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


Chapter 70: The Seven Stages of Perfection

Tad abhāvāt saṁyogābhāvaḥ hānaṁ taddṛśeḥ kaivalyam (II.25): The absence of ignorance which is responsible for perceptions is itself liberation; that is the freedom of the spirit. The absence of bondage is the same as the presence of freedom. These are not two experiences, but a self-identical revelation like the passing of the night and the rising of the sun. This experience of freedom, or kaivalya, is not possible of attainment as long as there is even the least tendency or susceptibility to object perception – whatever may be the justification which the reason may put forth for such perception.

As we have had occasion to study, these tendencies to object perception are deep-seated and they can be present – sometimes actively present – even when they are apparently imperceptible. The conscious non-apprehension of an object is not necessarily an indication of the absence of this tendency to object perception in the deeper layers of one's personality. The urges of the individual are nothing but the building bricks of the individuality itself. What is known as self-consciousness, or individuality, is a pattern or shape taken by this tendency to object perception. As long as the individuality-consciousness persists, even in its minimum formation, one can safely conclude that these tendencies are still there, because when they are absent, the individuality also vanishes, just as when we pull out every brick from the house, the house itself is not there.

This body is the house. This individuality is the vehicle that has been manufactured by these tendencies to object-perception, and they themselves form the substance of this body-mind complex. And, the presence of this vehicle is simultaneous with the attachment of consciousness to that vehicle; this is the bondage of the soul. Thus, it is hard for one to attain salvation, because it is the abolition of individuality itself – a total extinction of personality that is known as nirvana, the complete vanishing from sight of the very possibility of objectivity. The blowing out of a lamp is what is actually meant by nirvana. The lamp of world-consciousness – the light with which we see objects – is blown out completely, and there is the return of the spirit to its own pristine purity and status.

This is the meaning in substance of these sutras: tad abhāvāt saṁyogābhāvaḥ hānaṁ taddṛśeḥ kaivalyam (II.25); vivekakhyātiḥ aviplavā hānopāyaḥ (II.26); tasya saptadhā prāntabhūmiḥ prajñā (II.27). What is the way to this attainment? Discriminative knowledge is the way, which has to be attained by the practice of the limbs of yoga – and there is no other alternative. Nanya panthā vidyate ayanāya (R.V. X.90.16), says the Rig Veda. We cannot have any other, simpler method here. There is only one method. This is a single-track approach, and everyone has to proceed along the same road which others have trodden from ancient times. This is the viveka khyati that is referred to here. The enlightenment that follows understanding of the true nature of things – this is viveka khyati. This understanding should be perpetual; it should be second nature to us.

The understanding in respect of the true nature of things, which we are trying to entertain in ourselves as the faculty of correct perception, is to be the only way of looking at things. That is the only method we can adopt in seeing, and this is the only way we can think. There is no other way of thinking. Our life should be a continuous process, aviplava, of the manifestation of this understanding, so that even in our day-to-day life, in our working hours also, our mind should think only in this manner and there should be no other way of thinking – just as even when we are intensely busy we cannot forget our identity of personality, and even the heaviest business cannot obliterate the consciousness of the world that is in front of us or that we are awake to at this time. A thing that is in front of us is visible to us, even if we are intensely busy with any amount of enterprise, because that kind of awareness has become part of our very existence; so should become this aviplava viveka khyati. The moment we open our eyes, the moment we think, the moment we feel, the moment we act or react, this should be the attitude. This is the continuous operation of viveka khyati, which is the only way to salvation. No other way is there.

This viveka khyati,or understanding, arises by stages; it does not suddenly burst like a bomb. In the beginning it very gradually reveals itself by effort, and later on it becomes a spontaneous feature. In one of the sutras we are told that there are at least seven stages of the manifestation of this understanding. The number seven is very holy, and it has been held holy in all religions and in all mystical fields, whether of the East or the West. Something very strange it is. In all the scriptures we see this number seven mentioned as a holy number. These are supposed to be the stages of the ascent of the soul to its perfection.

