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The Great System of Yoga Propounded by Patanjali
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 10: The Practice of Pratyahara

The system of yoga practice passes primarily through four stages, namely, social integration, personal integration, universal integration and the ultimate realisation. The Bhagavadgita may be said to be a concentrated exposition of this fourfold experience or integration as the art of yoga. The system of Patanjali is of a similar nature.

We may safely say that the canons of yama in the system of Patanjali are concerned with the various principles of social integration. The niyama, asana and pranayama may be considered to be primarily concerned with personal integration. One must be very clear as to what these integrations mean. The experiences of the human individual are mostly dissipated, and therefore disintegrated. They are not coherent or brought together into a concentrated focus in any appreciable manner. Often we find ourselves in a chaotic condition both in society and in our own psychological life. We try our best to make ends meet, and with the sweat of our brow we try to make adjustments with prevailing conditions, bringing a sort of fatigue on our personality because these adjustments are made mostly not in a spontaneous manner on account of understanding, but due to a pressure of circumstance.

Integration is not a coming together of various factors like the members in a sitting parliament, appearing to be one single whole. You may say that the parliament is one connected whole, one body, but the members are not organically related to one another. They assume and maintain an independence each by himself. There is no integration of the individuals constituting the parliament, notwithstanding the fact there is a legal coherence assumed for the purpose of administration in the assembly in a house. The spiritual integration we are speaking of is of a different sort altogether. It is not a mere juxtaposition of factors. It is not bringing together pieces which do not actually get connected one with the other. It is not laying brick over brick to make a high wall, giving it an appearance of completeness or wholeness. The wall is not a complete whole. It is made up of little pieces of earth, known as bricks. Nothing in the world can be regarded as an integrated completeness in the light of this definition of what true integration is.

The only available example before us of a true organic integration is our own body. An organism is an integrated completeness. The parts of the body are not knit together like bricks in a building. They are related to one another in a different way altogether, and therefore we call the human body as an organism. It is not a machine, for instance. There is a connection of parts in a machine also, but the human body is not a machine of that kind. It is not a bulldozer, it is not a car, it is not an aeroplane where you have got the coming together of parts that constitute the so-called whole. An aeroplane is an appearance of a whole, not a real whole, because the parts can be removed and replaced by other parts, but the human system is a different nature altogether. You cannot remove one limb of the body and replace it with another limb without detriment to the health of the whole system.

Yoga is an integration, and not a mechanised dovetailing or an artificial bringing together of independent parts, whatever be the level in which we work in this field. Whether in society or in our own personal life, the integrations that we are expected to introduce are not to be of a mechanistic nature. Mostly we are friends in a mechanical manner. We are all friends, no doubt. Many of us are seated here. Each one is a friend of the other in some way. We are not enemies. But this friendship of ours is not organic. It is mechanistic because it can be broken under certain circumstances. You cannot say that you are vitally connected with one another in such a way that your friendship will never cease at any time. It is not so. Friendship has a beginning, and it has also an end because it survives under given conditions.

So we are not living an integrated life even in society. There is no peace in the family, no peace in society, no peace anywhere in the world on account of this artificial unity that we are trying to bring about for the purpose of getting on in life. We live an artificial life even in our own family. The parent’s relationship with the children, the children’s relationship with parents, the relationship between brothers, sisters, whatever it be, cannot be regarded as a vital union because we see separation following sometime or the other due to various other factors which may not be foreseen in the beginning.

We live together on certain conditions, and if the conditions are not to be fulfilled, we will not live together. This is very clear, and everyone knows this. “I will quit tomorrow if the conditions under which I am to live with you are not fulfilled. I go. I do not want to see your face.” People say like this. And where is friendship? We do not live a genuine life of unity, harmony, integration in human society. Unfortunately though, this is the state of affairs. This is what is happening even in our personal life. There is no proper alignment even in the layers of our own personality, so there is no personal integration. This is the cause for social disintegration. When there is no alignment of personality in the various levels of being, how can there be alignment of parts of the whole, which is society? In many respects we should say that individuals constitute society, and if the individuals are disharmonised internally, how could they constitute an organised outer society? Here is the problem before us, and we are at brass tacks, as we say.

