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


Chapter 55: The Cause of Bondage

It is pointed out once again, for clarifying the path of the seeker, how one has got into bondage and what its significance is in the effort at the practice of yoga meditation. What is the bondage from which we wish to be free? What is actually meant by this thraldom of samsara? How has it come about? Why is it that we are full of sorrow and we have no peace? This is mentioned in a single sutra, avidyā kṣetram uttareṣāṁ prasupta tanu vicchinna udārāṇām (II.4), which states that the series of processes by which the individual soul has got into bondage consists of nothing but pains and pains, one after another, in various degrees of involvement.

As far as the origin of bondage is concerned, the common background of all schools of thought and philosophy is the same – namely, ignorance of the true nature of things. ‘Avidya', ‘ajnana', ‘nescience', etc. are the terms used to designate this condition. What actually exists is not known; this is called avidya. We cannot, by any amount of effort of the mind, understand what is actually there in front of us; and whatever we are seeing with our eyes or think in our mind is not the true state of affairs. This is called avidya. We may logically argue, deduce, induce, but all this is like the definitions given by the blind men who touched different parts of the elephant. Every school of thought is like one blind man touching one part of truth and giving a partial definition of it, but never the whole definition of it. On account of a partial grasp of truth, there is a partial attitude to life; and everything follows from that, one after the other.

This principle of bondage is the subject of the vital discussions in Buddhist psychology known as Paticcasamuppada, or dependent origination. Every successive link in the chain of bondage is dependent in one way or the other on the previous link. There is then a circular action of these links – one hitting upon the other, intensifying the other and compelling the other to act more forcefully than it did earlier, so that it may look that we are becoming worse and worse every day, rather than better. This is because of a peculiar psychological process that takes place which is difficult to fathom on account of our involvement. Bondage is nothing but involvement, and not an ordinary type of involvement – a very, very complex type so that there is attack from every side. And, apparently, there is no escape.

The inability to perceive the true state of affairs, the absence of an understanding of the correct relationship among things, creates a false sense of values. This sense of values is not merely an abstract imagination, but is a solid metaphysical entity that crops up. Avidya is not merely absence of knowledge – just as, as the expounders of this sutra tell us very humorously, the word ‘amitra'in Sanskrit grammatically means ‘no friend' or ‘non-friend', though actually it means an enemy. A non-friend is not a non-existent person; he is a very existent enemy. Likewise, even as amitra does not mean the absence of a friend but the presence of an enemy, avidya does not merely mean the absence of knowledge but the presence of a terrific foe in front of us, which has a positivity of its own. It exists in a peculiar way which eludes the grasp of understanding.

So a negative type of positivity is created, we may say, called the individuality, which asserts itself as a reality even though it is based on a non-substantiality. The individuality of ours is insubstantial, like vapour. It has no concrete element within it. It can be peeled off like an onion, and we will find nothing inside it, but yet it looks like a hard granite adamantine being on account of the affirmation of consciousness. The reality that is apparently visible in the individuality is borrowed from that which is really there. The support comes from that which really exists, which is True Being, and this support is summoned for the purpose of substantiating something which is utterly false and wholly untenable. This untenable position is called self-assertion, affirmation, egoism, asmita, ahamkara, etc. All this has happened on account of not knowing correctly the interrelationship of things. There is a dependence of every factor on every other factor so that individuality can have no ultimate value in the scheme of things, because the very term ‘individuality' implies an isolated reality of a part of the cosmos, but this is ruled out entirely by the inner structure of things which demands that every part hangs on some other for not only its existence, but also its function.

The inability to grasp this truth is the cause of a hobgoblin that is in front of us – namely, the individuality, the jivatva, and everything that follows from it. The asmita tattva that is mentioned as the effect of avidya is a centralisation of consciousness, a focusing of it at a particular point in space and time, and a hardening of it into an adamantine substance which gets encrusted more and more by repeated experience of sense contact which confirms the false belief that the isolated existence of the individual is a reality. We get confirmation every day that our individuality is real due to the pleasure that we receive by sense contact. If our personal existence – the individuality – is not real, how does pleasure come, which is real? We live on the bank account of the pleasures that we derive by the contact of the senses with the objects outside. And every contact is an added confirmation of the notion within that our individuality is a substantial reality, so we go on pursuing the pleasures with added zeal, greater enthusiasm and more vigour. This again adds a greater confirmation to the already existent notion that our individuality is real.

Piles and piles of notions of this false individuality, asmita, get grouped together, and there is an impregnable fortress created in the form of what we are as individuals. It looks as though now the cart is before the horse – that which is real has become unreal, and that which is unreal has become real. The thing that has really evolved as an effect becomes the cause, as it were; and that which is the cause looks as if it is the effect. The cosmic substance out of which the individuals have evolved has become the object of perception of the individuals, and the latter have usurped the position of the cause of cognition, experience, etc. notwithstanding the fact that they are evolutes. They have come further than the original substance which is cosmic. This is a very beautiful process described in the Aittareya Upanishad: how the cause can become the effect and the effect can become the cause by a topsy-turvy positioning.

