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


Chapter 59: The Self-Preservation Instinct

The sense of personal being, or asmita, immediately begins to act in the form of its various contacts with things outside, because every stage of the manifestation of avidya is an active manifestation. It does not remain quiet even for a single moment. It is like the movement of a forceful river which flows continuously until it reaches its destination. It will not halt at some place. Likewise, once avidya gets channelised and concentrated as asmita, the green signal for further action has been given and then there is a very persistent movement of the individual sense towards its objects.

The intention behind this activity of asmita is to gain pleasure. It feels a satisfaction by coming in contact with things; and once there is a sensation of pleasure, it stirs the ego for further effort in the same direction so that the quantity of pleasure may be increased. A moment’s experience is not sufficient. The memory of having had pleasurable contact earlier becomes a goad for further effort for contacts of a similar nature. Sukha anuśayī rāgaḥ (II.7): Raga, or desire, which becomes passion when it is very intense, is pleasure objectified. When pleasure is externalised on an object outside, the attitude of the mind towards that object is called desire. Therefore, it is not a desire for objects; it is a desire for pleasure. The experience of pleasure is invested upon the form of the object, and what the mind sees in the object is not the substance of the object, but its capacity to fulfil its desires – just as when we see a currency note we do not see a piece of paper, and we do not see the ink with which it is impressed; we see the value which it has in respect of our personal life. It acts as an instrument for the fulfilment of certain purposes of the individual, and that is why we have a liking for currency notes, money, etc., while really what we physically see is only a scrap of paper.

In a similar manner the object of sense, living or non-living, has a physical existence of its own, but that is not the meaning that is read into it by the perceiving mind. The meaning is a value that it inheres in itself – a kind of significance that is read there secretly by the cognising mind. “Here is a tool for the satisfaction of my desires,” – thus contemplates the mind. The mind’s attitude towards the object is, therefore, a hundred percent selfish. There is not even an iota of unselfishness there, because it has no botheration whatsoever as to the independent status of the object. Its status in relation to one’s own self is what is taken into consideration, or into account. “What does it mean to me?” is the question, and that is the only question; there is nothing else. It means something very valuable to me because it can become an instrument to cause in me an experience of pleasure, of which I have a memory now as having been experienced earlier.

Thus, the mind feels that while pleasure is something desirable, it cannot be invoked in itself directly without the aid of something outside. This is the bondage of the jiva: its desires, wishes, or longings cannot be satisfied by themselves. They require the instrumentation of something other than themselves. This causes a very serious problem because the objects of sense are not really subsidiary to any cognising individual. They have an independence of their own, as is well known, and so it becomes a very hard task for a person to bring them under its jurisdiction. For this purpose it has to work very hard, toil very much; and it employs various means of subjugating the status of the object, which is independent, and makes it a satellite of its own.

Every form of affection is a satellisation of the object. We try to bring the object round ourselves and make it subsidiary to our purposes. Therefore, it is not true that loves are unselfish. They are utterly selfish. The purpose is very clear. The clear background of this activity is a cessation of a tense feeling that is created in the mind on account of the unfulfilled wish of the mind. This peculiar predilection of the mind towards desired objects is called raga, or desire, and the other side of this attitude is called dvesha, or hatred. Where the one is, the other must be present because dislike, or dvesha, is that negative side of the attitude of the mind in respect of those things which are not contributory to the fulfilment of its desires. Objects or circumstances, persons or things who are of an obstructing character in the direction of the fulfilment of its desires become objects of hatred because they obstruct pleasure.

Therefore, the thing that one asks for is pleasure, nothing else. We do not want the world; we do not want people; we do not want things; we do not want anything else. What we ask for is a sensation of pleasure. This sensation has to be repeated regularly because if it is not so repeated, there will be a gap between one experience and another thereof, and the gap will be one of pain. Who wants pain? We have a longing to have a perpetual motion, a flow of the experience of pleasure, which is not possible under existing conditions because a perpetual contact of the mind with pleasurable objects is not practicable, for various reasons. Either the mind does not have the facilities to do that, or there are other reasons on account of which there cannot be a perpetual contact of the mind with its desired object. There can be a break, or a bereavement, or a separation. This is what is disliked, because there is a desire to be perpetually immersed in pleasure. Why does this feeling arise? It arises on account of the finite sense of individuality. The asmita is a local affirmation of self – a complete boycotting of relationship with everything else and asserting a superiority of oneself, which immediately creates the subtle feeling that this state of affairs cannot continue for a long time, because the affirmation of individuality is contrary to the nature of things.

The law of nature will not permit the affirmation of absolute isolatedness because in nature everything is organically connected and, therefore, any sort of assertion of independence on the part of any aspect of its structure would be dealt with in a proper manner. Nature vehemently contradicts this step taken by asmita, and this force with which nature pulls the individual sense towards its universal structure is really the dynamo that is behind the projection of desire. Though desire is really inscrutable – it cannot be rationally analysed, and intellectually it cannot be subjected to investigation of any kind – it is certain that at the deepest background of this activity of the mind, called desire for the objects of sense, there is the pull of the organic nature of all things. It is the inability of the individual sense to keep itself really aloof from things that is responsible for its attraction towards other objects.

