everything is in motion. Everything is a tendency towards something else. Everything undergoes transformation, change and modification. There is birth; there is growth; there is change; there is decay; there is destruction. This is the process which is undergone by everything in this world, whether it is living or non-living. We see things passing away before our very eyes. Things which we regard as permanent and stable vanish like mist before the sun. What can be a greater wonder than this, that things which cannot stand in a single location, even for a moment, are mistaken for realities? “What can be a greater surprise in this world than this phenomenon – that every day we see people going to the abode of Yama, and yet, the remaining ones think they are immortal?” said Yudhisthira. “This is the greatest of wonders!”

The reason is that there is a mix-up of values in our experience, and the truth cannot be visualised. There is a complete shaking up of the various constituents of our perceptional process, and due to this mix-up we are unable to distinguish between the permanent element and the impermanent element. The passing phenomena are regarded as real on account of an element of reality getting infused into these phenomena, just as motion pictures look real on account of the background of a screen that is behind. If the screen is not there, we will not see the motion pictures. But the screen is not seen – we see only the movement of the pictures. The transference of the quality of permanence that is behind – in the screen – upon the movement of the pictures is the reason why we see a continuity of the movement of the pictures. We cannot have only movement without some background of reality. But this peculiar mix-up is not easily visible, and it is precisely because of this inability to distinguish between the two factors involved in this perception that we enjoy the picture. All enjoyment is a confusion. It is not wisdom. It is not based on an understanding of the truths of things; it is based totally on a mix-up of values.

It is not true that anything is permanent in this world. So, how is it that we see everything as permanent? We see a tree, a wall or a building, and we see people living for years. All these are phenomena, no doubt. They are phenomena, not noumena – not realities. This incapacity on the part of the perceiving consciousness to distinguish between the phenomenal feature in experience and the real element behind it is ignorance – avidya. Inasmuch as things are interconnected, interrelated, vitally dependent upon one another – there is an organic relationship of things – it is not true that objects are really isolated completely and that there is a necessity for the mind to run after objects. There is no necessity for the mind to run after objects, inasmuch as the objects are really connected with the subject. That they are not so connected, and therefore there is a need for desiring and possessing them, is ignorance.

The not-Self means the anatman – that is to say, that which is not one’s own Self. Inasmuch as there is something in this world which is not myself, I have naturally to face it in some proper manner. The way in which I face an object in this world is called the relationship that I establish with it. This is the cause of my likes and dislikes in respect of the object; and where there is an intense like or a dislike for anything, that particular thing is invested with certain characteristics that do not really belong to it. Why does one’s own child look so beautiful? Well, it has to look beautiful merely because it is mine. If it is not mine, then it must be ugly. It is stupid merely because it is not mine. Characters which do not really inhere in an object can be visualised due to a prejudice of emotion. The likes and dislikes are the causative factors behind this investment of characters which are false.

Thus, there is perception of beauty and ugliness, loveableness, etc. due to the peculiar emotional like and dislike caused, again, by the perception of not-Self – which is the central forte of ignorance. So we can imagine how many difficulties have cropped up on account of a single mistake that we have committed originally. Then, the pain that is involved in the action of the mind desiring the objects for their possession and enjoyment is mistaken for pleasure. What toil the householder undergoes, but he thinks it is a pleasure. He has to work hard for the maintenance of the family, but is it a pleasure? He works hard because he enjoys it; otherwise, why does he work?

So, even pain can be mistaken for pleasure where emotions are tied up. What we are serving is our own emotions – not the family, not the world. Our emotions are catching hold of us by the throat, and we are pampering the emotions under the impression that we are pampering, helping, serving or doing work for somebody else. There is, again, a mistake in the very thought itself. The idea becomes concretised – takes a visible shape, as it were, and becomes the working field for all the urges of the individual. We have studied this earlier, in connection with another sutra: pariṇāma tāpa saṁskāra duḥkaiḥ guṇav¨tti virodhāt ca duḥkham eva sarvaṁ vivekinaḥ (II.15). In this sutra, Patanjali tells us that everything is pain ultimately, if it is properly analysed. There is no joy, but everything looks like joy. If there is no joy in life, who would live in this world? We would all perish in a few minutes. But this joy is a counterfeit joy; it is not really there. It is a makeshift, a camouflage, a whitewash that is presented before us. At the background, there is a pricking pain – the thorn of agony, anguish, non-possession, anxiety, fear, dispossession, bereavement, etc. But with all this, we take this agonising world for a field of joy, as if rivers of milk and honey are flowing.

The perception of the reality of a not-Self; the perception of permanency in everything that is transitory or transitional; the perception of beauty, grandeur, and value in objects of sense; the perception of joy in the contact of the senses with objects – these are the ways in which ignorance works. And, because of the vehemence with which these forms of ignorance work, because of the force with which they impinge upon us, because of the velocity with which they come and sit on our heads, we cannot escape them. Like vultures they come and sit on us, threatening us and subjugating us with their powers. Because of the force with which they sit upon us, we have to yield to them. Then, coming under their thumb, we act according to their commands, because this ignorance does not merely end with these perceptions. They have other demands, and once we fulfil a single demand, another will come.

