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


Chapter 68: Cultivating Discriminative Understanding

Every experience in the world is intended to bring enlightenment to the soul. The purpose of experience is not harassment or punishment of any kind; it is a process of training and education for higher knowledge. Sva svāmi śaktyoḥ svarūpopalabdhi hetuḥ saṁyogaḥ (II.23) is the sutra which makes out that experience is for the purpose of ultimate wisdom and freedom. The continuous experiences provided to the soul by means of its contact with the objects of sense provide occasions for newer and newer types of enlightenment because every experience is a revelation of the circumstances of the experience, so that if one is careful enough to observe what actually takes place at the time of an experience, one would be enlightened in respect of it and gain an insight in regard to it. Experience is not supposed to create bondage; it is intended to bring liberation. The bondage aspect of it is an unfortunate consequence that arises due to one not being able to take advantage of this occasion provided by the means of experience.

The contact of consciousness with objects is not merely an experience of pleasure and pain. It is also an occasion for gaining new insight into the circumstances of this contact, as it is the case with every type of experience at any time whatsoever. An experience is a reaction produced in consciousness by conditions outside. These reactions are teachers and not merely instruments of punishment or infliction of pain. The question of enlightenment in regard to experience arises on account of there being an occasion to enter into the causes of the experience. An experience becomes a teacher, an enlightener, when it can also provide an insight into the causes thereof. Why is it that this experience has come, and how is it that my reaction to this experience is of such and such a nature? To give a concrete instance: why is there pleasure, or why is there pain? How am I happy under given conditions of experience?

The bondage aspect of experience is due to the emphasis laid on the pleasurable or the painful aspects of experience alone, minus the insight aspect which is also implied there. But, the liberating aspect of the experience comes to relief when we pay due attention to the other side of the experience also, not merely the pleasurable or the painful aspects of it – namely, the conditions that have been responsible for bringing about the experience itself.

Apart from the fact that a particular experience is pleasurable or miserable, there is also another side to it – namely, that this experience has come due to some cause, whether it is happy or unhappy. The pure emphasis on the happy or unhappy aspect of the experience is the untutored reaction of the mind which is not properly enlightened into the circumstances. But a cautious mind will open its eyes into the circumstances of the case and learn by this experience.

If I am happy due to a particular experience, what is the cause of this happiness? From where has this happiness come? This is how we learn by experience. If it is pain, we also learn by that pain. How has this pain come? What is the reason behind the pain that is attendant upon this particular type of experience? Why am I happy or why am I unhappy at all, at the time of a particular experience? So, the understanding of the nature of the cause of a particular experience is the aspect of enlightenment involved in it, whereas the mere reaction of a tit-for-tat attitude in respect of the pleasure or the pain involved in the experience is the bondage aspect. But the ultimate aim of all experiences is not to create bondage, because the essential nature of things is not bondage, it is freedom – and everything is striving towards freedom. Thus, anything that happens anywhere, at any time, under any condition, should be a step taken towards freedom of a higher degree. That this freedom is not recognised is due to a different factor which has to be investigated. It is due to a misconception in regard to the nature of the experience itself.

Every experience is an exhaustion of a particular momentum that has been responsible for it, as we have noted in our previous studies. The karmas of the past are mainly responsible for our experiences. It was mentioned earlier in a sutra that these forces of past deeds, thoughts, feelings, etc., are the causes of the species into which we are born, the length of life for which we live, and also the experiences that we undergo. All these are conditioned, motivated by the forces generated by the past karmas. Hence, the experiences that are provided by means of contact are processes of self-exhaustion, just as fever is a kind of exhaustion of the conditions that have been introduced into the system by toxic matter. The intention of fever is not to punish us but to purify us, though it looks like a pain that comes upon us. In the same way, every experience is a purifying process in the sense that thereby there is an exhaustion of the causes that were responsible for the experience; and together with the exhaustion of these causes by the diminution of the intensity of the momentum thereof, there is an understanding involved. The understanding is that experiences by means of contact with objects are revelatory of the nature of the objects and also of the weaknesses of one's own mind. Both these things are known at the time of an experience. We know our mind, and we also know the object which has caused the reaction in our mind.

If we are careful enough to go deep into the nature of any experience, we will know something more about the object which has caused that experience than we did earlier, and also we will know a little more about our own selves at that particular time. The susceptibility of the individual to a particular type of experience is also known because of the experience itself. All experiences are due to susceptibilities on the part of the subject; otherwise, there would be a universal experience in our mind at every time. All things in the universe will be known to us simultaneously if we are not to be susceptible only to certain types of reaction, and impervious to others. Thus, we know something about ourselves by means of the knowledge that we are susceptible to certain characters in the world, and also we know something about the object because it starts becoming less and less attractive by more and more experience.

