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The Great System of Yoga Propounded by Patanjali
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 1: Introduction

People the world over are not only acquainted with the word ‘yoga' but there may be perhaps as many ideas or definitions of yoga as there are people in the world. It is often said that there is a world under every hat, so each person has his own or her own concept of what yoga is, which is sometimes overemphasised, sometimes underestimated, sometimes misconstrued, and oftentimes deliberately misrepresented due to motives of one's own.

But seekers of what we may call perfection, call it God or by any name you like, would do well to take things seriously and not to dabble with the subject as a sociological problem or something that will win you name, fame and wealth. Nothing of the kind is yoga. It is something which is as dear to you as anything else. Nothing can be dearer to you than yoga, if you can know what it really means. It is not merely a subject that you choose for your studies as in college in order to get a degree. It is a system which you are trying to accommodate into your own personal and practical day-to-day life as an art by which you place yourself in a greater proximity to that great ideal of all life than is your circumstance or situation today at this hour.

There is a glib definition of yoga as union, an offhand description of it with which you are all familiar, but it is not easily intelligible as to what this union is about. Who is going to be united with what, and what for is this union, are also doubts that may occur to your minds. Firstly, it may not be clear as to which items are to be united in this so-called union called yoga. The second thing is, why should you struggle with that union? What do you gain out of it? What is the purpose? What is the mystery about it? These psychological difficulties may present themselves, all which have to be cleared at the very outset.

The system of yoga is a practice, and this practice is nothing but the conduct of your life in your day-to-day affairs. In the light of the nature of things, or we may say in the light of the structure of the universe, we cannot behave in a way which is irrelevant to the nature of things because we are in the world; we are not outside the world. Hence, the system or principle that is operating behind the world, or the universe, will expect us to respect the law which is reigning supreme in the universe, and anyone who is adamant enough to turn a deaf ear to the calls of the law of life will be penalised by the law by an automatic working of this great rule of the universe.

The system of the universe is so spontaneous and automatic that it does not require an operator. In a way, we may say the universe works like a large computer system. It works of its own accord. A reaction is set to action automatically, without any person operating this machine. Action and reaction are equal and opposite, which is something known to everyone in the physical and mathematical realms. This is so because of the arrangement of things called the universe. Never forget that you are not outside the world or the universe. Neither are you outside human society, nor are you outside the world, this planet Earth, nor are you outside this astronomical cosmos. Inasmuch as you are inseparably related to this large atmosphere called human society, the world or the universe, your conduct should be in consonance with the way in which the large atmosphere of the universe works. To put it more precisely and pointedly, it may be said that yoga is that necessary character and conduct of the personality or the individuality which abides by the requisition of the law of the universe.

We many a time go wrong in our outlook of life, in our judgment of things, and in our behaviour in general due to the fact that we have no adequate knowledge of the way in which the universe is working; therefore, we do not know precisely what our relation to the universe is. It follows naturally from this ignorance that our conduct in life can be an aberration from the requirement of the laws or the rules of the universe.

Hence, the first and foremost thing that would be required of us as students of yoga would be not to suddenly jump into certain techniques of practice, because the practice is only a necessary consequence of your knowledge of or insight into the structure of things. If knowledge is lacking, the practice can go wrong. Hence, it is often emphasised in philosophical circles that ethics is based on metaphysics. Ethics means anything that is practical. It is not necessarily what is called social morality or personal behaviour in the usual sense of the term. Philosophically speaking, ethics means any kind of practical requirement on the part of any individual in the light of the structure of the cosmos. The knowledge of the structure of the cosmos can be said to be metaphysics, and what follows from it automatically as a demand on your natural behaviour is the ethics thereof. Therefore, yoga is a part of ethics in this generalised sense. So before you know what this practical aspect of yoga is, you should know how this practice comes about at all under the nature of things.

