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The Study and Practice of Yoga

An Exposition of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali


Chapter 62: The Perception of Pleasure and Pain

Te hlāda paritāpa phalāḥ puṇya apuṇya hetutvāt (II.14) is a sutra which tells us that pleasures and pains are caused by the manifestation of these vrittis of the mind which have been designated as afflictions, or klesas. Avidya, asmita, raga, dvesa, abhinivesa – this fivefold complex of affliction is the cause of the various sufferings that we undergo in life, as well as the various joys that we experience. Punya and apunya, merit and demerit, are regarded as causative factors of pleasurable and miserable experiences in life. The happiness that we experience, whatever be the nature of that happiness and whatever be the cause thereof, is considered to be an effect of the forces generated by the meritorious deeds of the past. We are not unnecessarily happy or unnecessarily unhappy. This is the meaning.

These experiences are brought about by certain causative factors. Nothing happens without a cause. Even the manner in which the psychophysical organism comes in contact with objects of pleasure is determined by the nature of the actions performed in previous lives. This explains why only certain objects can give us pleasure and certain others cannot, though it is true that every object has the capacity to fulfil a particular need of an individual. What may become the source of happiness to me may not be the source of happiness to you. This means pleasure, or happiness, or joy, whatever we call it, is a very peculiar situation that is created, and not a substance, as such. It is a condition which is brought about by other conditions – namely, the actions of the past.

The objects as they are cannot be regarded as sources of pleasure because the same object can act adversely or positively, as the case may be, in respect of different individuals. What I like immensely, you may dislike wholeheartedly for various reasons. While ‘like’ is the background of a pleasurable experience in respect of an object, ‘dislike’ is the opposite thereof, so the moment we dislike an object, it ceases to be a source of pleasure. Pleasure is accompanied by ‘like’. This is very important to remember. If dislike is present, there cannot be pleasure. The pleasure is a circumstance brought about by a psychological condition of ‘like’ for a particular object, a group of objects or a set of circumstances. Therefore, it is difficult to accept the commonplace notion that the object as such, inherently, is the cause of pleasure uniformly to all individuals, at all times, under every circumstance.

What this sutra tells us is that pleasures and pains are not inherent in the object; they are only instrumental in evoking certain sets of circumstances which bring about these experiences. What pleasures we are to enjoy in life, and what sufferings we have to undergo – all these are already determined at the time of the manufacture of this body-mind complex in the womb of the mother, because this complex of body-mind, this individuality of ours which shapes itself into a form in the womb of the mother, is nothing but the form taken by the conditions which are to bring pleasure and pain in life after the birth of the individual. It is not the physical substance called the body of the individual coming in contact with another physical substance called the object outside which will generate a third something called pleasure or pain. All this is a mutation of values – a revolution of the gunas of prakriti which form the substance of not only the body but also the mind of the experiencing individual, and also the objects which become instrumental for the experiences of the individual.

Even the link between the subject and the object is constituted of the gunas of prakriti, so that we may say that the whole drama of experience that is universal is nothing but an activity that is taking place within the bosom of prakriti. Therefore, as the sutra points out, meritorious deeds are the causes of our pleasurable experiences. If certain things cause happiness, it is because we have done some deeds in the past which have to bear fruit in the form of these experiences.

Why certain deeds bring pleasure and why others bring displeasure or sorrow is also to be explained; and it is easily explained by the nature of things. Anything – any action, any tendency of the mind – which takes a step in the direction of the unity of things will certainly become the cause of a pleasurable experience, and any tendency or step taken in the opposite direction will become the cause of sorrow or pain. Any intention of the mind, any affirmation, any conviction or feeling, or any action based on these feelings, etc., confirming the diversity of things, will become the source of sorrow, either in this life or in a future life.

An affirmation of the diversity of things is contrary to the law of things as they really are. So, an intense egoism – a self-assertive nature which cuts oneself off from the reality of others and asserts an utterly selfish mode of behaviour – naturally prevents the entry of positive forces from outside into its constitution and consequently suffers the agony of separation, the sorrow of isolation, and all the difficulties that devolve upon this attitude of the mind. Any affirmation of independence on the part of an individual is the cause of the sorrow of that individual, because sorrow is an immediate outcome in the form of an experience of the inability of the individual to get on with the resources of its own individuality.