Everything is in a state of confusion on account of this situation that has arisen, and there is a total misconstruing of all the features that rule this world. Conclusively, we may say that everything that we think is a wrong thought. There is nothing like correct thinking as far as the reality of the individual is concerned. When the very basis is wrong, how can anything that proceeds from it be correct? This is the history of the production of asmita out of avidya. We can imagine how far and to what extent avidya is real from the direct experience of the extent of reality that we see in our own individuality, which is asmita, the effect of avidya. How far are we real? From that, we can judge the reality of avidya, from where we have come. How solid and concrete are we in our individuality? How hard is the personality? How adamantine is the ego? How flint-like is our experience? From that we can understand how substantial avidya can be and must be, though it is ultimately an airy nothing.

In one place Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj has mentioned in a humorous way that the mind is something which is really nothing, but does everything. The mind is something which is really nothing but does everything. This is the world – it is really not there, but it is terrible. That terrific character of it, which is not there, is due to something else that has taken place. There is a transposition of values, on account of which the reality of ‘unreal' becomes possible. The character of the real is injected into the apparent formation of the unreal, and then the unreal looks like a reality. We transfer ourselves to the objects in our perceptions, and then it is the reality of the background of our being which is the cause for our belief in the reality of objects. All this is unknown because the causative background of our own individuality cannot be known by us since we cannot climb on our own shoulders, or look at our own back, or see our own eyes, etc. Because of the fact that the causes of our individual existence cannot be known by the faculties with which the individuality has been endowed, we are caught up in a confusion – a mess, which is a total disorder.

This kind of disorder, whose essence is in our individuality, asmita, is the product of avidya; and this concretised individuality of ours is the source of our loves and hatreds, likes and dislikes. We like certain things and dislike certain things because of the sympathy which a peculiar structural pattern of an individual feels with the structure of certain groups of things outside, with which it gets related for the sake of a temporary feeling of completeness. No individual can be complete. Everything is a part. Therefore, everything is restless; it has to be restless. But this restlessness, pain and anguish felt by each partial experience of individuality tries to get fulfilment by finding its counterpart in sensory experience. Inasmuch as the whole cosmos cannot be the counterpart of an individual, only certain elements which are projected by what is known as the prarabdha karma become the indicators of what is actually necessary for the fulfilment of individual wishes. This conditioning factor in the form of the group of prarabdhas becomes the projecting force, the motive power behind the type of desire that the individual manifests in respect of objects outside.

Therefore, we may say our likes and dislikes are conditioned by our prarabdha karma. That is why everyone does not like everything – my likes are different from your likes, etc. The reason is that we as individuals are constituted of certain forces which do not relate themselves directly with every factor in the universe, because the prarabdha is a peculiar sample that is taken out of the entire resources behind us, called sanchita karma. This sample is not the whole stock that is inside; it is only a little bit of retail that is taken out for the purpose of practical experience or transaction in the present life. This little sample of prarabdha karma is concerned only with a particular type of experience. Therefore, it selects out of the whole pattern of the universe certain objects which are directly connected with the limitations of its own individuality as sanctioned by the prarabdha. Hence, there are varieties of likes and dislikes; and what I like, you may dislike, so that we cannot know which object is the object of like, and which one is the object of dislike, generally speaking. Anything can be the object of like of one individual and the object of dislike of another. There is no generalisation of this feature; it is only the finding of one's counterpart. That which is ugly to me may be beautiful to you, and so on, because of your way of thinking, the needs of your mind, etc.

This peculiar effect that further follows from asmita, or individuality, in the form of the pulls and repulsions, raga and dvesha, adds a further confirmation to our belief that the world is real, the body is real, individuality is real – that all our phenomenal experiences are real. Already the fire has been ignited by the presence of asmita, and now the flame is burning, and it becomes more and more consuming and vehement because of the winds of desire that blow over it. The fire becomes a flame, and having become uncontrollable by the tempestuous movements of the desires for objects of sense, there is a tossing of the individual from one end to another in search of the pleasures of sense, which is the world of raga-dvesha – the fully expanded condition of the active mind in respect of its objects of pleasure. We can imagine how we get into bondage more and more every day. We go deeper and deeper into the quagmire. A quagmire is a peculiar kind of mire into which we will sink if we step on it; and if we try to lift one foot, the other foot will sink in. We cannot get out of it – that is called a quagmire. Such is this world, where once we get in, we cannot come out. And, how many difficulties follow from this!