You must have heard it said many a time that yoga is based on sankhya, which means to say, ethics is based on metaphysics; action is based on knowledge. You cannot move an inch unless you know how to move, where to move, and also why to move. These questions are clarified in your consciousness before you take any step in any direction, whether it is yoga or otherwise.

Sankhya is a technical Sanskrit term representing knowledge of reality, an acquaintance with the makeup or structure of things in general. What is this world made of, what is meant by the universe, and what is our position here? If you know your placement in the atmosphere of things, you will know what to do under a given condition. You need not be told that you should practice yoga. You will know that it is necessary because of the very nature of the circumstances. No one need tell you that you should eat food, as your hunger will tell you that you should eat it, and so on. A particular circumstance which is clear to your mind will also tell you what you should do under the given circumstance. Hence, to go on dinning into the ears of people to do yoga is not necessary. What is necessary is to enlighten them into the nature of the circumstance under which they are living. People are ignorant. That is the main disease of humanity. Ignorance is a sort of bliss: All is fine, and nothing is wrong anywhere.

Education is the primary requirement of everyone. What we lack is not money or building or lands, so much as education. We may think we are educated people, but this education will help us in getting on with things somehow by a kind of day-to-day adjustment; but getting on with things is not the same as having the wisdom of life. The wisdom of life is sankhya. You may be under the impression that sankhya means some sort of a doctrine propounded by an ancient sage called Kapila in a series of aphorisms called sutras, one of the systems of philosophy well known in India. This may be so. Sankhya is that, of course, but it is not necessary to take sankhya in this restricted sense merely. Though sankhya is a system propounded by the sage Kapila, it need not be associated with any personality.

The word sankhya occurs in Indian scriptures other than the sutras of Kapila. There are texts which may be said to be anterior to the system promulgated by the sage Kapila. For instance, the word sankhya occurs in the Manusmriti, in the Mahabharata, and essentially and principally in the Bhagavadgita where it is used in a broader sense than the meaning that may be associated with the sutras of Kapila, because the Sankhya of Kapila is a clear-cut and precise mathematical procedure of defining things according to the vision which must have propelled Kapila under the conditions of his time. But as our interest is practical and not merely theoretical, and we are more interested in living a good life, a better life, than knowing so many things, we need not go too much into the technicalities of Sankhya in Kapila's sutras. We may do well to understand that it generally means the knowledge of things as they are, and as they ought to be, as a logical consequence that must follow from our own daily experiences. What is called philosophy is only an implication that follows spontaneously or automatically from an observation of the facts of experience. If you have time enough and patience enough to probe deeply into your own daily experiences, you will realise that there is something beneath the surface movement of your life you call your experiences.

Generally you are dashed hither and thither by the waves of your daily activities, due to which, you have neither the time nor the capacity to read between the lines, as they say, in respect of your daily experiences. The general pattern of the universe presented to us by our ancient adepts is such that its contents are an integrated family. The universe is full of citizens, or inhabitants, we may say, not necessarily living beings like us, but even other elements which you may, from your point of view, regard as non-living, inanimate, etc.

The great scriptures of yoga visualise a universe which is larger than what we now see with our naked eyes. The universe is not merely what you see with your eyes just now, though it includes this also. You look up to the skies, and all around, and you see something. This is the physical universe, wherein you find the solar system – the sun and the moon and the stars and the vast sky, inaccessible to ordinary sensory perception, and you see all around you people, animals, plants, hills, and so on. But the vision of India has gone deeper than what is available to the naked eye, and has proclaimed a truth that there are various planes, or levels, of the manifestation of what we may call the universe.

This physical structure around us is one plane. It is a sort of density, we may say. It does not mean that there are many universes. There are many levels or degrees of densities through which the universe reveals itself by a graduated arrangement, through experience. These levels, these degrees or planes of densities, are called lokas: Bhuloka, Bhuvarloka, Swarloka, Maharloka, Janaloka, Tapaloka, Satyaloka. There are said to be levels above, ranging beyond the ken of ordinary perception and invisible to the naked eye, such that we cannot even think what they could be. We are also told that there can be levels far below this Earth, or the physical world, known as Atala, Vitala, Sutala, Talatala, Mahatala, Rasatala, Patala. There are seven above and seven below, and so we are told there are about fourteen planes. Well, there can be more than fourteen also. These are roughly the calculated arrangements made by the ancient seers of the degrees of experience through which one has to pass in the evolution of oneself.