The demands that follow from this ignorance have already been mentioned – raga, dvesha, abhinivesha, etc. Because of the fact that the mind is completely involved, root and branch, in this mix-up of values, it is unable to concentrate itself on any given point. How is it possible for the mind to meditate? It is simply out of the question. It is a slave of slaves – dasa se dasaha – and such a slave cannot have any independence of its own. Where there is no independence, how can there be deliberate action? The question of the practice of yoga does not arise. It is gone, if this is to be the case.

But this is precisely what has happened. All our so-called endeavours are backed up by a misconception. Because of the misconception, there is erroneous movement of the mind in its activities. Therefore, the expected results do not follow. It does not matter if we sit for meditation for hours together – nothing will happen. No fruit is going to drop from the trees, because this meditation may be like the meditation of the crane for catching fish. That is also meditation. The crane keeps quiet for hours together, without doing anything, and we call it meditation. We call it bahula dhyana in Hindi. Bahula dhyana is a peculiar kind of meditation practised by the crane. It stands on one leg. It is also a great tapasvi and does not budge an inch from that place. We think that the crane is a great yogi – but its mind is on the fish. It wants to see where the fish comes up, and then darts upon it immediately and catches it.

This ignorance is like this peculiar sleeping crane which is ready to pounce upon its objects, and it will not allow us to be in peace. As was mentioned previously, unless the cause is tackled properly and treated, there is no use merely catching hold of the effects. These effects are like ambassadors who have come merely to convey the message of the government to which they belong. There is no use in talking to the ambassador with a wry face or in language which is unbecoming, as he is only a representative of the force that is there behind him. The force is something different, and what we see with our eyes is a different thing altogether. But yet, we are likely to mistake these effects for the causes, and then it is that we practise wrong tapas. We may stand on one leg but it will not help us, though it is a tapas, no doubt. We may sit in the sun, we may drink cold water and take a bath in cold water in winter. All these treatments of the effects will produce only a temporary suppression of their manifestations. But suppressing the effects is not the treatment of the cause, because the cause pushes the effect, and as long as the living force of the cause is present, the possibility of the effects getting projected on to the surface again and again is always there.

These manifestations of avidya cannot be overcome by ordinary individual effort, because all efforts are the effects of this avidya itself. It requires a superior insight; a higher mind has to come into operation. How it comes into operation, we cannot say. Sometimes it comes like a flash and opens up the inner vision, and tells us that there is a faculty in us which is superior to ordinary intellect. It is this inward faculty in us that tells us the distinction that exists between the permanent and the impermanent, and the proper relationship between the not-Self and the Self.

If we properly contemplate the implications of what we do from morning to night every day, we will realise that everything that we do is nothing but feeding this ignorance and acting according to its dictates, because what is it that we do except to confirm the fact that there is a not-Self outside? Our thought, our feeling, our speech, our action, our attitude, our duty, whatever it is – is a confirmation that there is a not-Self. Unless our activities take a different turn altogether in the direction of the remedying of this wrong notion of the presence of a real not-Self, mere hectic activity will not help, as it can only be the fulfilment of the requirements of ignorance.

Who in this world does not believe the reality of a not-Self, or an object of sense? Is there anyone in this world who does not have the conviction that what he sees, or she sees, is real in itself? And, is there any activity which is not based on this notion? So, we can imagine what will be the outcome of all these activities. They will be only adding fuel to the fire that is already blazing due to the action of this ignorance. But, when this endeavour on the part of the perceiving consciousness in respect of the objects of sense gets re-evaluated and takes a new turn altogether, then this binding activity can become a liberating activity. That is the subtle difference between discriminative perception of an object and emotional perception of an object. The scientific observation of a thing is different from an observation that is coupled with attachment – like, dislike, etc. Gradually the mind has to be disentangled from its obsessions in respect of things, and the perceptions should become detached observations for the purpose of the complete extrication of the mind from its emotional relationships.

Anitya aśuci duḥkha anātmasu nitya śuci sukha ātma khyātiḥ avidyā (II.5). To sum up what this sutra tells us, while it is true that ignorance is the breeding ground for all the effects thereof – like, dislike, and so on – this ignorance has a fourfold prong with which it moves into action. These four manifestations, which have been mentioned, are: the appearing of the not-Self as the Self, the regarding of impermanent things as permanent, painful experiences as pleasures, and impure things as pure. This is a frightening disclosure, indeed, of the facts of our experiences in this world, because there is no experience which is free from these defects. We cannot humanly imagine a kind of experience which is not involved in these defects. It means to say that ignorance rules the world and, therefore, pain cannot be avoided. Where erroneous perception is present, a sort of sorrow naturally should follow.

