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


Chapter 65: Karma, Prakriti and the Gunas

Prakāśa kriyā sthiti śīlaṁ bhūtendriyātmakaṁ bhogāpavargārtham dṛśyam (II.18) is a very complicated aphorism which describes the nature of the object of knowledge. It was pointed out in an earlier sutra that the subject of knowledge is a characteristic that is brought about by a mixture of consciousness and externality – or, to put it plainly, the purusha and the manas, the atman and the mind. The principle of externalisation gets identified with the indivisible essence of consciousness, and there is then a sudden rise of individuality-consciousness which is the subject of perception and knowledge. The individuality aspect belongs to the externalising feature of the mind, whereas the consciousness aspect belongs to the purusha, or the atman. Therefore we have two things combined in us: we have consciousness, and also the awareness of being individuals, of being separate entities. This separateness that we feel, the affirmation of isolated existence that is a part of our nature, is due to a factor that is different from consciousness but has got identified with consciousness, and vice versa.

Hence, there is consciousness of individual being. This was referred to earlier as asmita. This asmita is the cause of all phenomenal experience in this world. The phenomenal experience is nothing but a series of processes which affirm consciousness as well as externality – continuously, without break – and cause a peculiar kind of experience in the individual which is mixed up with consciousness as well as externality. It is the principle of consciousness in the individual that brings about happiness, and it is the principle of externality that creates desire. Desire in the individual is due to the urge for externalisation of oneself, and happiness is due to the presence of consciousness in oneself. When consciousness gets identified with the movement of desire, there is unhappiness. There is a tendency of consciousness to move away from itself when it is mixed up with the force of desire, whose very essence is rushing towards external objects. When consciousness stabilises itself and frees itself from the urge of desire, for whatever reason, there is a temporary settling down of itself in itself, and we experience pleasure or happiness.

Thus, we have a complex character in our personalities, part of which belongs to one realm, and another part belongs to another realm altogether. We have the earthly part as well as the celestial part combined in us – the divine and the elemental – due to which we belong to this world as well as the other world at the same time. We are gods and brutes at one stroke. This is the reason why we have daily experiences of vicissitude and an urge for the quest of what has not been achieved, and a tendency to ask for more and more, never getting satisfied with anything that is provided. All this is the individual nature of the drasta – the perceiver, the cogniser, the experiencer of the phenomenal.

The object of experience is constituted of the elements which have subtle forces behind them as their causes. These elements are principally known as the mahabhutasprithvi, jala, tejo, vayu, akash – earth, water, fire, air and ether. These elements, by permutation and combination, form all the objects of this world – whether animate or inanimate. Every body, whether it belongs to a living organism or it is merely inanimate matter, is made up of these five elements. What we call a living organism is nothing but a physical body animated by a percentage of consciousness. When the percentage of consciousness that animates a physical body is very meagre, very feeble, then it is what we call the vegetable kingdom or the plant life, where there is only a slight indication of there being life. When it gets intensified it becomes the animal, the human being, etc.

Thus, all the variety of beings that we see in the world – in all the fourteen realms, we may say, whether living or non-living – are the product of the admixture of purusha and prakriti, consciousness and matter. This material background of the world, which is known as prakriti, is constituted of the three gunassattva, rajas and tamas, as we know very well. These gunas are referred to in this sutra as prakasha, kriya and sthiti. Prakasha means light, luminosity, transparency, resplendence – the capacity to reflect. That is the prakasha condition, the essence of the sattva guna, which is one of the properties of prakriti. It is something which is different from what we know as kinesis and stasis. It is a third thing altogether which we cannot see in this world. It is not activity; it is not inertia. It is something quite different from both. Rajas is activity, dissipation, division and isolation. Self-affirmation of individuality, desire, restlessness – all these things are the essence of kriya, or the rajasic principle. It will never rest in itself. It is always in a state of motion. The opposite of it is sthiti or stability, inertia, rootedness, fixity, which is the character of tamas. It will not move. It is the weighty fixity of character which we see in objects under given conditions. 

