A- A+

The Great System of Yoga Propounded by Patanjali
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 3: The Yamas of Patanjali

In our study of the preliminary stages of the practice of yoga, we observed that a very important phenomenon which the seeker has to confront is the social consciousness. When we try to analyse the structure of society, we could also discover that the society that we are referring to in its philosophical connotation, especially in its relevance to the seeker in yoga, is not merely a group of people. Society is not merely a conglomeration of persons. There is a peculiar feature in what is known as society, independent of the physical individualities of people that may appear to constitute its essence.

By way of analogy, we noticed, for instance, that a heap of stones is not called a society. A stack of bricks is not called a society. Why do we say that a group of people, human beings alone, is a society? The reason is that there is a specific character in the structure of what goes by the name of human society, that is, the psychological relationship among the individuals. Society is, therefore, not individuals taken by themselves independently, isolated. Society is a psychological relationship. If this relationship is not there, there is no society. We may regard ourselves as a society of people seated here in this vast hall, provided that we have a relationship among ourselves of some sort or the other. We bear a connection among ourselves psychologically, a connection of a particular nature. If each one is absolutely independent in the strictest sense of the term, having nothing to do with others in any manner whatsoever, then we cannot be called a society of people even if we are physically hanging on one another's neck. This feature is something that can escape the notice of even an analytic consciousness.

The yamas of the system of Patanjali particularly have a bearing upon the involvement of the human mind in human society. In order to abstract the senses from their involvement in the social network, the various canons of the yamas have been prescribed. Otherwise, the human individual, in its psychological aspect, may go out of bounds and can create situations and circumstances which are difficult to handle, and which it may be difficult to even understand in their pros and cons.

The reason behind the necessity one feels to connect oneself with other people in society is also a very important subject of study. Why is it that we feel compelled to have relationships with other people? Can we not be independent? If we study the cosmological process through which there has been a descent of individuality from the Universal Being, it would appear that society is not prior to the individual; the individual is prior to society. We are told by the Upanishads, for instance, that the Virat, or the Cosmic Being, split itself, as it were, into individualities. The Aitareya Upanishad is a standing exposition of this great theme of the manner in which divinities started jetting forth like flames or sparks from the conflagration of the Virat. We are not going into the details of this process of cosmology now. Our subject is something different. What I mean to say is that the individuality of the jiva, or the person, seems to precede this relationship called society. That is why niyama comes afterwards, and yama comes first. Niyama has a greater relevance to individuality, or the personality of the seeker taken by itself, whereas yama has a social connotation.

Now, the question that may raise itself before us is: What is this social consciousness, and how is it that we seem to get involved in this relationship? Philosophically – or metaphysically, to put it more technically – the reason is the objectification of individuals. Upanishads like the Brihadaranyaka expatiate on this theme of the way in which we externalise or objectivise persons. Society is a peculiar characteristic of the human mind by which it externalises people. It does not regard other people as organically connected with itself. They are separate in some way or the other. The isolation of individuals is taken for granted. I am absolutely different from you. This differentiation of individuals, one from the other, becomes very gross and marked, becomes very dense in its expression in the physical level, but it is not so marked in the higher levels – the astral or the causal levels – of the psyche.

The individual personality is constituted of various layers, known as the koshas, the sheaths, as they are usually called – annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijnanamaya, anandamaya. The annamaya is the grossest sheath. It is so gross that it spatially cuts off one individual from the other, as if there is no connection at all between one and the other. It is only in the mind that we seem to feel a kind of relationship among ourselves. Bodily there is no relationship. We cannot see any physical relationship of one with the other, but psychologically we sense some kind of kinship with other people, which also assumes a dual enigmatic character in human psychology. There is a self-contradictory attitude of the human mind in regard to its visualisation of other people. It has a simultaneous like as well as a dislike in respect of others. It is not true that we like everybody one-hundred percent. It is also not true that we dislike everyone a hundred percent. A hundred percent love is not possible, and a hundred percent hatred is also not possible. Why is this so? Why do we seem to be partially attached to persons and things, and partially get repelled also from persons and things?

Merely on a casual outer look into the structure of society, this question cannot be answered. There is nothing in this world which we can love a hundred percent. There is nothing in this world also which we hate one hundred percent. This peculiar feature has been touched upon in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. We like and dislike things at the same time. How is it possible? Sometimes the characteristic of like is evoked in us by certain behaviours on the part of other people. At other times, the feature of dislike can be evoked in us. A person can behave in such a way that in a minute he can become an object of detestation, or he can conduct himself in another way that he may be very endearing, liked and taken care of, and sympathetically treated. The reason mentioned in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is that basically we are not disunited. The rock bottom of the so-called individualities, known as persons, is not really so divided as it appears on the surface. There is a basic interconnectedness, harmony, or similarity of nature among individuals. That is the reason why one is pulled towards another. At times we feel a kind of sympathy towards people. There is a sense in us which is called servicefulness, an instinctive reaction towards others in the form of affection and a tender feeling, a pity and a desire to be of some help to other people. This is the positive side of the human personality. The negative side is the dislike that is sometimes evoked. We hate certain things in the world from the bottom of our heart, for reasons quite different altogether.

