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


Chapter 73: Negative Check and Positive Approach

These principles and disciplines of yama and niyama are regarded in yoga as unconditional and absolute. This is a very peculiar insistence in the system, perhaps due to the difficulties that one may have to face in case these disciplines are relaxed even a little, because the relaxation of these preparatory principles, though it may be in a very mild form and in a negligible degree, may lead to a powerful outburst of those very urges which have been kept in check for a long time by these practices. So, to avoid any such possibility of giving a long rope to these instincts and confronting them later on with pain as the result, the sutra tells us that these disciplines should be absolute – which means to say, there should be no proviso or conditional clause. There is no limitation of these principles either by circumstances, or by time factors, or by the location of one’s existence. That is the meaning of these principles being absolute.

Jāti deśa kāla samaya anavacchinnāḥ sārvabhaumāḥ mahāvratam (II.31). The disciplines of yoga are called mahavrata, the great vows, and not ordinary vows or small vows that can be broken under certain conditions. And they are sarvabhaumah, which means to say they are universally applicable, under every condition and to every student of yoga – there is no exception at all. Such a rigid prescription is made for the purpose of protecting oneself from possible encounters of forces which are undesirable, as I mentioned.

These principles are not to be conditioned by place. For example, there are people who do violence and harm of various types to animals and other subhuman beings, but they put a condition upon it, saying, “We will do it only in such and such a place,” or “We will not do it in such and such a place.” “In holy places, I will not eat meat; in other places I can eat,” is the meaning. Or, “I may catch fish – not in Rishikesh, but in some other place.” So, this is a condition of ‘place’, where the prohibited act is permitted at certain locations, though it is not allowed in some other places. It is not to be conditioned like that, says the sutra. It is not that we can do harm at one place, though we may not do it at another place. It should not be done at any place. That is the sarvabhaumah,or the universally applicable form of this vow.

It should not be conditioned by species. For example, “I will kill only fish. I will not kill any other animal.” That is conditioned by species, and it also is not allowed. The harmlessness that one has to extend to creatures has to apply to everything – whether it is an ant, a fly, a moth or a fish, it makes no difference. It should not be conditioned by place, and it should not be conditioned by species. That is the meaning of the terms ‘jati’and ‘desa. It should also not be conditioned by time. “On holy days I will not do it, but other days I will.” That also is not allowed. It should not be conditioned by a time factor; it has to be applied at all times. Samaya is occasion: “Under certain conditions and circumstances I will do it, but not always.” That also is not allowed.

Therefore, this principle, this vow of yama and niyama, is unconditioned by species, by space, place, time and occasion or circumstance. But, it is such a terrible thing to practise it. The author knows very well that the opposites of these feelings are likely to take hold of a person one day or the other, and sometimes in such a strong way that it will be difficult to face them. For that, the simple recipe provided for is that one should contemplate, as far as possible, daily, unremittingly, the opposites of these possibilities of the violation of these virtues. That is called the pratipaksa bhavana method – what is called the substitution method in psychoanalysis. Instead of pursuing an entirely wrong path, we pursue a slightly innocuous path. Though it is not far removed from it, yet it is not as harmful as the earlier one.

Vitarkabādhane pratipakṣabhāvanam (II.33) is the sutra mentioning this pratipaksa bhavana method. When there is an inclination to violate these principles due to the common weakness of human nature, one should contemplate the feeling of the opposite. Common sense tells us that one cannot contemplate the opposite at the moment one is possessed by the instinct. That is not possible. This is a kind of prophylactic that is provided so that the instinct may not come at all. It is not that we should treat the disease after it has come; it should not come. Hence, one has to guard oneself in the beginning itself by a continuous pratipaksa bhavana practice, even when the inclination towards the opposite has not arisen.

It is not that we should try to control the impulses when they have come. They should not come, because once they come, they cannot be checked. So, it does not follow from this instruction that the pratipaksa bhavana, or the counterposing attitude, should be developed in the mind at the time of the attack. The attack should not take place, because one knows very well that once it takes place, there is no remedy for it. We cannot check ourselves when we are already under subjection of an impulse. This is also a kind of daily sadhana that is prescribed.