This deeper truth is not known to any individual on account of its weddedness to the activity of the senses. That the reason behind the pull of the subject towards the object is something different cannot become obvious to one’s consciousness because of the projection of this I-sense by externalisation through the senses. The senses diversify this I-sense, externalise it, and make it impossible for the individual to know the undercurrent of unity which is the cause for this attraction. There is a very foolish pouncing of the subject on the object, completely oblivious to the rational ground that is there, on account of which it is made to operate in that manner. There is a great rationality behind the manifestation of desire, but it works very irrationally. The rationality is the unity of things, but the irrationality is the feeling that things are outside. Because of this irrational element present in the manifestation and function of desire, there is no satisfaction of desire. Since every effort at the fulfilment of desire goes hand in hand with hatred for certain other things in the world, it is impossible to avoid psychological tension wholly, because the love for a thing, which is simultaneous with hatred for something, is the essence of tension.

These two activities of the mind – raga and dvesha, love and hatred – cannot be avoided as long as there is this false conviction that one can exist, or does exist, as an absolutely cut-off individual with a prestige and a pedigree of one’s own. Hence, avidya has caused asmita, and asmita manifests itself perpetually in its action as raga and dvesha. Thus this love for pleasure in life is also the love of life. We love life very much; but it is not life that we love – rather, it is the pleasure of life that we love. If it was all horror and death-like pangs, one would not love life. But there is a drop of honey mixed with the venom of tense activity, and one is after the little drop that is sticking even to the blade of grass which can cut one’s tongue – due to which, life is kept moving. The intense clinging one feels for one’s own life is the vehemence with which love for pleasure manifests itself. There is a joy in existing, and there is a joy in coming in contact with things. This joy is the cause of self-affirmation in the bodily individuality, which is the love of life and the hatred or fear of death.

There is a perpetual anxiety that death may overtake us, and this is the last thing that anyone would expect in this world. One fears death because death is the negation of all pleasure. It destroys the body. It destroys us, as we can conceive ourselves, and together with that, all that is the value of this individuality also goes. Why do we exist in this world? We exist to enjoy pleasure. This is what the mind tells us; otherwise, what is the purpose of existing? This pleasure will be annihilated by death – so there is fear of death. Thus, fear of death is the same as love of life. While the perception of pleasure in an object of sense creates a desire for it, and the perception of the contrary in an object creates an aversion towards it – sukha anuśayī rāgaḥ (II.7) and duḥkha anuśayī dveṣaḥ (II.8) – there is a simultaneous clinging to one’s own body. This love of life is present even in the wisest of people, says the next sutra: svarasavahī viduṣaḥ api tatha ārūḍhaḥ abhiniveśaḥ (II.9). Abhinivesa is love of life, clinging to the body, together with fear of death. This is present in everyone. It is present in an ant, in a worm and in an insect, and it is present in the wisest of people. Even the wisest of people do not like to die; there is always a desire to live. We take tonics and other things for prolonging life so that we may not die quickly.

Why should we not die quickly? There is no answer for it. We should not die quickly because – it is very clear, the whole answer is there – it is the affirmation of the pleasure principle in life which prevents the very possibility of accepting the impending destruction of individuals. This feeling for life is spontaneously manifest; it does not require any effort to reveal it. Svarasavahi – we may not have to work hard to create this love for life; it is there inborn, ingrained. It is one with us; it is ourselves. It is our own essential nature – svabhava, svarupa – and so it is called svarasavahi. Just as the flow of a river is spontaneous, moving of its own accord – we need not push it from outside, or behind – so also this love of individual life is spontaneous in its movement and persists in the idiot and the wise equally, in the child and the learned equally, without any distinction, because it is the love of existence itself. Viduṣaḥ api tatha ārūḍhaḥ (II.9). It is very vehementlypresent, very forcefully functioning, even in the most learned, educated. Even a genius he may be, but the love of life is present in him. This is called abhinivesa. All this has come out of the precedent causation which we have mentioned.

Why is it that we fear death and love life? Because we love pleasure and dislike pain – and death is pain. What can be a greater pain than death, which is the annihilation of all positive values and possibilities of satisfaction in life? Because the love of pleasure and the dislike for its opposite is the aim and objective of every activity of the mind and the senses, it clings to the cause and to the possibility of such enterprise – which is the sense of being that is asmita. Hence, we have to maintain our individuality in order that it can be used as an instrument for the satisfaction of pleasure. Therefore, the instinct of self-preservation is very hard to overcome. It is the strongest of instincts. We want to preserve ourselves.