These planes of existence, or lokas, are stages through which everyone has to pass. It is possible that we have already passed through the lower levels. We have to take for granted that we have come to the physical level by rising above the lower levels by transmutation through ages and ages of achievements. Biological and physical science today is very fond of insisting on an evolution of life. As they say, there has been a movement from matter to life, from life to mind, from mind to intellect or the human reason, in which state we are today. This is something like what I told you already, namely, that there seems to be a series in the levels of cosmic experience, called lokas, or levels of being. We are on the human level. It does not mean that the human universe is the entire universe, as there are levels below and also levels above.

Hence, there is a necessity for us to evolve further from the state of man, and many have said that we have to become a superman. Now, this superman is only a kind of name associated with the possibilities ahead of us, superior to our present state of experience. It is not possible for us to rest contented here. We are thoroughly dissatisfied with everything because this is not our permanent home. It is not our permanent habitat because we are on a process of rising up. We are moving further and further. As we have already come from lower levels to the human level, we have to go further on to the more advanced, subtler and more pervasive levels: the levels of angels, gods, celestials, etc., that we hear of in scriptures.

An indication of these experiences is given in the Taittiriya Upanishad, for instance, where we are told that above man are the Pitris, above the Pitris are the Gandharvas, then we have the Devas or the gods or the angels, then the ruler of the angels, called Indra, then the Guru or the preceptor of the gods, called Brihaspati, the great depository of wisdom. Beyond that is the Creator. Such details of the existence of higher realms of experience are available in scriptures of this kind, not only in India but in other countries also. So we can imagine what our position is here in this world. It is so because happiness is nothing but an automatic consequence of the attainment of perfection. The more we move towards perfection, the more are we happy, and perfection seems to be far away from us in the light of this little analysis that we have done just now. If we have to go far, far above the human level through these series of ascents, the indication of which is available in the Taittiriya Upanishad, in light of the various lokas that seem to be above the physical level, we cannot be happy here. Nothing can satisfy us. Not the possession of the whole world and the emperorship of this Earth can satisfy a person, for reasons quite obvious and clear to every one of us. You cannot have satisfaction here because you cannot be perfect here. You cannot be perfect here because you have not completed the stages of your evolution; you are in a lower level yet.

Now, these ideas have something to do with the knowledge of the structure of things, sankhya. I am giving you some ideas which are not contained in the sutras of Kapila or in any particular compartmentalised textbook. These details which are available to you will make you open your eyes a little bit to the situation in which you are today, and you would be very anxious to know what would be your future and what you can do under the given circumstances here to improve yourselves in the direction of your movement or ascent higher. Why should you not take to the practice of yoga if yoga means your effort to evolve yourself into the higher realms of being, towards the achievement or attainment of the ultimate perfection which alone can make you satisfied ultimately? Who on Earth can forego the practice of yoga if this is the state of affairs? And why should anybody need to tell you that you should practice yoga? It will be clear to you like daylight.

So again I reiterate, the practice of yoga is not the important matter, but the need that you feel for the practice of it is important. That is first, and the practice comes afterwards. If you don't feel the need at all, where comes the practice? And the need is not available to your eyes. You do not feel the need because you are totally ignorant. We are living in a fool's paradise under the impression that everything is okay when everything is really dead wrong. The universe is moving rapidly towards its destination like a fast-moving railway train, and you are as if seated in this vehicle, this moving train. You cannot keep quiet. You have to move with the train that moves, because you are in it. When you are in the universe, it moves and evolves. Therefore, you have to move.