The physical nature is constituted of these three forces which we may call dynamism, stasis and equilibrium. Dynamism is rajas, stasis or inertia is tamas, and equilibrium is sattva. We never see equilibrium anywhere in this world. Everywhere it is either activity – movement, or there is inertia – stasis. We have flashes of sattva in conditions we call happiness or joy, but that is very rare. It is not always; it will be found infrequently.  

Prakāśa kriyā sthiti śīlaṁ (II.18). Thus, the property of any object in this world is threefold. It can rest as a potency for any of these aspects – sattva, rajas or tamas – so that no object can be in any particular state. When there is a preponderance of any particular aspect in an object, the corresponding side which is the subject is attracted towards it, and simultaneously, or conversely, there is the pull of the subject in respect of the object on account of the preponderance of certain aspects of its own nature. The objects towards which the senses move, as well as the senses themselves, are both constituted of these three gunas. Bhūtendriyātmakaṁ (II.18). Bhuta is the elements – earth, water, fire, air and ether. These five elements which are the physical substances, visible, tangible, or sensible, as well as the forces, the energies which contact these objects in perception, are made up of the same force – namely sattva, rajas and tamas.

This is something very interesting because it gives a clue to the reason why there is a possibility of perception of objects. The perception of an object by a subject is caused by the affinity that exists between the sense powers and the constitution of the objects. The affinity is the substance out of which these are made – the gunas. The senses, which belong to the subject side as the apparatus of perception of the subject, are constituted of the very same sattva-rajas-tamas complex as the objects outside are made.

Therefore, there is a desire on the part of the senses to move towards their own brethren in the outside world, mingle with them, and become one with them. This is also the point made out in a verse of the Bhagavadgita: guṇā guṇeṣu vartanta iti matvā na sajjate (III.28). Guṇā guṇeṣu vartanta: Properties mingle with properties, move towards properties. Senses move towards objects; that is the meaning. When the senses move towards objects, it is prakriti that is moving towards prakriti. It is one aspect of prakriti that is coming in contact with another aspect; or rather, it is the movement of the very same forces of prakriti within its own bosom – like one wave of the ocean dashing against another wave, which process does not imply any kind of structural difference between one wave and the other.

Hence, there is no structural difference between the senses and the objects, though the formation may look different. When consciousness gets identified with the senses, it forgets that the activity of sense perception is a process that is taking place in objective nature and does not belong to its own self. That is, anything that is externalising in its character cannot be regarded as part of consciousness, because nothing can move consciousness from its own status. It is only an apparent movement that is observed in sense perception; really, there is no movement. The nature that is outside, constituted of the five elements – earth, water, fire, air and ether – is, therefore, universal; it is everywhere. It comprehends even the subject of perception, so that we may say the process of knowledge is included in prakriti. It is not outside.

Therefore, even the highest knowledge that we can have is phenomenal. We cannot have transcendental knowledge with the help of the faculties provided to us by prakriti. That means to say, intellectually or rationally, we cannot know the ultimate Truth, because this rationality is nothing but a property of prakriti. And, whatever is phenomenal, natural, which belongs to prakriti – that alone can be known with these individual endowments. The ultimate nature of reality cannot be known through any amount of intellectual ratiocination, because this buddhi tattva, this intellectuality in us, is a transparent form of prakriti itself, so that whatever be the effort of it, it will know only what is within prakriti, and not beyond. Bhogāpavargārtham dṛśyam (II.18). The purpose of this object is to bring about experience in the individual, and then liberate it from its clutches by the gradual process of evolution. The very existence of the object has a purpose, and the purpose is to serve the intentions of the subject.

The world of nature, the vast physical cosmos in which various individuals find themselves, is supposed to be a field that is provided for the causing of necessary experiences in the individuals which inhabit it. At the time of the creation of the universe, subsequent to the cosmic dissolution, or pralaya, a new set-up of the constitution of the universe is suddenly manifest, in which one thing is determined forever – and that determination is what sort of universe is to be manifest. Out of the infinite potentialities of prakriti, only certain aspects manifest themselves as this universe. It does not mean that prakriti is made up of only these things that we see with our eyes. The very purpose of the creation of this world is to provide a field for the experience of the jivas, or the individuals. And what sort of individuals are manifest in this kalpa, or cycle of creation? It is only those groups of individuals whose karmas have matured enough to find an occasion for experience.

