A- A+

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


Chapter 18: The Dual Process of Withdrawal and Contemplation

The existence of the mind can be known only by its function, and the main function of the mind is cognition of objects. Thus, the character of the objects has something to do with our attempt at knowing the nature of the mind itself. Direct knowledge of the mind, independent of any reference to other factors, is difficult. We have been trying to determine the nature of these objects which the mind cognises by a kind of internal relationship which it establishes with the objects. If the objects exist, the mind that cognises them should naturally exist; and, to the same extent that objects are real, we may say that the mind is also real. What is the extent of reality present in objects? Are they real, or are they not real? This question, when answered, also answers a very great question about the mind itself, because we are now trying to find out ways and means of controlling the mind – restraining the modifications of the mind, as yoga puts it. One thing has a connection with another thing, and as the links in a chain it goes on, with various aspects involved in a single problem.

In order to know the nature of the object of mental cognition, we have to have a clear idea as to what we mean by an object. What is the definition of an object as far as the mind is concerned, as far as our present problem is concerned? An object, for all practical purposes, whether it is physical or psychological, is a clearly definable character in the sense that its existence and function can be specified, as distinguished from the existence and function of other things. The perception of an object, or the knowledge or cognition of an object, is made possible by the observation, or through the observation, of certain features which we call the defining characteristics of the object. An object is tall or short, stout or thin, red or blue, heavy or light, and so on. These are some of the features of an object. By an observation of these features, we begin to have an idea about the object.

Apart from this, it is taken for granted that the object is at a distance from the subject, though the distance may be very negligible. Even if it is touching us physically, there is still a distinction between us and the object. The object cannot be a part of our own existence – then it ceases to be an object. It has to be something separate in its location and function. It has to assume a sort of independence from the cognising subject in order that it may be an object. The very meaning of object is 'distinction from subject'. What distinguishes the object from the subject? This is another subject which we have to look into a little later.

Our main concern, at present, is that the defining characteristics of the object, which are responsible for our knowledge of objects, are certain restricting features of the object – they contradistinguish the object from other objects. So a definition of an object is also a limitation of the object, by which we differentiate that object from other objects of a dissimilar character. To give a concrete example: a blue object is some located entity whose features we call the colour blue. They occupy a limited space and do not expand themselves into the whole of space. There is a limited space, occupied by the feature called 'blueness', in that object called blue. Now, what do we mean by limitation, or the occupying of a limited space? This, again, is an involved concept. A limitation, whatever be the type of that limitation, is the capacity of the cognising principle to distinguish that limited object with those features from other factors and other objects, or an environment that is different from the object, whose features are different from the features of the object. To put it very simply, we cannot see a blue object if there is no non-blue object. If everything is blue, we cannot see blue. If the sky is blue, the sun is blue, water is blue, men are blue, and women are blue – if everything is blue, then we cannot say that there is anything blue at all. So the blueness of an object is due to the presence of non-blue objects.

Ordinarily, we cannot imagine that the presence of non-blue things has anything to do with the blue object directly, or even indirectly. We do not take into consideration the presence of these things at all. We take for granted that there is a blue object, and that there are other things. Now, how do we know that there are other things? This is a vicious circle. The knowledge of other things, or something other than the blue object, is possible because of the presence of the blue object. We differentiate the non-blue things from the blue thing that we are seeing. So the non-blue thing is known because the blue thing is there, and the blue thing is known because non-blue things are there; there is relativity of perception. We cannot have an absolute perception of any object. All perceptions are relative.

To extend this argument a little further in a more generalised fashion without giving concrete examples - we cannot know the existence of 'A' unless there is 'B' to differentiate 'A' from 'B' by its own features. This can be extended further – we cannot know 'B' unless there is 'C'. How do we know that there is 'B'? There is something else called 'C', from which we have distinguished 'B'. 'C' cannot be known without 'D', 'D' without 'E', etc., until we will be horrified to see or discover that we cannot know the existence of even a pinhead unless the whole universe comes into action for it to be known. The perception of a minute object, like a needle or a pin, is made possible by an invisible action of factors which are cosmic in their nature. It is really a surprising discovery, having been logically arrived at, that even the smallest perception of the tiniest object is nothing but a cosmic perception, by an abstraction which the mind adopts for its own particular purposes, of features which are artificially distinguished from other features. Really, they should not be so distinguished.