The earlier stages are those of personal effort, exertion and deliberate attempt, whereas the later ones are automatic. We are merely carried away by the momentum of past effort where, on account of the diminution of the intensity of individuality-consciousness, the question of personal effort does not arise. The gravitational pull of a totally different realm takes us by the hand and we are led along the direction of that pull, which is a different thing altogether from the pull of this earth, against which we have to put forth effort in the earlier stages.

Tasya saptadhā prāntabhūmiḥ prajñā (II.27): Consciousness is sevenfold. The awareness of this type arises by gradual degrees, in seven stages, according to the meaning of this sutra as agreed upon by interpreters, because the meaning is not given here as to what these stages are. It simply says there are seven stages. We are told that the seven stages are the stages of the discovery of reality, by degrees, in the phenomena of experience.

The first stage is supposed to be the detection of the defect in the objects or things: there is something wrong with things, and they are not as they appear to be. This is the first awareness that arises in a person. Things are not what they seem, as the poet said. Even the best things are not really what they are. They appear to be best under certain conditions. The valuable things, the worthy things, the virtuous things, the beautiful things – all these are conditionally valid, and they are not valid in their essence. That the objects of sense, the things of the world, are constituted of a nature essentially different from what they appear to the senses and the mind is an awareness that arises in the discriminating, and not in all people. Crass perception takes the world for granted, and people run after things as moths run to fire, not knowing that it is their destruction. The awareness arises, pointing out that there is some mystery behind things which is quite different from the colour and the shape of things visible to the senses – that there is pain in this world, and it is not pleasure. Pain is rooted behind the so-called pleasure of the world. Sorrow is to follow all the joys of the world, one day or the other. The first step is the awareness or discovery that pain is present and it cannot be avoided under any circumstance as long as things continue to be in the present set-up.

The second stage is the discovery that there is a cause of this pain, that it has not come suddenly from the blue. How has this pain come – this suffering, this sorrow? What is the reason for this defect behind everything? There is a reason. Without a cause, there is no effect. The discovery of the cause of this troublesome situation is the second stage of knowledge. That is a greater control that we gain over our situation. When we know that there is some trouble, and we do not know how the trouble has arisen, we are in a difficulty. But the difficulty is a little bit ameliorated when the cause of it is known, because we feel a confidence that, after all, this is the cause, and we shall try to tackle it. So, in the second stage of awareness there is a recognition of the causal background of the troubles of life, the pains of experience.

The third stage is the recognition of a way out of these causative factors. Even if we know the causes of the trouble, is there a way out of it, or is it impossible to do anything? That must be seen first. We will find out that there is a way. We can get over these causes of pain and trouble. This gives greater confidence and a satisfaction that, after all, we are not going to suffer like this for all time; there is going to be an end to it. That is the discovery that there is a possibility of getting over the causes of pain. But this stage comes very late, because while everyone can feel the pain and can sometimes attribute the pain to certain causes, they cannot find the way out. Not finding the way out is samsara, the essence of suffering. When the way is discovered, there is an effort that automatically arises in oneself to work out this way which is the redemption of the sorrows of life. The awareness that there is a state which is beyond the sufferings of life is itself a great solace.

These stages directly correspond to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, what the Buddha taught originally as his gospel. The stages of yoga are nothing but these, mentioned here in a new language altogether.

There is an awareness of the presence of a state beyond all suffering; and when the existence of this state beyond suffering becomes an object of one's awareness, coupled with a feeling that there is a way to it – that is the beginning of the actual freedom of the soul. Then, there is a complete shaking up from the very roots of one's being. The internal organ, the mind, whose purpose is to bring about bhoga and aparvarga to consciousness, begins to withdraw its sway over consciousness. The power that the mind has over us gets lessened, and instead of our being mastered by it, we seem to have a chance of gaining mastery over it. This awareness arises only when experiences in the world which are to be undergone in this span of life are about to be exhausted. Until that time, the awareness itself will not be there.

When we are fast asleep, snoring, we are not even aware that the sun is about to rise. The awareness felt subtly within that perhaps the day is dawning is an indication that we are not fully asleep. We are half-aware of the coming dawn. Likewise, when the mind becomes aware of these stages it puts forth effort, as it has slowly risen from the slumber of life and is now dreaming of the possibility of a higher experience.