This is something very interesting and very subtle to understand. The thinking of the opposite generally and normally implies a subtle thinking of that which we want to avoid, because it is impossible to think of the opposite of a thing unless that thing also is thought in the mind simultaneously. It should be a positive entertainment of an idea, and not merely a negative check that is placed before an undesirable impulse. When the pratipaksa bhavana ‘I should not kill’ is entertained, the idea of killing is already there in the mind. Though we are thinking that we should not kill, we are using the word ‘kill’ and also thinking of that idea. This should not be allowed in the mind because the opposing idea is not supposed to have any kind of psychological relationship with that which is being opposed.

Pratipaksa bhavana is not merely a negative substitution method. It is a method of developing a positive attitude, such as love instead of hatred. It is not thinking of non-hatred, but of love. So we need not think of non-killing. The idea of non-killing is not the point there. The point is the positive aspect of it that when there is a fraternity of feeling and affection and love, which is the movement of the mind in the direction of a unity of things – when that arises in the mind, the substitution is already adopted.

Also, a way is prescribed in one of the sutras of how this pratipaksa bhavana can be entertained in the mind. The daily contemplation on the positive aspects of these principles should be along these lines, says the sutra. What is the line? Vitarkaḥ hiṁsādayaḥ kṛta kārita anumoditāḥ lobha krodha moha pūrvakaḥ mṛdu madhya adhimātaḥ duḥkha ajñāna anantaphalāḥ iti pratipakṣabhāvanam (II.34). One has to contemplate the consequences of one’s actions. It is because we cannot properly have an insight into what will follow from what we do that we commit a deed which is objectionable.At the time of the impulse manifesting itself into an action, the consequences are forgotten because the impulse takes a stand at that given moment of time on a particular aspect of the experience only, and completely ignores the other aspects. We get angry and we want to hit somebody on the head. That is the only aspect that comes to mind, and no other aspect comes, such as, “What will happen afterwards if I do this?” We are not bothered about what will happen afterwards. The mind will not allow us to think like that because if it does, the impulse will get weakened. Hence, the vehemence of the impulse mainly depends upon the restriction of the impulse to a particular mood and emotion, completely oblivious of consequences.

The consequences should be deeply pondered over, says the sutra. What are the consequences of a wrong deed? Nature will revolt against us. It is not only human beings that will revolt, because a wrong does not mean wrong done against a human being merely. It is not the violation of a social principle; that is not what is meant by ‘wrong’. A wrong is that which is contrary to the law of Truth itself. So, the natural order of things will be set against us, the consequences of which are obvious. We have a false notion that we can do a wrong very secretly so that others may not know it and so the consequences will not follow, but this is not true. This is a wrong notion that people entertain.

The wrong is not done privately, though it may be behind a screen and not observed by other human beings. If a wrong is really a wrong, against the law of nature, there is no such thing as doing it behind a screen, because nature is within and without. It is all-pervading, and so it will set up a reaction in its own way at a particular time. The consequences of a wrong deed are what are known as the nemesis of karma; the retribution law begins to operate. It can operate in our own personality, it can operate in society, or it can operate in a future birth. It can be in any place, at any time, and in any manner whatsoever.

If it is a purely physical violence that we have committed against our own body due to overeating or overindulgence of any type, the retribution will be in the form of a physical illness and a diminution of physical vitality, and such other things. If it is something connected with other people, which is social in principle, it will have a reaction from society. But if it is a subtle thing which cannot be observed easily, and a secret wrongdoing has been projected by the mind against what we call natural justice and law, the retribution may follow in a future birth, or it may be even in this very birth if the wrong is very intense.

Kṛta kārita anumoditāḥ (II.34).Here, a very cautious definition is given in regard to wrongdoing. A wrong is not necessarily what we directly do with our hands. Even if we cause it to be done, it is a wrong, and a share of it will come to us. “You go and do it,” we tell somebody. Somebody else has done it, but we have caused it to be done. We have been the incentive behind it; we have instigated that action. The instigator will certainly be bound by the nemesis of the action, because the cause is not the actual doer; the instigator is equally a cause since he has pushed the person as an instrument of action. Therefore, one who does it deliberately is the cause, one who causes it to be done also is a cause, and one who approves of it also is a cause – anumodita. “Well done. Very good.” If we say that, we will get some share of it.

