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

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Part III: The Vibhuti Pada

Chapter 92: The Working of Nature's Law

We are now at a stage of the understanding of the processes of yoga where it has become a very serious matter, and it is gripping us with its problems and is making it hard for us to understand it. Many seekers do not have a clear idea as to why they practise yoga at all. Most people have a curious notion about it and feel that if they meditate, they will have peace of mind. Most people say, “I will take to yoga because I have no peace of mind, and it shall bring me peace of mind.” They do not know what exactly they mean. It is not merely a kind of silence of thoughts or the popular notion of peace of mind that comes to us through yoga. It is something more than that.

We cannot clearly understand what yoga is. It is not merely a mental process inwardly taking place, privately, inside the head of somebody. This is another mistaken notion of many seekers, even if they be very honest and sincere. The practice of yoga is many times regarded as an internal process of the mind. This is not the whole truth of it, though it is true that the mind is involved in the practice of yoga. It is not an internal process in the sense that it is taking place only inside our body. In that sense it is not internal. Also, it is not true that the practice of yoga is concerned only with our mind and it has no connection with anybody else. This is a wrong idea.

This real truth about yoga, about which very little mention was made up to this time, is now slowly being revealed by Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras. We have to concentrate our attention very carefully on what is being told to us in these lessons. The purpose of yoga, the practice of yoga, is not attainment of a mere composure of mind or tranquillity in the sense that we can sleep happily and we do not have any kind of disturbance, anxiety, fear, etc. If this state of mind is reached, we may think that we are in a state of yoga. It is not so. Yoga is not that. This is one point that has to be made clear.

Even if one is a very happy person, one need not be in a state of yoga. Even if one’s mind is very calm and not disturbed by outside factors, for various reasons, that is not a state of yoga. What is yoga then? Yoga is the revelation of the truth of things; and if the mind is a part of the truth, well, it is also a revelation of the truth of the mind. But the mind alone is not the whole truth. There are other things than the mind in this vast panorama of creation. The mind is one of the elements in this vast mechanism of creation.

Inasmuch as the mind is involved in this mechanism, it cannot be regarded as a whole truth, though it is also a truth. The mind is involved in certain other things, and its proper adjustment with the other things also is a necessity in order that it can keep pace with the law of truth. The mind usually, from the point of view of psychology, we may say, is a receptacle for the impressions received by the senses from the objects outside. The mind acts as a photographic film, as it were, which receives the pictures of the objects outside through the apertures of the senses. The mind, therefore, cannot contain anything which is not in the objects outside, because it is like a film of the camera. It receives impressions and is conditioned by the structure of the senses. This is also to be remembered. Whatever the condition of the mind is at any given moment of time, it is also based on certain other factors – namely, the operation of the senses and the existence of objects outside. The objects impress upon the mind through the senses and, corresponding to the nature of the impression produced by the objects, there is a transformation taking place in the mind. Therefore, the transformations of the mind, whatever they be, can be regarded as conditioned by the transformations of the objects outside.

Now we have to take a little step further in the understanding of the philosophy of yoga before we actually go deeper into its practice. What is all this about? What is yoga trying to aim at? What is its message to us? Its message is simple – namely, the return of consciousness to the Ultimate Truth. This is the message of yoga. And its practice consists in the adoption of those methods which are necessary for the return of consciousness to the Ultimate Truth, or Reality. What is the Ultimate Truth to which we have to return, which is the aim of yoga? This is the philosophy of yoga, which describes the nature of things ultimately. If we are not in harmony with the nature of things, we are supposed to be in samsara. If we are in harmony with the nature of things, we are supposed to be in the state of moksha – liberation. A person who abides by law is a free person. A person who infringes the law is a bound soul. He will be caught by the law.

A person who is caught in samsara is one who infringes the law of the cosmos, who interferes with it, violates it, and does not abide by it. A free soul is one who has attained moksha. The freedom here consists in the abidance of the law of the cosmos. When our way of thinking and living corresponds exactly to the nature of things as they are, we are free; nobody can bind us. But if there is a variance of our thinking and our way of living with the existing order of things, this order of things will tell upon us and compel us to abide by that law. That is the force exerted upon us by the world outside, and that pressure which we feel in a painful manner is what is called samsara.

