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


Chapter 56: Lack of Knowledge is the Cause of Suffering

In the discussion of the yoga sutra [II.4] whose meaning we are trying to understand at present, the great point that is insisted upon finally is that a mere tackling of the effect, or an attempt at subjugating the effect while allowing the cause to remain as it is, will not yield beneficial results. Most of the endeavours in spiritual practice become failures on account of the causes being left untouched and the effects being taken into consideration with great ardour and force of concentration. This is partly due to circumstantial reasons. We should say that the internal causes of one's mental suffering are such that, in most cases, society is not sympathetic with these presences. It is an unfortunate historical circumstance, but nevertheless it is there, so that mankind is perpetually kept in an artificial state of inward tension merely because of its own peculiar ethics. It has created its own bondage by creating rules which are ultimately no good. But this situation is there, whatever be the analytical reasons behind the worthwhileness of such a condition.

Avidyā kṣetram uttareṣāṁ prasupta tanu vicchinna udārāṇām (II.4) is a very important sutra which has psychological importance and practical significance. The root cause of our sufferings is an ignorance with which we are perpetually associated, which is our constant friend, and whom we can never leave even for a moment. This friend, called ‘ignorance', is with us day in and day out. Inside and outside, this friend is with us and becomes one with our nature so that our very thoughts are based on ignorance. Therefore, any effort even in the so-called right direction may not yield the desired results, because there is a basis of ignorance even before the rectitude which society parades so much.

If we go into the psychology of human nature, we will find that the whole of mankind is stupid and it has no understanding of what right conduct is, in the light of facts as they are. Nevertheless, this is the drama that has been going on since centuries merely because of the very nature of mankind's constitution – he cannot jump over his own skin. But then, suffering also cannot be avoided. We cannot be a wiseacre and at the same time be a happy person. This wiseacre condition is very dangerous, but this is exactly what everyone is, and therefore it is that things are what they are. This avidya, or ignorance, is a strange something which is, as we were trying to understand previously in our considerations, a twist of consciousness, a kink in our mind, a kind of whim and fancy that has arisen in the very attitude of the individual towards things in general – which has been taken as the perpetual mode of rightful thinking.

This ignorance or avidya is, really speaking, an oblivion in respect of the nature of things in their own status, and an insistence and an emphasis of their apparent characteristics, their forms, their names and their relationships, upon the basis of which the history of the world moves and the activity of people goes on. This ignorance is the root cause of all mental suffering, which of course is the cause of every other suffering. It may be any kind of suffering; it is based ultimately on this peculiar inward root of dislocation of personality – where begins our study of abnormal psychology, if we would like to call it so.

If abnormal psychology is the study of disordered mental conditions, then we may say that every psychology is abnormal psychology, because there is no ordered mind anywhere in the world, in the sense that everything is set out of tune from reality. Psychoanalysts are fond of saying that when the mind is out of tune with reality, there is abnormality. This is a great dictum of Freud, Adler, Hume, and many others. But though the saying is well-defined and accepted by all psychologists, the crux of the matter is: what is ‘reality' with which the mind is supposed to be in tune? According to psychoanalysts, reality is the world that we see with our eyes and the society in which we are living.

The point they make out is that if we are in tune with the way in which society expects us to live, we are normal. If we are not able to live in that manner, we are abnormal. The laws of society are supposed to be what they call the ‘super-ego' in psychoanalytical language. It has nothing to do with the ego that we are speaking of in philosophy; it is something different altogether. The superego is a Freudian word which implies the check that is put upon individual instincts and desires by the laws of human society outside. On account of this pressure that is exerted perpetually upon inward desires by the reality of social rules and regulations outside, every human being is kept in tension. Therefore, there is a tendency to revolt against society. No one is really happy with society, ultimately. There is a disrespect and a dislike and a discontent, but because we cannot wag our tail before this monster called society, we keep quiet. But sometimes we become vehement, and then so many consequences follow – inwardly as well as outwardly.

The attunement of the inward conduct and character of the individual with the conditions prevailing outside in human society is supposed to be the normal behaviour of the mind, according to psychoanalysis. The word used for this prevailing condition outside is ‘reality', because that is what persists always, whereas individual instincts may go on changing. But the definition of reality as applied to the social laws would not hold water for long, because anything that is subject to change cannot be called real. The constitution of human society is subject to transformation on account of the mutations of history – the changes that we see in the world through the process of evolution. Therefore, laws will change, and our concept of normalcy also will change.

The root cause of unhappiness, therefore, is an irreconcilability between the individual and its environment. This ‘environment' is a very peculiar word which has deep connotations. It means anything and everything. The circumstances in which we find ourselves are of the environment – the geographical conditions, the social conditions, the psychological conditions, the astronomical conditions. All these have to be taken into consideration when we speak of the environment of an individual. These are vast things, insurmountable by ordinary human thinking. It is not usually practicable for the mind to tune itself to all these things that are outside. If it succeeds in one line, it will fail in another, so that there is always some kind of difficulty, one coming after the other. And so, there is a perpetual restlessness within.