We cannot simply go scot-free like that saying, “I have not done anything.” We have approved of it. We may approve of it verbally, or even mentally. “Oh, very good; it should be like that. The fellow deserved it.” If mentally, we think like that, we will get some share because we had that thought. Even if a rat is being killed by a cat, we should not feel satisfied: “This wretched thing has gone. It was troubling me yesterday.” We may not say it, but we feel that it is very good. This kind of feeling is atrocious. Somebody’s pain cannot cause us pleasure.

Kṛta kārita anumoditāḥ (II.34). The doing, the causing to be done, and the approval – all three are equally culpable. The consequences will be equal, and one cannot be exempted from the consequences of those deeds. Here, the psychological aspect is more important than the verbal and the physical. Even a thought in this direction is subject to this law. As a matter of fact, thought is real action. The physical deed is not as important. What the mind thinks, feels and affirms – that is the real action. Though physically we have not done something, mentally we have committed a violation that will bring retribution. Actions which are wrong – either done, or caused to be done, or approved – have their painful consequences. Let one contemplate this truth every day. We cannot simply be happy, thinking that nothing will happen to us, because every little wrong deed that we do, every little wrong deed that we have caused to be done in one way or the other, even subtly or indirectly, and anything that we have abetted – even that will come on our heads one day or the other. Knowing these things, understanding the subtlety of this law and the inexorable manner in which this law works, one has to be very cautious in doing a very wrong thing.

Vitarkaḥ hiṁsādayaḥ kṛta kārita anumoditāḥ lobha krodha moha (II.34). These wrongs are done due to the impulses of greed, anger and infatuation. The impulses do not arise on account of knowledge or wisdom; they arise on account of the absence of wisdom. Inasmuch as the causative factor of the wrongdoing is ignorance, naturally we can imagine the nature of the consequence and what will follow from it. Ignorance is the cause. “Why have I done this mistake? It is because I could not understand the situation properly.” Ignorance is at the background, and so there is the rise of the impulse. Kama, krodha and lobha are the causes of evildoing of any kind, and they are based on ignorance, because a person who understands a thing correctly will not have these impulses acting so forcefully. Knowing that these impulses have arisen on account of ignorance, greed, anger and confusion of thought and, therefore, knowing what will follow from this attitude and action, one should refrain from wrongdoing.

Mṛdu madhya adhimātaḥ (II.34). The consequences that follow are either mild, mediocre or intense, according to the nature of the action. What is the type of harm that we have done? Accordingly, we have the retribution. How much harm have we caused – to what quantity and what quality? In that same measure we will get it back – in that quantity and in that quality. This cannot be escaped. A little harm will also have its own results. One cannot escape the law even in the smallest measure. Even in the tiniest degree it cannot be overlooked or violated. Whatever the degree be in which it has been violated, in that degree it will react, just as the voltage of an electric wire will determine the nature of the kick that it gives to us when we touch it, or the consequences that follow from that. Likewise, the actions which are mild will bring a consequence of a similar nature, and so on, the point behind which being that even the least wrong cannot escape the notice of natural law. We cannot say, “After all, it is a very small thing I have done.” Even the small thing will be noticed by the shrewd eye of nature.

There is a story in the Mahabharata where Mandavya, when he was a small boy, pierced the wing of a moth with a broomstick. He was only a small boy; he knew nothing of the consequences of karma. He pierced the wing of a moth with a little stick. That was all he did – and afterwards he had to be put on a spear which pierced through him, bottom to top. Some stories are like that; it is a very interesting thing. That is to say, it makes no difference whether actions are knowingly done or unknowingly done – nature will observe them. The law is a very peculiar thing. Ignorance of it is no excuse. This is a very famous legal cliché: “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” We cannot say, “I did not know it, so I made a mistake. Please excuse me.” If we did not know it, then we will know it hereafter. Nature is a very hard taskmaster, very severe in dealing blows, and there is no excuse at all. Though we call her Mother Nature, she’s a very severe mother, not an ordinary one, and will not exempt us from any of our wrong deeds.

Duḥkha ajñāna anantaphalāḥ (II.34). What follows in the end? Great sorrow follows. Sorrow follows because a wrongdoing produces a samskara in the mind, and we become susceptible to doing it, and then repeating it. Once we have done it, the mind develops an inclination towards the repetition of that action. This is a peculiarity of the mind. Any habit that is repeated becomes second nature, and we become that. Then we need not contemplate doing it; we will be forced to do it. Just as a river inclines towards a depth, we will be inclined towards this action because once we have done it, a second time we have done it, a third time we have done it, and now also we will do it.