Every one of these effects of avidya is properly being described. While the nature of ignorance is of this particular feature mentioned, its immediate progeny, which is asmita, or the self-affirming faculty which becomes egoism later on, is again a kind of mix-up of values between the perceiver and what is perceived. This is what is known in Vedanta as adhyasa – the character of the Self getting transferred to the object and, vice versa, the character of the object getting transferred to the Self. The confirmation that one exists as an individual – the rootedness of oneself in the feeling ‘I am’ as a separate individual – is called asmita. This feeling that you exist, or I exist, is also a mistake. It is not wisdom, because the affirmation ‘I am’ is the outcome of a confusion between two types of character: the character that belongs to Pure Consciousness, and the character that belongs to what is not the Self. The conviction that one exists is due to the Being of Consciousness. The atman or the purusha that is within is responsible for this affirmation.

The existence aspect of this affirmation belongs to the nature of True Being, which is at the background of all these phenomena. But, this affirmation of Being in the feeling ‘I am’ is not merely an affirmation of Being; there is some other element also which infects this feeling of Being – namely, the isolatedness of a part of Being from other parts. When we say ‘I am’, or feel ‘I am’, we imply thereby that ‘I am different from others’, though we do not make that statement openly. The implication of the affirmation of oneself as an individual is that one is cut off from other individuals; otherwise, the feeling of ‘I am’ itself cannot be there. How do we know that we are different from others? There is no reason behind this. We have a prejudiced notion that we are different from others, and this irrational prejudice is the basis of all our actions – even the so-called altruistic actions. Even the most philanthropic of deeds is based upon this notion that we are different from others, which itself cannot be justified rationally.

The peculiar differentiating character of space, time and cause interferes with the character of Being which is in Consciousness, and then there is the rise of the phenomenal individuality, which is asmita. The ‘I am-ness’ of an individual, the feeling of the individuality of a person – the egoism, or the isolated existence of anyone – is, therefore, the effect of two factors coming together into activity. A new feature is made to rise due to the mix-up of these two peculiar characters. Space and time act on one side, and Pure Consciousness acts on the other side. The spatial character of the way in which the mind works goes hand in hand with the Being character of Consciousness, and then there is the conviction ‘I am’. Well, this is an effect of ignorance because space is nothing but the not-Self, and it was pointed out that the not-Self is perceived on account of an action of ignorance.

Space, time, cause mean one and the same thing – they are three aspects of a single phenomenon. It is the principle of externality, if one would like to call it so. The principle of externality is what is called maya in Vedantic language – the ‘appearance’, as philosophers put it – a peculiar thing which nobody can understand. Something is there, and no one can know how it is there, or why it is there. This is the principle of externality which manifests itself as what we call space-time-causal relationship, etc. This feature of externality gets mixed up with the being of Consciousness, and then we have an externalised personality; that is the individuality of ours. This is the ‘I am-ness’ we are speaking of.

Thus, our very existence is a false existence; this is what is made out by this sutra. If our existence is itself illegal, untenable, unfounded and irrational, how can anything that we do on the basis of this individuality be right? So it is no wonder that we are suffering in this world. Ignorance has produced this peculiar sense of individuality, asmita – this feeling of oneself being different from others. The subject is cut off from the object; and each thing in this world has an asmita of its own. There is an affirming principle working in every item of creation. Because of this confirmed feeling of the sense of individual being, there is a further urge arising from this sense of individual being – namely, a necessity felt to connect oneself with others. “If I am different from you, what is my relationship with you?” This question arises.

It is not possible to deny all relationship, because of the fact of perception. If I am completely oblivious of the existence of people outside, of things outside, of the world around me, then of course the question may not arise. But I see the world, I see people, I see things as completely different from me. So I feel a necessity to conduct myself in a particular manner in respect of these existences outside me. This manner is raga-dvesa – like and dislike – a peculiar, subtle relationship that we project for the purpose of stabilising this individuality and keeping it secure in the light of the presence of other individuals also. Here begins what is called social life.

Social life is nothing but a set-up of living which has been agreed upon by different individuals in a group for the purpose of mutual sustenance, coordination and security, as no individual can be secure by itself in the light of the presence of other individuals because each individual is a centre of egoism, a principle of intense self-affirmation which denies the reality of every other individual. The meaning of individuality or egoism is the denial of value to others, and sometimes the force of denial becomes so intense that it comes to the surface as conflict, as warfare. Whether it is through words or actually in fight, internally there is a feeling of irreconcilability among individuals. They are not really friends, because their very existence is an irreconcilability; it is an untenability; it is a denial of the truths which prevail in the midst of this apparent diversity.

Simultaneously with this urge to affirm oneself as an individual isolated from others, there is a contrary feeling of the necessity to relate oneself to others. We create a tense form of living, which is our present-day social living, where internally we dislike one another but outwardly we feel a necessity to be brothers. There is a necessity felt both ways. I feel a necessity to maintain my individuality. I cannot merge myself in you – then, I will lose my individuality. It is a loss of my very status, which I would not like. So I maintain and preserve vehemently my individuality – but at the same time, I cannot exist in that condition because of my dependence upon other individuals.

Thus, an artificial life is created. The sorrow of life is the result of this peculiar artificial atmosphere compelled upon the individual on account of its double attitude of affirmation of individuality on the one side, and the feeling of necessity for relationship with others on the other side.