This restlessness which is the immediate outcome of ignorance produces unnatural, abnormal attitudes in respect of things, because a drowning person may try to catch even a straw that is floating on the surface of water, whether or not it is going to be of any help. The mind that is defeated from every side and cannot express itself at all for various reasons, tries to hold on to any support of satisfaction that is visible before it. At the same time, it is not allowed to hold on to it for a long time due to the force of the flood in which it is caught. It will be showing its head above for a few minutes, and then sinking down again. This condition goes on for a long time, and one cannot say who will win. The feelings of the individual during this time are obvious. They are unthinkable, unanalysable, not subject to scrutiny in a logical manner. They remain in a very confused state.

The tendencies of the individual towards external objects remain either dormant, when they cannot be expressed at all because facilities are not forthcoming, or they can be present in a manifest state, but in a very attenuated form, like a fine, silken thread – visible, and yet very slender, not strong and powerful. It is also possible that these tendencies can appear to be completely absent at some time, and suddenly crop up at another time, like a fever in typhoid – one day we look normal and the next day we have fever. These tendencies will look completely buried and almost extinct for some time and we will be under the impression that they have gone for good, but it is not so. They will suddenly show their heads when the atmosphere becomes favourable. And there are occasions when they can be fully manifest and they can be at war with us, daggers drawn.

These conditions are mentioned in this sutra, prasupta tanu vicchinna udārāṇām (II.4), which enumerates the four conditions of the tendency of the individual towards objects. Prasupta is sleeping, or dormant; tanu is attenuated, or thinned out and weakened; vicchinna is interrupted; udara is fully manifest, or expressed. These conditions represent the activity of the tendencies of the individual, which are born of avidya, or ignorance. Ignorance of the nature of things means a complete obscuration of the knowledge of the ultimate character of one's true being. It is impossible in this state to know what one's Self really is, just as in dream one forgets one's wakeful condition – wakeful state and status. If we are a well-placed dignitary in the waking condition, in dream we may be a mosquito or a fly, or we may be a nothing. We completely forget our status in the waking state due to a total transformation of the mind in dream. This is an illustration to give an idea of what ignorance of one's true nature is. We may be an emperor; we may be a president of our vast country, or a prime minister – what does it matter? When we are in dream, we are something quite different. We are different to such an extent that we cannot have the least trace of the memory that we are something else in the waking state.

Now, what happens in dream? This ignorance of what we really are does not simply keep quiet like that. We are not simply in a sleepy condition where we are completely oblivious of our true nature. There is a mischievous activity taking place simultaneously with this ignorance, and that is what is called the dream perceptions. Not only are we not allowed to know what we really are, but we are told that we are what we are not. This is a terrible type of brainwashing that is going on there, where we become stupid to the utmost, and become totally helpless. We become a tool of forces over which we can have absolutely no control. This is what happens to us in dream. We have forgotten what we really are, and are seeing something which is not there. Then we cling to it, run after it, believe in its reality and then cry for it, and get involved in it as if that is the only reality. So there is a tremendous vikshepa or projection, a violent rajasic activity taking place – a tempestuous wind that blows in a wrong direction as a consequence of the dark clouds covering the light of knowledge. Thus avidya, or ignorance, which is the obscuration of the knowledge of our true nature, at the same time produces a counter-effect that is deleterious to the knowledge of our own being – the perception of a wrong externality, as happens in dream.

We know how fantastically and frantically we run about in dream for the purpose of fulfilment of the desires manifest in the dream mind and the avoidance of the pain that is also manifest there. The joys and sorrows, the loves and hatreds of the dream world become so real that the experiencing unit there gets involved in it, gets submerged into it and becomes one with it, which is the direct effect of the forgetfulness of what one really is in waking. This is exactly what has happened in the waking condition also. This so-called waking consciousness is similar to the dream condition as far as its structure and mode of operation is concerned. This external activity of the mind in waking life, this engagement of the mind in the objects of sense and this pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain in life are the consequences of the obscuration of the knowledge of what we really are. That is avidya.

Avidyā kṣetram uttareṣāṁ prasupta tanu vicchinna udārāṇām (II.4). This sutra tells us that the obliteration of the knowledge of our essential nature, which is avidya, produces a false condition of individuality, asmita, which rushes forward outwardly for the purpose of contact with other individuals – animate or inanimate. This is called desire. This desire is nothing but the urge of one individual to unite with another individual. This urge is what is referred to in this description of prasupta tanu vicchinna udārāṇām. The urge for contact with other individuals is called desire, which has arisen on account of the perception of diversity born of the ignorance of the universality of things. This desire can be completely dormant in childhood, or when we are in the mother's womb, or when the body is dead, or when there is a comatose condition, or in the state of anaesthesia. In these conditions, the desire is dormant, but it is not destroyed. It is present, but not visible – not manifest, not active. When it is impossible to fulfil the desire, then also it is dormant. We know that the desire cannot be manifest – the conditions are not favourable at all – and therefore, we push these desires inside and keep them inside as if they are not there. But, this is not the absence of desires; they remain in latent forms. This summarises the prasupta condition of a desire.