The object gradually discloses its true character by repeated experience thereof, because the purpose of the contact of the senses with objects is to exhaust the forces of karma which are responsible for the contact. When there is a diminution of the intensity of the forces of karma which are the causes of this experience, the intensity of the feeling involved in the experience also diminishes, and so the attraction for the object also diminishes. The pleasure that we get from the object also decreases and then, finally, we get disgusted with the object; we do not want the object any more. That thing which caused so much joy once upon a time becomes an object of dislike after awhile, merely because the reason behind the experience of the object is no more existent. The purpose for which the contact was motivated does not any more operate.

It works out like this: experiences are intended for the purusha, for the soul, for the consciousness, for the purpose of exhausting its previous karmas, and also for the purpose of newer types of experiences. The sutra in this connection is: sva svāmi śaktyoḥ svarūpopalabdhi hetuḥ saṁyogaḥ (II.23). Samyogah is contact. The contact of the senses with objects is for a purpose, for a hetuh. What is a hetuh? Svarūpopalabdhi hetuḥ – for the purpose of the recognition of one's own self. Whose self? Sva svāmi śaktyoḥ – one's own self, as well as the object. The nature of one's own self, as well as the nature of the object, is revealed at the time of an experience; and this revelation on both sides takes place simultaneously. It is simultaneous because the subject-object relationship is the cause of all experience. The subject alone cannot become the cause of experience, nor can the object alone, independently; they must come together and collaborate to bring about the experience.

Thus, experience is a reaction more than an action. It is a new type of product which comes out of the union of the susceptible conditions of the subject and the corresponding characters of the object. Just as when there is a reaction between acid and alkali there is a new product coming out, likewise there is a new product which is called experience, whether it is pleasurable or otherwise, caused by this union. Though the experience may look like a new product altogether, it is a mixture of the properties which have been inherent in the object as well as the subject. It is not an entirely new thing. Whatever be the taste of water and its capacity to quench thirst, it is nothing but a compound of hydrogen and oxygen. It is nothing but that, in certain proportions. We cannot know that it is made up of these components because of the emphasis we lay on the product alone and not the cause of it.

Likewise, this product called experience, irrespective of the fact that it is made up of aspects of the subject and the object, looks like a new thing altogether – and we run after it. This is caused by avidya. Tasya hetuḥ avidyā (II.24) is another sutra. That we regard an experience of whatever kind as a new thing altogether, and we want it to be repeated again and again – notwithstanding that it is not a new thing altogether because it is brought about partly by the qualities of the subject and partly by the characters of the object – this is called avidya. Ignorance of what is actually happening is called avidya. This is to be rooted out by yoga.

All this long, long dissertation is an introduction to what yoga is to do, what is supposed to be done, and how one has to prepare oneself for higher practices. The techniques of practice are described by these methods of philosophical dissertation. The ignorance, which is at the background of this impossibility to perceive the character of the experience at any time, is the object which yoga is to remove. It has to be dispelled. This understanding that experience is a process of self-exhaustion of karmas is itself a step in the practice of yoga. It is called viveka, and a percentage of this viveka is necessary before actual practice is taken up.

In this contact called experience, there is a forgetfulness of two things: one forgets oneself, and one forgets what the object is. We can neither know ourselves, nor can we know the nature of the thing which we have contacted at the time of the experience itself. The consciousness gets absorbed in the experience by forgetfulness of both these aspects. Why the object has been the cause for this experience, we cannot know; and why we are experiencing this condition is also something not known. How is it that this object alone is pleasurable, and not something else? This cannot be known. This impossibility to know is avidya, because if we start knowing, then the pleasure will decrease. The more is the knowledge of the nature of an object, the less is its capacity to produce pleasure, and so an ignorance about it is necessary so that pleasure may be enjoyed. This is very strange.

So is the case with one's own self. The less we know about ourselves, the more is the desire generated in us towards objects of sense, and the greater is the pleasure we experience by such contact. The more one knows about one's own self, the less is this tendency to go towards objects, and the less is the intensity of the pleasure or the pain that is brought about by experience.

To conclude, the experience, therefore, is an educative process. It is for the refinement of personality, for the progression of the individual towards its goal which is universality of experience, far removed from this contactual experience of the mind with the object. The purpose of experience, as it was pointed out, is liberation. And so, yoga tells us that we must take advantage of every experience as a lesson that is provided to us by nature, from which we learn something new in regard to the true nature of things, and we should not be so foolhardy as to ask for a repetition of that experience – just as a person who learns a lesson would like to have further lessons of a new character of a higher degree, rather than ask for a repetition of the same lesson again and again. The asking for the repetition of the same lesson means that we have not understood that lesson; otherwise, if we had grasped it, we would not ask for a repetition of it. We are asking for a repetition of the same experience, especially if it is pleasurable, because we have not understood what it implies and why it has come to us. This is the ignorance aspect of the experience. The purpose of experience is not to provide pleasure to us; the purpose is to teach us a lesson. This is what we cannot understand, and this not understanding is called avidya.