When unfulfilled desires which have lied buried in the individuals who have not been liberated at the time of the previous kalpa manifest themselves and begin to be ready for the maturity of experience, there is a necessity simultaneously felt for providing them with the requisite field of experience. So, there is a simultaneous creation of the individuals and the universe. The subject and the object rise together. It is not that one comes first and the other comes afterwards, because the world that is outside is not really a physical substance but a condition of experience for the totality of individuals – which are the contents of the universe, or rather, constitute the parts of the universe itself. The individuals inhabiting the universe are related to the universe as threads are related to a cloth, we may say, so that they are themselves constituting the universe. They are not outside the universe. It is very difficult to distinguish one from the other.

The bhoga,or the experience that is referred to in this sutra, is the undergoing of the pleasures and pains by individuals consequent upon their previous karmas. Therefore, this world contains only those things which are necessary for the experience of the pleasures and the pains of the various jivas which have been manifest in this cycle. It will not contain anything more, and it will not contain anything less. The world does not contain anything in excess of what is necessary; nor is it undernourished. It contains exactly what is requisite for the purpose of the experience of all the jivas – not just one or two – who have been manifest in this cycle. So, bhoga does not only mean enjoyment; it is experience of any kind. The purpose of the contact of the subject with the object is experience, and the purpose of experience is to exhaust the forces of the past karmas.

Why do we come in contact with things? Why do we want experience of any kind? It is because this experience is what is called for by the urges of the forces of past karmas – the desires, we may say. When their momentum is exhausted by experience, there is liberation, or apavargamoksha. Naturally, we become free when the term of our imprisonment in a jail is over – unless, of course, we commit another crime inside the jail itself. Then, we will not be released. Sometimes we do make that mistake. While we are provided with this experience for the purpose of exhausting the momentum of past deeds in order that subsequently we may be freed – attain moksha, or apavarga – we commit another mistake in the very process of exhausting the past karmas. That is called the agami karma, the kriyaman karma. Then this apavarga will not come. When even in prison we commit a blunder, how will we be released?

The dispassionate law, the impersonal regulation, provides that ultimately there should be freedom, because freedom is the essence of everyone. Bondage is not our essence. Bondage has come accidentally on account of karma, and when the force of karma is exhausted by experience or bhoga, freedom should come. But it does not come because of the creation of further karmas – that is a different aspect altogether. A purely metaphysical basis of the experience of the objects of the world is explained in this sutra, not the further complications that arise there, which is a different subject altogether.

The sutra tells us plainly that the object of experience is constituted of the three gunassattva, rajas and tamas. We should remember that these properties are forces which are like fluids rather than solids, which intermingle with one another, influence one another, depend upon one another, and create a quick permutation and combination of characters among themselves. They are energies, forces, rather than things which are of a solid and substantial character. These forces are the building bricks of all physical substances, all objects, everything in nature, as well as the sense-powers which perceive the objects, so that, inwardly and outwardly, everything is made up of these forces only. Na tad asti pṛithivyāṁ vā divi deveṣu vā punaḥ, sattvaṁ prakṛitijair muktaṁ yad ebhiḥ syāt tribhir guṇaiḥ (B.G. XVIII.40). Not in all the worlds, whether on earth or in heaven, can we find anything that is free from the clutches of these gunas. Not even Indra is free from this. Everything is under these forces only. There is nothing anywhere which can be regarded as outside the purview of the gunas.

Inwardly and outwardly, everything is under the bondage and subjection of these gunas. This bondage, as already explained, is caused by the identification of consciousness with the manas, which goes towards objects for the purpose of creating an experience in order that it may exhaust the momentum of past karmas for the sake of ultimate freedom, or liberation. That is the meaning of the sutra, bhogāpavargārtham dṛśyam (II.18).