We are like captives in a jail who suffer because of their own mistakes. We have broken the principles of the law, and the law is taking hold of us by the neck. If we say, “I am in a sorrowful condition; I am being harassed” – well, who is harassing us? It is not somebody else that has caused this sorrow or pain to us. It is the reaction of the law that has taken its shape in the form of the experience that we are undergoing. Yoga tries to free us from bondage of every kind, from samsara as a whole. Bondage also means ultimate bondage of birth and death. That is the greatest of bondages. That we are forced to undergo the process of birth and death shows that we are compelled by certain forces over which we have no control.

Many of our sufferings seem to be brought upon us by causes of which we have no knowledge. We do not deliberately bring sorrow upon our own selves. Sometimes, by error of thought and judgement, we may create circumstances which may react upon us as pain. Purposely we will not jump into a pit, or embrace fire, knowing that it will cause us pain. Everybody has a pain of some kind or the other. There is no one who is really happy, ultimately. Everyone has some sorrow. But who has brought this sorrow to us? Ask any person: “You are unhappy. Who has caused this unhappiness in your life?” The cause will be attributed to factors outside oneself. Nobody will say, “I have purchased sorrow and I am swallowing it.” We have not purchased the sorrow. Nobody wants it, of course. We try to get out of it, if possible. The sorrow has come upon us by certain events that take place outside us, as it were, though they are not really outside, and we have no say in this matter, it appears.

The world undergoes changes, transformations; and we have no say in this matter. Well, suppose there is an earthquake. What can we do about it? If there is a flood, we cannot do anything. If there is drought, we can say nothing. If the earth dashes against the sun, we have no say in the matter. If the wind blows violently and uproots our buildings and destroys things, we can do nothing. Hence, we can do nothing in certain important matters. It shows that there are things over which we are not masters, and these can cause us sorrow and suffering. It is not only that; the point that I mentioned, birth and death, is the greatest sorrow. “Why should we die?” is a question. Naturally we would not like to die, but we are forced to die. Now, who is forcing us to die? This has to be understood properly. Who is this gentleman that is punishing us like this with a rod of death? Even over death we have no say. We have to die; that is all.

This process of death takes place – as it is the case with the process of birth also, of course – by conditions which cannot even be seen with the eyes. They are invisible forces working, bringing about these phenomena called birth and death. And the experiences through which we pass in life are also beyond our control, ultimately. If we carefully analyse all our experiences in life, we will find that most of them are caused by factors over which we have no control, of which we have no knowledge. This is a terrible state of affairs, really speaking. We are like puppets with no say in any matter whatsoever in the rule of this world, in the government of this world. The sun can rise, or it may not rise; we cannot order it to rise. It may rain; it may not rain. The earth may remain, or it may not remain. It may continue as it is, or it may break. Well, it can do anything it likes. And, more than that, someone seems to be compelling us to be born, and is also compelling us to die.

These are certain features of phenomena which seem to be precedent to the experiences of the individual. They are cosmic factors, and these cosmic factors, or powers, or forces of nature, as we may call them, seem to have some control over us, and they force us to yield to their dictates and requirements. We are born, we pass through various experiences, painful or otherwise, and then we die. Perhaps we will be reborn even without our asking for rebirth. We are not asked whether we would like to be reborn. Nobody is going to ask us anything. We are pressed into it.

This is a great, great question before the philosophy of yoga. Can we do something about these things, or are we entirely helpless? Yoga tells us that we are not helpless as we appear to be. We seem to be helpless because we have assumed a kind of false independence of ourselves. If we would like to use a word, we are too ‘arrogant’ in our behaviour with things. And we are too egoistic to admit that there are forces beyond us. There is always a feature which asserts itself in the mind and preponderates over the mind, proclaiming its supremacy over things. “Man is the maker of things,” and various sayings are well known to us. But what can man make when we say, “Man is the maker of things”? He can make nothing. He only undergoes sorrow.