The efforts that are mentioned here are nothing but the efforts of the practice of yoga. When the mind loses control over the consciousness, which is the fifth stage, there is a dismantling of the house of the gunas. As I mentioned, all the material of the house of this individuality is pulled out. The materials are the gunassattva, rajas and tamas. The prison of this individuality is pulled out, broken down, because the material of this individuality, which is nothing but the complex of sattva, rajas and tamas, is withdrawn within its cause, and this complex of body-mind ceases to operate. That is the sixth stage.

The seventh stage is the return of consciousness to itself, where the self becomes aware of what it is – completely freed from all bondage. Yogā ṅgānuṣṭhānāt aśuddhikṣaye jñānadīptiḥ āvivekakhyāteḥ (II.28): When there is complete purification of the mind by the practice of yoga, there is an automatic and spontaneous manifestation of consciousness in the direction of its freedom. ‘Avivekakhyateh' is the word used here in this sutra. The effort should continue until correct discrimination dawns. We should not withdraw the effort, or cease from the effort, until perfection is attained in this understanding. Perfection is symbolised in the experience of the total freedom which one gains over the forces which were, once upon a time, masters over oneself. These forces are physical as well as psychological, external as well as internal, as we already know.

The powers that are mentioned in the Yoga Sutras, which a yogi is supposed to attain by practice, are the experiences one passes through on account of the ascent of consciousness to higher degrees of perfection. One does not meditate merely for the sake of powers. They automatically arise. They are the spontaneous reactions that follow from nature outside due to the harmony one establishes with nature as a whole. Powers are nothing but the outcome of harmony with nature. When there is disharmony, there is weakness; when there is harmony, there is strength, because it is nature that is powerful. Nobody else can be strong; and the strength of nature comes to us when we are in harmony with it.

At present, our body, our mind – everything – is in disharmony with nature. The earth, fire, water, air, ether – every element is in disharmony with us. Thus we have hunger, thirst, heat, cold, fear of death, and all sorts of things. All these troubles arise on account of a dissonant attitude which the body-mind complex has adopted in respect of natural forces.

We cannot agree with anything. We always disagree. That is why we are suffering. When we totally agree with everything in every respect, at all times, from the depths of our being, we become harmonious with all things. Then the powers of nature enter us. As a matter of fact, there are no such things as powers; these are only ways of expressing the experience of freedom. It is bondage that makes us feel that there are things outside us. There are no things outside us, really speaking. The things which appear to come to us as the result of achieving powers in yoga are only aspects of our own nature which we have forgotten, which we have lost sight of on account of avidya, or ignorance.

Therefore, the perfection of understanding, or the viveka khyati referred to, is a gradual widening of the grasp which consciousness has over the substances of nature. At present, one has no grasp over anything because there is an isolation of oneself from the cosmic substance due to the affirmation of the ego, or the asmita, and the weakness of personality. Whatever be the type of that weakness – physical or psychological – it is due to the inability of cosmic forces to enter into oneself, just as the sunlight cannot enter the rooms of a house if all the doors and windows are closed. Even if the sun is blazing outside, we may be shivering inside due to the doors and windows being closed, preventing the light of the sun from entering.

Likewise the forces of nature, which are really what are meant by the powers of nature, cannot enter into the personality of an individual on account of the very presence of individuality. What we call individuality is nothing but the closed house of the asmita, where every avenue of entry of cosmic force is closed completely due to the intensity of self-consciousness. One is so intensely aware of oneself as an individual that it is impossible for cosmic forces to enter that person, so that one begins to rot from within due to this ego, and undergoes intense suffering which is the direct outcome of the absence of freedom which is equivalent to the harmony of oneself with nature.

The stages of yoga that are going to be mentioned – the limbs of yoga as they are called – are the stages of the mastery which one gains over phenomena, external and internal, by a systematic ascent to greater and greater degrees of harmony. Thus, yoga is, in a sense, a system of harmony. The Bhagavadgita has put it very beautifully: samatvaṁ yoga ucyate (B.G. II.48).

