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The Great System of Yoga Propounded by Patanjali
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 5: The Internal Discipline of the Niyamas

We had occasion to discuss in adequate details the external discipline propounded as the yamas in the system of yoga doctrine of sage Patanjali. It took some time for us to go deep into this subject of external discipline, which implied a psychological grasp of the structure of human society and a philosophical understanding of our relationship with the makeup of society. We could discover that the canons of the yamas mentioned by Patanjali suggest an all-round adjustment of our personality with the atmosphere constituting human nature and the world outside, a balancing of ourselves at every moment of time with due consideration to the various stresses and vicissitudes of time's passage, through which we have to pass. We had also occasion to observe that this adjustment of ourselves with outer society is not a stereotyped movement along a beaten track but a dexterous arrangement of ourselves from moment to moment, as a driver of a vehicle has to be cautious in adjusting his driving technique from moment to moment in accordance with the nature of the road along which he travels. It does not mean that he moves forever in the same direction. There is an incessant vigilance required of every seeker of Truth in the manner of this self-adjustment with the outer atmosphere. So much about our discipline in its quintessence, about which we studied earlier.

The next step is internal discipline, which is known as niyama. It is akin to the external discipline in its basic fundamentals, but varies from the yamas in certain other aspects of methodology which have to be adopted in its practice. Internal discipline is a higher step than external discipline, and we know very well that we are heading towards a high integration which moves gradually from the external to the internal, and rises further to the Universal Reality. Thus, even internal discipline is not a completed practice. Nevertheless, it is superior to the external discipline, and it immediately follows.

The internal discipline known as the niyamas in the System of Patanjali is the ordering of our nature, the total makeup of our personality in consonance with the structure of Reality. While external discipline is used to adjust our personality with the nature of outer society, and we were not very much concerned with the internal makeup of our internal personality at that time, now the time has come to pay attention to the inner layers of our personality which have to be properly aligned in consonance with the nature of things, towards which the person has to evolve.

Internal discipline means a total reorganisation of the attitude of our personality in regard to things. It has very much to do with our daily routines, and our very way of thinking itself. Every one of us evidently has some daily routine right from morning to evening. Among the many aspects of this internal discipline, one item is this daily routine. It has very much to do with our internal progress. It would be advisable for every seeker to have some sort of idea of the various items through which he has to pass during the day. In addition to the allotment of the duration of time for executing the various items of duty in the day, a very important aspect of the method would be the way in which these items have to be executed. It would not be very difficult for you to allot some duration of time for various activities in that particular day. But it would not be so easy to decide the way in which they have to be executed, because the way of execution of a particular work, or the performance of the duty, means an understanding of our total attitude towards things in general. That total attitude will determine the general structure of the way in which we execute the functions in life.

We have in Sanskrit two important terms, known as samanya dharma and vishesha dharma. Samanya dharma is a general law that we observe in the execution of things. Vishesha dharma is a specialised law that we apply under given circumstances. Throughout the day we have a set of duties to perform. Each one of us has some duty or the other. The duty is not something imposed upon us by circumstances, but a vocation which we have accepted as a necessary process of the evolution of our personality into the higher order of things. We must be very cautious in distinguishing between duty and drudgery. Slavish drudgery and being subjected to painful labour is different from the performance of duty. Sometimes the performance of duty can be painful, but pain itself is not a definition of duty. Whether a performance is a duty or a drudgery can be decided by the attitude that is at the back of its performance; the main outer form of the work is not the way of judging it. I may be ploughing a field, and you may not know whether I am performing a duty or performing a mere slavish drudgery. Only I will know it from my own attitude towards it. I may be sweeping the floor. You may not know why I am sweeping the floor, what attitude and what intention I have behind it. If somehow or other I am able to discover an inner significance or relevance between this particular performance and the ultimate aim of life, then it becomes a duty. Every performance has to bear a conscious relevance to the aim of life.

In fact, there is nothing which is irrelevant in this world. Everything bears some sort of connection with everything else in the structure of things. But the point is, to what extent are we conscious of this fact? What gives value to things is the awareness that we bestow upon them. This is the difference between the mechanical evolution of nature and conscious ascent in yoga. Though the ascent through the processes of yoga is the same as what is called evolution in nature, the difference here is that while in the process of evolution you are per force dragged together with the impulse of evolution as a railway train would drag you merely because you are sitting inside it, yoga is a conscious endeavour to accelerate the movement of one's personality in the direction of this evolutionary activity of the cosmos. This is something out of the point I am mentioning merely to give an idea as to what duty is, as distinguished from mere work in the commonsense significance of things.