This state of affairs has arisen on account of a lack of control over the causes of our experiences. Birth, death and the process of life are experiences we undergo by the pressure of forces which are outside us. Unless we handle these forces effectively and gain control over them, we will have to be in this condition only, for all time. Yoga tells us that it is possible to handle these forces properly by an understanding of the modus operandi of these forces. There is nothing ultimately impossible, says yoga. A great solace it gives to mankind. It is possible for the human being to do everything, provided the human individual follows the prevailing law of the cosmos. Therefore, we must first understand what the law of the cosmos is, because if the law of the cosmos is not known, we cannot abide by it. If we do not know what the law is, how can we follow it? So, first of all, we need to know the law that prevails in this universe which we are supposed to follow, and which we are apparently infringing. This is the philosophy behind yoga.

The cosmos is a single integrated being – this is what the yoga philosophy tells us. Or, for the matter of that, all final philosophies of the world tell this truth to us. There is one integrated being. We may call it an organism, if we like, in modern scientific language. There is only one reality. Ekam sat viprā bahudhā vadanti (R.V. I.164.46), says also the Rig Veda. Many varieties are seen, as it were, but iva – not really. The duality of perception and the multiplicity of objects is a peculiar phenomena, a set of phenomena, which present themselves before human perception. But these phenomena are not the reality. There is a reality behind these phenomena. Why these phenomena appear at all is a question we may try to answer a little later.

The point on hand is that the universe, which rules over everything with its inexorable law, is a single government that is a compact organisation of forces with very subtle mechanisms of control over the least things in the world. No one can escape the operation of this law of the cosmos. There are mechanisms in every atom of creation that can detect the events taking place anywhere, not only inside the atom. Such is the regularity of nature, such is the clarity of the perception of nature, and such is the strictness of the operation of the law of nature. If this is the truth of things, and all things are organically related, then that ‘ultimate substance’ is the ruling force. If we would like to use the language of Samkhya, or Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we can call this prakriti, or pradhana. The ultimate substance whose law operates everywhere – inside as well as outside – is called prakriti.

Every character, every process, every activity is a modification of certain aspects of prakriti. Therefore, inasmuch as prakriti, or the ultimate matrix of things – the supreme substance of the cosmos – is the basic residuum in which inhere all the properties of things that we see in a variegated manner, this prakriti is called dharmi. Dharmi is the substance in which dharmas inhere. That which has dharmas inherent in it is called dharmi, just as we say guna and guni. Where gunas inhere, we say there is guni. The object, or the substance in which gunas inhere, properties inhere, is called guni. This is also called dharmi, because dharmas inhere. All the properties which are sensible in any manner whatsoever – visible, audible, tangible, etc. – all these properties are inherent ultimately in the supreme substance, which is prakriti. Therefore, the language used in respect of this prakriti, in this context, is dharmi; or if we do not want to use this word, we can call it ‘substance’. The ultimate substance of the universe is prakriti.

Every variety that we see here is a modification of prakriti. We have to know, to some extent, the Samkhya theory of evolution – or we may call it the usual philosophic theory of evolution. This ultimate substance undergoes a modification inwardly, and presents itself as a so-called variety within itself. This is the beginning of creation. Dharmas appear in the dharmi; gunas appear in the guni; properties appear in the substance. Activities begin to emanate from this basic residuum of matter. What we are told is that the first forms, the initial forms of evolution into which prakriti enters, are known as the gunas of prakritisattva, rajas and tamas. This is the first step prakriti takes in modifying itself; it becomes threefold instead of one being. This threefold manifestation of prakriti is not a tripartite separation of itself as three different substances, but a threefold manner of the operation of the same prakriti.

We know something about these three gunas – what is sattva; what is rajas; what is tamas. The stabilising activity of prakriti is called tamoguna, where there is fixity and attention. Where there is motion, distraction, isolation, separation, we call it rajas. And where there is clarity, transparency and intelligence manifest, we call it sattva. In these three forms, prakriti modifies itself; and everything in all this creation is reducible to these three qualities. Everything in this world, animate or inanimate, is either in a state of sattva, rajas or tamas. It cannot be in any other form.