The confirmed belief in the substantiality of our phenomenal experiences subtly creates a feeling of fear in us simultaneously, which is contrary to the apparent belief in the reality of things. Why are we afraid of things? The fear is due to the subtle feeling of the possibility of one's being wrenched out of one's contact with the objects of sense. The fear of death is nothing but the fear of loss of pleasure. “I may lose all my centres of pleasure if the forces of death come and catch hold of my throat.” The love of life which is so inherent in every individual, accompanied by the fear of death, is another form of the love of pleasure; otherwise, why should one fear death so much? It is because the so-called phenomenal relationships created by asmita have formed the impression that there are centres of joy here, and they are the only realities – there is nothing beyond. Can anyone imagine, even with the farthest stretch of thought, that there is any delight possible, or even conceivable, beyond the pleasures of sense? There is nothing conceivable. We only imagine intellectually, academically – but practically, there is none. Everything is included within sense pleasures. They are everything.

This peculiar involvement of the individual is what is known as the bondage of the jiva. As I mentioned, more detailed explanations of the various minor links in this chain of involvement are given in Buddhist psychology in the philosophy known as Paticcasamuppada, which finally amounts to saying that we are only to take the first step in the direction of a mistake, and then everything will follow. If we take one step in the direction of a mistake, afterwards we will be pushed automatically. One push is given to us, then another push will follow, then the third, the fourth and the fifth. Twelve pushes are given to us, says Buddha, so that now we are in the twelfth push. We are in the deepest nether region of the most utter form of sorrow, in the most formidable condition of involvement, utterly incapable of understanding – but yet, giving the impression that it is the only reality. According to this psychological analysis, we are fools of the first water at present, though we look so wise. It is no wonder that yoga should be very difficult to practise for such fools as we. How is it possible? It is because the involvement is so intense, and we have to gradually remove the encrustations, one after another.

For the uninitiated and uninformed souls who have not yet been able to grasp the truths of things directly by vision, Patanjali goes on to give a series of descriptions for the freeing of one's consciousness from such involvements by graduated techniques and graduated practice. A sudden directing of the mind to meditation is not possible because the layers are hard enough that they cannot be pierced through at once. Also, the layers of bondage, which have manifested themselves in a series, are not placed one above the other in a linear fashion, like piles of paper kept one over the other. They are intricately involved – one getting into the fibre of the other, as it were – and we cannot peel one layer out without causing pain to the other layer that is underneath. Because of the vital involvement of consciousness in every layer, there is a little bit of suffering involved in the peeling out of the layer, just as we feel pain when we peel the skin. We know that skin is not our real nature, but yet we feel pain when it is peeled off because we have become one with the skin, one with the bone and marrow, the flesh – one with everything. Likewise, every layer of bondage has become part of the self, so that the removal of the bondage is not desirable. It looks pleasurable for the soul.

Bondage itself has become a source of joy, so that we can say that the very vision of there being something beyond in the form of freedom has left one's vision. If a person is a captive in a jail for fifty or sixty years, he may take that as the natural way of living. He has been in the jail for sixty years; he has been used to that way of living, and he cannot think of any value or reality other than that. In a similar manner, there is an accustoming of consciousness to a life of bondage, and the conditions, limitations and restrictions have been regarded as a type of freedom by itself. Even the limitation that has been imposed upon us, we mistake for freedom, and the pain that follows is regarded as joy.

The pleasures of sense are not really pleasures. This is the point that is mentioned in one of the following sutras. They are pains which are misread as pleasures. There is a misconstruing of structure in the reading of meaning in the contact of senses with objects. There is a total misreading of the whole value. We read things topsy-turvy, as it were – just as when we look at our face in a mirror, the right looks left, and the left looks right. We do not see things properly. There is a complete reversal of values taking place in the judgement of the mind in respect of its contact with objects. The reactions that are produced by the contact of senses with objects are called the pleasures of sense, but these reactions are very peculiar things. They are difficult to understand.

Why are these reactions set up at all? Because of something inscrutable in this process, this reaction is mistaken for a desirable feeling, and because the feeling has already been called desirable, designated as desirable, it has to be called pleasurable. It is an intense tension that one feels in the process of this reaction that is created at the time of the contact of the subject with the object. We know that every tension is a pain. If we are placed in a condition of utter limitation from every side, we will feel unhappy, and any kind of lifting of this tension – even a modicum of it – will appear as the removal of a burden from our heads, a load taken away from us. The mere absence of nervous tension inside can look like a positive happiness, while what has happened is simply that the tense nerves have been released due to a particular action that has taken place biologically and psychologically.

It is difficult to know why we feel happiness, why there is pleasure at all in sense contact, unless we know the anatomy of perception itself. Why is it that we are seeing objects? What is it that compels us or drives us towards objects? Where is the need for us to come in contact with things? If the history and the anatomical background of this situation are properly grasped, we may also be able to know to some extent why it is that we wrongly mistake pain for pleasure, and how is it that we can get fooled by the senses in creating a notion of falsehood – how a negative reaction, which is merely a little bit of freedom from tension of nerves, can look like a positive bliss.

It is the inability to grasp these things that has created an impression that bodily experiences and phenomenal processes are independent by themselves – a reality taken by themselves. This is the essence of bondage; and how difficult it is to get out of it is clear on the very surface.