This preservation of the individual is physical as well as psychological. When it is physical it comes as hunger, thirst, heat, cold, etc., which are indications that some threat is there to the existence and welfare of our physical being. Heat, cold, hunger, thirst are indications or symbols of the possibility of this physical individual withering if proper care is not taken. We have to go on plastering a wall every now and then so that the plaster may not drop down. Likewise, there is also a desire to maintain the psychological individuality by the affirmation of the ego. Hence, we affirm the body and the ego at the same time. Together with the desire for food, clothing, shelter, drink, etc., there is also a desire for prestige, self-esteem and position in society. A good word, name, fame, power, authority – all these come under love of ego, and that keeps the ego intact, just as the body is kept intact by food, drink, etc.

Either way, and both ways, the instinct for life works: on the one hand, by working hard for the preservation of the physical individuality, and simultaneously with it, working for the preservation of the psychological individuality. While there is a desire to live as a physical body, due to which we hunger for food and drink, etc., at the same time there is also a desire to maintain a worthwhileness in one’s individuality; one must be an important individual. That is why there is desire for a good word, for name, fame, etc. Even the most foolish of persons would not like to be insulted. There is a necessity felt, even in the worst of individuals, to be regarded as worthwhile. This is the psychological urge, together with the physical urge. Both these put together is the instinct for life – the psychophysical urge, we may call it. That is the self-preservation instinct.

The self-preservation instinct is not an inactive, dormant or sleeping instinct. It is a very cautious instinct. The self-preservation instinct knows that it cannot succeed for all times. One day or the other, with all our effort, we have to perish. We may go on eating, drinking, clothing ourselves and living in a house for any number of years to the extent possible, but a limit is there for this effort. We will perish. The instinct for life tells us that life has to end one day. There is a fear: “I am going to be annihilated one day.” We all know that we are going to die, notwithstanding that we struggle hard to prevent it by food, drink, etc.

This instinct works in a different manner altogether, in a strange way, which is called the self-reproduction instinct. The self-reproductive instinct is nothing but another action of the self-preservation instinct. We want to perpetuate our individuality for all times; otherwise, there will be an end of it. How long will we exist in this body? A few years? It may be even a hundred years, let us assume. After a hundred years, what happens? No food and drink will perpetuate this body; it will drop. The instinct for the love of individual life is shrewd enough to know that it cannot always succeed with all its shrewdness, so it manufactures a device by which it can perpetuate its individuality for a future generation also. The vehemence with which the self-preservation urge manifests itself in life channelises itself in a different way as an equal vehemence for self-reproduction – so that when this body goes, its child is there to continue its drama of life. The soul transfers its emotions to the child that is born, and atma vai putranama asi, as the scripture says – we feel ourselves in the child. That is why we love the child so much. We see ourselves there. The temporal urge for phenomenal, individual existence, which is the self-preservative instinct, manufactures a device for continuing its activity in this world by the urge of self-reproduction.

Hence, the instincts of self-preservation and self-reproduction are really one instinct only, like two sides of the same coin. They are not two different things. As Patanjali puts it, it is the abhinivesa which works so strongly and spontaneously that even the wisest of people cannot escape this. This wisdom of the world is nothing before this instinct, because it has a wisdom superior to the wisdom of the world. Why is this instinct so powerful? It is because the whole of nature is backing it; the entire set-up of the forces of nature is in collaboration with this instinct. The purpose or the intention of nature is that one propagates the species into which one is born. Therefore, this instinct has the support of every part of nature. We can find this instinct present everywhere – in human beings, in subhuman beings, in plants, and everywhere. It cannot be absent anywhere, and it is doubtful whether it is absent even in inorganic matter; even there, it is present in some form or other. What is chemical action but this urge that is working, in a subtler form? Even the gravitational pull can be explained physically as the working of a single force which diversifies itself in various ways for the fulfilment of a single purpose in nature. On account of the collaboration received by this instinct from various sources, from the whole of nature itself, it becomes insurmountable, vehement, very forceful, turbulent and impetuous. This is the condition of things, which is put plainly in this sutra: svarasavahī viduṣaḥ api tatha ārūḍhaḥ abhiniveśaḥ (II.9).

What is to be done now? This is a terrible picture that is presented before us. Are we helpless? Yes. The only solution for this is to work hard to get out of the difficulty, even in the midst of the difficulty. As they say, we have to take a bath in the ocean even when the waves are dashing. We will not find a time when the waves subside, as they will never subside. Likewise, problems of the world will be there always. We are not going to be free from them. Every moment there is trouble, but in the midst of this fierce encounter of trouble in this world, we have to find a moment of respite to contemplate the possibility of overcoming it. Every dark cloud has a silver lining, as they say. Likewise the unthinkable, unimaginable extent of the difficulties in which one finds oneself in life also has a silver lining. There is a streak of light that is projecting forth in the form of a hope that there is a chance of getting out of this problem by some strange method.

That strange method is the practice of yoga. It is strange, indeed, because it is not available in this world, in the market. It is not even imaginable by the mind, ordinarily. It is a very, very strange technique which has been discovered by blessed ones, great masters and adepts, which is the antidote for this vehemence with which the love of life, or instinct for existence, manifests itself. This antidote is the practice of yoga. How it is to be practised, we shall be told in the future.