A peculiar feature of rajas is that it creates a gulf between things, making sattva impossible of operation. In the preponderance of sattva, there is that type of transparency due to which the organic character of prakriti is observable. In spite of the so-called divisions into which prakriti has entered, one can know that it is prakriti that has become this manifold universe. This state where one can be aware of this basic unity, in spite of the apparent variety, is called sattva. But where rajas is predominant, this knowledge is completely wiped out. If rajas begins to act with great force, sattva is put down immediately. It is submerged under the waves of rajas, which dash upon one another with tremendous velocity. When rajas preponderates, sattva is put down completely, and knowledge vanishes. We cannot know what has happened.

Because of the action of rajas, the parts of nature – whether they are animate or otherwise – have forgotten the basic organic connection of things and, therefore, there is no knowledge of there being an interconnectedness of objects. Prakriti is the ultimate ruling law, which is the principal substance, and everything is only a product, or evolute. That everything is in the form of a child of that original mother of things is a thing not known to anybody because of the vehemence of the rajasic aspect of prakriti that has now taken upper the hand. That is why everybody looks separate. I am somewhere; you are somewhere. We have no connection, one with the other. Even the world is somewhere and we are somewhere.

The law of prakriti rules everywhere with impartiality. It has no partiality. In the cosmos outside as well as in the individual, it works in a uniform manner. But the individual that has been subjected to the action of rajas has found it impossible to know what has happened on account of the merger of the quality of sattva and the rising to the surface of the quality of rajas. Hence, there is a false sense of independence felt in each individual, due to which the integrating law of prakriti is lost sight of completely. And when there is no knowledge of this law of the integrating prakriti, how can we abide by that law? Who can know what the law of prakriti is? We do not know what prakriti is; we have completely forgotten it. We are made to forget it on account of the action of rajas.

Therefore, the law of prakriti weighs heavily upon us. We have forgotten. Well, if we forget, what can we do? Ignorance of the law is no excuse. We do not know the law of prakriti; we pay for it through the nose. We are punished, as it were – punished merely because we do not know how prakriti works. Due to that, we are completely oblivious of the internal relationships existing between us and the other objects. The subject and the object are cast asunder; they are rent aside as two different things altogether, and one wants to grab the other. This attitude of grabbing, appropriating and self-assertiveness on the part of any individual is the ego that is working; and that is the beginning of this great sorrow that we call samsara. This is what actually has taken place.

The objects outside, which impinge upon the mind through the senses, are nothing but part of the mind itself in some way or the other. It is inscrutable to the mind because the one cosmic prakriti has taken the form of the objects on one side and the individual subject on the other side. The Samkhya theory of evolution tells us clearly what has taken place. On the other side there are the tanmatras which are shabda, sparsa, rupa, rasa and gandha, meaning sound, touch, sight, taste and smell, and the bhutas which are prithvi, apas, tejo, vayu and akasa, meaning earth, water, fire, air and ether. We see earth, water, fire, air and ether spread out all over. That is all we see; there is nothing else except these five elements. We are sitting on the other side as the subject observing this vast nature – earth, water, fire, air and ether. We regard this world as an object because it is apparently outside our mind and our senses. That the objects – the physical elements and everything that is made up of the five elements – are all outside us, is an effect of the preponderance of rajas and the absence of sattva. If the sattva had come up to the surface, and if the rule of sattva had been the law operating in us, we would have seen through things to the interconnection among us. That vision, unfortunately, is not there due to the vehemence of the action of rajas.

Now yoga tells us, “My dear friends, this is what has happened to you. You are born, and you die, and you pass through various harrowing experiences in life because the law of the cosmos acts upon you as it ought to act. There is great justification, of course, in its actions. Why should it not act? Well, it is within its inherent nature. That you cannot understand the working of this law is the reason why you disobey the law every moment of your life, and then it reacts upon you and compels you to follow that law, which is the cause of your experiences, your karma, your births and deaths – all which can be overcome if you enter into the substance of nature by understanding its laws, by becoming cosmic itself in essence.” Towards this end, yoga takes us.