So the daily routine of the daily performance of duty is a series. It is very important that a seeker of Truth should learn to see significance in things, and then everything becomes a process of delight, a rejoicing, and any grievous complaint in regard to circumstances would not arise in the mind. The whole of nature is an organic completeness, and each part of this completeness is an inseparable element of the whole. Inasmuch as there is an organic balance and equilibrium maintained by the structure of things, there is also a justice in the order of things. The whole universe is governed by a supreme justice. Just as our physical organism has a justice of its own, there is a compensation paid by the parts of the body in respect of that part which is neglected in some way or the other, biologically, physiologically or anatomically. These are things we can very easily appreciate.

There is always an attempt on the part of the organism to maintain its balance. Any kind of lopsided development is resented by the organism. The same law applies to everything, from the subatomic electronic field right up to the solar system and the whole cosmic order. This general law is that which determines every activity; it also determines the general attitude we have to adopt in the performance of our duties throughout the day. I have a general attitude towards things, and it does not vary from day to day, but a specific attitude may change from moment to moment. This is what is known as vishesha dharma. One nation may adopt a general policy towards other nations. This is the samyana dharma of a particular nation, for instance. The government of a nation adopts an external policy in relation to other nations in the world, but it may have some specific ideas about given circumstances from day to day, or even from moment to moment, as the exigencies may arise. You cannot have one stereotyped attitude for all times, notwithstanding the fact you have a general attitude towards things.

So while there is a fixed pattern of attitude towards the performance of duty every day, there is a necessity to adjust oneself in terms of the harmony required at any given moment of time. Again to come to the analogy of the driver of a motorcar, for instance, he has a general idea of driving but he has also a specific control over the mechanism and uses common sense, if you would like to call it, when he drives. He is ever vigilant and never daydreams when the vehicle is moving. Life is nothing but a veritable moving towards its goal. It is a journey, as people sometimes call it. It is an endless movement, a procession of bits of experience rising one above the other in a series of influxes and adjustments and relevance gathered up into the personality, all tending towards the finest and widest integration and inclusion in the realisation of the Ultimate Reality, the Supreme Absolute.

It is not easy to be a spiritual seeker. One should not be under the impression that you can take up spiritual life when everything else fails. It is a most unfortunate way of looking at things. Everything else is secondary compared to the dexterity that is required of the spiritual seeker in the performance of the sadhana to which he has taken. Adhyātmavidyā vidyānāṃ (B.G. 10.32) says the Bhagavadgita: Of all sciences, the science of the Self is supreme; therefore, the art of practising it is most difficult. It is more difficult than mathematics or physics, or any art or science that you can think of.

While there is a mathematical or arithmetical system laid before you for the performance of duty in respect of the fields of life where arts and sciences operate, in the field of spiritual life this arithmetical computer will not work because here a conscious dexterity is necessary. To give another example, it is like the attitude of a general in the army who is actually operating in the battlefield. A general of an army has a current grasp of the science of fighting, but that is only a general knowledge that he possesses. He has to exercise common sense as well as that special attitude that I mentioned, vishesha dharma, from moment to moment when he is active in the battlefield. Sometimes he may have to move forward; sometimes he may have to move backward. He may have to manoeuvre the army in various ways according to the circumstances and the needs of the time. Likewise, the spiritual seeker has to condition himself by adjusting his personality using the inner discipline, the niyamas, so that he stands in harmony with the environment at every moment of time.

Now, ‘environment' is a word that requires a little explanation. When we discussed the nature of external discipline, we spoke of the environment as constituting human society especially. But now in the technique of the practice of internal discipline, the environment is whatever is within us, not what is outside, because we have already dealt with that. There is a world within us as wide and as complicated as the world that is without. We are a miniature cosmos. Whatever is the world is also inside us, and the problems of the world are also problems of the psyche.

There are layers of our personality like layers in the outer world. These layers are, broadly speaking, the physical, the vital, the sensory, the mental and the intellectual. These are the levels of our personality. There can be minor classifications or subdivisions of these layers but, broadly speaking, these are the layers. They have to be aligned, to put it precisely. Mostly they are disbalanced. We do not think as we feel, and we do not feel as we think, and our pranas and the senses act in a particular manner with a vehemence of their own due to past impressions and many other factors with which the thought and the feelings are automatically dragged. We generally think and feel in terms of the sense organs, in terms of the reports that the senses give us of the objects outside. Nevertheless, we feel unhappy. We are not harmonised in our personalities because harmony is happiness, harmony is yoga.