The intention of nature is not to give us pleasure or pain. It is not at all concerned with it, just as law does not operate for individual pleasure or individual pain. It is a universal modus operandi for bringing about a new order of things. Likewise, the law of nature works with an impartial attitude in respect of everyone and everything. If someone is happy or unhappy at a particular time, that is due to another reason altogether, quite far removed from the intention of nature. The intention of nature is the liberation of the spirit – freedom ultimate. The association of pleasure and pain with this experience is a mistake on the part of the subject, which has lost sight of the goal or the intention of this experience, which comes as a lesson – just as a captive in a jail may simply take his captivity as a kind of harassment that has been inflicted upon him, not knowing the other legal or social aspects involved. Also, when we take a bitter medicine, we may think only of the bitter aspect or the aspects which make us dislike it, not considering at all the reasons behind the necessity for taking the medicine.

There is no such thing as pleasure or pain in this world from the point of view of nature itself, because these are reactions from the side of the individual due to different reasons. The universal law of nature acts impartially for educative purposes only – for the purpose of refinement of personality, for the purpose of improvement in the quality of individuality – which is to become more and more comprehensive as it advances in the process of evolution. It is wisdom and insight and experience of a greater degree of reality that is the intention of nature – not the individual pleasure. This is a very important thing to remember: we do not live here for the enjoyment of anything. We live here for the purpose of progress into an experience of a larger degree of truth. This is the intention of nature. This is the intention behind every experience. This is the cause of the experience, and this is the insight that we gain by experience. So, this is what is meant by the sutra: sva svāmi śaktyoḥ svarūpopalabdhi hetuḥ saṁyogaḥ (II.23).

This contact, which is the cause of the experience, is mentioned as caused by avidya: tasya hetuḥ avidyā (II.24). Vivekakhyātiḥ aviplavā hānopāyaḥ (II.26): The avoidance of this ignorance, the obliteration of the causes of this contact, is possible by discriminative understanding which is unceasingly operating. It should not operate only for a moment, and then vanish. Aviplava viveka khyatimeans a continuously flowing discrimination or understanding in regard to every experience through which we pass. Thus, every experience becomes tolerable because it is educative. Any educational method should be a necessary, inevitable, and pleasant aspect of experience. Therefore, there is ultimately no experience which is useless or not educative. Every action and every reaction is a correlated movement of the totality of nature towards the ultimate goal of existence, which is the universality of experience.

Thus, experiences are to be taken as stepping stones to greater and greater success. A useless thing does not exist in nature. An absolutely unimportant thing does not exist anywhere, because if it were absolutely useless, it would not exist. The very fact that it exists shows that it has some meaning, some significance, and it plays a role in the process of evolution. Also, the very fact that we are aware of it shows that we have some connection with it. If we are totally unaware of it, that is a different matter, because according to the system that we are studying, every awareness is a contact of consciousness with an object; and every such contact is brought about by some reason behind the cause, which is the product of previous karmas. So we have some connection with this experience; and whatever we experience, whether we like it or not, is a necessary experience. It is, therefore, to be taken as a step in one's education towards higher experiences.

Therefore, there should be no attitude of like or dislike in respect of an experience. This impartial attitude that we are supposed to develop is what is meant by viveka khyati, or discriminative understanding. We should not say, “Oh, how pleasurable it is,” or “Oh, how horrible it is.” That is not proper, because a thing is neither pleasurable nor horrible. It looks like that due to some mistake in the perception of values attached to the experience. The causative factors behind the experience are completely out of the ken of perception and, therefore, the experiences look pleasurable or otherwise. If the causative factors are known, there would be a scientific perception of things and not an emotional reaction in respect of things. An impartial perception is impossible where emotion is attached to that experience, and emotion goes with the experience on account of feeling being there behind it – that is called avidya. The discriminative faculty gets submerged temporally by the preponderance of the feeling aspect, and that is what is called emotion. The dominance of feeling over understanding becomes the cause of our reaction in terms of pleasure and pain, and viveka khyatiis not there. Hence, what is expected of us is not merely an emphasis on feeling or emotion in respect of an experience, but a probe that is of a more impartial character. That is viveka khyati.

All this is terrible for a beginner in yoga because emotions are part and parcel of our nature, and we cannot exist without them. We are what these emotions are. And so, we can imagine the extent of training that is necessary to allow the understanding to gain an upper hand in our life, far surpassing the forces of emotion which try to supplant it; but this is a precondition to yoga. Yoga is the most scientific of attitudes that we can think of because it is the most impartial.