The Upanishad is the answer. Ordinary general psychology cannot touch upon the subject. It does not go so deep. The reason for the love that is evinced in the minds of people in respect of other persons and things is due to the essential unity that is at the base, or the root, of all individuality. There is the principle of the Atman which is not your Atman or my Atman, but is the Atman – the ocean at the base of all the crests appearing on the surface as individualities or persons. That ocean of unity at the base is the reason why we feel a kinship and love, and a sense of servicefulness in respect of other people.

But what is the reason for the other attitude, which is dislike? That is because we are not merely Atmans; we are also empirical individuals, minds caught up in the meshes of the senses and working in terms of space, time, and causal relationship. Space-time compels us to see a difference where a difference is really not there. The empirical difference, the spatio-temporal distinction that we are compelled to see as an inseparable character of individuals, also compels us to assert our individuality and disconnect ourselves from other individuals, and this is the reason for the feeling of dislike. Now the question will arise: Why should this spatio-temporal distinction evoke dislike, and not any other trait in the mind? What is the peculiarity about this feature?

Dislike is an external or a grosser expression of the basic impulse of self-assertion. There is in us what is called the ego, which is a distorted spatio-temporal expression of the pure subjectivity of the Atman in us. The Atman is pure Subject; it is never an object. It can never be externalised, and it cannot brook the presence of any externality or any object in front of it. It resents the very presence of objects because the Atman cannot have an object in front of it. It is the all-consuming, all comprehensive pure Subject infinite. Now, this infinite subjectivity gets distorted through the human individuality when it passes through the psyche and goes by the name of the ego. The ego has all the bad characteristics of this subjectivity, and not the good points of the universal Atmanhood. There is self-assertion, and there is also universality. These are the two characteristics of the Atman. The universal aspect of the Atman is completely cut off on account of the interference of space and time, but the self-assertive aspect is maintained on account of self-consciousness still being present in us. This self-assertive character is less present in animals, plants and stones, but it is more marked in human beings because we have risen to a more intensive form of self-consciousness, which is less distinct in animals and plants, and not at all visible in inanimate matter.

The fact that this consciousness has risen to a level of self-affirmation in the human individual cannot be regarded as a virtue on the part of the human being. We are superior to animals because of the self-consciousness which is in us in a more marked manner than animals, but this superiority itself is also a bane that has descended upon us because in this self-assertive attitude we forget the more positive aspect, namely, that other persons are also subjects of a similar nature. This charitableness or concession cannot be acceded to by the individual ego. It asserts itself to the exclusion of other individual egos. It resents externality, as the Atman resents every externality. But the mistake that the ego commits is that in resenting externality it resents persons, and it resents things. What we should really renounce is the sense of externality, and not persons and things. Actually, renunciation means the relinquishment of the sense of externality in things, which has introduced itself in our life on account of our involvement in space and time. The main function of space is to cut off one individual from another and to make the one appear as the object of another. This is the reason why there is exploitation, hatred, attachment, and all sorts of vices in human society.

The Yoga System gradually takes us from this external entanglement into the internal substance of our individuality. When we go from yama to niyama, we are actually not moving from a psychological relationship in the form of society to our personal individuality, but to a larger concept of this individuality. When we rise from one stage to another stage in the practice of yoga, we rise from a lower level of completeness to a higher level of completeness. In the lowest level of completeness the ego feels self-sufficient. The ego says, “I am complete in myself. I don't require the assistance of anybody else.” This is the assertion of a proud person: “I am all-in-all. Everyone should be subservient to me.” This is the dictatorial attitude of the ego, by which it tries to subject every other individual to its own mandates. This is the essence of selfishness, an unfortunate phenomenon that has arisen on account of the involvement of consciousness in space and time. But this is such a peculiar mix-up in our psychological setup that we cannot easily understand what has happened to us. We ourselves are the doctors as well as the patients. This is the difficulty. If the patient is somewhere and the doctor is in another place, there is a chance of one examining the other, but here we are both. This is the problem before us. Uddhared ātmanātmānaṁ (B.G. 6.5). It seems that the Atman has to help us in pulling the lower Atman into the higher one.

So, to cast a retrospective look upon what we observed just now, it is necessary for the seeker to be a good psychologist of his own mind. He should be a psychologist – not that he should teach psychology to others, but he should understand his own mind especially, because all problems arise on account of not understanding the behaviour of the mind and the reason behind its behaviour. Very often we cannot even understand why the mind behaves in a particular manner, and when we try to understand that it is behaving in this way or that way, we cannot go into the rationale behind it. What has happened to it? What is the malady at the root?

