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


Chapter 46: The Barrier of Space and Time

Patanjali gives his doctrine of meditation: vitarka vicāra ānanda asmitārūpa anugamāt saṁprajñātaḥ (I.17) – the first stage of which is described in another sutra: tatra śabda artha jñāna vikalpaiḥ saṅkīrṇā savitarkā samāpattiḥ (I.42). The secret of contacting an object in meditation is revealed in this sutra. The process of meditation is a gradual attempt at assimilating oneself with the object, and absorbing the character of the object into one's own being. This attempt is foiled by certain obstructing factors which generally do not come to the purview of one's knowledge, inasmuch as the very condition of knowing an object is a part of one's own individual nature; therefore, one's personality and one's attitude to things get automatically identified with the process of knowing an object – so much so that a correct knowledge of any object would be impossible as long as this conditioning factor continues.

Here, in this sutra, Patanjali identifies the conditioning factors from which the object as it is should be freed in order that there may be a real communion of oneself with the object. In common parlance, even in ordinary life, there cannot be a real friendship between two persons if both persons are inwardly and secretively conditioned in their minds, and if there is already present in their minds a subtle pre-supposition which will prevent a real friendship between two persons. What meditation aims at is nothing but an ultimate friendship of oneself with everything – such a friendship that it will never break, it will never cease, and it will know no end. 'Every union ends in separation,' is an old saying and a matter of practical experience. But Patanjali, and yoga in general, prescribe a method of coming into union with things in such a way that there shall not be any further separation, and no bereavement of any kind.

But this ideal is made impracticable due to certain obstructions mentioned – the main obstruction being what Patanjali in his sutra says is jnana of the object: tatra śabda artha jñāna vikalpaiḥ saṅkīrṇā savitarkā samāpattiḥ (I.42). There is a mix-up taking place in our perception of an object, on account of which there is no correct perception. We cannot look at an object as it is in itself, because of a predisposition already present in our minds to judge and to evaluate the object from a particular angle of vision or standpoint. The jnana mentioned here does not mean Self-realisation or wisdom in the spiritual sense; it simply means the idea of the object. Our idea of the object is the obstruction to our union with the object. This applies to each and every object in this world – organic or inorganic – human, subhuman or superhuman.

Anything that is conditioned by our idea will refuse to come near us, because the idea that is present in our minds is a barrier between ourselves and the object. The idea of an object is specifically that peculiar feature which we call space, time and relation. This is something very inscrutable, and it is this inscrutable factor that we have to isolate from the object in meditation. Various stages of such a meditation are prescribed. It is not done at once, at one stroke, because we cannot understand what it would be to conceive of an object independent of such notions as related to space, time and its connection with other people and other things. It is humanly impossible to conceive of an object as not located in space. Whatever be our attempt, it will fail, because non-spatial objects are inconceivable objects; therefore, there is no such thing as contemplating an object free from this factor. But unless this freedom is attained, true union with the object cannot be attained. This is either a difficulty in meditation, or a success in meditation.

As Patanjali says, there are three factors which we mix up in the consciousness of an object – sabda, artha, jnana. We cannot think of an object without associating a designation, a name, an epithet or an attribute with it. We cannot think of a tree without thinking the name 'tree' at the same time. This is the association of sabda with artha, or the object as such. If we try to think of anything in this world, immediately we also think of the name of that object. The object as such has no name. Originally there are no names to objects – neither you have a name, nor I have a name. Somebody foisted something on us for the sake of practical convenience, and this peculiar foisting has become a reality; it has become an encrustation upon our personality, so that we have made it an additional factor of our personality.

Patanjali says that this prejudice and the futile identification of the object with an extraneous collocation of words – namely, the designation of the object – these two factors should be separated. What is the object when it has no name? Can we conceive of such an object? Do not call it a tree. Who said that it is a tree? It can also be called a stone if the dictionaries all over the world agree that what we call a tree today is really a stone. These are only names that we have given for the sake of a certain convenience. But we do not think that they are merely abstract or unsubstantial epithets that have been coined by us for the purpose of practical convenience.

We identify the name with the object in a very substantial manner, so that the name becomes a concrete something rather than a mere abstract universal that we have conceived for tentative convenience. We can imagine the importance of name, as it is associated with an object. If something is said for or against a particular name, the object that is rightly or wrongly associated with that name is stirred up into action in accordance with the suggestions made through the invocation of that name. We are so much identified with our name that we do not think that we can be anything other than the name, and this is an obstacle in meditation. If an object is presented before us for the purpose of meditation, we must try to think of it as being divested of its name. Suppose no one had given a name to it; what would it be? It would be slightly different.

