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The Great System of Yoga Propounded by Patanjali
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 11: An Outline of the Whole Course of Yoga

We have already covered sufficient ground in our study of the practice of yoga according to the system of Patanjali. Before we proceed further along the lines of more advanced practices, it would be advantageous to cast a retrospective look at the essentials that we have observed in our studies up to this time, because the inner processes of this practice are so subtle that it would be good to go slowly rather than to run fast and not be able to retain in memory the details of the process. Subtle is the practice, and difficult it is to understand the implications of the various stages in the ascent.

We have had occasion to observe that the object that is before the yogi is the communion of the self with the reality of the cosmos which, in the end, culminates in the realisation of the Supreme Purusha, the Absolute Consciousness, the experience of which is called kaivalya moksha. This is independence in the ultimate sense of the term, liberation attained through absolute independence, or immortal experience. The stages are nothing but the stages of the evolution of what the Sankhya calls prakriti, a principle that is also accepted in the system of Patanjali. In this system, the gradational descent or ascent of prakriti is the concern of the yogi. The different levels at which one has to set oneself in communion with Reality are the levels of the descent of prakriti. Many of you might not be even remembering the various details that we noticed on earlier occasions when we studied this subject.

Prakriti descends from its cosmic gamut of universal comprehension wherein it exists as a potential for creation, a samya avastha, or the equilibrated condition of the three gunas known sattva, rajas and tamas. This condition is the latent state of the universe. Here one cannot say what is and what is not. Describing this condition, Manu says in his Smriti that it looked as if the whole universe was asleep. It would appear as if darkness enveloped all places. Indescribable, inscrutable, unintelligible, unthinkable, unarguable was that state. Sankhya calls the condition mulaprakriti. At present we are concerned with this subject.

There is a tendency in prakriti to modify itself into the various evolutions. The first evolution is called mahat. What we call cosmic intelligence may be said to be the same as the mahat of the Sankhya and the Yoga. In the Vedanta parlance, it is called Hiranyagarbha. The universal mind, the universal prana, the universal intellect, whatever be the name given to it, means ultimately one and the same thing. It is also a potential of cosmic content in the sense that in the state of mahat there is a totality of consciousness comprehending everything at one stroke. The diversity of the universe has not manifested itself as yet. It is a state of cosmic consciousness, with a special distinction. It is not a kind of universal awareness that we may be imagining in our minds. Usually, if we stretch our imagination to understand what cosmic consciousness could be, we would be imagining or conceiving a state where a widespread intelligence or consciousness confronts the various objects of the universe and knows them all at one stroke, simultaneously. Notwithstanding the fact that we can imagine a simultaneous awareness of all the content of the universe by a widespread consciousness, which we may call cosmic consciousness, this is far from mahat.

Mahat is not a state that we can imagine with our minds. It is not a consciousness becoming aware of a universal object in front. There is no object for the mahat. There, the object and the subject get identified with each other so that there is a self-consciousness of a universal character: I am I, aham asmi. The consciousness ‘I am I' is different from the consciousness ‘I know objects'. So cosmic consciousness in the state of mahat is not a consciousness of the objects of the universe, though they may be all the objects put together at one stroke, an instantaneous perception. Not so. It is an identity of the subject with the object so that the universe comprehends itself as a self-existent being. We cannot imagine this state because it is beyond the human grasp; it can only be explained by analogy and comparison. Such a magnificent and transporting state is mahat that it is the same as what usually in religious language is called the God of creation. Ishvara, God the Almighty, is inseparable from this state of mahat which the Sankhya describes.