Intellectual inhibition of these vrittis may not succeed always when there is an emotional pressure from behind on account of the samskaras already ingrained in the mind due to the action that has been perpetrated. Hence, sorrow will follow sorrow, one after the other. Ananta duhkha will follow; endless pain will be the result if a proper check is not imposed upon the vrittis at the proper time, in the proper measure.

Ajñāna anantaphalāḥ (II.34). Ignorance will also get thickened by the repetition of these deeds because the knowledge of right, or rectitude of righteousness, will get obscured by a continuous perpetration of these actions. The conscience will become blunt after some time. A cannibal has no conscience, we may say. He cannot feel that he is doing something wrong, because there is no conscience at all. It is absent. He is doing action like an automaton. What conscience has a tiger when it pounces upon a cow? It is acting upon its instinct, which is its own nature. Likewise, this impulse will become one’s own nature, like the animals, and there is no question of checking it afterwards.

The impossibility of checking the instinct arises on account of a total ignorance of the law of nature that is behind it. It is a total ignorance, completely obliterated. It is not there at all, even in the least degree. We cannot know what is happening and why we have done it. This is how the instincts work. Instincts are the vehemence with which the personality acts or reacts on the basis of a total ignorance of the ultimate law of things. And, the sutra says that the sorrow must continue endlessly. We cannot say when it will end, because later on it will become a kind of vicious circle that cannot be broken. A habit is the seed that we sow for a vicious circle. However much we may try to escape from it, we will not succeed, because habit is nothing but a natural inclination of our whole personality. How can we change an inclination which is our own nature?

Therefore, the advice here is that this pratipaksa bhavana method should be practised every day with a positivity of background behind it rather than making it merely a negative check that is imposed upon the instinct. Though in the beginning it looks like a negative check, later on it should become a positivity of approach. In the beginning it is a law – thou shalt not. But, that is not the whole of religion. Religion does not consist merely in ‘thou shalt nots’. It is only a beginning stage which has to lead later on to a positive approach – to an understanding of the unitary nature of things. Love is positive, while non-hatred may be regarded as its negative aspect. It is not enough if we merely not hate, or if there is only an absence of hatred; there should be also positivity, which means to say there should be affection. Even if we do not do harm, we may not be doing any good. This ‘not doing any good’ may produce, one day or the other, a tendency to do harm, because we cannot keep the mind blank.

A vacuous personality is a dangerous one; it should be always filled with something positive. In the beginning, the pratipaksa bhavana, which is initially a negative check, is a necessary prescription for the purpose of enabling us to develop the higher qualities of affection, love, and a total positivity of approach in everything. As a positive approach is more difficult than a negative one, the pratipaksa bhavana method is prescribed first. The method of substitution is not always successful, as psychologists know very well. Sometimes we have no other alternative; we have to adopt it, because the intention of this substitution is ultimately sublimation, not opposition. The pratipaksa bhavana is sometimes akin to opposition. We are counterposing the vritti by another vritti which is just the opposite of it. When it is channelised along some other activity or some other type of feeling, it becomes a substitution, but all these are preparations for sublimation of the vritti in a higher mood.

Unless the instincts are completely boiled and melted into the menstruum of a cosmic vritti which is love of God and the ultimate goal of life, they cannot be controlled, because a snake is a snake, whether it is inside a box or moving and wriggling outside. Whatever it be, it is the same snake. An inactive snake does not cease to be a snake; it is still only that. If we touch it, it will raise its hood.

Therefore, the instinct should not be allowed to remain even by checking because while in the beginning the check is necessary in the form of an implementation of a law since there is no other alternative at that moment, it should not be the end of it. Afterwards more positive, educative methods have to be adopted in respect of that instinct because the instinct, or the impulse, is nothing but we ourselves moving in a wrong direction. We are not contemplating or looking at something which is other than us. What we call the instinct is nothing but we ourselves moving through space and time towards an object of sense, either in love or hatred. Who can control oneself? One can control anything, but not oneself. Hence, we can imagine how hard this effort is. Therefore we are asked to contemplate – unremittingly – the virtues, or the aspects of righteousness, which are necessary to divert these undesirable vrittis along the channels of those contemplative features which are the characteristics of the ultimate goal of life.