Samatvaṃ yoga ucyate (B.G. 2.48): Wherever there is balance, there is joy. Physical balance is health. When the physiological system is working in harmony, we call it health. When there is a disbalance in the working of the physiological organs, there is ill health. Likewise, when the various aspects of the psyche work in harmony, we call it sanity. When there is disbalance of the various functions of the psyche, we call it absence of sanity. It can lead to insanity. Likewise are the emotions. If the emotions are not in balance, there can be a revolution of our whole personality and we can immediately be out of gear. We can be in a state of melancholy, depression, and in a state of intense nervous tension. There can be agitation in the whole personality, as it happened to Arjuna as described in the First Chapter of the Bhagavadgita. All the five layers of the personality began to disintegrate, as it were. The body does not cooperate with the senses, the senses do not cooperate with the pranas, the pranas do not cooperate with the mind, and the mind does not cooperate with the understanding. There is, therefore, a need to bring about some sort of a balance in the various layers inside us. For this purpose, we have to have some understanding of what we are.

We are not merely sons and daughters, etc. Whenever we think of ourselves, we define ourselves as relations of some people. I am the mother of so-and-so, the daughter of so-and-so, the husband of so-and-so, the friend of so-and-so. I am an officer, I am a clerk, I am a secretary. These are the ways in which we define ourselves. We are teachers; we are students. We are none of these, unfortunately. Our true personality is not a father or a mother, is not a brother or sister. These are all social conventions foisted upon us for the purpose of linguistic definition and social existence. What are you yourself independently, minus every kind of relationship? This is the stage where your internal analysis begins. “When nobody sees me, when nobody speaks to me, when I do not think of anybody else in the world, what am I? Am I a son or a father or brother or sister?” All these ideas will convey no sense when you are absolutely alone somewhere; but still, you are something. Minus relationship, you do not get reduced to nothing.

This is not the conclusion of internal analysis. It is only the beginning of the stages of internal analysis. You have, first of all, to learn that you are an independent being with a status of your own. You are neither this nor that socially. Can you not have a non-social existence? Just imagine you are far away in the wilderness, for instance, in the Sahara desert or in a jungle. You are just no one in human society, but you are still something in yourself, and I don't think that you will evaluate yourself as a father or a mother or a brother or a sister at that time, because these evaluations will convey no meaning to you. They have no sense at all. You are just a human being. That is the only idea that will come to you about yourself: I am a human being, not merely a social entity or a unit of the organisation of nations.

Now, I have mentioned that this is the first step in your analysis internally: to regard yourself as a human being, that is all, and not as someone related to someone else. Let the external ties snap before the internal analysis begins. The moment you begin to interpret yourself as a relative of somebody else in some way or the other, you are in an external relationship. You are in a state of yama, and have not come to niyama. You are just a unit in the ocean of forces, which is all existence. You stand alone to yourself. When you were born into this world, you came absolutely alone with no kind of relation whatsoever. The other social relationships developed later on due to circumstances. Similarly, all social ties get snapped when you depart from this world. When you are about to quit this world, it is difficult to believe that a person would go as a mother or a sister, etc. One would leave this world in a different attitude altogether, which could not be possible for the mind to conceive at the present moment because unless the time comes, the mind will not be prepared for such an attitude. When you get drowned in water, you will not be thinking of yourself as a father or son, etc. You will be thinking something different altogether. Your life is going, so what is the use of thinking that you are a father or a brother or a sister, etc.? You are just an entity that lives; that is all the consciousness that you will have at that moment.

So to come to the point, before internal analysis begins, external relationships should cease, which means to say, the attitude of the mind by which it starts interpreting things in terms of external relationships ceases. You may see people, but you need not interpret things in terms of these people. You see many trees, for instance, many stones, and you do not take them into consideration in your evaluation of things. Then why should you take people into your evaluation of things? In a similar manner, you have to learn to see yourself as independent of these external relationships. Then it is that an insight dawns within you, an insight which speaks in a language of integration, by which I mean that you get an idea of the totality that you really are, and the substance that you independently stand as. We have been taught right from childhood to look upon ourselves as things capable of definition in terms of other things.

You can close your eyes for a few minutes and imagine what you are. You cannot help defining yourself in terms of things other than you. All sorts of ideas will come to you which are not you yourself, and your importance or value or significance seems to lie more in what other things are than in what you yourself are. This is very strange that we seem to look upon ourselves as a conglomeration of definitions foisted upon us by the relationships that we maintain with other things. Are we not something in ourselves? Are we always something because of what some other things are?

This is something higher for the mind to grasp. We look upon things as objects of definition. Everything is defined. Whatever object we see in the world, we find that it is seen as an object of definition. We may define it merely psychologically, though not verbally. We do not give a linguistic definition of an object when we look at an object outside, but we interpret it psychologically. We have an opinion about it, and this opinion is the definition that we give about that object in our mind itself, though we do not speak it.