In every stage there is an establishment of equilibrium of oneself with the atmosphere. The study of the limbs of yoga is a study of the various stages by which we have to establish this harmony of ourselves with the atmosphere. What is called ‘atmosphere' is only a term used to indicate the presence of a factor that is external to oneself. The externality consciousness also gets diminished gradually as mastery is gained more and more.

Two things happen simultaneously. The first one is the diminution of the intensity of one's externality-consciousness. The feeling that there is a world outside is so intense in us that we have no say in the matter of things in this world. We seem to be helpless. In the ascent that we are going to speak about, there will be a slow decrease in the intensity of this feeling of externality and a corresponding feeling of harmony of ourselves with the atmosphere outside.

Secondly, there will be a diminution of the extent of the object world in front of us – which is, at present, hanging upon us as a heavy weight. The individual subject looks upon itself as a minute content of the vast world of objects, so that we always think that the world is larger than we are. It is far bigger than we are, so we are frightened of the world. The object is much bigger than the subject. That is why the subject is frightened always. It is always in a state of insecurity and sorrow.

As the ascent progresses, there is also a diminution in the extent of this object world, and the subject becomes wider and wider. As we go higher and higher, the extent of the jurisdiction of the subject becomes more and more, and that of the object becomes less and less, so that the world becomes smaller and we become bigger – the reverse of what is happening now. There is a diminution of the content of consciousness in the form of the object world and a simultaneous expansion of the jurisdiction of the subject consciousness, as well as a diminution in the intensity of the feeling of externality in oneself. This is what happens, stage by stage, by the practice.

Thus, these limbs of yoga – the eight limbs especially mentioned in Patanjali – are the eight degrees of mastery which consciousness gains over its environment by the development of harmony with its atmosphere. We cannot have mastery over anything unless we are harmonious with that thing. The moment we are disharmonious, we become puppets in the hand of that thing with which we are disharmonious. Harmony and power are identical. The more we are harmonious with a thing, a person, an atmosphere or a condition, whatever it is, the more say we have in the matter of that thing – which means control over that thing, power over that thing.

We are coming to the conclusion that the highest power is identity of oneself with that thing over which we want to have power. That is intuition. What is known as intuition is the insight which one gains into the substance of that thing which is now regarded as the object of perception, and which is then to become the very self of the thing. So, as we approach nearer and nearer to the subjecthood of the object, we gain greater mastery over it, and then it is that we have greater feeling for it, greater sympathy for it. This is what is known as the harmony that one has to establish with the object.

Hence, the harmony that we are speaking of is nothing but the development of the consciousness of a selfhood in the object, in consonance with the selfhood of one's own self. The object ceases to be an object as the consciousness rises in its awareness of itself, because what is called an object is nothing but an aspect of the self itself, which has got separated by peculiar factors. That is called ignorance. It is this separatist tendency that has become responsible for one aspect of the self recognising another aspect of it as the object, so that there is a fight of oneself with oneself, as it were. So, the world is nothing but a war of oneself with oneself.

This is to be obviated by the development of viveka khyati. The purpose of yoga is the enhancement of enlightenment in regard to things by the adjustment of oneself with the object atmosphere in greater and greater harmony – which is another way of saying that we have to become more and more sympathetic with the selfhood of things, rather than recognising their object nature. The equilibrium that is the essence of these stages of practice is the essence of the enlightenment that one has to attain, because the rise of enlightenment within is simultaneous with the establishment of harmony outside. Hence, there is a simultaneous change taking place internally, as well as externally.

When we change within ourselves, the world also changes for us. It is not that we change only inside our house, and outside everything remains chaotic. This is not so. There is a corresponding change in the outer atmosphere when there is an internal transformation, because the internal is commensurate with the external. The one is not really outside the other. There is a transformation of existence itself when there is a transformation of consciousness. The attainment of the perfection of consciousness becomes also, at the same time, the attainment of the perfection of all existence, which is the goal of practising the eight limbs of yoga.