The Sankhya has another special feature in the recounting of the evolutes of prakriti subsequent to the mahat, and that is the introduction of a principle known as ahamkara. Prakriti evolves itself into the mahat, and the mahat becomes ahamkara. If you look at a Sanskrit dictionary, you will find the word ahamkara translated as ego, self-consciousness, pride, etc., but we are not concerned with the dictionary meaning here. This is a metaphysical term which has a significance different from the purely linguistic one. The ahamkara of the Sankhya is not the ego of the human being; it is not our self-consciousness as we imagine, and it is not pride. It is a sense of being which, ultimately, is inseparable from mahat-tattva, or cosmic consciousness. Usually our intellect is inseparable from the ego. The moment the buddhi manifests itself, the individual ahamkara, or ego, also comes with it side by side. The sense of being, the feeling ‘I am', is inseparable from the consciousness that I am. The self-assertive feature of I-amness is always simultaneous in its manifestation with the consciousness which we call rational or intellectual. The cosmic counterpart of our buddhi, or intellect, is the mahat-tattva of the Sankhya. The cosmic counterpart of the ego in us is the ahamkara of the Sankhya, but they are far removed from our conception of intellect and the ahamkara or the ego of the individual.

The cosmic intellect, which is the mahat, is not merely a magnified form of human intellect. We can imagine that all people thinking together is God thinking. Not so. The mathematical total of the intellects of the universe cannot make the mahat-tattva. It is qualitatively transcendent to even the totality of all intellects in the universe. It is not merely a quantitative total, but also a qualitative transcendence. That makes the difference even in the case of the ahamkara. Therefore, the ahamkara, or mahat-tattva of the Sankhya, is a cosmic sense of being, a universal self-awareness which is attended with the mahat-tattva. The two go together.

Now, the actual, physical universe tends to manifest itself in a threefold manner after the mahat-tattva has evolved the ahamkara. Up until the manifestation or the evolution of the ahamkara, the universality is intact. There is no division between the seer and the seen, the subject and the object, the you and the I. When the ahamkara manifests itself, the cosmic manifestation is complete. In Vedanta this is called Ishvara srishti, God's creation. In God's creation, multiplicity is unknown. It is unity everywhere, and a total comprehension, a grasp at one stroke, instantaneously, in an eternal awareness.

The further manifestation is threefold, which usually is called the adhyatmika, the adhidaivika, and the adhibhautika. These are Sanskrit terms which have a peculiar meaning of their own. The physical universe is the adhibhautika. The physical universe as we see it is constituted of the five gross elements: earth, water, fire, air, ether. But there is a fivefold principle precedent to the gross elements mentioned already, and these five preceding principles are called the tanmatras: shabda, sparsha, rupa, rasa, gandha – the principles of hearing, touching, seeing, tasting and smelling. These are universal principles. Through a permutation and combination in certain proportions, they get condensed into the five elements: ether, air, fire, water, earth.

On one side we have this physical universe; on the other side there is a cutting off of the individuals as subjects who perceive the world outside. The world is there in front of us; the five elements are in our presence as objects of our senses. We see the earth, water, fire, air and ether. We are the subjects, we are the perceivers, we are the conscious individuals which confront the five elements as objects. So there is a division or a bifurcation of the seer and the seen subsequent to the manifestation of the five elements which follow the evolution of the tanmatras: shabda, sparsha, rupa, rasa, gandha.

The individuals are what the Vedanta sometimes calls the jivas, and they are of various degrees of evolution, again. We are told there is the lowest of levels, known as the inorganic, or the mineral. There is further up the vegetable or the plant kingdom. There is higher still the animal world. Then there is the human world. We have come to the level of Homo sapiens. We are humans. So these are the various kinds of jivas, and humans do not exhaust the process of evolution. There are jivas higher than the human individual also. The devas, the celestials and the angels, and all the supernatural or superhuman levels of manifestation have their own contents which are of a similar character, transcendent to the human level. So there is a series of the manifestation of jivas on one side, and on the other side we have the physical cosmos. The subjective side is called the adhyatmika, and the objective side is called the adhibhautika. The connecting link between these two is called the adhidaivika, the divinities which preside over the organs of sense, including the psychic organ, and the cognition and perception of the world through these instruments.

These deities, or divinities, are invisible. My consciousness or awareness of the fact of there being so many people in front of me sitting here in this hall is due to the presence of divinities working. There are certain things between us. I am here, and you are there. How do I come to know that you are there? I do not jump on your head, and you do not jump on my head also. There is a distance between you and me, and in spite of the fact of this distance, I am aware that you are sitting there.