The system of yoga is an endeavour to solve problems ultimately, and not merely tentatively. We are not merely given an aspirin tablet for our headache as a temporary remedy for the subsidence of the ache. It is going to be a cure of the cause thereof. Yoga is the search of the cause behind causes, so the ultimate cause is grasped in one’s being and it is set into with our practical life in the world, and vice versa. Reality is in harmony with us, and we are in harmony with reality. Again to reiterate, it is an organic development of personality that the Bhagavadgita, for instance, speaks of in the various chapters, right from the Second to the Sixth, until in the Sixth Chapter we are at the apex of personal integration. Therefore, we have to be cautious and very meticulous in our application of techniques for the purpose of internal integration.

We have noted that we have the various sheaths of the body, known as the koshasannamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijnanamaya, anandamaya: the physical, the vital, the mental, the intellectual and the causal sheaths. They must be in harmony. If they are not in harmony, we are psychologically ill. Then we are ill in many other ways also, physically as well as socially. The health of the personality is the same as the balance of these forces. The five koshas, or sheaths, are really forces which constitute our being. They are not independent involucra, one not touching the other, like five shirts that you put on, one over the other. The five koshas or sheaths are not like five coats, because you can remove one coat and another coat may be there still independently. There is a kind of dependence of structure between these koshas, as is the case with the five elements, as I have already mentioned. The five layers, the five koshas, are only five degrees of density in the manifestation of the force of externalisation, which is the principle of individuality. The individuality of our own selves is nothing but a concretisation of the power of externalisation of consciousness. This is to be set right. The externalisation of consciousness is not regarded as a healthy state in yoga. To be conscious of an object is not regarded as a healthy condition. At least according to Patanjali, this is an illness. It is a klesha, an affliction; it is an unnatural state to be conscious of an object outside, a theme which he dilates upon in an important sutra in the very first chapter: pramāṇa viparyaya vikalpa nidrā smṛtayaḥ (Y.S. 1.6).

The natural state would be the reverse of it, an awareness of objects. Here begins the higher realm of yoga, known as pratyahara, an effort at introducing into oneself a non-awareness of objects of the world. I have used a negative term, ‘non-awareness', for want of a better term to signify the actual connotation of the term pratyahara. The literal meaning of the Sanskrit word pratyahara is withdrawal towards oneself, an abstraction of the powers of external perception, a retracing of the steps of consciousness towards its own centre, a disconnection of personality from relationship with the external world. All these things are implied in the process of pratyahara. Ahara, withdrawal – this is a single word which is defined by Patanjali in one sutra, with no great commentary about it. When the senses assume the nature of the mind as if they do not stand independent of the mind, that state is called pratyahara, says Patanjali.

We cannot understand what actually this means. When do the senses assume the nature of the mind? Naturally, they are not in that state at present, which is the reason why we are required to practise pratyahara in this sense. The senses of knowledge – jnanendriyas, as they are called, the senses of hearing, seeing, etc. – are not in union with the mind. They are like prodigal children running away from their parents in search of the material goods of the world outside. The senses do not care for their parent, the mind itself, the reason and the mind. There is an aberration of personality, a disconnection of the sense powers from their source in their vehemence towards the objects outside. They rush with a force which is incalculable and inconceivable. Impetuous are the senses. No learning will be of any use here when there is a virulent wind blowing in the direction of objects.