Hence, you are not a steady, independent, indivisible being, as you appear to be. These friends, these students seated here are not self-identical, indivisible individualities. They are masses of process. You must be able to visualise the meaning of what I say. You are bundles of movement, rather than a stable existence, because of the fact that you are moving; therefore, you cannot be a stable and self-identical indivisibility even for second. Therefore, great thinkers like Gautama Buddha were tirelessly telling us that you cannot touch the same water in a river the next moment. Every second you are touching new water in the river. Likewise, when you touch your own body after a few minutes, perhaps you are touching something different. It is not the same thing that you saw or were a few seconds or minutes before. Similarly, when a train is moving, every second you are seeing something new because the train is passing through areas which have not yet been covered, because it is moving. The universe is moving, and this unavoidable movement of the universe is called evolution; whether it is the evolution that is described by Darwin or Lamarck or the Upanishads, it makes no difference. There is such a thing called evolution, which is only another name for the necessity felt by the finite to move towards the infinite.

No finite can rest contented with its own self. Nobody likes limitations of any kind. You do not like bondage. You resent it wholeheartedly. “I do not like any kind of restriction imposed upon me by anything from outside.” This is the call for freedom, and we are limited in every way. This body is a limitation. My existence here is limited by the limitation of people in the world outside. And there are other limitations of a social and political nature, which we are not happy about because who likes to be limited, restricted, bound together in a prison, as it were? We want to be free birds with a say of our own in everything. This is not possible in this world. Real freedom that your soul is asking for is unavailable in this finite world of finite individualities and limited patterns of experience.

Now again I tell you why yoga is necessary. You will yourself appreciate how it comes about and where you stand. I am not going to touch upon the practical side of yoga immediately, inasmuch as it is necessary to throw some light on the background of this practice before we actually enter into it. We are too much enmeshed in prejudices, psychologically and even rationally. There are emotional and psychological prejudices in our minds, and we also have intellectual and rational prejudices. They may look highly reasonable, but they are also prejudices. They look reasonable because the mind and the reason have been tied up with knots to these ways of thinking. A great Englishman, Francis Bacon, called them the idols of the cave, and idols of various types, which are the prejudices of the mind and the stereotyped movements of our ways of thinking, into which we are born. Our parents have told us something, and our schoolmasters and professors say something, our society tells us something, and we are born in a particular nation which has its own ways and methods of thinking and ideologies on which it has to work, and so on. These are the ways in which we have been brainwashed right from childhood. We have to decondition ourselves if we are to practise yoga. Any kind of conditioned mind is unfit. You should shed all these preconceived notions that you are such and such and this and that: that you are this religionist, that you are a Hindu or a Christian or a Muslim, you are a monk, you are a householder, you are a man, you are a woman. These are also prejudices which are hard-boiled and cannot leave us easily because they are part and parcel of our consciousness.

Existence is the same as consciousness, and our prejudiced existence has become one with our consciousness so that we cannot even detect that we have any prejudices in our mind. Everything looks very fine, and we seem to be spotless in our ideas and ideologies. That is why we have been told again and again that a sort of teacher is necessary – a Guru, if you would like to call it so –  because the mind has been enmeshed with various types of inborn traits which are not necessarily compatible with the nature of the universe.

Secondly, this universe, this world, this large atmosphere around you is not constituted of bits of matter or isolated units with no connection of one with the other. The universe is a very appropriate word for this atmosphere. It is the opposite of chaos. Chaos is a confused medley of particulars which have their own way and move in their own directions, absolutely having no relation with one another. But the universe is a word which signifies an arrangement or order of things where the particulars have internal relations, not merely external connections.