The finitude of the individual causes the sorrow. Wherever there is finitude, there must be unhappiness. As a matter of fact, unhappiness and finitude mean one and the same thing. It is the intense feeling of limitation in every way that causes restlessness in our minds and also becomes the motivating force behind efforts towards the obviating of these causes of limitation. That is why we are active and work hard to come in contact with things outside. So, in a sense, what it amounts to is that all joys of life, whether they are physical or psychological, are caused by unselfish deeds of the past – which means to say, deeds which have suppressed the sense of individuality to some extent, and enabled the altruistic nature to manifest itself to the extent possible. Thus, pleasures and pains have a beginning and an end, inasmuch as every action has a beginning and an end. Anything that we do in space and in time is temporal; and if our deeds are the causes of our experiences, and if these deeds are temporal in their character, our experiences also should be of a similar nature.

Thus, we cannot have permanent happiness in this world, nor will we be permanently unhappy. Happiness and unhappiness will come and go; they are a transitional process. The unhappiness which one feels is, therefore, attributed to demerit, and the happiness one feels is attributed to merit. The point aimed at here is that whether it is merit or demerit – whatever be the nature of the action performed by an individual – all this is urged forward by the klesas: avidya, asmita, raga, dvesa and abhinivesa. They are trying their best to reconstitute themselves into a form or a shape which will place them under better circumstances.

What is the meaning of ‘better circumstances’? It is a circumstance which will be commensurate with the unity of things. Even the worst of actions is rooted ultimately in a pious intention, though it is moving in a wrong direction. There is nothing utterly wrong in the universe. The basis of all things, the essential root of things, is holy and divine; it is a unity of all things. But the urge of this unity when it gets distorted through the complex of space, time and individuality becomes a peculiar experience and a motivating force which we call error, misconception, wrong action, etc. Even a good thing can become bad when it takes a wrong turn – and thus, it is the turn that it takes which determines its goodness or badness, not its essential nature. Even a very good person can hit somebody on the head. Though hitting somebody on the head cannot be regarded as something good, the man himself may be very good. The turn that he has taken is bad; the substance is not bad.

Likewise, the intention behind even the so-called erroneous deeds of phenomenal life is basically a search for permanent composure, peace and stability of existence, but it is sought in an utterly wrong manner on account of involvement in space and time, which persists in an externality of things, an isolation of individuals and a selfishness of character. This is something like a good man becoming a friend of a bad man, on account of which the goodness of the person gets adulterated and loses its significance. The unitary urge that is behind things becomes spoilt by its association with the externalising tendency of space and time, which is the cause of the diversity of things and the affirmation of individualities with their asmita tattva. This is the philosophical background, or we may call it the psychological exposition, of the cause of pleasure and pain in life.

Now, the sutra takes us to a startling conclusion which makes out that there is no such thing as pleasure, really; it is all pain only. Even what we call pleasure is only a confusion of our mind. There is no such thing as pleasure in life. The real substance behind our experience is only sorrow. It is a kind of trouble that is arisen, but even this trouble may look like a joy on account of certain prejudiced habits of the mind. If it insists on taking a particular experience in a particular manner – well, it is left to its free will and choice. But if we logically analyse the substance of an experience, we will find that it has not got the character of what we may really call pleasure or happiness. It is a negative condition that is at the root of all our experiences in life. It is nothing positive. We are never in a positive state of affairs. We are always in a negative condition. And, the persistence of something positive, even in the midst of all negativities, is the cause of misconceiving pain as pleasure.

This is brought out in the famous sutra: pariṇāma tāpa saṁskāra duḥkaiḥ guṇavṛtti virodhāt ca duḥkham eva sarvaṁ vivekinaḥ (II.15). This painful character of experience is not visible to the gross mind. Only the subtle perceiving mind can know what an experience is really made of. The subtlety of vision which is required to detect this defect in every type of experience is not to be found in every individual. The organ of perception which is required to discover this fact is something super-physical.