The reason behind the movement of senses toward objects outside is to be known clearly before any attempt is made at restraining the senses. Again, we have to be very good psychologists, perhaps educational psychologists, and we have to instruct the senses as a schoolmaster instructs the children in a primary school. They are to be weaned, and not forced back to their source. You are not cutting their limbs or removing their vitals, but educating them in a higher understanding. The senses rush towards the objects outside and deplete the energy of the individual, weakening the whole system, so that the more you are attached to objects outside, the weaker is your system, physical as well as psychological. A person who is attached to objects of sense is not a strong person. There is a depletion of energy moving out of the forces of individuals towards external objects. A pot full of water can be emptied if there are five holes at the bottom. Whatever be the force with which you pour the water in the top, if there are five holes at the bottom, you can know the consequence. These five holes are the five senses, and whatever effort you put forth in filling yourself with strength by diet, by rest, by various other means, will be no avail as long as these avenues are open. You have the five apertures called the senses, through which energy leaks in terms of objects outside, and any amount of attempt at strengthening oneself would be defeated by the counter-activity of the senses due to the long rope that we have given to them in the direction of their own objects.

Before we go into the practical technique of controlling the senses, pratyahara, we have to be educated, first of all, as to the background of this activity of the senses in respect of objects. Rationality is not a bad thing when it is applied for good purposes and in an adequate measure. You cannot simply cut out the reasoning faculty in you and cling to things by mere faith, bereft of understanding, because a faith which is not confirmed by understanding, or not accepted by the reason, may have a setback, and it can be shaken one day or the other. So the faith should be confirmed and ratified by your reason. It should be a faith born of conviction and rational deduction.

Why do the senses go to the objects, and why is it that we are told again and again by all the scriptures and the Masters that the senses should be withdrawn from the objects? What is wrong with the objects? What is the mistake that you discover in seeing things? Why does Patanjali say that even the consciousness of objects is a disease of consciousness? Patanjali is not going to answer this question. He takes you to the Sankhya philosophy, which he assumes in his system, so that there is no recounting of the metaphysics of Sankhya in the technology of yoga practice in Patanjali.

The philosophy of the Sankhya is an explanation of the instruction in yoga to withdraw the senses from objects. The senses move towards objects on account of an erroneous opinion about the circumstances of life. There is a mistake at the back of the running of the senses towards objects, and naturally one cannot go on emphasising this mistake again and again and confirming it by continuing the practice again and again, as if it is a virtue. The Sankhya, in agreement with the Vedanta, tells us that the whole universe is prakriti. It is one material structure. It is one completeness. And the Sankhya, with which the Vedanta does not disagree in essentials, tells us that the building bricks of prakriti are the gunas known as sattva, rajas and tamas. These terms occur several times in the Bhagavadgita, and you are all very well acquainted with these terms sattva, rajas, tamas.

Many of us may be under the impression that these gunas are three things or substances, like the three strands of a rope which constitute one whole, notwithstanding the fact that the strands are independent of each other. Again, to come to our earlier analogy of the five sheaths, where we notice that the sheaths are not independent vestures like coats or shorts but various densities of manifestation of a single power of externalisation of consciousness, here, too, the same analogy applies in the case of the gunas. The three gunas are three phases of the activity of prakriti. They are not three independent strands like the strands of a rope. They are three facets of the single crystal of prakriti. The three conditions in which prakriti reveals or manifests itself in the process of creation are the gunas. They are the constituents of prakriti, called sattva, rajas, and tamas. The nature of sattva is equilibrium, harmony, balance, lightness, buoyancy of spirit, clarity of perception, an equilibrated attitude to life, whereas rajas is vehemence, impetuosity, division, separation, an objective consciousness. Tamas is inactivity, inertia, sloth, sleepiness, lethargy, and so on. These are the ways in which prakriti reveals itself individually.

The condition of the essential nature of the purusha, to speak in the language of Sankhya, the essential nature of the purusha is reflected only when sattva is predominant, and not when rajas or tamas preponderate. Our essential nature is purusha, says the Sankhya, says Yoga. In another language, it is the Atman. What you call the Atman is the same as the purusha of the Sankhya. Your essential nature is Atman, your essential nature is purusha, an indivisible consciousness recognised as an infinitude of comprehension. This is your essential nature. But this essential nature, the purusha, which is infinitude of consciousness, cannot be reflected in practical life except when the sattva guna preponderates because infinitude is a kind of equilibrated state where you cannot conceive of any kind of division or cutting off of one part from another.