I can feel the presence of objects. The awareness of an object by the subject is due to the presence of a connecting link between the subject and the object, and that link is a particular form or manifestation of consciousness itself, which is known as the purusha, and in the various forms it takes, it is known as a particular divinity. These are the gods of religion. The various deities that you worship, the devatas, are nothing but the various gradations of manifestation of consciousness existing as a connecting link between the subject and the object, again, in various levels of manifestation.

Now, the Yoga System has this picture before its mind's eye when it starts the techniques of practice. The purpose of yoga is gradual union with the higher levels of being, moving from one stage to another stage with the ultimate intention of a complete union with purusha himself. We observed that we have descended not merely to the individual level, but we have gone further into the social isolation of a kind of psychic extraction, by which we seem to be psychologically involved or entangled in conceptual realities, not physical realities. If you could remember the various themes in this context that we discussed many days back, you would remember that what we noticed is that society – we are concerned with human society at present – is not a physical object. We noticed that what we call society is not a bundle of human beings. Human beings can be seen with the eyes, but society cannot be seen with the eyes. It is a concept in the mind; it is an idea, it is a notion, it is an attitude that we project forth among ourselves. I am not going deep into this subject as to what it all means because we have already covered this theme. What I mean to say is that the yamas of Patanjali are particularly or especially concerned with disentangling or extricating the individual from this mess of a conceptual connection of itself with the so-called external projection known as society by setting itself in harmony with its conceptual atmosphere. Then we came to the niyamas, where the physical personality and the whole individuality was taken notice of.

But that is not enough. The Yoga System has to bear in mind at every stage of practice the ultimate goal so that there may not be any chance of getting stuck at a lower level. There are people who go on practising asana for a lifetime, and pranayama for years together, until they become old. The whole life has been spent only in asana and pranayama. It is a very good thing, no doubt – asana and pranayama are very good – but yoga is not that. The whole aim has been missed. The ultimate aim of yoga is union with Reality. It is perfection, it is independence, it is immortality and the complete liberation of the spirit, which has to be attained through the stages. The social adjustments, the ethics and the morality that we follow in society, the physical discipline, the hygiene that we follow, the asanas and the pranayamas are all good enough, and they are absolutely essential, but only that much, and not further. They are all essential, like medicines. We do not go on eating medicines throughout our life, though they are necessary under certain conditions. Everything is necessary at a given moment of time, at a given level of experience, but nothing is necessary at all times because we are moving forward and advancing further and further, and each level is something like a rung in a ladder. You do not cling to one rung always and sit there forever. The intention is not to remain on the rung of the ladder, but to make use of the various rungs for the purpose of the ascent, which is the intention behind it. The intention of yoga is, therefore, a universal realisation, atma sakshatkara, purusha anubhava, kaivalya moksha.

The difficult stages of yoga commence much later than asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, etc. We are very much used to discussing dharana, dhyana, concentration, meditation, etc., as if they are everything. People always talk of meditation, but meditation is only the beginning of yoga. It is not the end of yoga, and the end is something inconceivable. Glibly we talk of this end as samadhi, a word we have heard so many times, but a word whose meaning cannot be very clear to many people. According to Patanjali, at least, real yoga starts only when meditation ends and samadhi ensues. That means to say, when the gulf between the subject and the object is obviated and we begin to enter into a cosmic setup of things, we begin to enter into the world of Reality. Until that time we are in the world of unreality and transiency. The unreal world is the world of the bifurcation of the subject and the object, and the real world is the world where the two do not stand apart but come together, shaking hands with each other, and work as a single union of being.

But Patanjali is cautious. He tells us that there are the evolutes of prakriti – earth, water, fire, air, ether. There is ahamkara, there is mahat-tattva, there is prakriti, there is purusha. These are very difficult things to understand, and the union with these levels is called samadhi. When we identify ourselves with the physical elements, that is one stage of samadhi. When we go to the tanmatras, that is another. When we can unite ourselves with cosmic ahamkara, that is another stage, and further on we go to the mahat-tattva, prakriti and purusha. This outline gives an idea as to the difficulty that is before us, and the profundity that is involved in the practice of yoga. It is not a mere concentration in the ordinary sense of the term. It is not meditation that is the goal. It is the beginning of the true practice of yoga in its advanced form.