The impact of features other than the features of the cognised object, upon the object, is such that it cannot be ignored, and it should not be ignored. There are many important things in this world whose presence we ignore. Yet, they are very important things – like sunlight. We cannot say that the sunlight is non-important, or that the rise of the sun has no meaning for us. But the rise and setting of the sun, and even the existence of the sun, is something on which we bestow the least attention, as if it is not at all concerned with us. We do not realise that our very existence hangs on the very being of the sun.

Likewise, there are very subtle operative factors and principles in our life which we take for granted, such as the working of the heart, the operation of the lungs, the breathing process, the digestive system, and even our own body. All of this is a miracle, but we take all this for granted. We do not know why the heart is functioning. Who asks the heart to function? We have not ordered it. It is not possible, even with the farthest imagination, to discover the reason behind a perpetual beating of the heart – from birth to death, without stop. Who is the impelling force behind it? We cannot understand all this because the best thing for us is to take everything for granted and never enter into scientific investigations of any sort, as this is what keeps us artificially comfortable in life. This is a dangerous position that we are taking, because it is an artificial comfort that will simply be withdrawn, at any moment, when those conditions which are responsible for the existence and function of these factors are withdrawn.

The point is that we are very foolish people, indeed, to ignore aspects which are really necessary for the perception of objects, and take a particular object as if it is everything. Yattu kṛtsnavaḍekasminkārye saktamahaitukam, atattvārthavadalpaṁca tattāmasamudāhṛtam (B.G. XVIII.22), says the Bhagavadgita in the eighteenth chapter where Bhagavan Sri Krishna says that to foolishly imagine that there is a particular located object, to consider that object as everything and then to cling to that object, ignoring all other aspects responsible for the existence of that object – that kind of knowledge is the worst kind of knowledge. Tamasa – it is the lowest type of understanding, says the Bhagavadgita. It is the lowest type of understanding because it is far removed from the truth.

It is not at all true that an object can exist independently from factors which are responsible for not only its defining features, but also even its structural pattern in existence. Not one wave in the ocean can rise unless it has some internal connection with other waves, though this connection cannot be seen with the eyes, because the total pressure of the ocean has an impact upon all the waves uniformly, in different degrees of intensity. Likewise, the pressure of the universe exerted on different centres of space, for reasons the mind cannot understand, is responsible for the appearance of objects. We can only say that no object can exist unless the whole universe is at the back of it. So when we perceive an object, we are not perceiving an object – we are perceiving the universe, pinpointed in one space and appearing as an isolated object merely due to the ignorance of the cognitive faculties.

What makes the mind imagine that there is an isolated object when the truth is something else? This will give us an insight into the nature of the mind itself. How reliable is the mind? How trustworthy is our perception of things? Let us take another example. A physical object is perceived, and even a cursory investigation into the nature of its make-up will reveal that the physical object is made up of certain chemical molecules, all which come from the five elements – earth, water, fire, air and ether. Whatever be the object – it may be a stone or it may be a mango – they are all made up of the same elements in different densities – earth, water, fire, air, ether. The mango that I see in front of me is made up of the five elements, including ether, and my body, which is the vehicle of perception through which I locate the presence of the object outside as the mango, is made up of the same five elements. But I make a distinction between myself and the mango – the mango is there, and I am here. Why is this distinction made? The distinction is made because of the space between us. But, this space is a content of the object itself.

That which distinguishes the mango from me, or the object from me, is space. This space is an element – a content in my own bodily structure, as well as in the structure of the mango outside – so that, that which appears to create a distinction between the subject and the object is also contained in the subject and the object. So there is an illusion here. The perception of an object is an illusion created on account of a peculiar error in the method of cognition. When we try to control the mind – yogaḥ citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ (I.2) – restrain the modifications of the mind, we have to understand how we can deal with this sort of mind, which is eluding our grasp of it by creating tricks and counterfeit conditions, and making us feel that we are secure while we are not.