If we put a heavy substance like a chair on our legs, the legs may not feel pain; we may feel a little weight, but it will not be so painful. But, when we touch our eyeballs with even a fine silken thread, they will feel it very much and they cannot tolerate it. Even a huge chair is not felt by our legs, but a fine silken thread cannot be tolerated by our eyes because of the subtlety of their constitution. Likewise, it is only a very subtle perception that can discover the defect in things. The gross mind cannot know that and it will take for granted that everything is all right. The mutation that is involved in the transitory nature of things in the usual experiences of life is not discoverable by ordinary perception because the mind of the individual cannot catch up with the speed of this transitory process.

Because of the inability of the mind to catch up with the speed with which things move, there is an illusion of substantiality in things, while really there is no such thing as substantiality. It is all a process. Everything in the world changes instantaneously during every moment of time, and sometimes this process of change is compared to the flow of a river or the movement of a flame, which cannot be regarded as an immovable substantiality but is a constantly moving, changing process. Though the water in a flowing river may look continuously present, it does not mean that it does not flow. Every moment we see new water in the river; we are not seeing the same water. When we go on looking at the Ganges River flowing in front of us, we are not seeing the same water the next moment, notwithstanding the fact that we are seeing a continuous presence of a river there. When a flame jets forth, it does not mean that we are seeing a single substance called the flame of fire. It is a movement. What we are seeing is a movement, but inasmuch as we are unable to perceive the gap that is there between one bit of process and another bit, we seem to be perceiving a continuity, a substantiality, a solidity, and so on.

This perception of a so-called solidity or substantiality in things is the cause of the running of the mind and senses towards objects. The mind and the senses cannot discover the mutation or the transitory nature of things, just as we cannot know that pictures are moving in a cinema. We enjoy the cinema for a reason which we ourselves do not know. Why do we enjoy the moving pictures? We cannot see the distinct pictures on account of the velocity with which they move. If we begin to see every picture frame distinctly, we cannot enjoy the movie. The perceiving capacity of the eyes – or rather, the mind – is such that it cannot distinguish between one picture frame and another on account of the speed with which the film moves.

Likewise is the case with all perceptions in life. There is a cinematographic projection presented before our eyes which is this world show, or the drama of life. We mistake the changes of things for a substantiality of things on account of a defect in our faculties of perception and sensation – not because things are as they appear to be. There is a parinama, or a change of a vritti, but this change cannot be seen.

We cannot see the change of our own bodies, even. Every moment we change; every cell changes itself. They say that after seven years every cell has been replaced, so that we are new persons altogether after every seven years. But, all this cannot be known. We are babies, we are children, we are adolescents, we are youths, and we are old men. We cannot know that we have passed through these stages because of the adhyasa, or the identification of our consciousness, which remains there as a continuous principle in the midst of these changes that are taking place in the constitution or structure of the body. There is an adhyasa of perception. There is a transference of the permanent character of consciousness upon the transitory nature of things in the perceptual process, and so there is a mistaking of the changing condition of things for a permanence or substantiality.

The so-called substantiality of things is a phenomenon that is created due to the transference of values between consciousness and the essential nature of things, but this is not known to us and we are completely kept in the dark. The truth is something different – it is parinama, or change. One who is subtle in his vision alone can perceive what is behind things. That everything in this world is changing every moment of time cannot be seen with the physical eyes, just as we cannot know the atomic structure of a physical object merely by gazing at the object with physical eyes and we require a powerful microscope to see the vibrant forces within it.

Likewise, the vibrant process which is the essential nature of an object is not detectable by ordinary physical vision. That is why it is said: duḥkham eva sarvaṁ vivekinaḥ (II.15). Only for the subtle vision it is a process, but for a gross vision it is a substance. Therefore, the parinama, or the changefulness of things, is something capable of being known by the most intense form of subtle vision. A viveki alone can know that things are not what they seem. Hence, this parinama, or changeful character of things, should give us a lesson that the pursuit of pleasure is really a pursuit of the will-o’-the-wisp, and that we feel a sensation of pleasure for a reason which is different from the constitution of the object itself. The reason is something different, and the notion is quite the contrary.

While the reason behind the perception or sensation of pleasure in our contact with objects is something, the notion we have about it is the opposite, and so we fall victim to the clutches of this perceptual process, which is the cause of the sorrow of the individual. This is the lesson that we are given by the significant term ‘parinama’ as the source of the transient character of all pleasures in life, and also the inability on the part of an individual to discover this fact.