The discovery of this root of the malady requires a more philosophical attitude. We must be true philosophers in the sense of people who are intent upon discovering the ultimate causes behind all phenomena. When we discover, by a careful analysis, that our loves and hatreds are misconceptions – that they are certain psychological involvements – and as it is often said, we hate the sinner instead of hating the sin by an error of attitude, we begin to hate the people outside instead of hating the outsideness which has been foisted upon the people who are equally subjects as one's own self. It is very curious that a person should regard himself as the subject and regard everyone else as objects. Is it not very curious and most illogical? If it were not for the fact that we regard others as objects, how could it be possible for us to harness them for our own purpose, to utilise them for our ends, to exploit people, to subject them to harassment, and to put them in the position of instruments or tools for a particular individual or a group of individuals for satisfactions of various types? If everyone has such an erroneous attitude, what would be the fate of human society? There will be complete chaos. When this becomes very intense, it leads to warfare, battle, and intense sorrow in mankind. There is a psychological muddle which is the reason behind our erroneous notions in regard to persons and things.

Yoga does not require you to abandon people or abandon things in the spirit of renunciation, or tyaga. The whole of the Bhagavadgita is a gospel on this great theme. It is not persons and things that trouble you, not the world that harasses you. It is something else. Vairagya, which is the keynote behind the canons of yama in the System of Patanjali, means the withdrawal of this consciousness of externality, spatio-temporality in the things that we see with our eyes, and giving up this wrong attitude, seeing an end rather than a means in persons and things. Other people are ends, as I myself regard myself as an end. Because of the fact that I regard myself as an end, I try to use others as a means. Why should we not be equally charitable in respect of other people and accede that others also can regard themselves as ends, and use us as a means for themselves?

The great teacher Nagarjuna is supposed to have said that samsara and moksha are in the same place. Here itself is hell, and here itself is heaven. It is not that hell is some million miles away from heaven. They are two viewpoints, one opposed to the other, simultaneously existing. If everyone is an object, there can be no subject in this world, and this is called hell. If everyone treats the other as an object, which means to say that I too can be treated as an object, then immediately there is dissension, battle, warfare, and that is called hell. But, on the other hand, if you concede that everyone is a subject, the objects vanish at once. The vanishing of objectivity and the assertion of the subjectivity of all is moksha. That is actually the Virat consciousness where there is only a totality of subjectivity in the universality of consciousness. And when there is a totality of objectivity, just the opposite of it seems to arise, and that is the sorrow of individuals.

We are to rise, therefore, from a lower level of thinking to the higher level. The various levels through which we have to pass until we reach perfection are the stages of yoga: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, etc. We have heard these stages mentioned so many times that we are likely to mistake their true meaning, significance and relevance in our practical life. These stages of yoga described by Patanjali in his sutras are nothing but the stages of evolution. It is the way in which nature evolves into higher completeness until it reaches total perfection in the Absolute: brahmasakshatkara or kaivalya moksha.

The earlier stages of yoga are more difficult to grapple, as is the case in the educational process also. You will find that children, in the earlier stages, find it very difficult to understand anything. They fumble and struggle and scratch their heads, and it appears as if nothing can be understood. But in the later stages of education, one is enabled to utilise one's intelligence in a better manner than in the preceding stages. Likewise, perhaps, there is a necessity for greater caution and vigilance to be exercised on the part of everyone in the earlier stages, and it is foolhardy on the part of anyone to think he has reached a higher stage. It is better to be humble before the mystery of the cosmos and the glory of God than to be too self-assertive and to be wrongly complacent under the impression that one has reached a higher stage. There is no harm in imagining that you are in a lower stage, but there is a danger in thinking you are in a higher one.

The earlier stages of yoga are very difficult because the mind is not accustomed to such discipline and practice. That is the difficulty. We are used to an easy-go-lucky life of indulgence, enjoyment, and an instinctive reaction to things rather than the application of higher understanding. We rarely use our higher reason. We are instinctive like animals, and this truth will come to the surface if we make a thorough, dispassionate analysis of our own minds. The earlier stages, therefore, are difficult stages, and one has to be more cautious in the earlier stages than in the later ones. The later stages are like putting on a switch in an electric switchboard. Immediately there is a flash of light. But what time you take in installing the electrical setup you know very well, and that is all the labour.

There is a necessity at the very outset to understand the great goal of life. I am only repeating what I told you last time, for your memory. First and foremost, it is necessary on the part of everyone to be very clear about the nature of the ultimate aim of life. If that is not clear, nothing else can be clear afterwards. You should not have a nebulous notion of your goal of life. It should be very clear, like daylight. When your aim is clear, to a large extent the way of realising this aim will also be clear. And you should not be impatient. You should not hurriedly jump from one step to another step. It is always a gradual movement systematically, which is evolutionary in its character, and not revolutionary. The movement from one stage to another should be so slow and firm that there should be no need to retrace one's steps to the lower stage afterwards. It is better to take more time in understanding a level completely than to hurriedly jump to the higher one and break one's legs.

So these are a few words in connection with the philosophical implications and the spiritual connotation that is behind the great ordinance known as the yamas, which Patanjali has placed before us, and when we try to understand what are the niyamas, we will also be enabled, at the same time, to know something about the relationship between the individual and society, after which, the real yoga starts in its relationship to the universe, and to God ultimately.