The restraint of the modifications of the mind, the control of the mind-stuff, is nothing but an arrangement of the vrittis, or the functions of the mind, in a different pattern which is consonant with the nature of Reality rather than consonant with its own prejudiced, artificial ways of cognition of illusory objects. What yoga requires of us is to rearrange the pattern of the functions of the mind so that they are more synthesised and ordered as a whole, rather than existing in a chaotic manner, and partake as far as possible of the features of Reality rather than the features of imagined objects.

Every step in the control of the mind is a step taken in the introduction of wholeness into the pattern of mental functions, which means to say, the introduction of the character of Reality into our personality. What is the nature of Reality? What are the characteristics of Truth? To mention only a few among the many, Truth is inseparable from Selfhood. Right from the beginning, from time immemorial, ancient adepts have been proclaiming that the secret of life is in one's own self. "Know thy Self" – atmanam viddhi, says the ancient dictum, which implies that what we are aiming at is inseparable from our Selfhood.

We seem to be pursuing a distant objective even when we talk of God or salvation, for the matter of that. But this so-called distant objective, apparently in future, seems to be non-separate from our essential being. It has the character of Selfhood. The character of Selfhood is something not easy to understand, because we have heard the word 'Self' uttered so many times that it is likely to be taken for granted once again. It is not so easy to understand what Selfhood means, and this is one of the essential features, perhaps the most essential feature, of Reality.

Selfhood is that character of consciousness which makes it impossible of externalisation or objectification in any manner whatsoever. We cannot externalise ourself. We cannot become other than what we are – that is impossible. We are what we are. That impossibility of externalisation or alienation of oneself in any degree, even in the least conceivable degree, that indivisibility of substance which is what we regard ourself to be – that is the character of Selfhood. Non-objectivity, non-externality, indivisibility or divisionlessness, and a compact substantiality identical with self-awareness – all these can be regarded as the descriptions of what Selfhood can be. That is the atman. Atman is the Self, and the Self is that which cannot brook differentiation, distinction, or objectification to any degree.

If this is the character of Reality, and if we finish our definition of Reality only by saying this much, we are likely to be led into another misconception, which is, namely, that it is present, perhaps, as the substance of every individual percipient. 'A's self, or 'B's self, or 'C's self may be conceived to be a kind of substance which is indivisibly present inside the body of the perceiving subject. To remove this misconception it is also said that anything that is individual is perishable. Whatever is perceivable is destructible. Very dangerous, indeed. Anything that we can see with our eyes is perishable, and what is it that we cannot see with our eyes? All that we regard as dear and near and valuable is visible, and all that is perishable. It is perishable merely because of its individuality, because of its isolatedness. Why should isolatedness or individuality imply destructibility? This is due to the dependence of every individual on other features for its very existence.

As mentioned earlier, every object exists on account of the existence of other things. Not merely the function of an object, but even the very existence of an object is controlled by the existence and function of other things. The tendency of every individual or object to exhibit its character of dependence on others is the tendency to destruction. Death is nothing but a manifestation of this character of dependence on other factors into which it enters through the process called 'death', for re-emergence once again, putting on new features, which is called rebirth - all for the purpose of fulfilment of cosmic evolution. So it is not enough if we merely say that Truth is Selfhood, because that can lead us into the erroneous notion that it is located inside the body. It is non-individual. It is Self. It is non-individual, because if it is individual, it is perishable. To be non-individual would be to be omnipresent – all-pervading.

The terms 'atman' and 'Vaishvanara' are used in the Upanishads to characterise the Ultimate Reality. It is atman, because it is the Self. It is Vaishvanara, because it is Universal. It is Universal Self. We are likely to think that Self is some object, because of the habit of deciphering peculiar meanings in the words we utter. Even when we utter or use the term 'Universal Self', we are likely to think that some substance exists there as a universal body. It is neither a body nor a substance in the sense of any physical object. It is impossible to define in any other manner. It is something that can be realised only by practical experience. The nature of Truth, the character of Reality, is of this depth and profundity.