You have to be a little bit awake in your mind when you try to define what an internal relation is as distinguished from an external connection. I can give you an example. A body of people forming the Parliament in a government have a connection with one another because they form this corporate body. They have a relationship with one another. But this relationship of the units constituting the body of the parliament can be broken any day by various methods of political manoeuvring, about which everyone knows well, so there is no real internal relationship of the members of the parliament among themselves. One man can shed his relationship tomorrow or even now, if he likes. He may resign his post as a Member of Parliament. Even when he works or functions as a Member of Parliament, internally he is not related to anyone. He is an independent person. He has a connection with all of them, but it is an external connection. The internal relationship is an inviolable connection, whereas an external connection can be snapped if necessity arises.

Our relationship with the universe is not like the relationship of a Member of Parliament to the corporate body. Our relationship to the universe is internal, inviolable, inexorable, and eternal. It cannot pass away. We are related to the universe forever and ever, and we cannot sever this relationship at any time. Well, we may consider the limits of the body as inviolably related to this body, but even this organic connection of the limbs of the body to the structure called the body is of an inferior type because a part of the body can be severed. You can amputate an arm or any other limb, and the relationship of this part with the body ceases. But under no circumstance can you sever your relationship with this world, or the universe. No amputation is possible here. No kind of severance of relationship of the particulars or individuals is possible under any circumstance in respect of this vast world called the universe. You are eternally related to it.

If evolution is a fact, and you have risen to this level of humanity by rising from the bottom, you did exist even before you were a human being. The prior existence of the individual in other bodies or other species of beings is automatically proven by the fact of the evolution of things, and it also proves post-existence, post-mortem realities if really evolution is a fact, and mankind is not the ultimate pinnacle of the process of evolution. If there has been evolution backwards and also it is to be there forwards, you will be surprised to see that you did exist centuries and aeons back, and you will also exist aeons ahead. Perhaps you are an eternal unit of this large structure called the universe. You are a citizen not of this world merely. Neither are you from Orissa or Madras. What puny, petty ideas we have got in our minds! I am a Maharashtrian, I am a Punjabi, I am a Keralite, I am a Tamilian, I am a Karnatak. How low we have come, how shameful is our existence when we think of these little things as our real associates while we seem to be belonging to a structure which is larger than any ocean that we can conceive of and the universe that was behind us and is ahead of us through various realms of being.

We cannot rest for a moment thinking of these things. We will be in consternation every moment of time. You will be looking round all sides, trying to find out as to where you are standing. Am I of this world? I am I in this world? Am I in the world at all, or am I somewhere else? Your mouth will be shut. You will not be able to say anything. Such would be your wonder and consternation at this little insight into which you will be drawn by your analysis of the circumstances.

Thus, this little picture I have given of the structure of things or the nature of the universe may be regarded as an introduction to certain other details that you may have to know about the universe itself. It is true that this large structure is so vast; it extended behind you in the lower levels and it is going to be ahead of you in the further levels of evolution, but there are minuter details associated with these analyses we have made, about which you also have to know something in order that you may have no doubts left in your mind regarding the practice of yoga.

Before you step into the realm of the actual practice, you should be free from every kind of intellectual doubt and emotional tension. These two things should be cast out like devils. Intellectual doubts and emotional tensions are your greatest enemies in spiritual pursuits. All doubts have to be cleared by studies and consultation among your own selves as students, and also advice from your teacher, whoever your teacher be.

This large universe was one large mass, indivisible and undifferentiated in its nature; this is something that every religion tells us. Whether it is the Bible or the Upanishads or even modern science, they all tell the same thing practically. The universe was one indistinguishable, undivided mass of being. Science tells us it was an atom. The universe was an atom originally, and it split into two and became four, it became eight, it became sixteen, it became thirty-two, sixty-four – endlessly, a millionfold, unthinkably multifarious and multitudinous as it is now. This is what our modern physics tells us. In the beginning was the word, says the Bible, and āsīdidaṃ tamobhūtamaprajñātamalakṣaṇam, apratarkyamavijñeyaṃ prasuptamiva sarvataḥ (Manu 1.5) says the Manusmriti at its very commencement. So is the proclamation of the Upanishads and the Vedas, and practically every scripture. Biology tells us there was one cell originally; we were originally a single cell, a monocell or a unicell, and one cell splits into two. It becomes a bicell, a quadricell, an octicell, etc.