Even you would be a little different if you had no name at all. Just imagine that you have no name; nobody is to call you, nobody is to designate you, and there is no purpose served by identifying you with a particular attribute of name. You will certainly see that it will make some difference in your life. What difference it will make cannot be theoretically explained; it is a question of practise. Suppose you were to live alone in an isolated place for some years where no one would speak to you, and there would be no necessity for anyone calling you, designating you or identifying you with a name. That would be a new type of experience; something startling to you. "I have no name, nobody calls me and I have no purpose in identifying myself with a name." This name, therefore, is not merely a set of words, but a psychological accretion that has grown over us. We should not think that the name is merely a word that we utter; perhaps it is ultimately so, but it has become much more than that. It has become a concrete something, which it really is not, and it has become an additional attribute of the object, so that we cannot think of the object minus the name.

The matter is made worse by the idea that we have of the object. This is the jnana of the object. Our idea of the object is not the same as the object. Now, this is a very difficult subject. It has a great philosophical connotation as well as a psychological meaning. The idea of an object is not a simple notion within our heads concerning the object, even as the name of the object is not merely a set of words; it is something more. The idea of the object is a greater obstacle to our communion with the object than the name. While the name is an obstacle, the idea is a greater obstacle. It is a thick wall between the object and us, and it has to be pierced through. The idea is very strange, indeed. We look upon each other as objects.

When I look upon you as an object, I have a peculiar notion about all things associated with you. First of all, an object, according to our usual definition and experience, is such a thing that without it we can exist. I can exist without you. This is the meaning of my definition of you as an object. You are not an essential part of my life. Even if you do not exist, I can exist. This is the meaning of an object. But if you are a little part of me, if I can see a little of subjectivity in you, I begin to love you. It would then be difficult for me to live without you. I will cry if you go away or if you are dissociated from me. I feel grieved because my subjectivity has been impregnated into your personality, so that your being has something to do with my being.

The objects in this world have a double character. They have a relational connection with us on account of which we like them, or dislike them, or evaluate them in a particular manner. Secondly, they have a substantiality of their own. We are not really concerned, ultimately at least, with the relationships that seem to subsist between the objects and ourselves. The intention in meditation is to pierce through these outer forms and names to get to the substance of the object. But the substance of an object cannot be seen with the physical eyes, because the idea of the object that we have in our minds is there like a thick veil, not only preventing our real knowledge of the object, but also distorting the character of the object in such a way that we have a wrong notion of the object.

First of all, we do not have a correct notion of the object because it is veiled due to certain conditioning factors that were mentioned. These conditioning factors twist the character of the object and make us feel that the object is something different from what it really is. It is then that we develop peculiar attitudes towards it – all of which lead to our bondage and constitute our sorrow. Our idea of the object is to be diminished gradually to a thinness, to an evaporating transparency, until we can see the object reflected clearly – as in a mirror or a clean glass – and not through a prism. Anything that passes through a prism is split and sometimes distorted, according to the structure of the prism. Our wish and our hope is that the object in meditation is brought into affinity with us, and not kept as a stranger in front of us. For this, the stages of meditation are prescribed. It is a very difficult job – a kind of intellectual and psychological circus, we may call it. It is a great feat, indeed, to conceive of an object independent of an idea about it and the name that is associated with it.

Patanjali says that the idea about the object is an obstacle to the correct knowledge of the object. But what does he mean by the idea of the object? How does it stand as an obstacle? If we have to experiment on this peculiar doctrine, we have only to turn our attention upon our own self, and find out if there is a difference between our idea of our own self and our idea of another person or another thing. Is there some distinction between the manner we look upon ourself and the manner we look upon anything else in the world? Truly speaking, we cannot conceive ourself as located in space; that is not our essential feature. We have a peculiar individuality of our own. Each person, each thing, each substance in this world has a status of its own, and this status is non-spatial. Though it may look that our body is in space, our idea about ourself is not spatial – it is something unique in itself. And this unique character of the idea that we have about our own self distinguishes ourself from other objects in this world.

We have a unitary character in ourself, and to carefully note the difference between our experience when we contemplate ourself, and our experience when we contemplate another thing, we have only to practise the almost impossible technique of identifying the characters of the object with our own characters – which is the beginning of meditation. We will find that our attitude towards the object changes when the characters of the object get identified with our own characters. This again is not an academic question, it is a matter of experience and practice. Every day this method should be put into practice. The chosen object may appear as if it is located in space outside for the time being; then it is that we have certain externalised attitudes towards the object, and then we also feel a kind of insecurity in respect of the object, which is born out of the feeling that we may be dispossessed of the object, or separated from it. The object may become invisible, and we may not be able to possess it.

All such difficulty evaporates, vanishes, when it becomes a part of the contemplation of our own self. Can we place ourself for the time being in the status of another person, or another thing, or another object, and forget ourself for the time being? Or rather, to put it the other way, can we transpose the location of the object into our own being? In either case, our personality goes. The personality or the character of the object alone persists. The idea of the object outside us slowly gets diminished in intensity, and we take the position of the object.