Now, the very fact that we are conscious of objects outside should be proof enough of the fact that there is a division in our experience. Experience is divided into the subject on one side and the object on the other side. This division is caused by rajas; the very activity of rajas is dividing one thing from another, dissipating things. Inasmuch as rajas falsely divides experience into the two camps of subject and object, and the sattva alone can reflect the essential nature of ourselves, it is very clear that in objective perception we are not revealing our essential nature. We are untrue to ourselves in external perceptions, perceptions of objects, in consciousness of objects. In the very consciousness of the presence of an object we are not true to our own selves. We forget ourselves first before we become conscious of the object outside. A loss of self-consciousness is implied in the consciousness of an object externally. So you can imagine how Patanjali is justified in telling us that in the consciousness of an object we are in an unhealthy state because we are not in our true state. We are asvastha; we are unhealthy.

It is not only that we are merely aware of the objects of sense outside. Something worse is taking place with us. Patanjali describes this worse condition in another sutra where he dilates upon what he calls the klishta vrittis, or the painful afflictions: attachment, love-hatred, etc. Bad enough is the condition of merely being aware of the object, but far removed from truth is the other state where the consciousness of an object does not merely rest with that activity, but precipitates into attachment to the object. To be aware of the presence of an object is bad enough, but it becomes worse when the awareness of the object becomes a clinging to the object. Hence, you descend further down into samsara. And if there is a hell anywhere, it is this state where you completely forget the selfhood of consciousness and involve yourself in the objecthood of your own self. You transfer yourself into the object and completely ignore your status as an independent subject.

Yoga, therefore, warns us that we are untrue to ourselves in our awareness of things outside in space and time, and nothing can be a greater error than to be untrue to one’s own self. “To thine own self be true” is the great adage of the poet: Be true to your own self. And we are every moment untrue to ourselves. We tell a lie to our own selves every moment of time when we become aware of objects outside in space and time, as if they are cut off from ourselves.

But Patanjali tells us that this is not the only mistake we make. We go further into the perdition of attachment, which has the other side of aversion to things which are disconnected, or made to appear as disconnected, from the objects of affection. This is the rational background of the great canon of the practice of pratyahara. “Why should we withdraw senses from objects?” is the question, and here is a philosophical, metaphysical, rational answer. You know very well where lies the mistake, and why it is you cry every day, why you are unhappy, why you cannot have a single night of good sleep. The reason is, we find ourselves perpetually in an unnatural state psychologically. We have no moment’s rest in our own true selves. We are always wallowing in the mire of the non-Self by clinging to things, and in the process of pratyahara, Patanjali gives us instruction in a twofold technique. You cannot immediately sever relationship with objects, just as you cannot peel your own skin, which is impossible because the skin is vitally connected to you, and to peel it is an awful affair. When the senses are clinging to objects, they are vitally connected with the objects. They become the skin and flesh and blood, as it were, of the object, and to wrench the senses from the objects would be to peel your skin or cut off your flesh from the body. So it is that you grieve in sorrow when you are cut off from the objects of affection. Where there is bereavement, where there is death, where there is separation from kith and kin, it is as if your limb is cut off. You have transferred yourself to the objects of sense in such an intense manner that the object has become a part of your body, and when it is removed, you feel that a part of your body is removed.

Hence, there is sorrow in bereavement. In sorrow we have nothing but a loss of a part of our own selves. When we are severed from relationship with the beloved object, we cry because we have transferred our consciousness to the object by adhyasa, as Acharya Sankara would put it. There is a superimposition of our personality on the object. We become the object in every kind of attachment in love, and so when the object suffers, it appears as if we are suffering. When the object prospers, we feel we are prospering. The mother is happy if the son is happy. The mother dies if the son is dying, because the mother has transferred herself to the child. She has become the child by transference of attributes, adhyasa. This is the contrary of yoga, the opposite of what we are endeavouring to achieve in the great art of yoga.

This is a very essential introduction that I am trying to place before you as to the essential practical techniques of pratyahara, or withdrawal of senses, about which we have to consider in some more detail another time.