When we define ourselves, we define ourselves as a unit of relativities, and not as a substance by itself. Logicians tell us that every object is defined in terms of positive and negative relevances of that object in respect of other things. A cow is that which is different from a non-cow, is a definition. If non-cows do not exist, cows cannot be signified, etc. This should not be the way in which we look upon ourselves. We are some independent significance in itself. You have something in you which is different from the relations that you seem to establish socially outside, and this significance it is that sometimes speaks in the language of self-assertion during the life of everyone. When you assert yourself in some way or the other, you manifest the status that you occupy as an individual in society, minus relationship with society because if you are made up merely of relativities or relations with people, self-assertion would be impossible because there is no such thing as an individual self if it is accepted that it is an object that is defined only in terms of relationships with other things and other persons.

This appearance of one's being a bundle of definitions in terms of other things automatically gets flouted when self-assertion manifests itself. That is what they call the ego. The ego is the affirmation of the individual as it is in itself, independent of relations. You psychologically cut yourself off from all external relations when you make a self-assertion from your own point of view. Now, it does not mean that self-assertion is a virtue. An ego is an ego, but it is an indication that you are something at the background. It is a distorted manifestation of a significance or reality that is at the base or the back of the apparent individuality of ours which connects itself with people outside in social relationships.

So you can imagine how many layers there are through which you have to pass in self-analysis. First of all we had to analyse social relations, and when we have defined and understood social relations and, as a consequence thereof, realised that we have a status of our own as individuals. We begin to feel as independent substances, as bodies constituted of psychological and rational values. But these assertions of the individual are also defects from the point of view of the higher reaches, which have to be climbed over in the further ascent. Just as it is not true that we are merely a bundle of definitions in terms of social relationship, it is also not true that we are mere bodies or individuals in the physical sense. So just as defining oneself as a father or a mother or a brother or sister is not a correct definition, to regard oneself as a body is also not a correct definition. Both are inadequate terms for two different senses. There is something else which urges us in the direction of these definitions, and that something is beckoning us at every moment in the process of evolution.

So in the practice of the niyamas, with which we began, the process of internal discipline in the teaching of Patanjali, we have to divest of all accretions outside the true personality of ours, and psychologically assume an independent existence. Ekaḥ prajāyate jantur eka eva pralīyate, eko 'nubhuṅkte sukṛtam eka eva ca duṣkṛtam (Manu 4.240). This is a passage from the Manusmriti. One alone is born, and one alone goes. Two people are not born together as friends. Coming and going are a process of aloneness, and your experiences also have to be passed through by yourself independently. You cannot share them with others. The deeds that you perform yield fruits which you yourself have to reap. Nāmutra hi sahāyārthaṃ pitā mātā ca tiṣṭhataḥ, na putradāraṃ na jñātir dharmas tiṣṭhati kevalaḥ (Manu 4.239) says Manu: Neither father nor mother will come to you to help you. Not any relation of this world – wife, children, etc. – they completely forget you. They cannot bear any contact with you because of the fact you belong to a different order altogether.

In the same way, perhaps, the relations in dream bear no connection with you when you wake up. You might have had children in dream, for instance. Those children have no connection with you now because you have woken up from dream. They cannot assist you in any way. Likewise, when you go to a higher order of being, your connections get cut off, and you cannot even recognise their very existence. This is to understand oneself truly divested of false relationships that sometimes grow up upon us like accretions, due to erroneous ideas about things. We had fathers and mothers umpteen. Nobody knows how many fathers we had, how many mothers, how many sons. We were anything at any time. One cannot say what one was, and it is the absence of the memory of past lives that keeps us sane at this moment. Otherwise, anybody can simply go out of their wits if all their previous lives were to be remembered, and they could recollect the relationships with all things.

That means to say, ignorance is bliss. We are happy merely because we know nothing. If we were to be awakened to the relativities in which our personality is involved then, as the Buddha said, we cannot live in this world even for three minutes continuously because it is a transitory process which moves fast, and it does not exist by itself even for a single moment. There is a flux of events, and even our bodies and individualities are only an illusory complacence of various relevances pinpointed in one concentration of mind. Various relevances gathered up in one point in space and time by concentration of mind, that is the personality. Just as you can psychologically imagine that there is a drop in the body of the flowing river Ganga, you can psychologically imagine that you exist independently, though you do not because there is only a flowing substance called the river. The drops cannot be seen independently. Likewise, there is a flux. The whole universe is moving like a river rushing towards the ocean, and you are only an assumed individual, a psychological abstracted drop in the river that flows. There is no physical existence isolated from this process.

Thus, just as there is a need for abstraction from falsely imagined external relationship by tentative conditions in life, there is a need for abstraction from the false notion of personality itself in the higher analysis of the stages of yoga, particularly the internal discipline known as niyama, about which we are concerned now. We shall take it up further later on.