The highest goal of yoga is what is known as samadhi. It is the absorption of the subject into the object, and vice versa. This is indicated faintly in the very commencement of the practice, namely, the contemplation of the characters of the object, so that the mind takes the form of the characters of the object. We were studying, awhile back, that in every act of perception the mind assumes the shape of the object, and our feelings are conditioned by the form which the mind takes in perception. The feelings that we entertain in ourself are nothing but the deeper shapes which our mental forms take due to habitual perception. If we continuously perceive an object, in a sustained manner, without any change in the observation of it, this becomes the background of a feeling in respect of that object, so that the object assumes a reality in front of us. Though Patanjali mentions that this is the lowest form of meditation, for all practical purposes it is an impossible technique, because the mind has not been taught to think in terms of the assimilation of the characters of an object into one's own being. We always look 'at' an object. We see an object as unconnected to us; and meditation is the method of establishing a connection between the object and oneself.

We may wonder, have we no connection among ourselves? Are we bereft of relationship, truly so? This is the reason why we can become enemies at any moment. Whatever be the friendship between persons, it can break in a second under certain circumstances, and it is because real friendship does not exist. But real friendship must exist in order that there can be real knowledge and intuition or insight into the nature of things. As we live in the body and in the context of social relations merely, bereft of insight into the essential nature of ourself and of others, we are always in an insecure position, so that we have to be at daggers drawn in respect of everyone. Though appearing to be related, yet we are really not related. This is the peculiar, unfortunate character of the idea that we have about an object.

This is not true to the nature of the object. Every idea that we have about any object in this world is not true to the nature of that object; therefore, there is an attempt of the object to flee away from us. Sarvaṁ tam parātād yo'nyatrātmano sarvaṁ veda (B.U. II.4.6), says the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Everything shall run away from us. Nothing will come near us in this world if we have an idea of the object in this manner, as if it is an outsider, a foreigner, or a stranger unrelated to us, and of which we have only a knowledge which is quite apart and away from what it really is. The gradual assimilation of the character of an object into one's own self is the beginning of meditation. For this, an object must be chosen.

The methods prescribed by Patanjali in his sutras are fairly advanced ones. Though he says they are for beginners, they are not for beginners. They are very difficult because, for him, the object, even in its lowest stage, is the entire physical manifestation, what is known as the lowest manifestation of prakriti in the form of the five elements – earth, water, fire, air and ether. He expects us to perform the difficult feat of conceiving the totality of physical matter as the lowest manifestation of prakriti, and then contemplate it as the substance out of which everything else is made, including our own body. The bodies of individuals are constituted of five elements – earth, water, fire, air and ether – and the world outside is also made up of the same substance. So, at once, this doctrine of the similarity of the constitution between the object and the subject introduces a kind of satisfaction into the mind of the meditator. "After all, there is a substantial sympathy between me and the object. I am not meditating on something impossible. The object before me is not a stranger or a foreigner to me. It is constituted of the same substance as my body, so that there is attraction of one in respect of the other.

In fact, the reason behind the possibility of sensory perception of an object is the similarity of structure of the sense organs and the objects outside it. This is the meaning of the passage in the Bhagavadgita: guṇā guṇeṣu vartanta iti matvā na sajjate (B.G. III.28). The gunas of prakritisattva, rajas and tamas – which are the substances of prakriti, are the formative principles of our sense organs, and they are also the substances out of which the objects are made. These gunassattva, rajas and tamas – operating externally as objects and inwardly as senses, become the cause of attraction of the senses and the reason behind the very perception of the object by the senses.

It follows from this that, essentially, an object is not isolated from the subject. It only appears to be isolated because of a peculiar notion that we have about space and time. The space that cuts off the object from the subject, and makes the subject feel that the object is outside, is a part of the five elements – earth, water, fire, air and ether. These are the substances of the subject as well as the object, physically speaking at least.

But it is very strange that one of these elements, namely space, creates a peculiar circumstance in our perception, and manages to wriggle out the philosophical conviction that one must ultimately have of the identity of the object and the subject on account of the similarity of substance and structure, and creates a gulf between the subject and the object. How is it that space makes a distinction between the subject and the object, while space is a part of the very substance of which the objects are made, and of which our bodies also are made? This is a strange illusion, and we cannot explain it logically. Nobody can understand how such a thing is possible. The very element which has gone to form the substance of an object, and which is of the subject also, becomes the reason behind the difference between the subject and the object. And the peculiar character of this spatial distance between the subject and the object is also the reason behind our concept of time, which is associated with the motions of things.

So, space and time become the real barrier between the meditating consciousness and the object before it. It is this presence of space and time that is responsible for our idea of the object as being outside, as distinguished from oneself, and as conditioned in many ways. These conditions must be obviated before an attempt can be made to assimilate the object into one's own being.