I met a physician in Bombay, a very great expert. He told me, “Swamiji, today medical science is concluding the very same fact that the Upanishads have said many years back. The universe was one. It started with one single, undivided Being. We also say the same thing now. There was one single unit of individual, and this little drop, or perhaps something smaller than a drop, something which is minuter than what you can call a cell, was the origin of this large body of the human being.” The doctor said, “Swamiji, this little cell, when it is scientifically analysed, can tell us how long this body is going to live, what are the experiences one has to pass through, and every blessed detail of the individual till the death of the individual. It is already decided in this little cell.” What else does the Upanishad tell us? It says that the great will of the Supreme Being is the original determinant of all the details of this universe. Even a sparrow cannot fall without the will of the Father. A leaf cannot live without the will of the Supreme. You cannot lift a finger unless it has been permitted by the law of the cosmos.

Now, this seems to be the origin of things – a single undivided unity which, as our Masters tell us and scriptures proclaim, somehow appears to have divided itself into two. It has not really split itself into two. Therefore, I added the word ‘appears', because if it really had become more than one, it cannot become one again, and so there is no chance of reaching God. But the possibility of attaining liberation and the chance of attaining God just at this moment should also be added to the proof of there not being a real split. Vedanta philosophy goes so far as to say the split is something like the split that appears in dream. There has been a bifurcation, a modification, a multiplication into individualities and particularities in the dream world, but it has not really taken place because when you wake up from dream the particulars get absorbed into the unity of your mind as if they had never taken place at all, notwithstanding the fact that you saw the particulars.

This is a distinguishing feature of the Vedanta philosophy which makes a departure from the other doctrines by emphasising that if there had been a real bifurcation or division, there would be no chance of liberation of the individuals. You would be always divided. You cannot even think of this unity if it had not been implanted in your mind. A finite which is really finite cannot think of the infinite. The idea of the infinite cannot arise in the finite brain because they are contradictories. But the idea of the infinite does arise in your mind, and you are trying to break the boundaries of finitude and reach the endlessness of your being, horizontally as well as vertically, in quality as well as in quantity. So it is true that God has not ceased to be God when He created the world, if He has created it. He is still the same God that He was. He is the same thing, and He shall be the same thing, for He is eternal. He is not a modifying substance or an object that has ceased to be the cause it was in becoming the effect. This is a highly intricate philosophical point, into whose details we need not enter at present, as our interest is more practical.

This universe that was one, and is one, does not appear as a multitude suddenly, but it becomes two first, and this becoming of the one into two is what the Sankhya calls purusha and prakriti, consciousness and its object, the spirit within and the world outside. The original bifurcation, or division, is of the One Being into the seer and the seen, the subject and the object. The one becomes two, or we may say there was a state of being which was prior even to this division of the One into the seer and the seen, namely, a consciousness of being. You have to stretch your imagination to feel as to what the state could be because even the awareness that one is, is a kind of limitation on absoluteness. Unless there is a sensation of space, time or something like that, there cannot be any chance of one's being aware that one is. Therefore, it is not even a self-awareness or a consciousness of One Being and a feeling of ‘I am', but something transcendent to it, far beyond it.

Subsequent is the state of ‘I amness', ‘I am that I am' or ‘I am what I am', Yahweh or Jehovah, or aham asmi, as the Upanishad puts it.

Posterior to this universal self-awareness is the division of the One into the twofold so-called realities, consciousness and its object, purusha and prakriti. The classical form of Sankhya makes much of these two principles, purusha and prakriti. There are only two things in this universe, nothing else: consciousness, and what is not consciousness. There cannot be anything else. There is the perceiver and what is perceived. Here you are on the lap of classical Sankhya, of which the practical implementation is said to be yoga.