Self-control is the introduction of some element of the nature of Truth into the perceptions of the mind, and would be the first step of control of the modifications of the mind-stuff. We cannot control the mind by the force of will. Every stage in the practice of yoga is really a positive step in the sense that there is a healthy growth into new stages of Reality, rather than merely a withdrawal from unreality. We cannot live merely by withdrawal. We have to also live somewhere, positively. A sort of negative withdrawal is sometimes adopted for certain practical conveniences, but that has to be immediately substituted by a positive introduction of a vital, healthy view of things, because we cannot live merely in a vacuum. If we go on withdrawing ourself, it will end up only as a vacuum. But Truth is not a vacuum – it is a positivity, a plenum, and a felicity – bhuma, as the Upanishads call it.

Hence an element of bhumatva or completeness is to be introduced into our personal life. In the beginning, it is our personal life with which we are concerned. Then it goes on expanding itself in wider and wider circles. The element of Reality is, therefore, to be introduced into our perceptions, cognitions, etc., which means to say, that we have to be more organised in our thinking. To be organised in our thinking would be to be able to exercise control over our thoughts, because any organisation requires control and a system of function. What happens, generally, is that the mind begins to think whatever it likes; it has no system. It will cling to whatever is presented before it, and it has a habit of thinking that every object is real in itself, independent of every other thing. This is the tamasic knowledge referred to in the Bhagavadgita, and is an unfortunate feature of every mental cognition.

Also, the mind has a susceptibility to get distracted by every perception. It gets distracted for two reasons: either it likes, or it dislikes. They are like the obverse and the converse or reverse of the same coin – they exist at the same time. The moment we like something, we have to dislike something else. It is impossible to avoid the other side, because the very existence of 'like' implies the existence of 'dislike'. There cannot be like without dislike. This is the peculiar way in which the mind cognises things. The moment I cognise a thing, I like it or don't like it. That, again, is due to a peculiar sympathy or empathy, we may say, of the nature of the object with our own present state of affairs. 'Present state' means not merely a physical state, but also a psychological state, and sometimes a social state of affairs. All of these states are to be taken into consideration. Our present social, physical and psychological condition has something to do with the character of the object which the mind cognises, and with the restricting channel of this socio-physical-psychological factor. The mind cognises the object and evaluates the object. It is this habit of the mind that we have to control by the introduction of a deeper element into every form of cognition. This is how we can gain control over the mind.

In the Bhagavadgita, we have also been told that the senses cannot easily be controlled unless a higher principle is invoked. In every act of control, a little bit of restraint of a negative character is no doubt called for, but, at the same time, an invocation of a higher positive principle is also necessary. These two elements are called vairagya and abhyasa. Abhyāsa vairāgyābhyāṁ tan nirodhaḥ (I.12), says Patanjali. Or in the language of Bhagavadgita: abhyāsena tu kaunteya vairāgyeṇa ca gṛhyate (B.G. VI.35) – the mind can be controlled by abhyasa and vairagya, by the twofold effort of withdrawal from the non-essential and of contemplation on the essential. The withdrawal from the non-essential – the artificial, the counterfeit, the unreal, the illusory – is vairagya. The contemplation of the real, the positive, is abhyasa. Abhyasa and vairagya should be resorted to immediately. Abhyāsa vairāgyābhyāṁ tan nirodhaḥ: The nirodha or the control of the mind is possible only by the practise of abhyasa and vairagya.

So, every step in yoga is a double step, a twofold step. On the one side we withdraw ourselves from the non-essential, and on the other side we positively contemplate on something essential. In medical science or medical treatment there is a patyam, as they call it – we do not eat something which is contrary to the action of the medicine. There is a dietetic discipline in medical treatment. If we go on eating whatever we like, then the medicine will not act. That is the vairagya aspect. Vairagya is the withdrawing of ourselves from those elements which are contraindicated in the context of the action of the medicine in the body. The actual taking of the medicine is abhyasa.

Likewise in yoga, we free ourselves from the clutches of habits, prejudices and attachments, etc. in respect of factors and features which are removed from the nature of Truth, and practise contemplation on those features which are consonant with the nature of Reality. Thus, we can gain control over the mind to a great extent.