Tanu, or the attenuated condition, or what they call the thinned-out condition of the desire, is that state of mind which we can see in some of the sadhakas or seekers – the students of yoga – where, due to continued affirmation in a different direction altogether, the desires which are inside as dormant get manifest no doubt, yet remain in a very thin form because the activity of the mind in the student of yoga is in a different direction altogether. There is a constant rotation of japa, chanting of mantra; or study, svadhyaya; or meditation, or satsanga. All these things attenuate the mind. They keep it in a very fine, thin form, and desire cannot work with the force that is necessary to fulfil itself. Thus, in students of yoga, in sadhakas in general, the desires look absent. They are not absent; they are present there, but they look as if they are not there due to the pressure exerted upon the mind by other types of activity, such as what we call the practice of sadhana.

Or, they can be in this attenuated condition when we are in places like Gangotri or Badrinath, where these desires cannot be fulfilled normally because the conditions are not favourable. Either we cannot get the objects of desire, or there are other reasons for which the desires cannot be fulfilled. There are various causes behind the inability of the mind to fulfil the desire, though it is trying to find an avenue of escape. It is trying its best, but it cannot get an outlet. In this condition, it is attenuated in a very thin form.

Vicchinna, the third condition mentioned, is an interrupted condition where, if we have great affection for a person – a member of our own family, for instance – this affection may suddenly be interrupted by an anger that is manifest occasionally. We may be very angry with a member of our own family. Suppose you are the head of a family. You have, naturally, a tremendous love for all the members; you regard them as your own self. But it is well known that there are frictions in the family, and one member of the family may get so angry with another that he may threaten them with dire consequences. In this condition of anger, the affection gets interrupted. It is not absent, as it will come back afterwards. The interrupted condition is the temporary suppression of a particular mode of thinking – a mood or an emotion – due to the presence of another mode which has arisen for some other reason. When there is a temporary anger or a hatred manifest superficially, the affection that is there gets interrupted, and conversely, when the affection rises, the anger gets interrupted. We can manifest love or hatred – either way – in respect of the same person or the same thing under different conditions. It all depends upon what mood is evoked at a particular time.

It is not true that we have perpetual love for a thing, and it is also not true that we have perpetual hatred. It depends upon how our feelings are evoked by that particular person or thing. We can evoke the tiger or the devil in us; we can also evoke that which is more peaceful and congenial. Both these factors are present in us. We can attack even our dearest friend under given conditions – it is not impossible – and, at the same time, he is our friend. We have great obligation and affection towards that person. This state of going up and down in the mood of the mind is the interrupted condition.

But if all the factors are favourable, then it is manifest: the war is actually taking place. The soldiers are in the battlefield and there is actually a burst of attack. When the mind is fully convinced that no obstacles are there – everything is clear, the road is clean – then it will pounce upon the object at once, like a tiger jumping on a cow. This is the udara aspect.

This ignorance, or avidya, is the breeding ground for all these states of mind which undergo this fourfold stage of prasupta tanu vicchinna udārāṇām (II.4). Avidyā kṣetram uttareṣāṁ – it is the kṣetram uttareṣāṁ. Uttareṣāṁ means anything that follows from this; all things that are the outcome of this find this as their mother. Our ignorance is the mother of all other distractions. It gives them its breast milk and supports them for all time. The desires and the activities of the mind cannot succeed if ignorance is absent, because that is the motive power behind the functions of the mind in whatever form it may function.

The purpose of yoga is to cut at the root of this ignorance itself, so that its ramifications in the form of these vikshepas, or distractions, may not have vitality in them. They will be like a burnt seed or a burnt cloth, or a lifeless snake. It is a snake, but it has no life. Likewise will be these functions, activities and enterprises of the mind when it will look as if they are there in all their shape and form, but they will be lifeless. That is the purpose of the practice of yoga.

So, this caution given to us here is that, in our practices, we should not ignore the presence of the cause and get engaged too much merely in the effect, since whatever be the intensity of the practice in respect of the control of the effect, it will not be finally successful because the major-general is alive, and he will not keep quiet like that. We are attacking the poor soldiers while the commander is still alive, and he has other resources to attack us even if a regiment is destroyed by the effort of our practice. The cause has to be tackled; unless that is overcome there is no use merely confronting the effects. This is the advice given here.