We have covered, therefore, a background of the metaphysical foundation of the Yoga System, moving further into a study of human society in which we live as individuals, units of human society, which is a nightmare to most people in the world. People are harassed by their involvements in society. The talk of God is far off. We cannot get up from even the lowest rung on which we are. It is always wisdom on the part of a seeker to be very dispassionate in the judgment of one's own self, and not to be over-complacent about the achievements that one might have come across in the practice. We cannot abrogate the acceptance of the reality or the value of a particular stage of experience when it has become the content of our consciousness. Anything that is a content of our consciousness is a reality for us, and it ceases to be a reality only when a higher level has become a content of consciousness.

At present, most people are in the social level. People have not become absolutely independent. It is impossible for a human being to say he can stand on his own legs absolutely independently, unconnected with human society. That means to say, the first level is still catching him. The second level has not wholly come to the forefront. And then comes the real spiritual import of asana, pranayama, etc. We are jumping into the third and fourth levels while our feet are still planted in the lowest level.

We have always to be cautious and vigilant to notice that we are totally dispassionate and accurate, meticulous, in the evaluation of our own position. We do not practice yoga in order that we may be called yogis. That is not the intention. The purpose is self-illumination and actual achievement of the attainment, and when we ourselves know that we have not attained anything, it would be fallacious and futile on the part of any seeker to imagine that he is on the path of yoga. The vicissitudes of life, the conditions of social existence and the limitations of the human body tell upon us to such an extent that we can hardly believe that we have taken even the initial step in yoga.

Hence, it is essential to be cautious and to take sufficient time in laying the foundation, and not be overenthusiastic about the superstructure, the painting, etc. The grounding has to be firm, and even if we spend the entire life taking only one step in yoga, that would be quite all right provided it is a very firm step and we need not have to retrace it. Otherwise, if we run fast, we may have to retrograde and come back to the lower levels because of not having paid our dues to them. Every level is real. No level can be called unreal as long as it has become a part and parcel of our very blood and veins.

Each one has to be a judge for oneself in this matter. We cannot say anything about another person. We can know from our own conscience where we stand. We have to be true to that state in which we are because we are in the presence of God ultimately, and not merely in the presence of human beings. There is no use merely thinking and speaking to human beings; we are speaking to God ultimately, and it is He who judges us. Our salvation is not in the hands of people, so any amount of certificates from the whole of mankind is not going to give us salvation. Let us not be misguided. We have to be very honest and sincere to ourselves. The whole destiny of our soul is in the hands of the supernal Reality which is the thing we have to take notice of at each level of practice, and in the light of which alone we have to judge ourselves.

Hence it is that until we reach certain stages of practice, a proper guide is necessary because it is easy to go the wrong way. The instincts, the emotions and the impulses within can drive us in directions which are other than the one we are actually intending to pursue. We should not be under the false impression that the impulses of the individual nature are weak. They are strong, as hard as rock itself. They are so difficult to master. They appear to be not there at all in the earlier stages. No one can believe that there are impulses which are pulling us down to the individual level. They begin to show their heads only when we interfere with them. When we try to control them, restrain them, master them, and overcome them or transcend them, then they show us their teeth, and then they have a voice to speak. They will tell us that their dues have not been paid. Therefore, the condition in which the personality is situated has to be assessed in a most dispassionate manner in the light of the circumstances in which it is placed, and not in the light of something which is above.

This is an outline of the whole course of yoga that I have placed before you so that you may recapitulate the various ideas which we had occasion to contemplate. With this good grounding on the levels we have covered in our study, we can proceed further into the wider dimensions of the practice in such a way that at each step we are advancing, and at no step would we find the necessity to retrace our steps upon what we have already covered.

The goal of yoga is Self-realisation, sakshatkara, or moksha, the realisation of Pure Consciousness, which is the infinite Reality. Each one of us is just that. This is the concept of Patanjali, and this is what is known as kaivalya moksha.